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February 22, 2006

Looking Ahead to 2006 - Second Base
by SG

Looking Ahead to 2006 - Second Base

The Yankees started 2005 with a second baseman that many of us figured was going to be a disappointment. Coming off a career year that still saw him only hit for an OPS+ of 94, the Yankees signed Tony Womack for 2 years and $4 million dollars.

I figured Womack would be bad. I did not know just how bad. Through the first 23 games of the season, Womack hit .282/.330/.329, which while not great, was about what any reasonable expectation would have had him doing. Fortunately for the Yankees and unfortunately for Womack, the Yankees themselves were losing more than they wanted to. This led to a big shakeup in Tampa Bay that had the Yankees call up Robinson Cano and move Hideki Matsui to center field and shift Womack to left field.

Cano started out slowly, hitting for just a Womackian OPS of .695 over his first 17 games. Thankfully, Joe Torre showed patience, something that I've often accused him of not doing with young players. From May 23 to June 28, Cano hit .281/.312/.504, almost never walking, but showing good power for a second baseman. He hit for a better average but less power in July, .319/.331/.466, and continuing his troubling trend of swinging at almost any pitch he saw.

August sucked, as the league and/or luck apparently caught up to Cano. Although he only K'd 16 times in 111 AB, compared to 14 in 116 AB in July, he hit just .207/.252/.261.

Cano made his adjustments and finished the season on an absolute tear, hitting .384/.395/.634. Combining this with roughly average defense, Cano was a 1.8 WARP player in 2005. However, since Womack did not do so well, the Yankee second basemen probably contributed about 1.0 WARP over the course of 2005. So what's ahead for Cano in 2006? To the projected WARPS!

In this table, RARP are the offensive runs above a replacement second baseman using a linear weights-based formula. FRARP is the defensive fielding runs above a replacement player based on last year.

Again, ZiPS projections are from Dan Szymborski at Baseball Thinkfactory. ZiPS says Cano will hit .286/.317/.438, with 16 HRs, which would be 15 runs better than a replacement second baseman. Combined with last year's defense, he's a 2.0 WARP player. I think Cano has the ability to be a better defender than that, if he can concentrate more and stop making careless mistakes. He has above average range and a very good arm for a second baseman. I read that he called Larry Bowa as soon as Bowa's hiring was announced to ask him what he should work on, which is a good sign that he wants to get better. Whether he actually will is anyone's guess.

Tango Tiger's Marcels predict a line of .298/.330/.463, with 13 HRs and 28 2B 443 AB. Far better rate stats, but with a fairly big reduction in his playing time, which ends up making him still 15 runs better than a replacement player. This adds up to 2.0 WARP player.

PECOTA is harsher than the first two, predicting Cano to be 13 runs better than a replacement player on offense. That would make him a 1.7 WARP player.

I love watching Cano, because of his potential. However, with his lack of plate discipline, his performance will always be dependent on his batting average. He can probably improve a little in this area, but if he doesn't walk that much, so what? A second baseman who can hit for good power and play average defense is still valuable. I'd like to see him hit the ball in the air a little more so he doesn't hit into as many double plays, and I'd like to see him develop a little more patience at the plate, but what's great about watching someone like Cano, and something that we as Yankee fans just don't get to see enough of, is that we have no idea how he will develop. The bulk of players the Yankees run out there have already made their mark and can be expected to perform in a certain way. When Mariano Rivera broke onto the scene as an unremarkable starting pitcher, did anyone think there was anything special about him? All of a sudden, he started blowing his fastball past the Mariners in the 1995 ALDS and developed into a dominant setup man in 1996. I'll just try to enjoy what Cano can do, not focus on what he can't do, and imagine the possiblities if things break just right.

Backing up Cano will be Miguel Cairo, who is a mediocre player who I still find enjoyable to watch. He plays decent defense around the infield and while he's not a good hitter, he is tough to strike out and will usually make a pitcher work. Cairo was -.3 WARP last year for the Mets, but I think if the Yankees are smarter about his usage this year and use him mainly to spot Cano against lefties, who he's hit for a .297/.338/.408 line in his career, he can be an asset. He was really bad against lefties last year, .191/.234/.270, but given his past history and the historic trend of the platoon advantage in baseball, this is very probably just a blip. Cano hit .270/.304/.358 against lefties last season, but struck out almost 50% more often than he did against righties. Interesting fact, all seven of Cano's successful bunts last year were against southpaws.

Anyway, Assuming Cano is worth about 2.0 WARP this season if he does what the projections say, he's about a one win upgrade at second base over last year's combination of him and Womack, assuming Cairo is right around replacement level in reasonably limited playing time. If Cano matches Marcel's rate stat predictions with the playing time predicted by ZiPS, he's a 3.5 WARP player. I like his chances to at least match his projections this year, and if stops pressing at Yankee Stadium(.252/.274/.378 at home, .335/.358/.525 on the road), he could beat them by a good amount.