Results tagged ‘ Ramiro Pena ’

Yankees To Showcase Four Huge Spring Battles

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.

 

Cano’s Contract Push May Lead To Breakout Year

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!

 SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (33 HRs, 99 RBIs, .313 BA)

I remember very well a day before a spring training game in 2005 seeing this tall, thin Yankee rookie swatting line drives all over the field in batting practice. The swing was smooth and effortless while the ball jumped off his bat.

I asked someone about this kid Robinson Cano and what I heard back impressed me. “Cano is just a colt now. But very soon he will be a thoroughbred,” he said.

Eight years later his words ring true. Cano has grown up before our very eyes and now he is the best player in pinstripes. He is no longer a boy among men. He is the man the team revolves around.

Sadly, this very well could be Cano’s last season with the Yankees. The team is under a strict edict from owner Hal Steinbrenner to reduce payroll to $189 million by 2014 and Cano can become a free agent after this season.

After a season in which he set a career high in home runs and hit above .300 for the seventh time in his nine major-league seasons and won his second Gold Glove and fourth Silver Slugger awards it is a pretty sure bet that Cano would command a lot of money on the open market. Add the fact his agent is Scott Boras and you can, pardon the pun, bank on it.

The Yankees are going to have to be mighty creative to find the dollars to keep Cano, 30. But they likely will make every attempt to open the vault wide enough to keep their best player. It would be a good thing, too.

With Alex Rodriguez saddled with a string of injuries the real foundation of the team’s growth is Cano. Second basemen who can hit home runs, drive in runs and hit above .300 are not exactly plentiful. Cano is simply the best second baseman in baseball and there is no one in the Yankee organization, let alone any organization, that can really replace him.

So you would think it would be wise for Yankee fans during spring training to watch Cano carefully because it could be the last time they see him. One problem with that: Cano is committed to play his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

So the Yankees likely will not get Cano back until the latter stages of March.

Cano’s 2012 season was marked by some milestones. But it was hardly the banner season the Yankees expected from him.

Cano struggled in two major areas: (1) In the first half of the season Cano was woefully inept at driving in runners in scoring position. That is why he failed to drive in more than 100 runs. (2) He suddenly ran into trouble hitting left-handers. He hit just .239 against them while he pounded right-handers at a .357 clip.

Cano actually rescued his season with an incredible stretch of games in late September. After Sept. 1, Cano hit six home runs and drove in 24 runs while batting .348. The Yankees would appreciate more consistency from Cano and they hope he can return to bashing left-hand pitching as he did in throughout his career up until last season.

Given that this is Cano’s contract season and given his past track record, this could be the breakout season everyone has been predicting for him. With a bit more discipline at the plate Cano could very well win a batting title, hit 30-plus home runs and drive in more than 120 runs.

Cano’s big failing at the plate has been a product of his immense talent. Cano can simply put a swing on any pitch in or out of the strike zone. So pitchers lure him with a lot of breaking pitches out of the strike zone and then pound him with hard stuff inside to tie up his swing.

Cano obliges them by swinging at less than optimum pitches and he gets himself out. If Cano ever lays off pitches out of the strike zone consistently throughout a season he might very well hit .340. He is just that good.

Over the years, Cano has been saddled with the tag “lazy.”

That is a product of his nonchalant style of play. But last season there were times that Cano made outs on the bases he should not have made. Here is something that might surprise you: Cano is simply a terrible base-runner and he always has been.

Some players have good instincts on the bases like Derek Jeter and some players like Cano don’t. Cano never was called upon to bunt or steal bases throughout his minor-league career because he was such a productive hitter. It has just carried over to the major leagues.

He is not a fast runner and he just never worked on base-running much because he never had to really worry about it. Last season it was obvious.

Cano attempted five steals last season and was succcessful three times. In his career he has stolen 31 bases but he been thrown out 27. Rickey Henderson he is not!

But Cano was able to score 105 runs, the fourth season in a row he has topped the century mark in runs scored. So as long as the Yankees do not have him running wild on the bases, Cano’ s weakness will not hurt the team.

The “lazy” tag also has had a serious effect on how Cano’s fielding has been judged. Early in his career, Cano did make careless errors by trying to look cool fielding routine grounders. Since then he has grown into an exceptional fielder who should have won the last six Gold Gloves instead of just two.

Cano simply has more range than second baseman in baseball. That applies to ground balls and pop flies. No one can range as far into the outfield to catch pops and few can master the play to his right on grounders better than Cano.

His arm is exceptionally great for a second baseman and Cano does not credit for being accurate with it also. Roberto Alomar may have set the standard for fielding during his career but Cano is shattering that standard and setting one of his own.

The other thing that sets Cano apart is his turn of the double play. In the last six seasons, Cano has turned no less than 92 double plays and no one can turn and flip to first better than he can. In doing all that work in the field last season, Cano committed only six errors. Wow!

That 2012 Gold Glove award was well deserved.

Another Cano attribute throughout his career is his durability despite playing a middle infield spot. In his last six seasons, Cano has never played less than 159 games. He played in 161 games last season.

When you add it all up you get one very exceptional player and one who is destined to be a very rich one come the 2014 season.

Behind Cano last season was Jayson Nix, not that he was needed much.

Nix, 30, made only five starts at second and he did not commit an error there. Nix hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 74 games with the Yankees after being recalled on May 8 to replace Eduardo Nunez as the Yankees’ backup middle infielder.

Nix obviously will never match Cano with his bat or his glove. The Yankees just ask him to play his solid, nonflashy game and not make mistakes. Nix does that very well and he will get a chance to do it again in 2013.

Though he was designated for assignment on Nov. 30 after reliever Mariano Rivera was re-signed, Nix accepted assignment to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and he will compete with Nunez for the backup middle infield spot this spring.

Nunez, 25, won the backup infielder job over the recently released Ramiro Pena in 2011 but promptly lost early in 2012 season when he began treating ground balls like hand grenades. Nunez made so many sloppy fielding errors that he was dispatched to Scranton to work on exclusively playing shortstop.

He enters camp in 2013 with some very positive things in his favor. Nunez can hit (his career batting average is .272) and he can run (38 steals in 46 career attempts). The right-hand hitter also could be valuable as a replacement to Andruw Jones as a platoon designated hitter.

But Nunez likely will get most of his work in spring training at shortstop replacing Jeter, who is in the process of rehabbing after surgery on a fractured left ankle he suffered in the first game of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.

Jeter’s rehab is expected to run through part of the exhibition schedule and it is unclear if he will be ready to start for the Yankees on Opening Day. So Nunez will be of more value at shortstop, which is his natural position.

Nunez did make one start at second base last season and characteristically he committed an error there. It is good thing Cano is durable.

The Yankees will have a chance in Cano’s absence this spring to look at a pair of young second basemen who are on the 40-man roster, David Adams and Corban Joseph.

Adams, 25, hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs in 86 games at Double-A Trenton. He has carried that into the Arizona Fall League, where he is hitting .286 with three home runs and 15 RBIs and was named Player of the Week in the fifth week of the season.

