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With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them.
Co-closers: Dellin Betances, 26 (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 1 save, 70 games), Andrew Miller, 29 (5-5, 2.02 ERA, 1 save, 73 games)
Set-up man: David Carpenter, 29 (6-4, 3.54 ERA, 3 saves, 65 games)
Lefty specialist: Justin Wilson, 27 (3-4, 4.20 ERA, 70 games)
The Yankees have had somewhat of a revolving door at the closer position for the past three seasons and 2015 will the fourth consecutive season they will be featuring a new closer or closers.
In 2012, an early-season injury to Mariano Rivera forced the Yankees to use Rafael Soriano as the team’s closer. In 2013, Rivera returned to health to complete a great final chapter to Hall-of-Fame career. And in 2014, David Robertson assumed the closer’s role and all he did was go 4-5 with a 3.08 ERA and convert 39 of his 44 save opportunities.
However, Robertson was unhappy that the Yankees did not look to extend his contract. So he declined their qualifying offer and signed a four-year, $46-million deal with the Chicago White Sox on Dec. 9.
Once again the Yankees will be auditioning another new closer in 2015.
The obvious choice is Betances after his meteoric rise from a spring training curiosity to the devastating setup weapon he became in 2014. The numbers speak for themselves.
He allowed only 46 hits and 24 walks in 90 innings. Batters hit an anemic .149 against him. He fanned 135 batters. The 6-foot-8, 265-pound right-hander dominated hitters from Opening Day to the end of the season.
The question then becomes could he do what he did last season in the ninth inning in 2015?
Manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild believe that he can but they are not going to leave that question to chance without a Plan B.
On Dec. 5, the Yankees signed left-hander Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36-million contract with the intention of making him a setup man for what was Robertson at the time. Miller struck out 14.87 batters per nine innings and held opponents to a .153 batting average for the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles last season.
For now, Girardi says that although the Yankees would prefer to have one set closer when they begin the season, they are not averse to having Betances and Miller work as co-closers.
“I’m sure we’ll have a lot of meetings about that,” Girardi told reporters last Sunday. “We’ll decide what’s best. We want to see how they’re both throwing the baseball at the end of spring training. There will be just a lot of discussion of how we feel our team is built. Could they be interchangeable? Yeah.”
There is no doubt that however they are used both Betances and Miller have great stuff and are nearly impossible to hit consistently. That gives the Yankees two powerful weapons at the back end of the bullpen.
Betances was originally drafted as a starting pitcher out of New York City and his high-octane fastball seemed to have him on a fast track to the Yankees’ starting rotation. But control problems plagued him and got worse as he progressed through the minor-league system
His status as a top prospect diminished until the Yankees decided to try him in the bullpen in 2013. That turned everything around. Betances found a delivery that he could repeat and that devastating fastball and slider combination left batters baffled.
He impressed Girardi in a spring game when he faced Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion of the Blue Jays with the bases loaded and retired both of them to get out of the jam unscathed. It was inevitable Betances would make the roster as a reliever from that point on.
That led to Betances’ impressive first season with the big club and his reward could be eventually becoming the team’s closer.
Ironically, Miller’s career path was very similar.
Miller was a former No. 1 draft pick of the Detroit Tigers who just could not harness his control as a starter. After a short and unsuccessful stop with the then-Florida Marlins, Miller reached rock bottom when he was 6-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 12 starts with the Boston Red Sox in 2011.
Miller walked 41 batters in just 65 innings.
Then the Red Sox shifted him to the bullpen and he has not looked back. From 2012 through 2014, Miller has developed into what could be considered the most devastating left-handed relievers in all of baseball.
His walks have dropped, his strikeouts have increased and Miller is now in line to perhaps share a closers role – a job he also has never had before.
The Yankees are obviously thrilled they have both of these pitchers available for the ninth inning.
A curious thing happened after the 2014 season. For the first time in a very long time, the Yankees basically reshuffled the deck on the rest of the bullpen. David Phelps, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton and Preston Claiborne are gone.
Phelps was dealt to the Marlins in the trade where the Yankees acquired starting right-hander Nathan Eovaldi and first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones. Kelley was shipped to the San Diego Padres for minor-league right-hander Johnny Barbato. Thornton was waived last August and is now with the Washington Nationals. Claiborne was released and signed with the Marlins.
So behind Miller and Betances will be a whole new cast of characters.
The team’s primary setup man will be Carpenter, who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves along with left-hander Chasen Shreve for left-hander Manny Banuelos, who was once considered the best pitching prospect in the Yankees’ organization.
Carpenter comes to the Yankees highly recommended by Brian McCann, who was his primary catcher in 2013 when Carpenter was 4-1 with a 1.78 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 65 innings over 56 appearances.
Carpenter’s numbers slipped considerably last season but he is very excited to be reunited with his former battery mate.
“B-Mac is the kind of guy that you love going to battle with,” Carpenter told reporters. “He’s a team guy, he busts his butt out there, he’s everything you could ask for in a leader, especially a catcher. To be reunited with him, it’s going to be really, really special.”
The Yankees also made a deal for a second left-hander by trading veteran catcher Francisco Cervelli to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Wilson, who like Carpenter had a sensational 2013 season.
Wilson, a converted starter, was 6-1 with 2.08 ERA in 58 games with the Pirates in 2013. Last season his numbers slipped a bit but general manager Brian Cashman said Wilson will remind Yankee fans of Boone Logan, who had a very successful stint with the Yankees as their primary left-hander.
Beyond these four, the makeup of the rest of the bullpen will be up for grabs this spring, although Adam Warren eventually will be part of it. It is just unclear when that will be because Warren is slated to pitch as a starter in spring training.
The Yankees are looking to possibly use Warren as a sixth starter in the first six weeks of the season because several Yankee starters are coming off injuries and the Yankees face a stretch in late April and early May in which they are scheduled to play 30 games in 31 days.
Warren, 27, is coming off a sensational year in the bullpen. He was 3-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 69 games, all in relief. Between Warren’s ability to pitch in almost in any role, including that of a starter, and the fact that he pitches effectively in those roles, it is easy to see why he was one of the few relievers the Yankees opted to keep for 2015.
Warren will be a big help either in the middle or late innings when he finally is shifted back in mid-May.
Right-handers Chase Whitley (25), Esmil Rogers (29) and Bryan Mitchell (23) also will get opportunities to start this spring. All three have started in the past but Whitley is better suited to be a relief pitcher. Rogers has not fully developed as a starter or a reliever but he has been better in the bullpen. Mitchell is a capable starter but the Yankees will evaluate him for both roles this spring.
Mitchell likely will be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre so that he could be available as a emergency starter this season. The Yankees really like his ability.
There are several relievers on the 40-man roster who will get a look this spring including Danny Burawa, Jose De Paula, Branden Pinder and Shreve.
Burawa, 26, is a right-hander who was 3-1 with a 4.70 between Double-A Trenton and Scranton last season. De Paula, 27, was signed out of the San Francisco Giants system and the left-hander was 4-3 with a 4.21 ERA at Triple-A Fresno in 2014. Pinder, 26, is a right-hander who was 3-0 with 2.04 ERA in three minor-league stops last season, ending with a stint in Scranton. Shreve, 24, was acquired along with Carpenter in the Banuelos trade and was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA at stops in Double-A and Triple-A in 2014.
Most of the time non-roster pitchers are invited into camp for a look but they don’t make the team. But the Yankees invited a veteran right-hander reliever to camp who was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2009 and a two-time All-Star with the Oakland Athletics.
He is 30-year-old Andrew Bailey, who saved 75 games in 84 opportunities for the A’s from 2009 through 2011, but has suffered through a series of injuries that have hindered his effectiveness and kept him off the field.
Bailey was released by the Red Sox in July 2013 after posting a 3-1 record with 3.77 ERA in 30 games. Bailey suffered a torn capsule and labrum in his right shoulder and underwent surgery in 2013. The Yankees signed him to a minor-league contract in 2014 knowing he would be unavailable to pitch until 2015.
The Yankees extended him an invitation this spring and Bailey will have an opportunity to test where he is in his rehab. If he is healthy, Bailey could be a valuable addition to the bullpen. Though his closing days are over he could land a spot to pitch in the middle innings. If he is anywhere close to the pitcher he was in Oakland the Yankee bullpen will be even more formidable.
Another intriguing pitcher to watch this spring will be former starting prospect Jose A. Ramirez, 25, who was converted to relief because of recurring oblique injuries.
Ramirez was once a very highly touted prospect as a starter and he did make his major-league debut with the Yankees as a reliever last season. He was 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA in eight appearances in relief.
At Scranton, the Dominican right-hander was 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA in nine appearances after spending an early part of the season on the disabled list with an oblique strain.
The Yankees see their 13th-ranked prospect as a full-time reliever and they hope it does for Ramirez what it did for Betances. Ramirez just maybe could make a leap to the majors this season because of his change-up, which is the best in the organization – including those in the majors now.
He also features a plus fastball though he lacks overall command and he is working hard to develop his slider. Because he has struggled to work more than 115 innings the Yankees believe keeping in the bullpen will lessen his injury issues and keep his arm fresh for a full season.
Another young pitcher to watch is 21-year-old right-hander Jacob Lindgren, who pitched Mississippi State to the 2013 College World Series title as a starter and then was shifted to the bullpen by the Yankees last summer.
The Yankees selected him with their first pick of the 2014 draft in the second round and he immediately paid dividends by advancing all the way to Trenton. In his four minor-league stops he combined to go 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA He struck out 48 batters in 25 innings.
Lindgren was able to increase his fastball speed up to 95 mph and his slider (82-84 mph) has enough bite on it to make it a wipeout pitch. It is very possible that Lindgren could make the Yankees’ bullpen in 2015 if he shows that he can throw strikes consistently in the minors.
He is ranked as the team’s No. 9 prospect.
OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: EXCELLENT
The bullpen has been the strength of the team for the past two seasons, though the team as a whole has not had much success. Even with the reshuffling of a lot of new faces and new roles in the bullpen, it remains one of the team’s strengths.
Another reason is that Girardi has been a master at selecting the best organization arms and utilizing a bullpen to the team’s advantage. No one gets overworked because Girardi is strict about not using pitchers three days in a row if he can help it.
This season the big test will be if Betances can take the reins as the team’s closer. The odds are that he is capable and he should be successful. If he isn’t Miller is there back him up. Whether they work as setup man and closer or as co-closers, the fact remains they are two very nasty hombres that hitters do not feel comfortable hitting against.
Neither pitcher also has a decided bias pitching against right-handed or left-handed batters. They are equal-opportunity strikeout artists. That will make it awful difficult for teams who are behind come the eighth inning.
Carpenter will likely ease into what was Kelley’s role last season. He will set up for Miller and Betances. Though Carpenter struggled a bit last season, he still is considered a good young pitcher with a very good arm.
Once Warren finishes his role as a starter in the early part of the season he will join Carpenter in a setup role. Though Warren came out of the minors as a starter, he has had great success pitching out of the bullpen and he can pitch multiple innings if needed.
The Yankees also traded Cervelli for a second left-hander in Wilson and he provides a great opportunity for Girardi to match him up against a tough left-handed hitter in the middle innings.
With these five players set in their roles, the other three spots are up for grabs this spring.
Whitley and Rogers have a great shot at winning two of those spots because they both are former starters. Whitley is ideal for the long-relief and spot-start role Phelps once had. Rogers has not harnessed his ability yet and time is running out. But he is veteran with a good arm.
The last spot will be decided in spring training with a lot of potential candidates.
One good thing is that a lot of those candidates such as Burawa, Pinder and Shreve are young, Behind them are a pair of up-and-coming prospects like Ramirez and Lindgren.
There is good chance you may see both Ramirez and Lindgren on the 25-man roster this season. The Yankees have developed a lot of great depth here.
END OF SERIES
YANKEES 4, MARINERS 2
In the 1979 Blake Edwards classic comedy “10” a songwriter (Dudley Moore) goes through a mid-life crisis and becomes enamored with a sexy blonde (Bo Derek) on her honeymoon. The number 10 refers to the absolute perfection of the woman’s looks.
However, in 2014, the New York Yankees have fallen in love with their ace right-hander from Japan. On Wednesday, Masahiro Tanaka not only proved he was a “10” as pitchers go. He also won his 10th game.
Tanaka threw eight shutout innings before giving up two runs in the ninth in pitching his second complete game with 11 strikeouts as New York defeated Seattle in front of a paid crowd of 28,434 at Safeco Field.
Tanaka (10-1) retired the first 10 batters he faced before James Jones singled with one out in the fourth. Two batters later Kyle Seager singled as well. But Tanaka ended the inning by striking out Logan Morrison swinging.
That strikeout began a stretch in which Tanaka struck out six of the next seven batters he faced.
Other than a walk to Seager in the seventh, Tanaka did not allow another base-runner until Mike Zunino doubled to left with one out in the eighth and Brad Miller followed a single. However, Tanaka quashed that Mariners threat by retiring Cole Gillispie on a soft liner to second baseman Brian Roberts, who threw to first to double off Miller.
The Mariners scored in the ninth when Jones reached on an infield single with one out and former Yankee Robin$son Cano hit his first home run at Safeco Field, a lined shot that scraped off the top of the wall in left-center.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had no trouble solving 35-year-old right-hander Chris Young (5-4).
Roberts opened the third inning with a opposite-field single to left. Brett Gardner drew a walk and, one out later, Jacoby Ellsbury extended his hitting streak to 15 games with a looping single into center that plated Roberts.
The Yankees added to their 1-0 lead in the fourth when Gardner led off with a lined single to right and Ellsbury slapped an opposite-field single to left.
Mark Teixeira then launched his 11th home run of the season into the bleachers in right-center. It was Teixeira’s 17th home run at Safeco Field, which ties Rafael Palmeiro for the most home runs hit by an opponent.
Young was charged with four runs on seven hits and two walks with a pair of strikeouts in five innings. It was his first defeat ever at Safeco Field covering 10 starts.
But Tanaka was, as always, the story the night.
He now has thrown quality starts in all of 13 of his appearances this season. He also became only the fourth pitcher in history to strike out more than 100 batters (103) in his first 13 major-league starts, joining Kerry Wood, Herb Score, Jose DeLeon and fellow countryman Hideo Nomo.
Tanaka also kept his major-league-leading ERA at 2.02.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season ledger to 33-31 and they remain tied with the Baltimore Orioles for second place in the American League East. They both trail the first-place Toronto Blue Jays by 4 1/2 games and just three games in the loss column.
The Mariners fell to 34-31.
- Tanaka’s dominance almost was predictable because the Mariners are one of the worst hitting teams in the American League and they lack power. Tanaka threw 75 of his 110 pitches for strikes for 68 percent. Tanaka’s 11 strikeouts tied his season high on April 27 when he fanned the same number against the Los Angeles Angels in 6 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium. Not only is Tanaka in the Cy Young discussion. Because in winning 10 of the Yankees’ 33 games, he also is in the Most Valuable Player hunt also.
- Derek Jeter is getting back on a bit of a roll. He was 2-for-5 in the game with two stolen bases and he is now 5-for-9 (.556) in his first two games in Seattle. Jeter’s stolen bases also were Nos. 350 and 351 in his career. He becomes only the third player in the major-league history with 3,000 or more hits, 350 or more stolen bases and 250 or more home runs, joining Craig Biggio and Rickey Henderson.
- Ellsbury was 2-for-4 with a walk and an RBI in the game. His 15-game hitting streak is the longest active streak in the majors and is the longest for a Yankee since Jeter’s 19-game streak in September 2012. During that span, Ellsbury is 23-for-60 (.383). Despite the return of Carlos Beltran to the lineup, manager Joe Girardi has kept Ellsbury in the third spot in the order and it is paying off.
So Tanaka lost the shutout thanks to the sellout Cano and his homer. The Yankees were in command once they took the lead and Tanaka is earning every penny of that $178 million contract he signed. Despite all the injuries to the starting staff, the Yankees are hanging in behind the Blue Jays. No complaints here.
The Yankees made two moves on Wednesday to strengthen their bullpen. They activated right-hander Shawn Kelley from the 15-day disabled list and they acquired left-hander David Huff from the San Francisco Giants. Kelley, 30, has been out since May 6 with a lumbar spine strain. He is 1-2 with a 3.52 ERA in 16 appearances this season. Huff, 29, was with the Yankees last season and he was picked up for cash considerations. He was 1-0 with a 6.30 ERA in 16 appearances with the Giants this season. Last season, Huff was 3-1 with a 4.67 ERA in 11 games (two starts) with the Yankees. Huff will assume the long-relief duties in the bullpen. To make room for Kelley, the team optioned right-hander Matt Daley to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. To make room for Huff, the Yankees designated for assignment left-hander Wade LeBlanc. Daley, 33, had no record with a 4.85 ERA in 12 games. LeBlanc, 29, who was claimed off waivers from the Angels on June 3, also had no record with an ERA of 18.00 in one appearance. . . . Beltran made 25 tosses of about 90 feet before the game on Wednesday and reported no problems with his right elbow. Beltran missed 21 games with a bone spur and has been limited to designated hitter since he was activated on June 5. Beltran hopes to be able to play the outfield later in the season.
The Yankees will have a chance to sweep the Mariners at home on Thursday in the series finale.
Rookie right-hander Chase Whitley (1-0, 2.42 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Whitley held the Kansas City Royals to two runs on five hits and no walks while he struck out three in seven innings on Friday to earn his first major-league victory.
The Mariners will start rookie left-hander Roenis Elias (5-4, 3.64 ERA). Elias yielded four runs on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday. He bested the Yankees on May 1 at Yankee Stadium 4-2 with 10 strikeouts.
Game-time will be 10:10 EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.
YANKEES 7, CARDINALS 4
Since May 3, Jacoby Ellsbury has been struggling at the plate. So much so that his season average dipped from .346 to .259 entering Wednesday’s contest. By the time the game was over Ellsbury seemed back on track.
Ellsbury was 3-for-5 with three RBIs, two stolen bases and two runs scored to lead a seven-run, 12-hit attack to help Hiroki Kuroda and New York take a three-game series over St. Louis in front of a paid crowd of 45,267 at Busch Stadium.
The Yankees scored four runs in the third and three in the fourth against right-hander Shelby Miller and Ellsbury had a hand in both rallies.
With one out in the third, Brett Gardner drew a walk and Brian Roberts followed with a single up the middle. Ellsbury then scored Gardner with the game’s first run with a single to right-center as Roberts hustled into third.
Ellsbury stole second without a throw from catcher Yadier Molina and Brian McCann walked on four pitches to load the bases because Miller was pitching around him to face rookie catcher John Ryan Murphy.
But Murphy spoiled the strategy by delivering a single to center to score both Roberts and Ellsbury and Ichiro Suzuki capped the scoring by beating out a potential double-play grounder to score McCann.
With two out in the fourth and Kelly Johnson on first base after a single, Roberts doubled into left-center and Ellsbury scored both of them with a lined single to center. Ellsbury then stole second, again without a throw from Molina, and McCann followed with a single to right to score Ellsbury, giving the Yankees a 7-0 lead.
Miller (6-4) was charged with seven earned runs on nine hits and two walks with one strikeout in five innings.
Kuroda (4-3), who has spent most of major-league career as a pitcher who has received very little run support, suddenly has an abundance of runs provided by his teammates.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals took advantage of Kuroda’s desire to limit walks and keep his pitch count down by teeing off on Kuroda’s fastball.
