February 2010

Joba, Hughes Armed in Pitched Battle for No. 5 Spot



As the exhibition season opens March 3 against the Pirates, the New York Yankees will have few spots available on the 25-man roster but there will be a number of important battles for jobs. There is a big battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, a contest for a starting outfield spot (left or center), some fights for bullpen spots and a real donnybrook for bench spots. Let’s look at them and handicap how they might go this spring.

BATTLE NO. 1 – No. 5 Spot in Rotation

The candidates are Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre.

Manager Joe Girardi insists that Aceves, Gaudin and Mitre will be given a chance to win this spot but most Yankee insiders believe he is just being politically correct. The real battle for the fifth spot likely will come down to Chamberlain and Hughes.
Chamberlain, 24, has started 43 games for the Yankees and has the advantage of knowing that the so-called “Joba Rules” are over. Chamberlain can pitch 200 innings this season since he pitched 157 innings last season.
However, Chamberlain did not pitch well as a starter in 2009. He was 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA and a horrifying high WHIP of 1.54. When the Yankees made the postseason Chamberlain was shifted to the bullpen and the Yankees completed their world championship run with just three starters.
Chamberlain, however, showed flashes of his former brilliance and velocity in the setup role, completing the postseason with a 1-0 record, a 2.84 ERA and seven strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings of work in 10 appearances.
This led some Yankee insiders to conclude that Chamberlain may be of more value to the Yankees as a reliever than a starter. The trade for right-hander Javier Vazquez from the Atlanta Braves may actually be a huge signal of how this battle will go. Until the trade was made, Hughes and Chamberlain were both slated as starters.
Now only one of the two will get the job.
The 23-year-old Hughes, on the other hand, seemed to struggle early as a starter with the Yankees in 2009. In six starts he was 2-2 with a 6.59 ERA. But once he moved into the bullpen he steadily got better and better. In 44 appearances out of the bullpen he sported a 5-1 record with a 1.43 ERA (an ERA even lower than Mariano Rivera’s 1.76) with 65 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings. He also had three saves in six opportunities.
But then came the postseason and Hughes fell off markedly. He was 0-1 with a 8.53 ERA and a 2.37 WHIP. For whatever reason, Hughes’ confidence was not there in the postseason and it showed. But Girardi has always insisted that Hughes was a starter.
He will now get the chance to prove that this spring.
One big caveat is that the “Joba Rules” will now apply to him. Including the postseason, Hughes pitched 92 1/3 innings last season and so the Yankees would like to limit him to about 142 innings this season.
That means if he wins the No. 5 spot he likely will not finish the season in the rotation or will be limited to three- and four-innings starts like Chamberlain was limited to in 2009. Or the Yankees could call on a spot starter like Chad Gaudin to take over as the No. 5 starter at the All-Star break and Hughes would join Chamberlain in the bullpen the rest of the way.
It is an intriguing thought considering the Yankee bullpen would be loaded with strikeout pitchers like Rivera, Chamberlain, Hughes and David Robertson. That would be really scary to American League teams.