Adams, a third-round pick of the Yankees in 2008 out of the University of Virginia, has been hobbled most of his minor-league career with a serious ankle injury. But he is healthy now and he is hoping to regain his prospect status.

Joseph, 24, hit a combined .276 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs in 131 games at Trenton and Scranton.

Selected in the fourth round of the 2008 draft out of Franklin (TN) High School, Joseph has more power than Adams and he has the advantage of passing Adams to Scranton while being a year younger.

Neither player looks to be threats to Cano at all, obviously. But they will get a chance to develop just in case Cano departs in 2014.

Further down the line the Yankees have Jose Pirela, 23, and Angelo Gumbs, 20.

Pirela hit .293 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs in 82 games at Trenton. The Venezuela native is being looked upon as a potential middle infield backup utility infielder with a good line-drive bat but he lacks speed.

Gumbs, the team’s No. 8 prospect, was signed as a shortstop but has played second base in his two years in the minors. He hit .272 with seven home runs, 36 RBIs and 26 stolen bases at Class-A Charleston (SC) in the South Atlantic League. An elbow injury ended his season in June.

Gumbs plays an aggressive style and shows that he has a good bat, which makes him a young player worth watching in 2013.

But Gumbs is a long way away from making the majors and Cano simply is the industry standard at his position. It also looks like he will be that standard for some years to come.

There is no doubt Cano will be motivated to produce in 2013 and he could have that monster season for which everybody has been waiting. The Yankees will need that from him in a season that appears the team will be lacking some power and a team that will be minus Rodriguez for much of the season.

The Yankees simply will go as far as Cano can possibly carry them this season.

NEXT: First Base

 

Jeter Bests Shortcomings To Have Banner Season

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.

SHORTSTOP – DEREK JETER (15 HRs, 58 RBIs, .316 BA, 99 Runs, 9 SB)

There are just some people who are fortunate enough to have everything go their way in life.  They have a dream job, they make a good amount of money and they date all the beautiful women.

That is Derek Jeter and his 2012 season was something he can brag about.

In 2010, he suffered through a subpar campaign in which he hit .270 and he looked like he was nearing the end at age 36. In the first half of 2011, it got much worse.

Jeter was struggling with a no-stride batting approach that batting coach Kevin Long suggested. He abandoned it and his average tumbled even more. Then he suffered a calf injury that landed him on the disabled list.

He went to Tampa,FL, to rehab the injury and then took the time to work with his old batting coach Gary Dembo to rediscover his old swing. All Jeter did after rejoining the Yankees was hit .336 the rest of the way and it re-established his credentials as one of the best singles hitters of his generation.

But as the 2012 season began there were still those that doubted Jeter could maintain the stroke that got him 3,000 hits and had him at a lifetime batting average of .313.

In the first half, Jeter was able to keep that pace by hitting .303. It seemed every day he was passing players like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken on the all-time hits list. He also was driving the ball well enough to hit seven home runs and drive in 25 runs from the leadoff spot.

The only negatives is that he scored only 42 runs and stole six bases. The runs total had a lot to do with the fact the Yankees were the worst team in baseball at hitting with runners in scoring position. The stolen base total had more to do with Jeter turning 38.

He stole 30 bases in 2009 but is pretty obvious that Jeter has to choose his spots more carefully now. The good thing is that Jeter realizes it and does not get thrown out on the bases trying to prove he can. He is much smarter than that.

Jeter made the All-Star team as the starting shortstop and he actually earned it rather than getting the nod simply because of his reputation.

You would think Jeter might have slowed down a bit in the second half. Instead, he just got better.

He raised his overall average 10 points, hit eight home runs, drove in 33 runs and scored 57 runs to come within a single run of scoring 100.

Jeter had scored at least 100 runs in 13 of his 17 full seasons in the majors. But the fact he missed had more to do with the flux in the batting order behind with injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and the inconsistency of the team’s hitting with runners in scoring position.

Jeter’s numbers this season are unprecedented for shortstops his age. There are few shortstops who are in baseball at that age. There are fewer who actually able to start. And Jeter is the only one who has actually led the major leagues in hits with 216.

That is Jeter’s second highest total of hits in his career. He had 219 hits in his magical 1999 season when he hit .349 with 24 home runs and 102 RBIs when he was 25.

Jeter is not 25 any more and he will never approach those gaudy power numbers of 1999. But the Yankees can live with the 2012 numbers.

“The Captain” is not quite ready to take his commission and retire. Why should he?

The only area where Jeter does show his age, besides stealing bases, is in the field. But even there, Jeter can still make the plays with amazing precision.

Jeter only committed 10 errors this season, two less than he committed in 2011. He also did that with much more chances because he was on the disabled list for about a month last season.

I know the sabermetricians out there use Jeter as their favorite whipping post because of his reduced range in the field. That is true. Jeter is no longer able to range far to his right and he maybe lets a few balls get through he used to reach easily. But he still plays the position at a high degree of skill.

His five Gold Glove awards do not lie.

It goes back to that old argument of do you want a steady hand at shortstop who may not have much range or do you want a shortstop with the range of half the Earth who too often throws the ball into the seats? Given this choice I would take Jeter every time. That is the choice manager Joe Girardi has made when critics have suggested Eduardo Nunez should play shortstop.

Girardi knows better and the fans who sit along the first-base line at Yankee Stadium thank him for it.

The only comparison to Jeter I can make is Ozzie Smith, who played at a very high level with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992 at age 38. He hit .295 and stole 43 bases.

“The Wizard” is in the Hall of Fame and Jeter is going to join him someday. Special players to do special things and Jeter and Smith are as special as it gets at the shortstop position.

Smith is the best fielder I have seen at the position and Jeter is, by far, the best pure hitter of them all.

MIDSEASON GRADE: A-

SECOND-HALF GRADE: A

OVERALL GRADE: A

BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (4 HRs, 18 RBIs, .243 BA)

Nix was discussed in detail in my post grading Robinson Cano.

He spent most of the season as Jeter’s backup at short after Nunez was demoted for treating the baseball like it was a hand grenade.

Nix started 15 games at shortstop and committed only one error. He was steady with the glove and he contributed well with the bat, too.

Nix, 30, will never come close to being the athlete Nunez, 25, is. Nunez is faster, a better hitter and he has much better range in the field. But you also know Nix will make the pays in the field and he will not hurt you when he plays.

Nix, however, will miss the early part of the playoffs with a left hip flexor injury. So Nunez will be Jeter’s backup at shortstop for now.

The Yankees have high hopes he can be the future of the Yankees at shortstop. But he is a work in progress.

He was making an alarming number of errors when the Yankees demoted him in May. Girardi said they were hurting Nunez’s development by making him a utility infielder and said the team will try to keep him at shortstop.

That should help Nunez, who is more comfortable there. Nunez is a very good line-drive hitter with excellent speed and he helps balance the Yankees’ lefty-laden lineup. If he can just harness the fielding aspects of the game he could become a very good player at short.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

SECOND-HALF GRADE: C

OVERALL GRADE: C

Nunez played in only 38 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre due to a nagging right thumb injury so Ramiro Pena ended up playing the most there. However, after Pena was recalled on Sept. 1 a calf injury to Teixeira forced the Yankees to bring in Steve Pearce to back up at first and Pena was designated for assignment.