The Cardinals managed to score single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth and they chased Kuroda from the game in the sixth when Matt Carpenter laced an RBI double off the wall to score pinch-hitter Jhonny Peralta from first with two out.
Kuroda yielded three runs on nine hits with no walks and three strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.
The Yankees bullpen quartet of Matt Thornton, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and David Robertson were knocked around a bit, giving up four hits and two walks in 3 1/3 innings. In fact, after Warren was chased by a two-out double by Carpenter, Kolten Wong greeted Robertson with an RBI single, his fourth hit in five at-bats on the night.
But Robertson ended the eighth by striking out Matt Holliday looking.
Then in the ninth, Robertson was touched by a leadoff single by Allen Craig and he walked Molina to bring up the potential tying run.
But Robertson ended the night with a flourish by striking out in succession John Jay, pinch-hitter Matt Adams and Daniel Descalso.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 28-24. They are in second place in the American League East, three games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. The Cardinals fell to 29-24.
- Ellsbury’s night also included an impressive sliding catch of a sinking line drive off the bat of Craig in the second inning. Ellsbury is an extremely talented player who was responsible for carrying the team through the first month of the season. He now has at least one hit in four of his past five games and is 7-for-20 (.350) with a homer and seven RBIs in that span.
- Murphy was 1-for-5 in the game but that single drove in two big runs with the bases loaded in the third inning. It raised a few eyebrows when manager Joe Girardi had him batting fifth in the lineup. But the 22-year-old rookie is batting .357 with a home run and eight RBIs in limited playing time behind McCann.
- Give Roberts credit for doing well in the second spot in the order replacing a resting Derek Jeter. Roberts was 2-for-4 with a double and a walk and two runs scored. Roberts also extended his hitting streak to five games and he is 7-for-19 (.368) in that span. He has raised his season average to .248.
- It was hard to judge whether the Cardinals were knocking Kuroda around or if he was losing his competitive edge because he had such a big lead. Kuroda is 4-3 and he has not lost a start since May 1. But his ERA is hovering now at 4.57 and his highest ERA since he came to the United States was in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 when it was 3.73. The Yankees need him to pitch better.
- The Yankees had a chance to extend their lead in the eighth when they loaded the bases on right-hander Sean Maness. But left-hander Randy Choate struck out Gardner and Roberts smacked a 3-0 pitch to Carpenter at third and ended up in an inning-ending double play. The Yankees have to stop coming up empty in bases loaded and no out situations.
- Robertson looked a little shaky in yielding two hits and a walk but he made up for it with recording all four of his outs on strikeouts. The Yankees know that comparing Robertson to Mariano Rivera is not fair but it is inevitable. The fact that Robertson has one blown save in 12 tries and a 2.20 ERA in 16 appearances is pretty darn good.
It is amazing that the Yankees got seven runs out of their offense with Mark Teixeira nursing a sore right wrist, Jeter sitting out to rest and slumping Alfonso Soriano and Yangervis Solarte held out of the lineup. McCann even started his first professional game at first base. But it all worked. Solarte was benched after hitting just .152 since his nine-game hitting streak was stopped on May 15. So Johnson moved to third, which opened first base for McCann. . . . Teixeira will have his right wrist examined on Thursday by Dr. Keith Raskin, who performed Teixeira’s surgery to repair the torn sheath in the wrist in the offseason. Teixeira will also have precautionary ultrasound. However, the Yankees are saying the stiffness and soreness are normal after this type of surgery and Teixeira is expected to be back in the lineup soon.
The Yankees will have Thursday off and they return home to begin a three-game weekend series against the Minnesota Twins on Friday.
Left-hander Vidal Nuno (1-1, 5.49 ERA) will start for the Yankees coming off what was his best start of season on Saturday. Nuno gave up three runs in the first inning to the Chicago White Sox but did not give up another run in the following six innings. Nuno walked one and struck out five.
Veteran right-hander Ricky Nolasco (2-5, 6.12) will get the nod for the Twins. Nolasco has lost his past two starts and was shelled by the San Francisco Giants on Sunday. Nolasco was tagged for seven runs on nine hits and a walk in 4 2/3 innings.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.
YANKEES 7, BLUE JAYS 2
Just ask any pitcher in baseball and they will tell you that the most dangerous hitter in any lineup is a great hitter who has been in the throes of a slump. Brandon Morrow could tell you a whole lot about what Robinson Cano did to him on Saturday.
Cano hit a pair of two-run home runs off Morrow and David Phelps gave up up just one run over seven innings as New York ran its season record against Toronto to 8-1 in front of a paid crowd of 45,557 at Yankee Stadium.
Cano followed a two-out RBI single by Brett Gardner off Morrow (1-3) in the third inning with a high looping line drive into the first row of the short porch in right-field that extended the Yankees’ lead to 3-0.
Two innings later he connected off Morrow again for a two-out, two-run shot that landed over the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center field. It was Cano’s second multi-homer game of the season and he now leads the team in batting average (.295), home runs (12) and RBIs (31).
Meanwhile, Phelps (2-2) held the power-laden Jays to six hits and three walks while he struck out eight batters in what was the longest start of his major-league career.
The Blue Jays only managed to score off Phelps in the fourth inning when Adam Lind laced a one-out double to center and Colby Rasmus lined a two-out single off the wall in right-field to score Lind to draw the Jays to within two runs at 3-1.
But Phelps frustrated the Blue Jays most of the day because they had a multiple scoring opportunities taken away from them. They ended the day 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
The Jays had two runners on and two out with Lind at the plate in the first when Phelps picked off Jose Bautista at second base to end the inning.
Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio both reached first on singles to begin the third inning but Melky Cabrera was retired on a double play and Edwin Encarnacion struck out swinging.
Cabrera reached on a one-out double in the fifth but Bautista flew out and Encarnacion was retired on a diving stop of a hard grounder by Jayson Nix and a great scoop of a Nix’s throw by Lyle Overbay at first.
In stark contrast, the Yankees took advantage of some misplays by the Blue Jays.
Nix singled off Morrow to begin the third inning and rookie David Adams then hit a hot come-backer to Morrow. However, Morrow bobbled it and had to settle for throwing out Adams, allowing Nix to reach second. One out later Gardner drove him in with a single and Cano followed with the first of his two home runs.
After Cano had padded the Yankees’ lead to 5-1 in the fifth, David Robertson came on in the eighth in relief of Phelps and surrendered a one-out solo home run to Encarnacion.
But the Yankees put the game away in the bottom of the inning after Izturis committed a throwing error on a ball off the bat of Vernon Wells. Travis Hafner, who was starting his first game since May 13 due to soreness in his right shoulder, blasted a two-run home run down the line in right-field.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 27-16 and they remain a game ahead of the second-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Blue Jays fell to 17-26 and they are last in the division a staggering 10 games behind the Yankees.
- Phelps is pitching as if he does not want to return to the bullpen. In his last two starts, Phelps has given up just two runs on 10 hits and eight walks while he has fanned 15 in 13 2/3 innings. That is an ERA of 1.32 despite the high walk total. It might be very hard for Ivan Nova (sore right triceps) to reclaim his starting spot when he is activated from the disabled list.
- Cano entered play on Saturday in the midst of an eight-game slump where he was 6-for-32 (.188) with a home run and six RBIs. But he busted out of it in a big way against the Blue Jays by going 2-for-4 with two home runs, two runs scored and four RBIs. Cano did not hit his 12th home run last season until June 17, when the Yankees were playing their 65th game. So he is a month ahead of what was a career-best home run pace in 2012.
- Hafner’s home run in the eighth was his seventh home run of the season and he has 20 RBIs. Hafner was bothered with soreness in what has been a chronic right shoulder for him and he was given a cortisone shot earlier in the week to relieve the pain. It appears the soreness is gone. The Yankees suffered a bit without his power presence in the lineup.
- Adams was unable to extend his hitting steak since he was called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to four games. He was 0-for-3 with a strikeout and he did not get a ball past the infield. Despite the unproductive afternoon, Adams is impressing the Yankees with his approach at the plate and his defense has been better than advertised.
- Curtis Granderson came in hitting .364 but he was 0-for-4 on Saturday and his average dipped to .267. Granderson also misjudged Rasmus’ liner off the right-field wall in playing his very first major-league game in right-field. Manager Joe Girardi opted to rest Ichiro Suzuki and played Granderson in right to keep Gardner in center-field.
- Robertson looked a little shaky in the eighth in giving up a home run to Encarnacion and a single J.P. Arencibia before he retired the last two hitters. It was first time Robertson has given up a run since an appearance against the Houston Astros on May 30, a span of seven games.
The Yankees did some more roster shuffling on Saturday. The team acquired infielder Reid Brignac from the Colorado Rockies in return for cash considerations. To make room on the roster, the team designated for assignment infielder Alberto Gonzalez. Brignac, 27, is a career .228 hitter who is capable of playing second base, third base and shortstop. Brignac was batting .250 with one home run with Colorado when he was designated for assignment last week. Brignac also played for the Tampa Bay Rays. General manager Brian Cashman said Brignac, a left-handed hitter, will platoon with both Adams at third and Nix at shortstop. . . . Joba Chamberlain (strained right oblique) played long toss on Saturday and soon will throw a bullpen session that likely will lead to a rehab assignment.
The Yankees can sweep the Blue Jays in their three-game series with a victory on Sunday.
Left-hander CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.19 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Sabathia gave up three runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 innings against the Mariners on Tuesday and did not get a decision. Sabathia is 14-4 with a 3.00 ERA lifetime against the Blue Jays.
For the second consecutive outing Sabathia will be facing off against a fellow Cy Young Award winner. The Blue Jays will be countering with 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A.Dickey (3-5, 4.83 ERA). Dickey allowed two runs on six hits and two walks and he fanned 10 against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday. He is 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.
YANKEES 11, ORIOLES 8
On a chilly evening in Sarasota, FL, Yankee right-hander David Phelps came out of the gates guns blazing and the offense caught fire late to back him.
