Results tagged ‘ Trenton ’

Cervelli Tops Quartet Dueling For Catching Role

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.

 

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’s Availability For Opening Day Up In Air

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!

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

To say that Derek Jeter is the living, breathing embodiment of all of what the New York Yankees is about is pretty obvious.

Jeter has been the face of the franchise since he was a rookie in 1996 and, at age 38, he still plays with the same youthful enthusiasm and holds an appreciation for the game he loves so dearly.

This season Jeter does not have to overcome the whispers that he is a washed up player on the downside of a brilliant career. He collected a major-league-best 216 hits last season and his batting average was actually three points higher than his career average of .313.

After a 2010 season in which he hit .270 and he spent the first half of the 2011 languishing around .250, Jeter rediscovered his “old stroke” while rehabbing a calf injury over the All-Star break and he has not stopped hitting since. The whispers about his age have been muted.

In fact, he was the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2012.

Of course, age not only brings wisdom. It also invites nagging injuries and Jeter had a brush with that reality during the Yankees’ pennant push in 2012. A deep bruise on his left ankle had him hobbling most of the latter stages of the season. Perhaps he should have sat out a week but Jeter insisted on playing to help his team win the division.

Then he led them to a victory in five games in the American League Division Series over the Baltimore Orioles by hitting a robust .364.

He had high hopes of leading them to a victory in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers but the noble team captain fractured his ankle in the 12th inning of the game of the series and the Yankees went down in flames in four straight games to the Motor City Kitties.

Jeter had surgery on the ankle in October and Jeter will need four to five months to recover from the procedure. That puts his participation in spring training in question. Manager Joe Girardi said that he will not count out his 13-time All-Star shortstop from playing on Opening Day.

Jeter is reportedly in Tampa, FL, but he is keeping weight off his ankle. So a lot of Jeter’s preparation and conditioning work for the 2013 season will be delayed. That likely means you will not see much of Jeter during the exhibition season, which begins on Feb. 23.

The Yankees obviously will take a very cautious approach with Jeter throughout the spring. If it were any other player, you would doubt he would be ready for the opening bell. But Jeter has a way of surprising Yankee fans.

The question will be what kind of season will Jeter have? Will he continue to hit as he did in last season or will he regress to what he did in 2010?

Much of that answer rides on how healthy Jeter will be and how healthy he can remain for the 162-game schedule. Yankee fans know enough about Jeter to know that if he is 100 percent and he can stay healthy that he likely will come very close to his 2012 numbers.

Jeter spent most of the season as the team’s leadoff hitter, a role he pretty much has held for the past four seasons. Though he never again will approach his career high of 34 stolen bases in 2006, Jeter remains one of the smartest base-runners in the game.

He rarely gets picked off, thrown out stealing or fails to take an extra base when he can. His instincts are impeccable and he can steal a base when he asked to do so.

The biggest question Jeter will face in 2013 will come in the field even though Jeter has won five Gold Gloves in his career. Range for a 38-year-old shortstop is already a question. The larger question is will the ankle injury cut down his range further?

The Yankees won’t know until they see how Jeter plays in the field this season. Two things are in Jeter’s favor, however.

First, as a veteran who knows where to play the hitters, Jeter is able to get to balls a more inexperienced shortstop might not anticipate. The second thing is that Jeter rarely makes careless errors on the balls he does reach. In 133 starts at shortstop last season, Jeter committed only 10 errors, two less than he committed in 2011 in 121 starts.

His .980 fielding percentage was four points above his career mark. So Jeter is no slouch in the field despite his shortcomings with his range.

One thing will be clear during spring training, Yankee fans will see a lot of Eduardo Nunez at the position.

Nunez, 25, would be considered the heir apparent to Jeter if Jeter did not have two seasons left on his contract with the Yankees. After all, in 180 major-league games Nunez has a .272 average with seven home runs and 48 RBIs and 38 stolen bases.

As a right-hand batter Nunez has a line-drive stroke that finds the gaps and he can run like the wind on the bases. The Yankees think he could start for a lot of teams at shortstop because of his bat and his athleticism. But there is huge caveat here.

Nunez has been unable to harness his skills in the field. There is no doubt Nunez has superior range to any shortstop the Yankees have had in recent memory. But Nunez also is inclined to make careless fielding and throwing errors, hence his nickname among Yankee fans as “Eduardo Scissorhands.”

He began the 2012 season as the Yankees’ backup infielder. But after committing a series of baffling errors at third base in early May, Girardi and the front office elected to ship Nunez back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with the idea of returning him to exclusively at shortstop.

Nunez, however, was unable to hone his skills much because he landed on the disabled list for a huge chunk of the season with a right hand injury.

The reason the Yankees still have him on the roster is they would need him if Jeter were somehow unable to return for the first part of the season or if he suffered some sort of setback in his rehab.

Nunez could open 2013 as the starting shortstop and then could remain as a right-hand designated hitter and backup middle infielder for the Yankees because his bat and his speed could be desperately needed on a team that has much less power than it had in 2012.