Gaudin is a longshot to win the competition but nevertheless has shown some ability as a starter in the past. As a full-time starter with Oakland in 2007, Gaudin was 11-13 with a 4.42 ERA. He struggled, however, as a starter with the San Diego Padres in 2009. He was 4-10 with a 5.13 ERA when the Yankees acquired him in August.
But pitching coach Dave Eiland worked with Gaudin and Gaudin responded with a 2-0 record and 3.43 ERA in 11 appearances, including six spot starts, with the Yankees. Gaudin, 26, has proven to be valuable as a swingman throughout his career. That is why it looks like he won’t win the No. 5 job but will be a top candidate for the long relief spot in the bullpen.
Should Hughes win the No. 5 spot, he could easily slide into the rotation as a starter to replace Hughes. So Gaudin enters this spring with a lot of inherent value to the Yankees.
Alfredo Aceves, 27, moved quickly through the Yankees minor-league system as a starter after he was signed from out of Mexico. Aceves even was a candidate for starting rotation spot after his 1-0 record with a 2.40 ERA in six appearances in 2008.
However, with the Yankees locked into five starters last spring, Aceves was merely considered as a long reliever and he did not make the team out of spring training. But after pitchers like Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez faltered and Brain Bruney and Damaso Marte were injured, Aceves quickly earned a spot in the bullpen last season.
Because the Yankees showed an ability as a come-from-behind offense, Aceves was the benefactor, leading all major-league relievers with a 10-1 record and 3.54 ERA. If it not for a tired arm that plagued him in July and August he would have had a considerably lower ERA. 
Aceves has virtually no chance of winning the No. 5 spot but he could factor into the bullpen mix. Although he is not a strikeout pitcher, Aceves shows exceptional ability of mixing his pitches and keeping hitters off balance with his off-speed stuff. 
Though the signing of Chan Ho Park as free agent will make it tougher on Aceves to make the team, Girardi seemed to trust him and Aceves is capable of pitching more than two innings, if needed. 
If he does not make the team out of spring training he could be sent back to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre to work as a starter there. That would make him valuable as a possible replacement as a starter or reliever as the season moves along.
Mitre, 29, has a very tall order ahead of him. After a so-so 2007 season with the Florida Marlins (5-8 with a 4.65 ERA), Mitre missed the entire 2008 season because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
He came back earlier than expected and was signed by the Yankees on the recommendation of Girardi, his former manager with Florida. But Mitre underwhelmed in his nine starts and finished the season with a 3-3 mark and a bloated 6.79 ERA. 
His trademark sinker was inconsistent and teams feasted on his mediocre fastball. Last season, Mitre could blame the fact he was still recovering from the surgery. But this spring there will be no such excuses.
Mitre is going to have to really impress the Yankees to even make the team. He has virtually no realistic chance at the No. 5 job. The best he could hope for is to make the team as a long reliever, and it would seem that Gaudin and Aceves have the better chance to fit there.
So Mitre’s best hope is pitch his hindquarters off to force the Yankees to keep him as a starter in Triple A. The real likelihood is he will be released much like the team did with Dan Giese the previous spring.
NEXT POST: BATTLE NO. 2 OUTFIELD (Brett Gardner vs. Randy Winn)