Bobby Wilson broke a 3-3 tie in the sixth inning with a sacrifice fly that scored Jayson Nix and Phelps struck out nine Orioles in 5 1/3 innings of work as New York outslugged Baltimore in front of a paid crowd of 8,660 at Ed Smith Stadium.
Phelps (3-3) gave up three runs on four hits and two walks to earn the victory. Journeyman left-hander Mark Hendrickson (0-1) took the loss for the O’s. Preston Claiborne pitched a perfect ninth to earn a save.
The Yankees believed they had put the game away with a six-run seventh inning off Orioles reliever Chris Petrini, keyed by a two-run single by top outfield prospect Mason Williams, a two-run homer off the bat of Brennan Boesch and solo shot by Ben Francisco.
The Orioles did draw to within 10-8 with a five-run seventh inning off Yankees reliever Branden Pinder. Taylor Teagarden keyed the inning with a three-run home run.
The victory gave the Yankees a 13-17 record in Grapefruit League play. The Orioles are now 18-9.
- Despite a shaky fifth inning in which he was touched for a two-run home run off the bat of Nate McLouth, Phelps was outstanding. Five of his nine strikeouts were called and he only gave up one hit with no walks in his other 4 1/3 innings of work. Phelps will open the season as a starter until Phil Hughes is activated off the disabled list.
- A day after the Yankees completed a trade for outfielder Vernon Wells, the two outfield candidates most affected by the deal hit home runs. Boesch drove a blast to left-center on a 1-0 pitch in the seventh for his first homer of the spring. Francisco then followed him by launching a 2-1 pitch just to the right of where Boesch’s landed for his third home run of the spring. Neither Francisco or Boesch want to be cut or sent to the minors, However, it does appear there is no room on the roster for both of them.
- Very quietly Eduardo Nunez is beginning to get hot with the bat. Nunez was 2-for-3 with a RBI and a run scored in Wednesday’s game. Since March 14, Nunez is 13-for-29 (.448) and he has raised his spring average to .293. Nunez will begin the season replacing Derek Jeter at shortstop.
I have no real reason to complain. Oh, Pinder giving up five runs in the bottom of the seventh did let the O’s back in the game. But Pinder is not going to make the Yankees’ 25-man roster. You can’t really complain when every Yankee in the starting lineup got at least one hit in the game.
Nix played second base on Wednesday because Robinson Cano had to be scratched with a stomach virus, manager Joe Girardi told reporters. In addition, Addison Maruszak was inserted at third base in place Ronnier Mustelier. The reason for Mustelier being removed was not disclosed. . . . Jeter will not play in a minor-league game until at least next week, general manager Brian Cashman reported on Wednesday. . . . Ivan Nova gave up seven runs (six earned) on eight hits and a walk in five-plus innings against the Toronto Blue Jays’ Class-A Dunedin club on Wednesday. . . . The Yankees on Wednesday claimed right-hander Sam Demel off waivers from the Houston Astros. Demel, 27, is 4-4 with two saves and a 4.95 ERA in 72 appearances with the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2010 to 2012. To make room for Demel the Yankees released right-hander Daniel Otero, who they claimed off waivers from the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday.
The Yankees will wrap up their Grapefruit League season on Thursday at George M. Steinbrenner Field against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (1-2, 2.31 ERA) will make his last tuneup start for the Yankees. Left-hander Jeff Locke will pitch for the Pirates.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will not be telecast.
The pitchers and catchers of the New York Yankees have reported to spring training camp in Tampa, FL, and the position players will soon be joining them. The Yankees’ first scheduled exhibition game is a week away. There are very few jobs on the line this spring as it is with most seasons with the Yankees. But there are four battles worth watching this spring and the result may determine how successful the team will be in 2013. Let’s look at them.
4) STARTING CATCHER: FRANCISCO CERVELLI vs. CHRIS STEWART
With the departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent, the Yankees will be looking at replacing him from within their own ranks. The Yankees elected not to sign such free agents as A.J. Pierzynski and Miguel Oilvo. The problem is that Martin not only provided the Yankees with Gold Glove-quality defense behind the plate, he also provided power despite the fact his batting average was stuck below .200 for most of the 2012 season. The two main candidates to replace Martin are Cervelli, 26, who had been the team’s primary backup catcher in 2010 and 2011 but was optioned to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre on the final day of spring training last season due to the acquisition of Stewart, 30, from the San Francisco Giants. Cervelli arrives as the team’s best hitting option because he owns a career .271 batting average. But he lacks power and, although he calls a good game behind the plate, his throwing can be very erratic. He has a career success rate of throwing out 19.8 percent of base-runners. In contrast, throwing out base-runners is Stewart’s forte. He has nailed 33.7 percent of potential base-stealers and Stewart’s other defensive skills are pretty much on par with Martin’s. The big negative with Stewart is that he is a career .217 hitter and he has no power. In addition to this battle, there are a pair of catchers looking to make an impression in rookie Austin Romine, 24, and non-roster invitee Bobby Wilson, 29. Romine is coming off a season in which he was plagued by a lower-back strain that limited him to just 33 games in the minors last season. Wilson, a former backup catcher with the Los Angels Angels, was released by the Toronto Blue Jays after spending the entire 2012 season at Triple A. Romine’s strong suit is defense and manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, both former catchers, believe Romine is ready to catch at the major-league level now. The issue with Romine is that he has to prove he is healthy and he has to improve as a hitter. Wilson is almost a carbon copy of Stewart. He has nailed 27.1 percent of potential base-stealers but his career major-league batting average is .208.
PREDICTION: Cervelli should win the job, barring injury, which is a legitimate concern. Cervelli has suffered three separate concussions, a broken wrist and a broken bone in his foot over the past five seasons. So his durability is an issue. Stewart, on the basis of his solid season as backup in 2012, seems to be almost assured of retaining his job. But Romine is worth watching this spring. If he is healthy and he shows signs his hitting is improving he might get a promotion to the majors this season. But realistically the Yankees would prefer that he get in a full season at Scranton and he could be promoted in September with a hope he can compete for a starting role in 2014. Wilson will be insurance in case there is an injury to Cervelli or Stewart and he likely will share the catching chores with Romine at Scranton.
3) RESERVE INFIELDER: JAYSON NIX vs. EDUARDO NUNEZ
Although this is, in a sense, a rematch from last spring, it also is not. Confused? Well, Nunez was actually competing for the backup infield spot with Ramiro Pena and Nix, who was signed as a minor-league free agent, was just invited to spring training. Nunez, 25, easily won the role by hitting .372 while Pena hit .240. Nix, 30, was a longshot to make the team and did not. However, he did open some eyes by hitting .323 and flashing some solid defense at second base, third base and shortstop. Nix also proved valuable in that he could play the corner outfield spots. So he was optioned to Scranton and he hit .233 there before he was summoned on May 3. Nunez was hitting a sizzling .294 but his penchant to commit careless fielding errors doomed him. He was optioned to Scranton on May 11 and Nix became the team’s backup infielder. Nunez’s season pretty much fell apart after that. He suffered an injury to his right hand that sidelined him for most of the minor-league season. He was recalled to the Yankees when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1 but the Yankees top brass insisted that Nunez was being groomed as primarily a shortstop and that he would not used as a utility infielder anymore. Nix,meanwhile, flourished in his role, hitting .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 174 at-bats in 77 games. Though Nunez is clearly a better athlete, a better hitter and a better base-stealer, Nix was so much steadier in the field that the Yankees were pleased with his work. Nunez committed seven errors in 38 games with the Yankees while Nix was charged with only three. A quick look at the Yankees’ depth chart on yankees.com shows something interesting this spring. Nunez is listed as the primary backup at second, third, shortstop and leftfield. Huh? I guess the Yankees changed their minds about Nunez not being a utility player and he will battle Nix for the role. If anyone believes Nunez is going to shed his nickname of “Eduardo Scissorhands” this spring than I have some prime swampland to sell you. But the Yankees may need his hitting and his base-stealing ability more than they need his fielding this season. The Yankees lost a lot of power from the 2012 club and they may need to score more runs by moving runners around the bases and stealing more bases. That would favor Nunez, who actually embarrassingly was third on the team last season with 11 stolen bases despite playing in only 38 games. Nix is still in the picture because of his fielding and steady play. It is going to be a very close call either way it goes.
PREDICTION: Nunez not only has hitting and base-stealing advantages this spring. He also may benefit from the slow recovery of Derek Jeter from surgery on his fractured left ankle and the presence of camp invitee Dan Johnson. If Jeter can’t start the season at shortstop, Nunez will man the position in his place. The reason Johnson is important is that he is a left-handed power hitter who can play both first and third base. If Johnson can make the team and show he field third base adequately enough, Nunez would only need to back up at shortstop and second base. That would lessen the chances Nix would have to making the 25-man roster. Johnson would, in effect, replace Eric Chavez, who opted to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks. That would allow Nunez to remain as a backup middle infielder and potentially a right-handed platoon designated hitter. If I was a betting man, I would wager that this is the scenario that likely will play out. Nix could accept a demotion to Scranton as insurance. It also is possible that Nunez could be packaged in a trade before the season starts. But that won’t happen until Jeter shows he will be ready to play by Opening Day.