Nunez actually led the Yankees in steals for much of the season, even though he was sent out in May, until Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki passed him for the team lead in September. That is how bad the Yankees fell off in stolen bases in 2012. Nunez ended up with 17 stolen bases in just 44 games.

Over a full season, Nunez could easily reach 30 to 40 bases and Girardi might see a lot of value in that.

The Yankees also have veteran infielder Jayson Nix to play shortstop.

Nix was signed as a minor-league free-agent and invited to spring training last season. He hit well over .300 in the spring and impressed the team enough to get an assignment to Scranton. When Nunez was shipped out, Nix was pressed into service and he had a solid season.

Nix, 30, hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs and filled in well at second, third and short. He also played some outfield. Though Nix will never wow you with his bat or his glove, he also does not make careless mistakes in the field either. He committed only four errors in the 52 games he started last season.

Nix was designated for assignment by the Yankees on Nov. 30 to make room on the 40-man roster for reliever Mariano Rivera, who was re-signed to a one-year contract. But Nix agreed that of he was not picked up by another team he would accept assignment to Scranton.

So Nix will be invited to spring training with the same opportunity he was offered last season. He will have a leg up on Nunez because Nix can play third and Nunez likely will not be used there again.

There is a chance that if Jeter proves he is healthy and Nix has a good spring that Nunez could be packaged in a deal for players the Yankees might need for the roster. The Yankees are looking for a backup corner infielder to replace Eric Chavez, who signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Nunez may be the best trade bait the Yankees have right now.

In the minor leagues, the Yankees have a trio of middle infielders who are among their Top 20 prospects, however, only one of them has reached Double-A Trenton. So help at this position is years away.

Jose Pirela, 23, was signed as shortstop but has played all over the diamond. The 5-foot-10, 191-pounder out of Venezuela hit .293 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs in 82 games at Trenton last season. He has line-drive power and only average speed. He is now being thought of as a potential middle-infield backup at the major-league level.

Angelo Gumbs, 20, was also signed as shortstop out of high school in Southern California but he played his first two seasons as a second baseman. The team’s No. 8 prospect hit .272 with seven home runs, 33 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 67 games at Class-A Charleston last season. An elbow injury he suffered in June shelved him for the rest of the season.

Gumbs is very raw but he does show promise as a hitter and he plays with an all-out style scouts love.

Austin Aune, 19, is a pure shortstop who hit .273 with a home run and 20 RBIs while stealing six bases in 39 games at Class-A Tampa in the Gulf Coast League. Aune is a potential five-tool player out of Texas who bats left-handed with plus power. He has good range and a great arm at short but the former two-sport star who spurned Texas Christian to sign with Yankees may end up as an outfielder at some point.

The Yankees know their future at the position is a long way off. The immediate concern is getting their captain and their leader Jeter healthy for the coming season. Though 38-year-olds tend to take longer to heal, Jeter is more than capable of making a full recovery in time for the start of the season.

The Yankees are lucky to Nunez available to play until Jeter is ready. Nix provides even more insurance at this position.

Shortstop does not to be appear to be a major concern. The only way it would is if Jeter has a major setback and Nunez is traded. A season with Nix starting at short would be disaster. The Yankees still need Jeter as much as Jeter needs them.

NEXT: SECOND BASE

 

Yankees Hoping Youkilis Healthy, A-Rod Returns

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!

THIRD BASE – KEVIN YOUKILIS (19 HRs, 60 RBIs, .235 BA)

With Alex Rodriguez headed for surgery to his left hip this month the Yankees were forced to take a plunge into the free-agent market for a replacement and they chose 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis.

The former Red Sox nemesis has had his own issues with injuries throughout his career but the Yankees needed someone who could play the position and provide some offense until Rodriguez is ready to to return to action, which won’t come until at least June.

Youkilis enters 2013 free of the swirling rumors of his commitment to the game former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine thrust upon him last season. After he was traded to the Chicago White Sox he did pick up his production, hitting .236 with 15 home runs and 46 RBIs, largely batting second.

After undergoing sports hernia surgery that ended his 2011 season, Youkilis suffered through the early part of 2012 with a groin injury that landed him on the disabled list. When Will Middlebrooks produced good numbers in his absence, the Red Sox decided to send him packing to make room for the rookie.

Youkilis has never played in more than 147 games in any of his seven full major-league seasons, which was in first full season with the Red Sox in 2007. His best season with the Bosox was in 2008, when he hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs.

But Youkilis’ all-out style of play has also left him susceptible to nagging injuries, which have lessened his power and production numbers. In addition, Youkilis’ unusual batting style, which worked well for him when he was younger (He hit a career-high .312 in 2008), has left him less effective the last two seasons in which he has hit .258 and .235.