Yanks’ Offense Still Looks Productive Despite Losses

Have the New York Yankees improved themselves for the 2010 season?
It is hard to see how general manager Brian Cashman can make that claim after he held onto to his chips on the big-name free agents and pared the payroll by letting veterans like Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Chien-Ming Wang, Jose Molina, Jerry Hairston Jr., Xavier Nady and Eric Hinske go.
He also traded away Melky Cabrera, Phil Coke, Brian Bruney and top prospects like Austin Jackson and Michael Dunn. Even Yankee fan favorite Shelley Duncan, the Most Valuable Player of the International League in 2009, was allowed to sign with the Indians.
But amid the roster carnage the Yankees did acquire outfielder Curtis Granderson, starting pitcher Javier Vazquez and designated hitter Nick Johnson. They also picked up lefty reliever Boone Logan and veteran outfielder Randy Winn. They also re-signed Andy Pettitte.
With the acquisition of Vazquez it would appear the starting rotation has been strengthened because the Yankees now have a solid foursome of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte and Vazquez — all of them capable of double-digit victories and pitching 200 innings.
The Vazquez acquisition also strengthened the bullpen because the loser of the battle between Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes for the No. 5 spot in the rotation will likely end up as the setup man for closer Mariano Rivera.
There appears to be depth in the bullpen, too, because the Yankees also will have lefties Damaso Marte and Logan and righties David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin. The bullpen is so stacked that it is possible that Jonathan Albaladejo, Mark Melancon and Edwar Ramirez will not make the staff coming out of spring training.
So the pitching staff seems to in good hands barring injury.
The offense may be another story.
Cashman and the Yankees likely will reason that the loss of 33% of its starters from last season is not as bad as it seems because the Yankees have Granderson, Johnson and likely Brett Gardner to replace Matsui, Damon and Cabrera.
Let’s look at the numbers and see if that is the case.
Matsui, Damon and Cabrera combined to score 235 runs, hit 65 home runs, drive in 240 runs,  steal 22 bases and hit .277. In order to get comparable numbers from Granderson, Johnson and Gardner, we would have to do a projection of Gardner’s 2009 statistics.
Based on Gardner receiving 3.1 plate appearances over 154 games, he would project to score 71 runs, hit five home runs, drive in 34 runs, steal 38 bases and hit .270. Those statistics do not take into account any possible improvement from the 26-year-old outfielder, which is likely.
But if we add those numbers to those of Granderson and Johnson we get 254 runs, 43 home runs, 167 RBIs, 60 stolen bases and a batting average of .267. That indicates a boost in runs scored and stolen bases but big drops in home runs, RBIs and batting average.
But there are other factors to consider here. 
For instance, Johnson is really replacing Damon as the team’s No. 2 hitter and Johnson, as a left-hand hitter, likely will benefit from the short dimensions in right field at Yankee Stadium. There is a possibility that he could reach his career high in home runs of 23 he hit in 2006. He also could reach or surpass his career high in RBIs of 77 he set in the same 2006 season.
If that is the case, think of Johnson as Johnny Damon without speed. His career on-base percentage is .402 and his .426 OBP in 2009 was third in all of Major League Baseball behind AL MVP Joe Mauer and NL MVP Albert Pujols.
Johnson walked 99 times and hit .291 in 2009, the best mark of his career. Damon hit .282 and is a career .288 hitter. His OBP was .365 and his career OBP is .355. So the Yankees can make a case that Johnson is actually better at getting base than Damon.
Here is another factor: Johnson hit a sizzling .337 against left-hand pitching with the Washington Nationals last season. 
The only real downside is Johnson’s lack of speed. But he did score 100 runs when he batted second for the Nationals in the 2006 season. So Johnson is not necessarily a bad baserunner, just a slow one.
If Granderson bats fifth, he would be replacing Matsui, who batted fifth most of the 2009 season for the Yankees. He actually hit more home runs than Matsui in 2009 with 30 compared to Matsui’s 28. The big difference is in RBIs. Granderson had 71 compared to Matsui’s 90.