2) BACKUP OUTFIELDER: MATT DIAZ vs. JUAN RIVERA
One of the reasons Nunez is listed as a backup in leftfield is because both Diaz and Rivera are non-roster invitees to spring training. But, rest assured, one of them make the team as a right-handed hitting backup outfielder. Diaz, 34, was released by the Atlanta Braves after suffering through a season cut short in August by season-ending surgery on his right thumb. Diaz hit .222 with two home runs and 13 RBIs. He is a career .291 hitter and he has been an exceptional hitter against left-handed pitching. Rivera, 34, originally came up through the Yankees’ minor-league system and played with the Yankees in parts of the 2002 and 2003 seasons before being traded to the then Montreal Expos before the 2004 season. Rivera was reserve outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season and hit .244 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs. He is a career .274 hitter and h also has been a much better hitter against left-handers. When the Yankees chose to allow Andruw Jones sign with a team in Japan, the Yankees opened up a spot on the roster for a right-handed hitting corner outfielder who could also serve as a right-handed platoon designated hitter. Neither player is considered as accomplished fielders though Diaz has a bit more range. As hitters, Diaz is a better hitter for average though Rivera boasts considerably more power. Because the Yankees starting outfield is an all left-handed-hitting group consisting of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki it is important that the Yankees have a right-handed-hitting option on the bench. So these two players will be fighting it out.
PREDICTION: Because of Rivera’s former ties to the club and the fact he hits with more power, he has a big edge over Diaz. Neither Gardner or Suzuki have much power so it will be important to have a hitter on the bench who can provide it from the right side. Should Girardi also need a right-handed DH, Rivera fits the Jones mold better than Diaz does. Diaz also has slipped significantly since the 2009 season when he hit .313 and he also is coming off surgery. Rivera, on the other hand, also has slipped from his 2009 season when he hit .287 with 25 home runs and 88 RBIs with the Los Angeles Angels. But last season was the first season in which he has failed to connect for double-digit home runs since the 2007 season in which he played in only 14 games. Rivera will likely win the job easily barring injury or something else unforeseen.
1) NO. 5 STARTING PITCHER: IVAN NOVA vs. DAVID PHELPS
Those other position battles are the undercard but this one is the Main Event. It is also odd that there is even a competition involving Nova considering how good he was in his rookie season in 2011. But Nova, 26, struggled from the minute spring exhibitions started in 2012 and it got so bad that he was taken out of the rotation in favor of Phelps by Girardi in September. Nova’s record in 2011 was 16-4 and he was 12-8 last season. However, his ERA jumped from 3.70 to 5.02 and, though he recorded a 1.26 ERA in June last season, his ERA in the other months was: 5.18 in April, 5.87 in May, 5.97 in July, 7.03 in August and 6.23 in September. Ouch! So that is the reason Phelps is challenging him for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Phelps, 25, arrived in camp last spring voted as the organization’s best minor-league pitcher in 2011. Though scouts have always doubted him, Phelps rose through the minors and carries a record of 40-15 with a 2.51 ERA in 90 starts. In spring training, Phelps was 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven appearances and was named the Yankees’ top rookie of the spring. He also earned a spot in the bullpen. Phelps then turned in some sparkling performances as a long reliever and spot starter with the Yankees. He ended the season 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts). This competition is hard to handicap because Nova – truth be told – has the nastiest stuff of any of the Yankees’ starters. Last season he just could not harness it and he got hit hard when he fell behind and had to throw fastballs. Phelps is pit-bull on the mound who has supreme confidence in himself and his stuff.
PREDICTION: I really have no idea on how this will turn out but I still believe that Nova has a bit of an edge on the basis of his rookie season. But Phelps has been doubted at every step of the way since he starred at Notre Dame. You can never measure desire and he has it. I can tell you the loser of this battle will not necessarily be heading to the bullpen. For one thing, Nova has little or no bullpen experience. Another reason is that the Yankees probably will want to make sure that the starter they do not select for the rotation remains “stretched out” as a starter at the minor-league level so they can step in case of an injury. I can also say it is refreshing to see that with homegrown starters like Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes already in the rotation and two homegrown starters like Nova and Phelps battling for the last rotation spot, that the Yankees’ minor-league system is beginning to churn out talent at a time when the payroll needs to be reduced. It sure beats shelling out money to guys like Sergio Mitre and Freddy Garcia. That is progress.
Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!
CATCHER – POSITION OPEN
When it comes to catchers, Yankee fans have been pretty spoiled. The position has been manned by such legends as Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.
Of course, there have been years when the position has been filled by less than legends like Rick Cerone, Mike Stanley and Joe Girardi. Yes, him.
It seems that 2013 is one of those years the Yankees will be fielding a catcher who will be even lesser of a legend. The departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates has left this position open with a four candidates vying for it beginning this spring.
None of the four have anywhere near the power Martin provided. But some are just as adept defensively. The Yankees signaled this was the direction they were going when they chose let Martin walk and opted not to sign free agent A.J. Pierzynski.
Pierzynski, 36, hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs with the White Sox last season and he would have loved the short rightfield porch as a left-handed hitter. But the Yankees passed on him because of his defensive shortcomings and he signed with the Texas Rangers.
The Yankees four candidates are: former Posada and Martin backup Francisco Cervelli, 2012’s backup Chris Stewart, rookie prospect Austin Romine and former Los Angeles Angels backup Bobby Wilson.
The quartet are politely described as “defensive-minded” catchers, which in baseball-speak means they can’t hit a lick. For Yankee fans used to cyclical lineups without a weak link, the 2013 version will have one huge hole in it here. Whoever wins this job will be the opposing pitcher’s “escape hatch” out of big innings.
The leading candidate for the job appears to be Cervelli, 26, who ironically spent all of last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because of the presence of Martin and Stewart.
On the last day of spring training the Yankees swung a last-minute deal with the San Francisco Giants to acquire Stewart, who was out of minor-league options. The Yankees were so in love with Stewart’s defensive work behind the plate they opted to ship Cervelli out and he was not pleased about it – mostly because of the poor timing.
Cervelli went to Scranton determined to show the Yankees he belonged on the roster, but he hit just .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games. That is odd considering Cervelli had hit .271 with five home runs and 71 RBIs in 184 games over three previous seasons in the majors.
Cervelli admits that he was not happy about his demotion and it did affect his game.
Cervelli’s defense is considered pretty good. He sets a good target, he knows the hitters, calls a good game, has the respect of the pitchers and the coaching staff. His weakness lies in a somewhat erratic throwing arm. He has only thrown out 18.3 percent of base-stealers in his major-league career (23 out of 93 attempts).
He also has committed 20 errors in 177 games, most of those on throwing errors.
At Scranton, Cervelli threw out 30 percent of potential base-stealers but committed a whopping 15 passed balls.
So Cervelli’s defense is definite notch below what Martin and Stewart provided in 2012 and Cervelli is going to have to improve if he wants to win the starting job and keep it.
There is no doubt he is the best hitter of the bunch, albeit he lacks power. Cervelli is a spray hitter who is very adept hitting with runners in scoring position. He also is not bad a bunter and will give himself up to advance a runner. Those things should help the Yankees in 2013 since the team does lack power.
One concern with Cervelli is his penchant for injuries. He suffered a broken wrist in a home-plate collision in spring training in 2008. He also has suffered a trio of concussions the past few years and broke a bone in his foot in the spring of 2010 fouling a ball off his foot.
In winter ball in his native Venezuela, he suffered a whiplash injury, which later proved to be minor.
So durability is a definite issue with Cervelli.
Stewart, 30, has been a backup catcher throughout his career. The most games he has played is the 51 he started with Giants in 2011. He started 46 games for the Yankees last season and he batted .241 with one home run and 13 RBIs. Stewart actually improved some with the bat in 2012 because he is a career .217 hitter.
But he does not have a very high ceiling as a hitter.
Stewart enters the catching competition as probably the best defensive option the Yankees have.
This is despite that he set a personal high for himself of with eight passed balls last season. Then again, the Yankees’ pitchers are not the easiest to catch.
Stewart, however, committed only four errors and he cut down 22.8 percent of base-stealers after he threw out an amazing 39.2 percent with the Giants in 2011. Stewart not only has a strong arm, he is also accurate with it. It was obvious that not many teams wanted to challenge him last season.
Though Stewart won’t hit much, he will be an asset against teams that are aggressive on basepaths such as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Angels.
There was all kinds of talk this offseason that Romine, 24, was the organization’s choice to start behind the plate in 2013.
But general manager Brian Cashman recently addressed that issue by saying that it was extremely unlikely Romine would be able to win the job this spring coming off a season in which he was plagued with a serious back injury.
The son of former major-league outfielder Kevin Romine played in only 31 games in three stops last season. Romine batted .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in just 103 at-bats.
Despite playing in the shadow of Jesus Montero throughout his minor-league career, the Yankees have always felt that Romine was far superior to Montero on defense and they have hoped that he would develop as a hitter as he matured.
But the back injury, which a recurrence of a previous back strain, certainly has arrested his development. Romine is considered to have a good enough bat to hit for a decent average in the major leagues with low double-digit power potential.
It is likely that the Yankees will take a more cautious approach with Romine this season. He likely would benefit from playing a full season at Scranton to prove his back problems are over. There is no doubt that Romine’s defense is already major-league quality.
Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, two former catchers, absolutely love Romine’s defensive ability. They each say he is ready to play defense at the major-league level now. But the Yankees are waiting for him to prove himself healthy and they would like to see more improvement with his bat.
Wilson, 29, was a backup catcher with the Angels from 2009 through 2012. But he was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays late last season and he never played a game for them before not being tendered a contract offer this offseason.
The Yankees offered him a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. So he will be in the mix for a spot.
Wilson hit .211 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in 75 games with the Angels last season. He is a career .208 hitter in the majors.
But like Cervelli, Stewart and Romine, Wilson is considered an excellent defensive catcher.
In 2012, Wilson committed only four errors and was charged with just two passed balls. He also threw out 28.6 percent of potential base-stealers and he has a 27.1 percent career mark of nailing runners.
Wilson’s only hope seems to be supplanting Stewart as the backup but Stewart’s defense may be just too good. So the Yankees might ask Wilson to accept a minor-league assignment so he can be recalled if either Cervelli or Stewart are injured. That way the Yankees could keep Romine on track for promotion in 2014.