The Yankees also played veteran Doug Bernier at Scranton but he is career journeyman without any prospect of remaining with the Yankees except as a future coach.

The Yankees do have a potential star in 20-year-old Austin Aune, who hit .273 with one home run and 20 RBIs in the Gulf Coast League. Aune is a lefty hitter with a potential power bat and has good range and a great arm at shortstop. But scouts believe Aune might have to move to center-field at some point to maximize his speed and arm.

Cito Culver, 19, appears to be a bust as the team’s No. 1 choice in 2010. He hit just .215 in 122 games at Class-A Charleston.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A

Jeter has always been an intangibles player. He is given credit for playing the game smart with his positioning and his knowledge of the game is second to none. But when he hits like he did this season, it is something special to watch.

When a career .313 hitter leads the majors in hits and bats .316 at age 38, you have to tip your cap to the abilities of a player like this.

Will he do it again in 2013? Who can say for sure?

All you have to do is watch Jeter in the playoffs because that has been his playground for 17 seasons. Jeter is a career .307 hitter in the playoffs.

So the big stage is not something he ever has dodged. As far as the Yankees are concerned, the Yankees will go as far as No. 2 takes them.

 

Cano’s Late Second Wind Salvages Good Season

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.

SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (33 HRs,94 RBIs, .313 BA)

If this report were written on Sept. 24, when Robinson Cano was hitting just .293 with 30 home runs and 80 RBIs, it would not have been so flattering to Cano. Though Cano managed to set a career high with 30 home runs, Cano would have looked at that RBI total and season average and called it subpar season.

But in his last nine game, Cano went on an Most Valuable Player-like tear, going 24-for-39 (.615) with three home runs and 14 RBIs to enter the playoffs as one of the hottest hitters in the playoffs.

The truth is, Cano did not have the season at the plate he would have liked to have. For most of the season, Cano did not hit well with runners in scoring position. He finished at a somewhat respectable .268 thanks to his final surge.

Cano also, for the first time in his career, was not very good against left-handers. He hit just .239 with six home runs and 26 RBIs.

Cano was known in the past as someone who routinely crushed left-handers. Managers would scramble out to the mound to bring in anyone who remotely could get the ball over the plate left-handed only to watch Cano come up to the plate and crush their first pitch into the upper reaches of Yankee Stadium’s second deck.

Not this season.

One reason why is that left-handers have been ordered to throw him only fastballs inside on his hands or slow breaking stuff away. Cano never really adjusted to it and there you go.

In the first half, Cano had 20 home runs, 50 RBIs and he batted .316. He ended up in the second half adding 13 homers, 44 RBIs and his average dipped slightly to .313.

But to call a season in which someone hit .300 with more than 30 home runs and more 90 RBIs a disappointment shows just how good Cano really is. He remains the game’s best hitting second baseman. He remains the game’s best fielding second baseman.

And, on a team loaded with veteran stars and All-Stars, Cano is simply the best player on the Yankees.

His swing is so balanced and fluid that it could almost be called a work of art. It is beautifully lyrical and when bat meets ball the ball seems to rocket farther than it would off the bat of anybody else. His hands are so skilled it just seems he could hit just about any pitch anywhere it was pitched.

However, here is also where Cano’s weakness lies. Cano is so adept at putting the bat on the ball and averse to walks (He did draw a career-high 61 this season) that he is wont to hit pitches out the strike zone that end up as weak flies or pops or dribbling grounders to an infielder.

So pitchers prey upon Cano’s impatience and let him get himself out when he is going bad. However, look out when he is going good like now. There is just no way to pitch Cano when he is going good because he can hit any pitch, anywhere in the zone and hit it hard.

He hit a grounder so hard against the Red Sox on Tuesday it nearly carried Dustin Pedroia into right-field. So even his outs are loud and hard to catch.

Watching Cano in the field is similarly fun.

He is so graceful and fluid he even makes the tough plays look so easy. It is if he is playing the game of baseball like it was one level below where he should be playing it. He looks effortless.

Which is why they tag Cano as “lazy.” Which is ridiculous. Cano is simply the best-fielding second baseman in the game and his range to run down outfield popups and sprints to his right to flag grounders up the middle is incredible.

But where Cano really shines in the field is his cannon of an arm and the unbelievable turns he makes on double plays. It is like watching Leonardo da Vinci doing brushstrokes. It is simply masterful stuff.

Cano started 150 games at second base and committed only six errors, his second-lowest total of his career. His lowest total came in 2010 when he won his first and only Gold Glove. The same year he also won the Silver Slugger at the position. Cano should win both this season, if there is any justice.

Where I will say Cano is the weakest is when he is on the bases. Though he only has average speed, Cano should do batter at stealing bases but he doesn’t. He also is one of the worst instinctive base-runners I have ever seen. He makes a lot of mistakes on the bases and his judgment is poor.

But that is a mere quibble compared to his overall game.

Cano could very well carry the Yankees to their 28th championship on his back alone. His two home runs and six RBIs on the final game of the season show just how dangerous he can be with the bat.

Cano has been highly praised his career but he has a opportunity to join some Yankee immortals with a breakout postseason. He seems ready to do it. Yankees fans have watched him grow up as a little pup at 22 in 2005 to the strapping “Best In Show” purebred we see today at age 29 in 2012.

Any way you look at it, Cano is a star. This postseason he can become a superstar.

MIDSEASON GRADE: A-

SECOND-HALF GRADE: B+

OVERALL GRADE: A-

BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (4 HRs, 18 RBIs, .243 BA)

When you look at the numbers Nix put up this season you might think he was a failure and the Yankees would be looking to get rid of him. But Nix is one of those players that numbers do not tell the story.

Nix, 30, was not in the team’s original blueprint for 2012. He was invited to spring training as a non-roster player and he hit .323 while not embarrassing himself playing shortstop, second base, third base and the outfield.

So when the Yankees decided the had enough of the errors from Eduardo Nunez they summoned Nix from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on May 3.

So Nix played some left for Brett Gardner, some shortstop for Derek Jeter, Some second for Cano and some third for Alex Rodriguez. He committed only four errors all season.

His home run and RBI total do not look like much but he only received a 177 at-bats. Nix solidified this team as infield reserve and he simply was this team’s best bunter this season. So Nix did the little things to help the Yankees win and that is something very special.

Unfortunately, Nix suffered a left hip flexor injury in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 27 and he is expected to miss the next 10 to 14 days. So Nix will not be on the postseason roster in the American League Division Series that begins on Sunday.

But Nix did a good job for the Yankees whether he plays in the postseason or not.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

SECOND-HALF GRADE: C+

OVERALL GRADE: C+

The Yankees also used Nunez and Ramiro Pena at the position, although Pena was designated for assignment and released.

Nunez, however, will be the backup at second in place of Nix in the postseason. But he won’t play here because Cano is not coming out of the lineup, barring injury.

Nunez, 25, has swung the bat well since he recall on Sept. 1 and he likely will replace Andruw Jones as the team’s right-handed hitting designated hitter.