However, Granderson batted in the leadoff position for the Detroit Tigers in 2009 and 71 RBIs is an excellent total for a leadoff hitter. There is a possibility that Granderson will easily set a career high in RBIs with the Yankees in 2010 if he bats fifth. 
Though Granderson is an excellent athlete with exceptional speed, Granderson is not an accomplished base-stealer. His career high in steals is 26 in 2007 and he had just 20 in 2009. But the Yankees likely will not ask him to steal as much as if he were batting leadoff.  The Yankees will gladly take 25 steals from him in 2010.
Granderson, however, has one major weakness: He does not hit left-handers well. He batted only .183 in 180 at-bats last season. Manager Joe Girardi might have to either drop Granderson in the batting order against lefties or use Winn, a switch-hitter, in place of Granderson when the Yankees face a left-hander.
That will be problematic too. Winn hit .158 in 120 at-bats against left-handers with the San Francisco Giants in 2009. It looks like hitting coach Kevin Long has his work cut out for him in getting Granderson and Winn to improve this season.
Matsui blasted left-handers last season. He hit .282 against them (as opposed to .271 against right-handers) with 13 home runs and 46 RBIs in just 131 at-bats. That production against left-handers definitely will be missed in 2010.
Gardner replaces Cabrera in the ninth spot. He has less power and he likely won’t touch Cabrera’s 68 RBIs. But he should score more runs and steal more bases. Gardner will have an opportunity, should he win a regular job over Winn, to become the Yankees’ best pure base-stealer since the days Rickey Henderson donned the pinstripes.
His biggest task will be to learn to drive the ball and he has to bunt more than he has so far. Pitchers try to overpower Gardner inside and Gardner has been unable to make the adjustment and make solid contact.
He also has not been as aggressive on the bases as he could be. Gardner needs to learn how to rattle opposing pitchers more to get them think more about him than the batter. Should Gardner make those strides this spring, he could very well be an upgrade over Cabrera because Gardner is as good defensively as Cabrera.
The bench will be decidedly younger and more inexperienced with the exception of Winn. But it has a chance to be better if catcher Francisco Cervelli, utility infielder Ramiro Pena and Rule 5 draftee and outfielder Jamie Hoffmann fulfill their promise. 
Carvelli showed so much defensive skill behind the plate and a cannon throwing arm last season that the Yankees decided to allow defensive wizard Molina go as a free agent. Carvelli shows more ability than Molina as a hitter, though he lacks power.
Pena hit .287 in limited duty with the Yankees last season and he has drawn rave reviews for his defense at second, shorts
top and third. The Yankees also like his ability to steal bases. Pena seems to be huge upgrade over 2009 utility man Cody Ransom and could be as valuable as Hairston was late last season for the Yankees.
Hoffmann, 25, is a powerfully built outfielder with great home run potential. He was selected first in the Rule 5 draft by the Washington Nationals and sent the Yankees in return for Bruney. With the Dodgers’ Triple A and Double A teams in 2009, Hoffmann hit a combined .291 with 10 home runs and 64 RBIs. 
He will come to spring training trying to claim a backup outfield spot. If he does not make the roster he will have to be offered back to the Dodgers for $25,000.
He was rated by Baseball America as the best defensive outfielder in the Dodgers organization the past four seasons and he can play all three positions. 
So, in looking at the Yankees’ offense for 2010, it would appear with veterans like Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano still around that there is enough offense even without Damon, Matsui and Cabrera.
Though Granderson, Johnson and Gardner may not be better they have a chance to effective and productive in different ways. The Yankees hope the stronger rotation will actually negate any potential loss in production.
So the Yankees may hit a bit fewer home runs and score a bit fewer runs. But not many pitchers in the American League will say that facing the 2010 Yankees is a day at the beach either. Look for solid pitching, a strong bullpen, top-flight defense and a very good offense to be enough to keep the Yankees in the pennant chase this season.
This is one instance where less may be more.