Two years ago, with Martin as the starter and Montero and Romine in the pipeline, catching looked to the strongest position on the team from a long-range standpoint. But the Yankees were not satisfied with Montero’s defense and they traded him to the Seattle Mariners in return for right-hand starter Michael Pineda.
Now with Martin and Montero gone and Romine on the mend, the position seems to rest with catching prospects in the minors.
J.R. Murphy, 21, regressed a bit last season. In 110 games between Class-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, Murphy hit .248 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs.
Scouts still believe that Murphy will develop power as he progresses because he has a short, powerful right-hand stroke. There are doubts about his long-term progress defensively. But, fortunately for Murphy, he also can play third base and he may eventually end up there.
But the player the Yankees are really salivating over is No. 1-ranked prospect Gary Sanchez, who turned 20 in December. Sanchez hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs between Class-A Charleston and Tampa.
The Yankees look at Sanchez as a Montero with better defensive potential. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Sanchez possesses above-average raw power and the potential to be excellent all-around hitter. He did regress a bit defensively last season, but Sanchez has a plus arm and he has time to develop into a good defensive catcher.
There have been rumors the Yankees might be willing to trade Sanchez but it is hard to see what the justification would be for Cashman. Catchers with good power bats like Sanchez do not come along too often and there are slim pickings in looking for a catcher who can match Posada’s or Martin’s production.
The Yankees may have been weakened by the loss of Martin, but the Yankees seem to be committed to starting a catcher with defensive ability and they will not care what they hit. Cervelli seems to have the inside track on the starting job and Stewart looks like he will be hard to beat as the backup.
That will allow the Yankees to get Romine another season of experience at Scranton and Wilson could be a call away at Scranton.
With Romine, Murphy and Sanchez in the pipeline, the Yankees do have some excellent young catchers on the way – particularly the gifted Sanchez. So if the Yankees can just withstand the short-term problem of having pure defensive catchers, the long-term prospects at this position are good.
But Yankee fans might be missing Martin’s power a lot this season.
NOTE: The only position I have not reviewed in this series is designated hitter. There is a good reason for that. The position has not been filled and may not be until spring exhibition games are under way. So this is the last part of the series. I hope it helped set the stage for how the team will fare this spring.
PART 3: THE STARTING LINEUP
The New York Yankees enter the 2013 season with more uncertainty in their starting lineup than they have in the past two decades.
A combination of committed contracts to aging veterans, expired contracts to some helpful contributors, injuries and underperformance have left the Yankees in a real bind to fix their problems knowing they have an edict by the boss Hal Steinbrenner to trim payroll to $189 million by 2014.
The most significant issue is the impending January left hip surgery for third baseman Alex Rodriguez which will shelve him for at least half the season. Because Rodriguez has not played a full healthy season of baseball since 2007 it should not be considered that big a deal.
However, it points up the problem with offering lengthy and lucrative contracts to players past the age of 30. Players break down at a rapid rate after that and that is particularly true of players who have dabbled in the use of performance enhancing drugs as A-Rod has.
The plain fact of the matter is that Rodriguez IS NOT nor WILL HE EVER BE AGAIN the impact player he was in 2007 when he hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs for the Yankees. Unfortunately, the Yankees are committed to paying him through the 2017 season.
If you want to look up the definition of the euphemism “albatross around the neck” A-Rod’s picture would be displayed prominently.
Seemingly healthy to begin the 2012 season, Rodriguez neither produced with power or run production. Every day manager Joe Girardi cautioned the media that A-Rod always produced home runs in bunches and it would be any day now. But that day never arrived.
He was struck in the left hand by a pitch from Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on July 24 and the injury sidelined him until the first week of September. At season’s end, Rodriguez had 18 home runs and 57 RBIs and batted .272. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Clutch when he was healthy either.
With runners in scoring position he hit a miserable .230 and with the bases loaded he hit .200.
Unfortunately, the Yankees may be saddled with A-Rod for the remainder of his contract because his skills have eroded so fast no team would be willing to take him and his bloated contract now that he is 37.
So all the Yankees can do is look to find a replacement for him for 2013 because there is no guarantee he will be able to come back in July.
Last year’s insurance policy, Eric Chavez, who hit 16 home runs and drove in 37 runs in 278 at-bats, has signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Eduardo Nunez fielded to so poorly at third base he was demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and the Yankees have vowed to keep him primarily at shortstop.
So the Yankees have signed free-agent Kevin Youkilis.
Youkilis, 33, has had some injury issues of his own. He does not have a season in which he has played more than 147 games. He had not played but one season in which he passed 136 games in four seasons. His all-out style was popular in Boston but it also led to some significant injuries and a decline in production.
After a 2011 season in which he hit only .258 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs, Youkilis ran afoul of then Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine and he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. He ended up hitting a career-low .235 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs.
But the Yankees hope he can help fill the void at third while Rodriguez is out and fall into a right-handed designated hitter and corner infield backup role when Rodriguez returns. Though it may seem odd that the heart and soul of the Red Sox would be wearing pinstripes, Johnny Damon had no trouble adapting to life in the Yankee Universe. Neither did Wade Boggs or Roger Clemens. “Youk” would seem to be in the same mold.
There is an issue at shortstop as well.
Though Derek Jeter vows his broken ankle will be healed and he will be ready to go by Opening Day of 2013, he also is 38 years old. So the Yankees will want their captain and emotional leader to be cautious in spring training.
Jeter’s injury in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers pretty much sounded the death knell for a team that was already reeling in the midst of an horrific team batting slump.
Jeter was one of the few who actually contributed positively to the offense in 2012.
He led the major leagues in hits with 219 and he ended up hitting .316 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. Though this is the not the Jeter who hit .349 with 24 home runs and 102 RBIs in 1999, the Yankees are happy to have this more mature Jeter, who has learned how to adapt to his age and still produce positively to the team.
He simply was the team Most Valuable Player last season and the Yankees seem to have stopped talking nonsense like moving him to center-field or resting him two days a week. He will rest some but he will play a lot in 2013 because the Yankees need him at the top of the lineup.
The Yankees’ best player is also one who poses the most uncertainty heading into 2013. Robinson Cano, 30, is simply the best second baseman in baseball both with his glove and his bat. He also hit a career-high 33 home runs in 2013 while batting over .300 (.308) for the seventh time in his eight major-league seasons.
However, Cano hardly could call 2012 his “breakout” season because he drove in a paltry 94 runs hitting in the heart of baseball’s top run-scoring team. The reason: He hit poorly most of the season with runners in scoring position. Also, in a huge reversal in a trend, Cano hit just .239 against left-handers.
That will have to change in 2013 because he figures to continue to see a steady diet of them.
There is a big incentive for Cano to improve. His contract for 2013 was renewed by the Yankees but he can become a free agent after this season. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll, Cano’s impending free agency presents a huge challenge. Will general manager Brian Cashman have the financial backing to present a package that can keep Cano in pinstripes for the rest of his career?
That is huge question only the Steinbrenner family can answer. But one thing is certain: The Yankees would certainly regress in 2014 without their best player.
Speaking of regression, Mark Teixeira has found out just how fast a career can regress when you follow former Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi’s pull-happy approach at Yankee Stadium.
Teixeira, however, changed his tune about it in 2012. Instead of trying to change back as he did at the start of the 2012 season, he decided to keep the “pull” approach figuring the Yankees pay him to hit home runs and drive in runs. So he hit 24 home runs and drove in 84 runs in a season that was cut to just 123 games due to a calf injury he suffered in August.
He hit just .251 but that is coming off seasons in which he hit .256 (2010) and .248 (2011). So Yankee fans are just going to have to accept lower batting averages and big production out of Teixeira. He more than makes up for it with his glove.
He and Cano both won Gold Gloves in 2012 and they form the best right side of an infield in baseball history from a fielding and production standpoint. Can you name a better pair?
The Yankees will have one huge hole filled in their lineup in left-field with the return of Brett Gardner and having to fill two more at catcher and in right-field.
Gardner’s loss last season proved to be more problematic in hindsight than it was at the time. With Gardner, 29, sidelined and Nunez in the minors the Yankees lost their two best base-stealers for most of the 2012 season. That made the Yankees much more of a station-to-station team and brought to the forefront their reliance on the home run to win games.
It also goes beyond saying that Gardner’s Gold-Glove quality in defense in left was missed, too. The Yankees need Gardner to come back healthy, get on base consistently and be disruptive to the team’s opponents on the bases.
For the past two seasons, the Yankees have reaped the benefit of having a stalwart defensive catcher in Russell Martin, who actually deterred teams who like to run the bases with reckless abandon. Though Martin struggled most of the season hitting under the “Mendoza Line” until he got hot in September, his power will be missed also.
But Martin has signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Yankees are looking for a new catcher in 2013.
At the moment, the Yankees list Francisco Cervelli as the heir apparent. Cervelli, 26, was the primary backup for three seasons from 2009 through 2011 until the Yankees acquired San Francisco Giants catcher Chris Stewart in a trade just as spring training drew to a close.
Because Stewart, 30, was out of options, the Yankees elected to keep Stewart as the backup catcher in 2012 and shipped Cervelli to Scranton.
Cervelli hit .246 with two home and 39 RBIs in 99 games at Scranton in 2012. His defense is fine but his throwing can be erratic at times.
Stewart surprisingly hit .241 with a home run and 13 RBIs in 55 games with the Yankees. His defense and throwing are superior to Cervelli but his offense is severely lacking.
The Yankees did sign former Los Angeles Angels catcher Bobby Wilson, 29, to a minor-league contract. Wilson was non-tendered a contract by the Blue Jays after he hit .211 with three home runs and 13 RBIs with the Angels in 2012. Wilson is excellent defensively but is a career .208 hitter in the majors. So it is hard to see how he will figure in as anything but a potential backup and insurance in case the Yankees need to trade a catcher or sustain an injury.
The Yankees do have very high hopes for 24-year-old rookie Austin Romine. They believe his defensive skills make him a major-league ready receiver but his bat and his chronic back issues have been delaying his progess. He missed most all of the 2012 season with a back injury.