Nunez hit .227 with two home runs and 16 RBIs in 33 games at Scranton. But he was hampered most of the season with a right thumb injury that sidelined him for more than two months. The Yankees do not look at Nunez as a second baseman but as a future starting shortstop.

At Scranton, Corban Joseph, 23, hit .266 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs in 84 games after replacing Kevin Russo, 28, once he was recalled from Trenton. Though Joseph once held prospect status, his star has fallen somewhat and he is not considered more than a potential backup second baseman at this point.

The Yankees do have a pair of raw former shortstops playing second base in the minors in Angelo Gumbs and Jose Pirela.

Gumbs, 19, hit .272 at Class-A Charleston but his defense is such he may end up being shifted to the outfield. Loaded with speed (28 stolen bases), Gumbs is the team’s eighth-ranked prospect.

Pirela, 22, played all over the diamond at Trenton and hit .293 in 82 games. He is ranked as the team’s 15th best prospect. But he looks to be a potential utilityman in the majors.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A

Cano is the best second baseman in baseball and he is the best player a on talented Yankee team. He is also primed for a monster postseason if he continues to hit as he has done the final nine games of the season.

Cano is also playing in the next to his last season under contract with the Yankeees and he switched agents to hire Scott Boras. So after the 2013 season the Yankees are going to have to pony up some serious money to Cano to keep him in pinstripes while maintaing their pledge to reduce payroll by 2014.

Good luck with that task.

Cano is worth an awful lot and Boras will not hear anything about a home-team discount. The Yankees, much less any team in baseball, have anyone who can replace what Cano does for the Yankees.

So they are going to have to open their wallets if they want to keep him. My guess is they will. But with Boras in the mix anything is possible. Remember Boras’ antics during Rodriguez’s contract negotiations?

Yankee fans and A-Rod would like to forget.

 

Yanks ‘Nix’ Mariners With Bases-Clearing Double

GAME 98

YANKEES 5, MARINERS 2

With the Yankees having lost third baseman Alex Rodriguez for at least four weeks with a fractured left hand, speculation is running rampant that the Yankees will trade for a replacement. However, Jayson Nix might have convinced the front office to delay those plans.

Nix was called upon to pinch-hit in the top of eighth inning with the bases loaded and one out with the Yankees trailing the Mariners 2-1. Nix promptly laced a 2-2 fastball from Shawn Kelley to clear the bases as New York rallied late to defeat Seattle on Wednesday at Safeco Field.

Nix was hitting .235 with three home runs and seven RBIs in 85 at-bats when manager Joe Girardi sent him to the plate in place of designated hitter Raul Ibanez to face left-handed reliever Lucas Luetge (1-1). But Mariners manager Eric Wedge elected to replace Luetge with the right-handed Kelley.

Nix battled Kelley to a 2-2 count before slapping his three-run double in the gap in left-center to give the Yankees a 4-2 lead.

After Kelley walked Eric Chavez intentionally and Andruw Jones struck out, Russell Martin padded the Yankees’ lead to 5-2 with a lined single to left to score Nix.

David Phelps (2-3) pitched 1 1/3 innings of spotless relief, fanning two batters, to pick up the victory in relief. David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth inning and Rafael Soriano tossed a scoreless ninth to pick his 26th save in 28 opportunities this season.

The victory allowed the Yankees to clinch the three-game series with the Mariners and salvage what has been a costly 2-5 West Coast road trip.

The Yankees took an early 1-0 lead on the Mariners when Derek Jeter blasted a one-out solo home run in the first inning off Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma.

But Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova walked John Jaso on four pitches to load the bases with one out in the first inning and then he missed low with a 3-2 pitch – the 10th of the at-bat – to Kyle Seager to allow the Mariners to tie it up.

Mike Carp then slapped a grounder to Mark Teixeira but Teixeira was unable to turn it into a double play because of an errant throw to Jeter at the second base bag and the Mariners were able to take a 2-1 lead.

The score stayed that way because the Yankees were unable to produce a hit with runners in scoring position off a less-than-overpowering Iwakuma.

Iwakuma gave up only one run but surrendered six hits and three walks while striking out three in five innings. The Yankees did not even manage to get one hit or one walk off relievers Oliver Perez and Josh Kinney over the next two innings.

But Kinney opened the eighth inning by plunking Jeter in the left thigh with the first pitch.

Luetge was summoned and Robinson Cano and Teixeira greeted him with back-to-back singles to load the bases. Curtis Granderson then fouled out for the first out and set in motion the managerial moves that brought Nix to the plate with the game on the line.

Nova only gave up two runs on two hits in his five-plus innings of work. However, he walked six batters while striking out five. He left the game in the sixth inning after opening the inning by walking Jaso on four pitches for the third time and then issuing a second walk to Seager.

But Clay Rapada bailed Nova out by inducing Carp to hit into a double play and Phelps stranded Jaso on third by fanning Casper Wells.

The Yankees managed to keep the Mariners hitless for 7 1/3 innings after Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero singled off Nova with one out in the first inning. They did not get a hit again until Wells singled on a 0-2 pitch with two out in then ninth off Soriano.

But Soriano fanned Carlos Peguero to end the game.

With the victory, the Yankees improved their season ledger to 59-39 and they increased their lead in the American League East on the second-place Baltimore Orioles to eight games. The Mariners fell to 47-53.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Nix’s clutch pinch-hit three-run double was his biggest hit since he was called up from Triple-A in early May. The Yankees were stranding runners in scoring position all day long and Nix was the unlikeliest hero. Give Girardi credit for choosing to remove Ibanez in favor of the weaker hitting Nix, which forced Wedge to bring in Kelley. Nix could see a lot of playing time now, barring a trade, as part of platoon at third base with Chavez to replace Rodriguez.
  • Phelps, 25, has looked very impressive in his last four appearances with the Yankees (covering two separate stints). He is 1-0 with an 0.93 ER. Phelps has given up only one run on two hits and three walks and struck out an amazing 17 batters in 9 2/3 innings. The Yankees very much needed another power arm in the bullpen and Phelps is providing it.
  • Jeter, batting in the second spot behind Ichiro Suzuki, was 3-for-4 and with an RBI and two runs scored. In his last nine games, Jeter is 12-for-32 (.375) with a home run, two RBIs and six runs scored. He has raised his season average to .311.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Nova, despite the fact Jaso entered the game just 1-for-5 against him, decided to not throw a single strike to him in any of his three at-bats. The walk with two out in the third inning did not hurt. But walking Jaso in the first was followed by a walk to Seager to force in a run. Nova walked Jaso and Seagar to open the sixth and that ended his outing. The six walks in five-plus innings cost him a potential victory and it ended his day early because of his high pitch count.
  • Jones, pressed into service against a right-hander because of Nick Swisher’s injury, was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and he left five runners on base. Since his three-run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 17, Jones is two for his last 18 at-bats (.111) with 10 strikeouts. His season average has dipped to .224.
  • Ibanez was not much better than Jones. He was 0-for-3 with a strikeout and stranded two runners. In his last five games, Ibanez is 3-for- 19 (.158) with one RBI and five strikeouts. His season batting average has slipped to .235.