Cano Looks To Continue To Grow As Pro In 2010


It is almost time for pitchers and catchers to report to Steinbrenner Field in Tampa and it is the perfect time to start evaluating the New York Yankees talent. We will start with the catching position and move around the various positions. Needless to say, the Yankees do not have any “Help Wanted” signs out. They are coming to spring training with just about every job filled. But let’s take a look at what they have and see how they stack up to the 2009 World Champions.

SECOND BASE

Promise is just promise when it never is realized. 
That pretty much summed up Robinson Cano heading into the 2009 season. Cano was coming off a miserable 2008 season in which he hit just .271 with 14 home runs and 72 RBIs and he was still inconsistent in the field.
After seasons in which Cano had hit .297, .342 and .308 there were questions about him. The slow starts, the lack of patience at the plate and even his commitment to improving as a player. Cano must have felt the sting because he showed up in Tampa, FL in spring training with a renewed sense of urgency.
The Yankees saw that rededication pay immediate dividends because Cano hit .368 for the Yankees in April. He also seemed to have more focus in the field. He was still making the spectacular plays that tested his range and arm, but he also was making the routine plays look — well — routine.
By the end of the 2009 season season, Cano can say it was his best overall season in baseball. He hit .320 with 25 home runs and 85 RBIs. Only a late-season fielding slump cost him a chance to possibly win his first Gold Glove. He made just 12 errors.
The Yankees now feel the 27-year-old star from the Dominican Republic is fulfilling the promise that had former manager Joe Torre comparing him to Rod Carew. Of course, Cano is just one part of what is the most talented group of second baseman in baseball within the American League East.
Dustin Pedroia has a Rookie of the Year Award and a MVP with the Red Sox, Aaron Hill of Toronto is coming off a 36 home run, 108 RBI season, Ben Zobrist had a 27 home run, 91 RBI season for the Rays that forced them to trade Akinori Iwamura and Brian Roberts had another solid season with a .284 average and 30 stolen bases for the Orioles.
It is hard to stand out in that group, but Cano may still be the best combination of hitting and defense. It is just a matter of putting it all together.
The rap on Cano is that he is not a clutch hitter and his nonchalant style in the field has labeled him as lazy. That has been borne out by his awful hitting statistics with men on base, with men in scoring position and the bases loaded. For whatever reason, Cano has not been successful as a clutch hitter despite driving in 85 runs last season. His career high is the 97 he drove in 2007.
Cano will have to improve on that if the team is looking to repeat as world champions without outfielder Johnny Damon (82 RBIs) and designated hitter Hideki Matsui (90 RBIs). 
Cano was used early last season as the No. 5 hitter in the absence of Alex Rodriguez. But he was quickly moved down to the No. 7 spot, where he seemed more comfortable. It is likely he will remain there until he can get his average up with men on base.
With runners in scoring position, Cano hit an abysmal .207 in 2009. With the bases loaded he hit .259. In comparison, Cano hit a sizzling .433 leading off and .376 with the bases empty. For Cano to make the next leap forward as a professional he is going to have to be more productive in clutch situations in 2010.
But don’t put it past Cano. He is still young and he is still learning.
Of course, another big hurdle Cano will have to overcome is playing this season without his best friend, Melky Cabrera. Cabrera was packaged in a five-player deal this winter that brought the Yankees pitcher Javier Vazquez and lefty reliever Boone Logan.
With the trade Cano is now the last homegrown player to have won a position in the everyday lineup unless Brett Gardner can win a starting outfield spot this spring. Considering that top outfield prospect Austin Jackson was traded and catcher Jesus Montero is a few years away from making the team, Cano is one of the lone symbols of the Yankees minor-league system in developing position players.
Give Cano credit for being a durable player. In the the past three seasons, Cano has played in 160, 159 and 161 games for the Yankees. He started 158 games at second base last season. The Yankees will look for similar numbers from Cano this season.
Backing up Cano at second will likely be 24-year-old Ramiro Pena, who started three of the four games Cano did not start at second base. Pena hit a solid .287 in 115 at-bats with the Yankees last season and he impressed coaches and management with his fielding skills at second, shortstop and third base.
Pena will come into camp as the odds-on favorite to be the infield reserve this season, but he will get some competition from 25-year-old Kevin Russo and 22-year-old Eduardo Nunez. Russo hit .326 with 13 stolen bases at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre while Nunez hit .322 with 19 stolen bases at Double-A Trenton.
Pena was sent back to Scranton last season with the idea of making him a super sub much like Jerry Hairston Jr. Pena was used as a center-fielder in August. However, with the acquisition of Rule 5 draftee Jamie Hoffmann and the signing of 35-year-old free agent Randy Winn, Pena likely will not be needed as an outfielder this season.
Considering the rebound and strides Cano made at second base last season, it looks as if the Yankees again will be strong at the position this season. There is no doubt that Cano’s range and arm make him one of the best fielding second basemen in the American League.
Now that Cano has also established himself as career .306 hitter with good power all that is lacking is the steady run production Cano can provide in the lower echelons of the batting order. Perhaps with a bit more patience at the plate (Cano walked only 30 times last season), a little more focus and little bit luck, Cano can become the complete player the team believes he can become.
2010 looks very bright for Cano.

Teixeira Made His Mark With Yankees In 2009


It is almost time for pitchers and catchers to report to Steinbrenner Field in Tampa and it is the perfect time to start evaluating the New York Yankees talent. We will start with the catching position and move around the various positions. Needless to say, the Yankees do not have any “Help Wanted” signs out. They are coming to spring training with just about every job filled. But let’s take a look at what they have and see how they stack up to the 2009 World Champions.