He has been cleared to come to spring training and he has a shot at supplanting either Cervelli or Stewart if he can show some improved skills with the bat. But realistically, the team may take a more cautious approach with Romine and he could head back to Scranton to convince the front office his back issues are over.
This area seems ripe for a deal to obtain a free agent. Cashman did have former Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in mind. Pierzynski, 35, would fit in with the Yankees because he hits left-handed and he has some power. He hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBis in 2012.
But Pierzynski elected to sign a contract with the Texas Rangers. So unless the Yankees elect to make a trade they will be choosing between the four catchers they have now.
The biggest hole in the Yankees lineup and perhaps the biggest blow to the bleacher bums in right-field will be the loss of fan favorite Nick Swisher.
Swisher might not have been a superstar but his consistency was his calling card. What you saw was what you got.
Swisher, 32, has played four seasons in pinstripes and did not deviate from between 24 through 29 home runs and between 82 and 93 RBIs. There are not many outfielders who can claim that and the Yankees would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the level, except perhaps the oft-injured star Josh Hamilton.
The Yankees did have an opportunity to sign the former Texas Rangers’ star if they wanted. But they have some restriction to them doing so.
If the Yankees were to sign Hamilton, Cano’s departure would be a foregone conclusion unless there was a major dump of salary after the 2013 season. Hamilton signed with the Angels and the Yankees played it safe.
The Yankees instead decided to bring back Ichiro Suzuki, who came over in a trade in June and sparked the Yankees down the stretch. At age 39, Suzuki is no longer the player he was when he was the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001 but he showed a renewed vigor in the Bronx in 2012, hitting over .300 after the deal.
He ended the season hitting. 283 with nine home runs and 55 RBIs and he stole 29 bases.
It is obvious if the Yankees want to return to a slash and dash attack Girardi favors, Suzuki would be the correct choice.
Center-field is an interesting situation for the Yankees.
The team renewed Curtis Granderson’s contract for 2012 but there are all kinds of rumors swirling around about him.
The Yankees first floated the idea they could move Gardner from left to center and put Granderson in left next season. They also sent Granderson to an eye specialist to check his vision because of his habit of losing balls in flight to the outfield and his penchant for swinging at pitches that bounced in front of home plate.
Granderson struck out a team record 195 times last season. The Yankees can live with the strikeouts for his 43 home runs and 106 RBIs, which were both team highs in 2012. But his .232 average is 30 points below his career average of .262 and he hit just .218 against left-handers last season. Granderson is also in the final year of his contract.
The Yankees also seemed intent on keeping outfielder and left-handed DH Raul Ibanez.
Ibanez, 40, was forced to play more than he was expected in the outfield because of Gardner’s injury. But Ibanez came through with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs while hitting .24o in 384 at-bats. But Ibanez’s biggest impact was the clutch home runs he hit down the stretch against the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox to get the Yankees into the playoffs.
He carried that into the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.
His clutch hitting was not lost on the front office and they wanted him back badly in 2013. But Ibanez dealt a blow to the Yankees by electing to sign with his old Mariners team so the Yankees now have a huge hole at the DH spot.
The Yankees made it clear that right-hand DH Andruw Jones would not retained for the 2012 season and Jones shopped himself to a team in Japan. The Yankees likely will use a veteran free agent to fill the role until A-Rod returns in July. Rodriguez figures to DH a lot when he returns and Youkilis can fill the role when A-Rod does play third.
Nunez figures to have an opportunity to win the right-hand DH role until A-Rod returns. The left side of the equation might come down to an offer to Jim Thome or a similar veteran.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, most of their best minor-league hitting prospects are a few years away of making an impact at the major-league level.
The top prospect in the organization, catcher Gary Sanchez, is only 20. But he may be worth the wait because he hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs with Class-A Charleston and High-A Tampa in 2012. Sanchez is being touted as “Jesus Montero with defense.” However, his glovework slipped a notch last season.
But the Yankees still believe he is their future behind the plate.
Outfielder Mason Wiiliams, 21, had a torn labrum ended his season his August. However, Williams was able to flash some five-tool talent by hitting a combined .298 with a 11 home runs and 35 RBIs and stole 20 bases at Charleston and Tampa.
Some are comparing him to another Williams named Bernie. He has a good bat and he is developing power as he progresses through the system. The Yankees absolutely love his high ceiling for improvement. The lefty swinger looks like a future center-fielder for the Yankees.
Somewhat lost in all the talk about Sanchez and Williams is 21-year-old outfielder Tyler Austin, who hit an organization-best .354 in 2011 and hit .322 in four minor-league stops in 2012. He hit 17 home runs and drove in 80 runs while stealing 23 bases.
Austin played his first two minor-league seasons at the corner infield spots but was moved to right-field last season and the Yankees see him as the real deal as a right-hand hitter.
The Yankees also have a trio of promising outfielders in power-hitting Zoilo Almonte, 23, who hit 21 bombs at Double-A Trenton, and slash-and-dash hitters in 2009 No. 1 draft pick Slade Heathcott, 22, and Ramon Flores, 20.
Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr., 20, the team’s first selection in the 2011 draft, hit only three home runs at Charleston in 2012 but the Yankees believe he will develop into the kind of power hitter his father was. Called up to appear in an exhibition game against the Astros last March, Bichette hit a pair of solo home runs in only two exhibition at-bats. His star is definitely on the rise.
The Yankees also have a trio in promising infielders in Angelo Gumbs, 20; Jose Pirela, 23; and Austin Aune, 19. However, only Pirela has advanced as far as Double A and Gumbs and Aune may eventually be moved to the outfield. For now Gumbs and Pirela are second basemen and Aune is power-hitting shortstop.
The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.
CATCHER – RUSSELL MARTIN (21 HRs, 53 RBIs, .211 BA)
If you were judging Russell Martin’s first half you would say that it was a foregone conclusion he would not be back with the Yankees after this season.
At the midway point, Martin had eight home runs, 21 RBIs and he was hitting an anemic .184. Though the Yankees love his defense behind the plate they also realize having a catcher that unproductive hurts the offense. Opposing pitchers were using Martin to escape from innings with men on base.
But what a difference a second half makes.
Martin,29, found his lost stroke as the season progressed and he hit 13 home runs, drove in 32 runs and batted .242 in the second half. In his first season with the Yankees he hit 18 home runs, drove in 65 runs and batted .237. So it is safe to say that Martin may have saved his job with his good work in the second half.
Martin was particularly good when it counted most – in September. From Sept. 1 on Martin batted .258 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs. It was, by far, his best month of the season.
September is usually the time where catchers wear down from all those games behind the plate and all the nicks and bruises they incur during the season. But for some reason Martin just got better as the season progressed. He saved his best for last.
Compared to his 2011 season, Martin was quite durable. He started 116 games behind the plate and caught in 128 games overall.
His defense, as advertised, was very good.
He nailed 24 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him. That was down from his career average of 30 percent but it was still very respectable. He committed only six errors though he did have a a high total of nine passed balls.
His overall fielding percentage of .994 was the same as the Rays’ Jose Molina, who is considered the best defensive catcher in the league.
But a lot of Martin’s game behind the plate goes unquantified.
His agility and cat-quick reflexes prevent a lot of wild pitches by the way he blocks pitches in the dirt. Though the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett, they still had a lot of pitchers who test a catcher with nasty breaking pitches such as Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda and Boone Logan.
Catching such a diverse staff is no day at the beach but Martin handles it exceptionally well.
He also is able to communicate with his pitchers and he calls a great game. He commands the respect of the pitching staff and he is smart enough to help pitchers get out of jams.
He certainly helped Kuroda’s transition to the American League since he caught Kuroda when he played for the Dodgers. At the same time he helped in the development of rookie right-hander David Phelps.
Martin’s contract with the Yankees expires after the season ends. Martin had sought to sign an extension before the season began but it never happened. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll it unclear whether Martin will be offered a new contract or will be allowed to become a free agent.
If it were based on his first half, he would be gone. But his second half and performance in the playoffs could save him.
It helps that a some of the Yankees’ catching prospects were hampered by injury or are a few years away.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C-
SECOND HALF GRADE: B
OVERALL GRADE: C+
BACKUP – CHRIS STEWART (1 HR, 13 RBIs, .241 BA)
Chris Stewart came to the Yankees in a trade with the San Francisco Giants made on the last day of spring training. Because Stewart was out of options, Francisco Cervelli lost his job as Martin’s backup and was shipped off to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
So Stewart was replacing a very popular player in Cervelli. But he handled it well and won over some Yankee fans with his exceptional work behind the plate.
Backup catchers are not paid to hit. They are paid to call a good game, play defense, deter the running game and block pitches in the dirt. Stewart did all of those things well.
Stewart, 30, also became the “personal” catcher for CC Sabathia throughout most of the season and he seemed to have built a great rapport with the ace left-hander.
Stewart started 46 games and caught in 54 games overall.
The only red flag in his defense was that he committed a career-high eight passed balls in 395 innings, But that may have been a fluke because Stewart nailed 23 percent of the base-runners who tried to steal and committed four errors for a .990 fielding percentage.
Stewart drew praise for his defensive work even from opposing teams’ TV announcers. That means his good work was being noticed.
Martin started of the season hitting better than Martin. He was hitting .270 with nine RBIs at the season’s midpoint. Some fans even suggested Stewart replace Martin.
But Stewart ended up with one home run, 13 RBIs and he hit .241 on the season.
He hit just .220 in the second half, which is more in line with his career average of .217. So Stewart won’t be replacing Martin. But he complimented him well in 2012.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C
SECOND HALF GRADE: C
OVERALL GRADE: C
The Yankees catching depth was reduced a bit this past winter when they traded 21-year-old prospect Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for right-hander Michael Pineda. The Yankees were not convinced Montero would develop the defensive skills to be able to play the position regularly.