BOMBER BANTER

Rodriguez’s broken left hand was fitted for a splint on Wednesday and he is scheduled to undergo an exam on Thursday with team doctor Christopher Ahmad. There is no timetable established for his return. Rodriguez suffered the injury in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s game when he was struck by a pitch from right-hander Felix Hernandez. Rodriguez was the third batter Hernandez had hit with a pitch in the game. The Yankees placed Rodriguez on the 15-day disabled list and recalled utility infielder Ramiro Pena from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.  . . .  Swisher said he hopes to be able to start in Friday”s game after missing the last five games with a strained left hip flexor. Swisher said he had no problems running in the outfield at Safeco Field before the game and he also was able to take some swings in the batting cage.

ON DECK

The Yankees will have a day off on Thursday to lick their wounds, physical and otherwise, before opening a weekend home series against a slumping Boston Red Sox team on Friday.

Phil Hughes (9-8, 4.09 ERA) will open the series for the Yankees. Hughes gave up just two runs on three hits and one walk and struck six batters over 7 2/3 innings in a game which the Yankees scored him just one run in a tough-luck loss to the Oakland Athletics on Saturday. Hughes is 2-6 with a 6.49 ERA lifetime against the Red Sox.

The Red Sox will counter with slop-tossing right-hander Aaron Cook (2-3, 3.50 ERA). Cook gave up five runs (three earned) on five hits over 6 1/3 innings in a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday. He is 0-1 with a 7.94 ERA in his only meeting with the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

Jeter Teaches His Critics To Never Sell Him Short

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.  

SHORTSTOP – DEREK JETER (7 HR, 25 RBIs, .303 BA, 43 R, 6 SB)

Who knew that suffering a calf injury that would land you on the 15-day disabled list would be a good thing? For Derek Jeter it was in 2011.

Jeter was forced to miss the 2011 All-Star Game so he could rehab his injured calf at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa, FL. While there, Jeter also worked with one of his first hitting coaches in Gary Denbo to find his old swing. It was that work that likely turned Jeter’s season and his fading career around.

Jeter came off the disabled list lacing hits all over the yard and he picked up his 3000th hit by going 5-for-5 and hitting a home run for No. 3,000 off David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays. From the point he returned to the Yankees until the end of the regular season Jeter hit .344. He ended the season hitting .297 with six home runs and 61 RBIs.

The question heading into 2012 was could he keep it up? Or was it just a fluke and he would continue his decline at age 38 this summer?

The returns are in for the first half of the 2012 season and it appears it was not a fluke. Derek Jeter is simply Derek Jeter again.

His 103 hits after 81 games was the third-bast total in the majors and Jeter was passing legends like Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs on the all-time hit list seemingly on a daily basis. There are thoughts that he might even have a shot at 4,000 hits, should Jeter choose to continue his career into his 40s.

Jeter simply may be among a handful of players that are the best singles hitters in baseball history. Along with Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, the current generation of players gives us Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Jeter of the Yankees. These four have to be considered baseball’s elite at what they do best: Rack up hits in bunches.

Jeter’s career batting average is .313 and the fact he is hovering over the .300 mark at the halfway mark proves he has not lost the touch at age 38.

The only thing Jeter may have lost is a bit of his power, though the most he ever hit in one season was a pedestrian 24 in 1999. He also is not able to steal bases as he once did. In 2006, he stole a career-high 34 bags. But he has only stolen more than 18 bases once in his five full seasons after that.

But everything else is still there for Jeter.

The only disappointment this season is his rather low runs scored total of 43 at the halfway point. Jeter has failed to score 100 runs in only three seasons out of his 16 full years in the majors. Some of it can be attributed to the fact that the middle of the Yankees’ lineup – Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira – hit around .200 with runners in scoring position.

Some of it may have to do with age. But Jeter remains one of the smartest base-runners in baseball and he rarely commits a huge blunder to get himself thrown out on the bases.

When you bring up Jeter’s fielding, the sabermatricians go ballistic because Jeter’s range at age 38 is not anything like it was when he was 28. OK, I will give them that one. Jeter does not have the range of an Elvis Andrus or Alexsei Ramirez, who both are considerably younger shortstops.

But Jeter committed only six errors in the first half. The Yankees can live with that and they will. The fact is Jeter has won five Gold Glove awards, including in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and he is not going to give them back just because Bill James says he should.

IHe also is not going to give back his 13 selections in 16 seasons for the All-Star Game. Jeter will be starting in his eighth All-Star Game in Kansas City on Tuesday.

With Jeter, what you see is what you get. He is just a consummate professional who works hard at his craft and gives 100 percent each and every game. He is not only respected highly by manager Joe Girardi and his teammates but he also is admired by the players and managers on other teams.

Yep, “The Captain” who is affectionately nicknamed in the Bronx is just something very, very special. Cooperstown awaits when his career ends but who knows when that will be the way he is going now.

MIDSEASON GRADE: A-

BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (2 HRs, 6 RBIs, .228 BA)

Nix, 29, became Jeter’s backup when the Yankees decided that Eduardo Nunez needed work on his defense in the minor leagues.

With Jeter requiring a bit more rest, Nix has made seven starts at short in the first 81 games. He has acquitted himself well. He is not going to hit like Jeter and he does not have the dazzling range Nunez has at the position. But, then again, Nix is not going botch half of the balls hit to him like Nunez did.

Because Nix can also play second, third and the corner outfield spots he is very valuable in kind of Jerry Hairston Jr. sort of way.

Nix played his way on the Yankees’ 25-man roster by hitting .323 as a free-agent signee this spring. When Nunez was sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Nix was recalled and it looks like he is going to keep his role for the rest of the season.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

After playing only four games for the Scranton Yankees, Nunez suffered a severely jammed right thumb and he has missed more than a month. He should be able to return soon but the injury apparently is worse than the Yankees thought originally.

Nunez, 25, is still considered the heir apparent to Jeter when he can’t play the position anymore or retires. After all, Nunez was hitting .294 after 51 at-bats when he was shipped out after committing four errors in the first 19 games he played.

Girardi said the Yankees should have not asked Nunez to play so many positions like the outfield. So the thought is that he will concentrate on shortstop mostly at Scranton. But the injury has retarded that development and so Nunez looks like he will stay in the minors until the September 1 call-ups.

Unfortunately the Yankees not only miss his bat but his speed.

With Brett Gardner of the 60-day disabled list and Nunez shipped out the Yankees lost 71 steals from their 2011 roster. Nunez still is tied for second with four Yankees with six steals behind the team leader Rodriguez, who has seven after 81 games.

With Nunez shelved, the Yankees’ old standby Ramiro Pena is playing short at Scranton. He is hitting .241 with one home run and 18 RBIs.

The Yankees pretty much know what they are getting in Pena, 26. He can play the infield near flawlessly, he is an adept bunter and is an aggressive switch-hitter with absolutely no power. He has decent speed but he is not an athlete or a speedster like Nunez.

It appears Pena’s time has past.

The Yankees have an intriguing prospect at Double-A Trenton in 22-year-old Jose Toussen, who is hitting over .300 there.  But all eyes are on Cito Culver at Single-A Charelston (SC) in the Carolina League. He is rated as the ninth-best prospect in the organization. But that might take a hit.