FIRST BASE

The Yankees entered the winter of 2009 committed to letting Jason Giambi go as a free agent and general manager Brian Cashman traded reserve infielder Wilson Betemit to the Chicago White Sox for Nick Swisher to replace him.
After spending about $120 million to sign pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees seemed content to sit out the talks for free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Boston Red Sox had targeted Teixeira as their No. 1 shopping item.
But thanks to Teixeira’s wife, the Yankees entered the picture when she reminded her husband that he grew up a Yankee fan and idolized Don Mattingly. Teixeira informed his agent to contact the Yankees to gauge their interest and the rest is part of recent Yankee lore.
Cashman received permission from Hal Steinbrenner to go above his 2009 “budget” to pursue the slick-fielding power-hitting first baseman. Teixeira signed a 10-year contract with the Yankees and Swisher immediately realized his days as the Yankees’ starting first baseman were over before they ever began.
One year later, it is hard to imagine if the Yankees would have won a world championship without Teixeira. Since 2004, Teixeira had racked up five seasons of no fewer than 30 home runs and 105 RBIs. He also had a reputation as the best fielding first baseman in the game.
Yankee fans found out why Teixeira was the most coveted positional free agent available in the offseason. 
Of course, it did not start off well for the 28-year-old star. Habitually a slow starter throughout his career, Teixeira labored through a painful April (three home runs, 10 RBIs and a .200 average).
When the slump carried over into May and the team was struggling with third baseman Alex Rodriguez recovering from hip surgery,  Yankee fans began to boo Teixeira on a daily basis. Common pundit lore has it that when Rodriguez returned to the lineup on May 8 that Teixeira took off and put up his typical numbers.
But many people forget on May 4, Teixeira hit two solo home runs against the Red Sox and two days later he drove in three runs against the Rays. But if fans want to insist it took the presence of A-Rod to get Texeira going, Mark was not going to argue the point.
By the time the season ended, Teixeira had accumulated 39 home runs (tied for first in the American League), 122 RBIs (tops in the AL) and he batted .290. He earned the starting nod in the All-Star Game, won a Silver Slugger Award at his position and finished second in AL in the Most Valuable Player voting.
Not a bad season for a free agent first baseman coming into the pressure cooker that is New York.
But the contributions Teixeira provided with his bat somehow paled in comparison to what he delivered with his glove. 
Yankee fans had been spoiled for many seasons with the excellent glove work Mattingly turned in during his great career. Tino Martinez continued that tradition during the great world championship runs between 1996 and 2000.
But it took Teixeira’s sparkling season in he field in 2009 to bring the importance of a slick-fielding first baseman to the fore. Teixeira committed only four errors and ended up with a fielding percentage of .997. 
But that did not tell the entire story. Teixeira not only limited his errors but he also saved many more miscues of his infield teammates in 2009. Second baseman Robinson Cano, shortstop Derek Jeter and Rodriguez at third committed only 29 errors between them. They all would concede they had many more errors saved by Teixeira’s glove work at first.
Teixeira more than earned his second Gold Glove at first base and Jeter claimed his fourth at shortstop. One of the most underrated portion of the Yankees’ game was their above average infield defense that carried them to their 2009 championship.
Teixeira was the centerpiece of that defense and he will continue to be in the 2010 campaign.
Teixeira will also have some improved help when he is not in the lineup or is used as the designated hitter. This winter the Yankees signed former Yankee first baseman Nick Johnson to be the team’s designated hitter.
Johnson, 31, is not in Teixeira’s class as a first baseman but is above average with the glove. He will be a solid fill-in when Teixeira requires a breather. The Yankees also feel that without Johnson having to play in the field on a regular basis he will also avoid a lot of the injuries that have plagued his career.
In his only season where he received 500 at-bats, Johnson hit 23 home runs, drove in 77 runs and hit .290 for the Washington Nationals in 2006. The Yankees would take that production from him as a DH and backup first baseman in 2010.
Swisher, who backed up Teixeira at first base last season, will likely remain in the outfield in 2010 and he won’t see action at first base unless there is an injury. That is just as well because Swisher is below average in the field.
The big loser this offseason for the Yankees was minor-league first baseman Juan Miranda. The 26-year-old former Cuban star hit .290 with 18 home runs and 82 RBIs at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre last season.
With Teixeira signed for another nine seasons and Johnson on the roster as the team’s DH for 2010, it would seem than Miranda’s path to the majors has effectively been blocked. Though Miranda was initially mentioned as a potential replacement for Hideki Matsui this offseason, he will not get a chance to contribute unless Johnson is injured.
But given Teixeira’s durability at first (150 games started at first and 156 games overall), it would seem that first base is in good hands for a long time. With his swing tailor-made for the dimensions of Yankee Stadium the switch-hitter looks to be primed for another run at MVP honors again in 2010.
First base is never a worry for manger Joe Girardi now that Teixeira has made his mark.
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