So they sent his potent power bat to Seattle and he hit 19 home runs and drove in 74 runs and batted .267 in his first season in the majors. But he only started 55 games behind the plate. So maybe the Yankees were correct about his defense.
But the Yankees will miss his power and production.
Cervelli, 26, spent the entire season at Scranton despite the fact he was the team’s backup catcher in 2010 and 2011.
Cervelli hit .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games with Scranton. He was recalled to the majors when the roster expanded but he did not get much of a chance to play.
Though Cervelli is a bit better with the bat than Stewart, the Yankees have not been a big fan of Cervelli’s throwing behind the plate. He only nailed three of 27 base-runners (11 percent) in 2011 and he committed a lot throwing errors.
At Scranton this season, Cervelli committed only five errors but he was charged with 15 passed balls. Though other parts of Cervelli’s defensive game are good, manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena (both former major-league catchers) believe Stewart was superior defensively.
Cervelli likely will look to improve his skills to stick next season or he could be shipped to another team. But as long as Stewart is around, Cervelli’s path back to the major leagues is blocked.
The Yankees had hoped their young catching prospect Austin Romine would make an impact in spring training. However, Romine was an early casualty when he succumbed to back spasms and he did not catch a single inning this past spring.
In fact, the Yankees cautiously held him out of game action for most of the season to allow his back issues to subside.
He caught only 17 games at Scranton and 31 games overall.
Romine, 23, hit .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs. Though Romine will never hit like Montero, the Yankees believe he is capable to being an excellent defensive catcher in the major leagues right now. Next spring, he will push Stewart (if he is re-signed) and Cervelli for the backup catching job.
But with the Yankees always erring on the side of caution, Romine could end up at Scranton and the Yankees would monitor his back as the season progresses.
The Yankees are very lucky to have two very good young catching prospects in J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez.
Muphy, 21, hit .231 with four home runs and 16 RBIs at Double-A Trenton this season after advancing from Class-A Tampa, where he played in 67 games and hit .257. Murphy can also play third base and he has above-average defensive skills behind the plate.
Sanchez is currently the team’s No. 1 rated young prospect and with good reason. Sanchez, 19, hit a combined .344 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs in 116 games between Class-A Charleston and Class-A Tampa this season, Unlike Montero, Sanchez does have some defensive ability behind the plate. He has a plus arm but his other defensive skills took a step backward this season.
But with his booming bat and his overall potential, Sanchez appears like he could eventually surpass Montero when he reaches the majors. His future is ultra-bright.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C
With Martin unsigned, this position will be in state of flux unless the Yankees decide to offer Martin a contract to remain with the team.
Considering the fact that Stewart is only considered a backup and Cervelli is looked upon the same way, Martin’s chances of returning are pretty good. Good free agent catchers are scarce and throw in the fact that Romine has had recurring back issues and you have a very compelling case for the Yankees to keep Martin.
But Romine, Murphy and Sanchez do point to a bright future ahead for the position. It is still a strength of the team to have this much depth at the position despite the trade of Montero.
The New York Yankees have reached the halfway mark of the season and they are comfortably in first place in the American League East. This is despite some injuries to some keep players such as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlain. As we do every year, let’s look at the individual components of the team and issue grades for the first half.
CATCHER – RUSSELL MARTIN (8 HR, 21 RBIs, .184 BA)
Of all the positions the Yankees have it was thought in 2012 the catching position was one the strongest and had the most depth.
Despite the retirement of Jorge Posada, the Yankees were loaded with catchers in Martin as the starter and Francisco Cervelli as the backup. Rookie sensation Jose Montero was expected to take over as a designated hitter and part-time catcher. In the minors were defensive wizard Austin Romine and two up-and-coming stars in J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez.
The immediate present looked good and the future looked bright. But things have changed drastically.
First, Montero was traded over the winter to the Seattle Mariners for right-handed starter Michael Pineda. The Yankees were not sold that Montero could handle the defensive part of catching and shipped him off for a young pitcher who was dazzling in the first half of the 2011 season.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Pineda’s drop in velocity in the second half of 2011 continued in spring training this season until Pineda finally admitted his right shoulder was not feeling good. Pineda ended up being diagnosed with a partially torn labrum and his surgery has him on track to return to the Yankees sometime in early 2013 at the earliest.
Montero, on the other hand, has hit .249 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs as mostly a DH for the Mariners. He has started only 31 games for Seattle behind the plate.
The Yankees also made a move on the last day of spring training to claim catcher Chris Stewart off waivers from the San Francisco Giants and, because he was out of options, they sent Cervelli to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes-Barre.
The reason was that the Yankees found out during spring training that Romine had issues with a recurring back injury. Romine was unable to play any games in spring training and still has not played a game in the minors this season. The Yankees are hoping Romine will be able to play at some point this season but it unclear when that will be. Back injuries are tricky and the Yankees are taking a cautious approach.
So Cervelli toils in Scranton and he will remain there for a long time.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had high hopes for Martin because, unlike the 2011 season, Martin showed up healthy after he hit .237 with 18 home runs and 65 RBIs. Apart from the low batting average the Yankees were pleased with Martin’s power and production at the bottom of the batting order.
But what really sold the Yankees was Martin’s defense. He was exceptional at blocking pitches in the dirt, calling games and his arm was a deterrent to base-stealers. Manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, both former catchers, raved about his exceptional defense.
That said, the Yankees were not counting on Martin’s complete regression at the plate this season. Martin started out cold, got colder, picked it up for a week and then went cold again.
Martin, 29, is a career .262 hitter and it is odd that he has suddenly lost the ability to even hit his weight at 205 pounds.
For the past two weeks, Martin suffered a recurrence of the lower-back stiffness that shelved him for about 10 days during the 2011 season. That certainly is not going to make it any easier for Martin to regain his batting stroke and it may mean he could miss a few more games in the second half.
Martin has worked with batting coach Kevin Long on moving back off the plate some and shortening his stride. But the work has yet to really bear any fruit. So Martin will trudge on, hoping the light switch flickers on in a hurry to salvage what may be his future with the Yankees.
Martin signed a one-year deal with the Yankees last season coming off a knee injury and two injury-marred seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Martin was extended a second season but he had hoped to sign a long-term deal with the Yankees before the start of the season.
Perhaps the Yankees were lucky they did not accommodate him. It is looking like Martin may get his walking papers at the end of the 2012 season if he does not start picking it up with the bat.
The Yankees still love his defense but they have options with catchers within their system and through the free-agent route who can perhaps hit as well defend. So Martin’s fate is in his own hands the rest of the way. If he wants to remain with the Yankees he is going to have to hit better in the second half.
As defense goes, Martin is very good.
In 56 starts and 62 games, Martin has committed two errors and been charged with four passed balls. He has thrown out 28 percent of the base-runners who have attempted to steal on him, just two notches below his rate from 2011.
Martin also gets high marks for handling this mix of veterans and young pitchers. He has their respect and he calls a good game.
Defense, however, goes only so far in defining what the Yankees need from Martin. The Yankees are just tired of seeing Martin being used as an escape hatch with runners in scoring position. He is hitting just .149 in those situations this season and he is going to have to pick it up if he wants to remain in pinstripes past 2012.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C-
BACKUP – CHRIS STEWART (0 HRs, 9 RBIs, .270 BA)
Stewart came to the Yankees with a reputation of being a good defensive catcher with a strong arm.
He has somewhat disappointed the Yankees in that regard. In 22 starts and 25 games, Stewart has committed four errors and been charged with five passed balls.
Stewart, 30, only committed seven errors with only two passed balls in 63 games with the Giants last season. This season he has been erratic in his throws to second and he has let way to many balls get by him.
He is still good enough to deter teams from turning games into track meets, however. He has nabbed four base-stealers in 14 attempts for a 29 percent rate. He threw out 39 percent for the Giants last season.
Stewart has hit better with the Yankees this season. He is a .216 hitter in his career.
The reason Stewart has succeeded with the bat is because he is aggressive at swinging at strikes because pitchers are giving him fastballs. Rather than trying to pull them, Stewart is content just to hit the ball hard somewhere and he has been finding holes.
The Yankees really don’t care what Stewart hits but they have to be pleased with what he has contributed in his limited play.
Stewart has also turned into the personal catcher of CC Sabathia, although Girardi refuses to call it that. The fact that Sabathia is 9-3 with a 3.45 ERA and was selected to the 2012 American League All-Star team indicates Stewart is doing something right.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C
If fans are thinking Cervelli is coming back, think again. Stewart will remain the backup the rest of the season, barring injury.
Cervelli, 26, is hitting .244 at Scranton with two home runs and 27 RBIs. The pitching staff at Scranton must be giving him fits because he has committed only three errors but has 13 passed balls in 60 starts behind the plate.
He is nabbing base-runners at a 26 percent rate.
The Yankees have said that if anything were to happen to Martin, Cervelli would be recalled and would be inserted into the lineup as the starting catcher. Hopefully, that will not be necessary. But Cervelli likely would be called up on Sept. 1 when the rosters expand to give the Yankees some depth at the position.
Sanchez, 19, is hitting .299 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs in 67 games for Class-A Charleston (SC) in the Carolina League.
Murphy, 21, is hitting .257 with five home runs and 28 RBIs in High Class-A Tampa in the Florida State League.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C
With Martin struggling at the plate, Montero gone, Cervelli in the minors and Romine shelved with a back injury this position suddenly looks a lot weaker than it did at the end of the 2011 season. The only saving grace appears that Sanchez appears to be for real as the catcher of the future. Unless Martin turns it around at the plate he is going to be let go after this season. So he certainly has the incentive to get better. Defensively, the Yankees are in good hands with Martin and Stewart and they have a legitimate major-league catcher in Cervelli in the wings. But Yankee fans can be forgiven for missing the offense Posada provided in his prime. The team is missing that now.