Culver, 19, is hitting just .206 in 74 games there. Scouts are questioning why the Yankees made him their No. 1 in 2010.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-

Barring injury, Jeter should maintain his climb up the all-time hits list while getting on base for the Yankees’ power hitters that follow him. The hope is those power hitters will actually drive him in more often. If Jeter hits over .300 with 100 runs scored and he hits about 15 home runs it will be a very good season for the future Hall-of-Famer.

Girardi has been smart in starting him in only 70 games at shortstop after 81 games. At the same time Jeter has played in 79 games by being used as a designated hitter or a late-game replacement. Girardi will continue to do this to keep Jeter healthy and fresh for the late season push for the division title and the playoffs.

With Nix, Pena and eventually Nunez is the wings, Jeter has three either current or former major-league players behind him. That is not bad depth.

But the Yankees really could not go very far without Jeter leading off and playing shortstop for them. He is much more valuable than you might think and he still remains the face of the franchise.

 

Cano’s Blazing Hot Bat Leaves Him Second To None

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.  

SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (20 HR, 50 RBIs, .316 BA)

If this had been written two weeks ago, it would be written from the standpoint of how the great Robinson Cano was underachieving this season. What a difference two weeks makes.

Cano, 29, has been on fire of late and it could not have come at a better time for the American League’s starting All-Star second baseman. He has driven in runs in eight consecutive games and has 23 in his last 17 games. On June 3, he was batting .284. He has reached the season’s halfway point hitting .316.

In his last 10 games he is hitting .429.

By any definition, Cano is red hot.

That is good for Cano, but it is even better for the New York Yankees.

For much of the first half of the season, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Cano have struggled to hit home runs and drive in runs, particularly with runners in scoring position. That has been borne out by the fact that Nick Swisher had led the team in RBIs for most of the first half until Cano passed him this week.

For most baseball experts, it is not a surprise that Cano has finally began to hit. The only surprise is that it took him this long.

Cano began April by .267 with one home run and four RBIs. That is not a misprint. It was just a single home run and four RBIs.

On May 6, Cano hit a grand slam home run against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium which doubled his production in just one at-bat. That lit a spark that brought Cano close to what he has always been for the Yankees: Their best pure hitter.

In fact, it is safe to say with Derek Jeter and Rodriguez in the twilight of their careers that Cano is simply the Yankees’ best all-around player, period, exclamation point.

Cano leads the team in batting average, is second in home runs, first in RBIs and he fields his position at a Gold-Glove level. He also hits in the middle of the order and he is the hitter opposing pitchers fear the most.

There is no second baseman in baseball that can touch him in the combination of average, power, production and fielding combined. Cano has been the Yankees’ Rock of Gilbraltar. He is the guy Reggie Jackson would say “stirs the drink.”

The only hole in his game this season has been the same problem from which the whole team suffered in the first half of the season: Getting a hit with runners in scoring position. Just a few weeks ago, Cano was last on the team with RISP, hitting a woeful .149 in those situations.

That kind of makes you scratch your head when you see Cano swing so beautifully balanced and with those lightning-quick hands sweeping his bat through the ball. But, for whatever reason, Cano just continued to fail to get hits with runners on base.

He has brought number up to .200 of late. It is still low but pitchers who are scheduled to face the Yankees in the second half may want to prepare for the worst when Cano comes up in those situations from now on.

Cano is on a pace to hit considerably more home runs than the 29 he hit in 2010. He could also shatter the 118 RBI plateau he reached in 2011. He has not come close to the .342 he hit in 2006 but don’t put it past Cano not to do that either. Cano could easily win a batting title or two or three.

The fact is while Teixeira and Rodriguez continue to struggle with their production, Cano is undoubtedly the most important part of the Yankee lineup going forward. If he can continue his pace of June and July, the Yankee offense should continue to be potent and will improve its numbers with runners in scoring position.

If you want to talk defense, Cano has committed just four errors this season. However, that just scratches the surface when you are talking about what Cano contributes in the field.

For years, Cano was overlooked as a defensive player because of the concentration errors he used to make. Cano, because he glides so effortlessly to the ball, often was viewed as a “lazy” fielder. But that ended in 2010, when he won his first Gold Glove.

He should win it annually anyway for his extraordinary range, his unbelievable arm strength and the smoothness with which he turns a double play.

His ability to range from the right-field foul line to left-center to catch pop flies is special in itself.

Yankee fans are very fortunate to be living at a time when the Yankees can boast the best shortstop in their history (Jeter) with the best second baseman in their history. They may not rival the Tigers’ middle infield of  Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell in terms of years played together but they are certainly more productive as hitters and just as good or better in the  field.

Cano is a durable player as well. He has not played in less than 159 games since 2006, his second season with the Yankees when he spent his only stint on the disabled list. This season, he has started 78 of the Yankees’ 81 games and he has played in all of them.

Cano’s prospects for the second half are very good and the Yankees certainly need him to be that good as they head into the more difficult games with their division rivals. There is a chance this could be Cano’s best overall season and that is saying something considering how good his last two seasons have been.

MIDSEASON GRADE: A-

BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (2 HRs, 6 RBIs, .228 BA)

You won’t see Nix play this position much. Cano rarely gets a day off and apparently does not need one.

Since the Yankees chose to send Eduardo Nunez back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Nix has made just two starts for Cano.

He is pretty good as fielder in that he has not committed an infield error this season. But his range is very limited. You also suffer a big dropoff in production with Nix replacing Cano. But that goes without saying.

Nix, 29, is just a solid backup with average skills but has great versatility in that he can also play in the outfield. The Yankees just will miss Nunez’s line-drive bat and speed on the bases. But, then again, Nix will not throw the baseball all over the diamond and kick easy grounders as Nunez did with regularity.

That is the reason he is here and not Nunez.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

The Yankees have a few really promising middle infield prospects in Claudio Custodio and Angelo Gombs who are far away from the majors. They also have David Adams, who has battled injuries but nonetheless was protected by being placed on the 40-man roster this winter. But it is obvious the Yankees have no plans to let Cano go when his contract expires in two seasons.

At Triple-A Scranton, Ronnier Musteller is trying to hold off up-and-coming prospect Corban Joseph.

Joseph, 23, is hitting .266 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in 32 games played since his promotion from Double-A Trenton. Musteller, 27, is hitting .301 with seven home runs and 34 RBIs in 55 games. But at Musteller’s age the prospect label is pretty much been removed and Joseph is progressing nicely.

Meanwhile, Adams is doing pretty well at Double-A Trenton. The 25-year-old is hitting .284 with three home runs and 24 RBis in 40 games in the Eastern League.

None of these players will have an impact at the major-league level this season because the Yankees have Ramiro Pena and Nunez at Triple-A in case something happens to Cano.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-

Cano is very simply the best second baseman I have ever seen. If you combine his ability to hit for average, power and produce runs with his great dexterity, range and arm in the field, there is just no second baseman in baseball that compares to him.

As his career progresses, he should pass Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg as the best second basemen in the modern era.

But his prospects for 2012 look very good as well. Cano is dangerous when he is struggling but he is pure hell to face when he is seeing the ball and hitting with authority. Even when he makes outs he is hitting the ball hard. That should tell you how good he is as a player.

Cano also possesses the ability to carry the Yankee offense much the way Rodriguez used to be able to do. He is the one player the Yankees can least afford to loss due to injury and he is the team’s key to success in the second half.

He could ride this current hot streak the rest of the way into the playoffs and to a World Series, if the Yankees can get there. It is on that stage, Cano should shine.

He is shining pretty brightly now as the Yankees’ best player.

 

Mets’ Davis Hits Walk-Off Blast To Nip Baby Yanks

GAME 32

METS 7, YANKEES 6

They may be two teams that play in the same city and they may be headed in completely opposite directions in 2012 but on Tuesday they renewed a spring ritual they had ignored for 16 years.

Mets staring first baseman Ike Davis homered with one out in the ninth inning off a 21-year-old right-hander who pitched in the Sally League last season in Mark Montgomery as the Mets broke a 6-6 tie and won a Grapefruit League game in walk-off fashion against a lot of minor-league Yankees at Digital Domain Park in Port St. Lucie, FL.

Justin Hampson (1-0) pitched two-thirds of a scoreless inning in the top of the ninth to get credit for the victory.

The Yankees trailed 5-0 after three innings as the Mets folded, spindled and mutilated Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova.

But the Yankees rallied with a solo home run from Nick Swisher in the fouth inning and a five-run sixth inning in which they sent 10 batters to the plate and mustered seven hits against Mets left-hander Jonathan Niese to take a 6-5 lead.

Doug Bernier’s single to left to score J.R. Murphy tied the game and Chris Dickerson followed with a RBI single of his own to score Abraham Almonte with the lead run.

The Mets then tied it back up in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI single by Justin Turner.

The Yankees’ spring ledger dropped to 17-12 while the Mets completed their spring with a 9-19 record.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Swisher was 2-for-3 with a home run and a double. Despite being nagged for two weeks with a sore left groin, Swisher has recovered physically and is hitting a red-hot .345 this spring. Swisher hopes to avoid the horrendous two-month slump with which he began the 2011 season.
  • David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell both came on in relief in the game auditioning for a potential long-relief role in the bullpen. Phelps pitched a scoreless 1 1/3 innings, giving up a hit, no walks and striking out two batters. Mitchell pitched innings, giving up one on two hits and one walk and he fanned one. Adam Warren also is in the running despite giving up six runs on 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings to the Astros on Saturday.
  • Bernier was 2-for-3 in the game with an RBI and is hitting .361 this spring. With Derek Jeter, Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena ahead of him on the depth chart he will not make the Yankees. However, the 30-year-old veteran may stay in the Yankees organization and become a coach or minor-league instructor. Someday Bernier might make a very good manager.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • It is hard to sugarcoat it and I won’t. Ivan Nova flat-out stunk up the city of Port St. Lucie. He was tagged for five runs on eight hits, two walks and two hit batters in only 2 2/3 innings of what you really could not call work. Nova’s command of his fastball was nonexistent and he was leaving his breaking pitches up in the zone to get whacked all over the park. He gave up three runs on five hits in the first inning and it did not get much better after that. Nova ends spring training with a 8.06 ERA. If he pitches like this in the regular season then we can’t see Andy Pettitte come back soon enough.
  • The Yankees only brought two starters, Swisher and Brett Gardner, to this game so it is hard to criticize much. But Gardner did not exactly set the world ablaze this spring. He was 0-for-3 on Tuesday and that lowered his spring average to .204. Gardner also showed an inability to get some bunts down this spring. How long will it take him to learn this skill to take advantage of his speed?

BOMBER BANTER

Manager Joe Girardi seeemingly can’t make up his mind about Pettitte pitching in a Grapefruit League game. Girardi first said no. Then he dangled a possibility that Pettitte would pitch an inning on Tuesday. Now Girardi thinks Pettitte might pitch an inning in the Yankees’ spring finale on Wednesday. Girardi said he wants to talk to Pettitte to see how he feels before he decides to use him.  . . .  Alright, Yankee fans make your plans to watch the Bombers win their 28th world title in 2012. Kentucky won the NCAA basketball championship on Monday. In the Wildcats’ previous six championship seasons (1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996 and 1998) the Yankees have won the World Series.  So shall we start printing those World Series tickets now?  . . .  After Wednesday’s finale the Yankees have a 5 p.m. deadline to cut the roster to 25 players. It appears Mitchell, Phelps or Warren will earn a spot in the bullpen (However, Warren is longshot because he is not on the 40-man roster). Clay Rapada seems to have a spot in the bullpen won with his excellent spring. The only other business is to determine what the team will do with Bill Hall, Jayson Nix and Dewayne Wise. Plus, the Yankees have to determine what to do with Justin Maxwell, who is out of options and can only go back to the minors if he clears waivers. But after the hot spring Maxwell had that is very unlikely.

ON DECK

The Yankees will finish what has been an eventful and successful spring camp on Wednesday against the Mets at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

Freddy Garcia, who is sporting a 2.92 ERA in his four spring starts, is expected to pitch for the Yankees. The Mets will counter with right-hander Dillon Gee.

Game-time will be 12:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

Yankees Open Marlins’ New Ballpark With Victory

GAME 30

YANKEES 10, MARLINS 8

When the Yankees christen a new ballpark they make it a good show of it for the opponents. They did it again on Sunday as they opened the Marlins new retractable-roof stadium in Miami.

Eric Chavez doubled home Bill Hall in the top of the ninth inning to break an 8-8 tie as New York defeated Miami in their new digs named Marlins Park in front of a “restricted crowd” of 25,000.

George Kontos (1-0) pitched 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to get credit for the victory. Former Yankee right-hander Chad Gaudin (2-1) took the loss. Yankees left-hander Juan Cedeno pitched the final two-thirds of an inning and picked up a save.

Hall opened the ninth with a double into the gap in right-center off Gaudin. Chavez followed a double off the wall in left-field that scored Hall. One out later, pinch-runner Ramiro Pena moved to third on an infield groundout and he scored on a wild pitch to give the Yankees their final two-run margin.

With the victory, the Yankees assured themselves of a winning record in spring training as they now sport a 16-11 mark. The Marlins are 11-13.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • The Yankees were trailing the Marlins 3-1 beginning the fifth inning but they managed to bat around on Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco and score five runs. Russell Martin rolled a grounder deep in the hole at short to score Nick Swisher with the first run. Derek Jeter followed with an RBI groundout to score Raul Ibanez that tied the game. Then Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez followed with RBI hits in succession to build a 6-3 lead. The Yankee offense has really taken off this week. In their last three games the Yankees have scored 36 runs on 45 hits.
  • Swisher returned to the lineup for the first time since March 14. He singled in scored in the fifth and homered deep down the right-field line in the sixth. Swisher missed just over two weeks with a sore left groin Swisher attributed the injury to a new workout regimen he used during the winter.
  • Cano also contributed to the attack with an RBI sacrifice fly in the first inning and an RBI double in the fifth. In his last three games, Cano is 4-for-8 with a homer, a double, two singles and four RBIs. After a slow start this spring, Cano is heating up just before the start of the regular season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The Marlins somehow were able to get to three of the Yankees’ best pitchers to score five runs in the first six innings. Starter CC Sabathia gave up three runs on four hits and two walks and struck out three in four innings of work. The Marlins then greeted closer Mariano Rivera by pushing across a run on a pair of hits and a sac fly in the fifth. That is the first run Rivera has allowed in a spring training game since March 15, 2008. The Marlins then added a run in the sixth off Rafael Soriano on a two-out RBI single by John Buck.
  • Cory Wade is pretty much assured a bullpen spot to start the season but he is going to have to pitch better if he intends on keeping it. Wade again was touched for three runs (two earned) on two hits and an error in the seventh inning, which allowed the Marlins to rally from an 8-5 deficit to tie the game. Wade’s spring ERA is 7.71.
  • Manager Joe Girardi played what will be his Opening Day starting lineup and every one of them recorded at least one hit except Mark Teixeira, who was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and groundout. The three outs dropped his spring average to .292.

BOMBER BANTER

Girardi said on Sunday that Andy Pettitte will not make an appearance in a spring training game. The Yankees had thought about using Pettitte for an inning in the team’s final Grapefruit League game against the New York Mets on Wednesday. However, Pettitte threw a 33-pitch live batting practice session on Saturday and Girardi said the team wants to keep him on a five-day schedule.  . . .  The Yankees came away very impressed with the Marlins’ new park. The game was played with the roof closed and the ball seemed to carry well to all fields and the outfield gaps are huge. The park holds 37,000 but the team limited sales to 25,000 to test operations before the regular season starts.

ON DECK

The Yankees will remain in  Miami and play the Marlins in a second game at their new park. This time the game will be played at night and the roof will be open. In addition, the team will allow 30,000 tickets to be sold.

The Yankees will start Hiroki Kuroda and the Marlins will start former Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano.

Game-time will be 7:10 p.m. and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network.

 

Yankees Strand 10 To Settle For Tie With Tigers

GAME 24

YANKEES 1, TIGERS 1 (10 INNINGS)

TAMPA – Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the first inning with his first home run of the spring. Little did the Yankees know but that would be the only run they would score all day against the Tigers.

New York stranded 10 runners over 10 innings and had to settle for a tie with a Detroit split squad on Sunday in a Grapefruit League contest played at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL.

Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda recorded one of his best outings of the spring, giving up one run on five hits and two walks in five innings of work. But the Yankees did not give him much in the way of support.

The Yankees collected only five hits but they got some help from six walks and two hit batters to put plenty of runners on base to take the lead in the game. But much like the Game 5 loss of the American League Division Series against the Tigers, the Yankees could not collect a big hit with runners in scoring position. They were 0-for-10 with RISP in the game.

Meanwhile, relievers Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Roberston, Clay Rapada and Manny Delcarmen each turned in a scoreless inning of relief against the Tigers to keep the game knotted.

Jeter’s home run in the first came off Tigers left-hander and starter Duane Below.

The Tigers tied it in the third inning when Danny Worth drew a leadoff walk and Ramon Santiago delivered a one-out RBI triple.

The Yankees remain 13-9 with two ties this spring. They have not lost a game in their last 11 spring contests. The Tigers are 14-4.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • In Jeter’s second game back after being shelved by a tight left calf, he delivered a home run to right and double to left-center. Jeter is quietly hitting .348 this spring and the best news is he is driving the ball with authority and not squeezing weak grounders through the infield. Those who might have written Jeter’s baseball obituary at age 37 might have been a bit premature.
  • Pineda struggled at times in keeping the Tigers off base but he only gave up the one run. After Santiago’s triple, he struck out the next two batters as part of stretch where Pineda fanned four of the last eight batters he retired. Pineda’s velocity also was consistently at 93 miles per hour during his outing.
  • Brett Gardner led an outfield that recorded three assists on Sunday that helped keep the Tigers from scoring more runs. With speedy Austin Jackson on second in the first inning, Alex Avila stroked a lined single to Gardner in left. Gardner charged the ball on the hop and gunned Jackson out at the plate with a perfect throw. In the eighth inning, new left-fielder Jayson Nix caught Brent Wyatt’s line drive and gunned down Dixon Machado after he failed to retouch second base on his way back to first. In the ninth, center-fielder Dewayne Wise caught a Ryan Strieby liner and doubled off Tony Plagman at second base.
  • Robertson returned to action for the first time since he bruised his right foot in an accident at his home on March 7 and he showed no ill effects from the injury. Robertson struck out a batter and he benefited from Machado’s poor base-running on Wyatt’s line drive to pitch a scoreless eighth inning. Robertson said he felt good and he hopes to build upon it with his next outing.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Despite Jeter’s good day there was one striking negative: In the fourth inning, Jeter rolled out to short with the bases loaded. He was a part of an offense that sputtered all day when they had chances to take the lead. In the fifth inning, right-hander Collin Balester walked three batters. But Curtis Granderson was nailed by Avila attempting to steal second and Russell Martin hit into a fielder’s choice after Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira drew two-out walks.
  • In the seventh, it was no better for the Yankees against Brayan Villarreal. Doug Bernier was hit by a pitch and stole second. Granderson then drew a walk. However, Robinson Cano hit into a double play. After Rodriguez was hit in the ribs with a pitch and left the game as a precaution, Teixeira grounded out to short to end that threat.
  • In the second inning, the Yankees had Texeira on third and Martin at second with one out. However, Eduardo Nunez struck out looking and Gardner bounced out to the pitcher and spoiled that effort. So it was obvious that there was a lot of frustration with the offense on Sunday.

BOMBER BANTER

Joba Chamberlain was released from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, FL., on Sunday four days after he suffered an open dislocation of his right ankle in a trampoline accident. General manager Brian Cashman echoed manager Joe Girardi’s assessment that there was a possibility that Chamberlain could return to pitch this season. Chamberlain had Tommy John surgery last summer and was not expected back to the Yankees until June when the injury occurred last week. Chamberlain will wear a non-weight-bearing cast for six weeks and then will be fitted for a weight-bearing walking boot.  . . .  Although Rodriguez left the game Sunday after being struck in the left ribs on a pitch from Villarreal, Girardi said he expects Rodriguez being able to play on Tuesday.  . . .  Girardi also said he hopes to get Nick Swisher back into the lineup on Tuesday. Swisher has only had two at-bats since he injured his left groin on March 14.  . . .  After the game on Sunday, the Yankees optioned Ramiro Pena to Triple-A Empire State and reassigned outfielders Colin Curtis and Cole Garner, catcher Jose Gil and pitchers Kevin Whelan and Delcarmen to minor-league camp.

ON DECK

The Yankees are enjoying their second off-day of the spring on Monday. They will return to action at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Ace lefty CC Sabathia will make his fourth Grapefruit League start. The Blue Jays will start right-hander Kyle Drabek.

Game-time will be at 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be televised nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

This report was delayed by technical difficulties.

 

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