It will be the job of hitting coach Kevin Long to get Youkilis back on track at the plate with is timing and to get Youkilis driving the ball as he did so well at Fenway Park. As a right-hand hitter, the Yankees will not be looking for big-time power from Youkilis. But they would like him to get back to hitting closer to his lifetime .283 average and driving in runs.

There is a good possibility that Youkilis might slide into the No. 3 or No. 5 spots in the batting order to separate left-handers Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. That means the Yankees will be counting on Youkilis to provide solid production in the heart of the batting order.

A lot will depend if Youkilis is 100 percent healthy when he reports to camp in Tampa, FL, and he can remain healthy. He will have to because the Yankees’ options behind him are quite limited and much less productive.

As a fielder, Youkilis is considered an excellent first baseman. He won a Gold Glove for his work there in 2007. However, he is not as accomplished as a third baseman. Of course, he is actually still considered above average at the position.

There is no doubt that injuries have had an effect on his fielding at third the past two seasons. He made nine errors in 2011 and he committed the same total in 2012. So the slip in his fielding percentage at third had to be due in large part to the sports hernia and groin injuries.

His career fielding percentage at first is .997 but at third it is .966. But the Yankees feel if he is healthy, he can play the position more than adequately. Fielding, after all, was not a strength of A-Rod’s game either.

Of course, it is hard to know what the strength of Rodriguez’s game is really. Last season was another one of those seasons that he has failed to provide the production the Yankees needed and his season ended with a late injury which may or may not have contributed to his poor postseason.

After playing in just 99 games in 2011, largely due to a right knee injury, Rodriguez played in 122 games in 2012. He missed more than a month of the season and returned in early September after being struck in the left hand with a pitch from Seattle Mariners ace right-hander Felix Hernandez.

But when he was healthy, Rodriguez did not produce much in the way of power or runs batted in. He finished the season hitting .272 with 18 home runs and 57 RBIs. Batting in the middle of the most productive lineup in baseball in 2012, A-Rod  hit .200 with the bases loaded and .230 with runners in scoring position.

But the most telling statistic is this: Rodriguez hit a home run every 25.7 at-bats in 2012. In his career, he has hit a home run every 14.9 at-bats. To say the 37-year-old three-time Most Valuable Player is suffering through a serious erosion of his skills is putting it mildly. It even lead to his being pinch-hit for at a critical point in the 2012 American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

So even when Rodriguez returns the question is how much can the Yankees count on him? Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since 2007.

What looked to a be a lock that he would eventually break Barry Bonds’ dubious all-time home run record of 762 looks to a longshot now. But the real problem is the Yankees are on the hook for paying Rodriguez, in sickness and unproductive health, through the 2017 season.

So unless A-Rod gets tired of being booed, looking like a fool striking out against mediocre pitchers and he decides to retire, the Yankees have a 6-foot-3, 225-pound albatross around their necks. General manager Brian Cashman has been ordered to reduce payroll to $189 million by 2014 and it will be hard to see how they can remain competitive as long as they are paying big bucks to an unproductive has-been.

But we will see how it all plays out when Rodriguez does make it back to the field in 2013.

Likely, he will not play much third base.

Though Rodriguez two Gold Gloves as a shortstop with the Texas Rangers in 2002 and 2003, he has never been considered a very good fielder at third base. His career fielding percentage at the position is .964 and it was .957 in 2012. He committed eight errors in 81 games at the position last year.

The previous injury to his right hip pretty much has robbed him of some of the lateral quickness and smoothness he needs to field at the hot corner.

So upon Rodriguez’s return it is more likely he will assume the designated hitter role for most of the rest of the season in order to keep his surgically repaired left hip from acting up again.

The Yankees do not have much in the way of options at third base behind Youkilis.

They were hoping that they could convince Eric Chavez, 35, to come back for a third season. But the free agent elected to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Though Chavez was unable to physically handle playing third base on a daily basis, he did contribute mightily to the Yankees at third and first base and as a DH and pinch-hitter. He hit .281 with 16 home runs and 37 RBIs in 2012. He also played 64 games at third base and flashed some of the form that led to him winning six consecutive Gold Gloves at the position from 2001 through 2006 with the Oakland Athletics.

He and his left-hand bat will be missed in 2013.

Instead the Yankees will have to look to Jayson Nix, 30, as the primary backup in 2013.

Nix entered the 2012 season as a minor-league player invited to spring training by the Yankees. After hitting over .300 in the spring Nix was assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but he was recalled on May 3 when the Yankees decided that Eduardo Nunez was ill-suited to be a utility infielder.

Nix hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 177 at-bats as largely a backup to Rodriguez at third base and Derek Jeter at shortstop.

Nix was designated for assignment by the Yankees on Nov. 30, 2011 to make room on the 40-man roster for All-Star reliever Mariano Rivera, who was signed to a one-year contract. But Nix agreed to accept an assignment to Triple A in order to remain with the team. He will be invited to spring training and he has an excellent chance of retaining his backup infielder role.

Though Nix will not knock down any fences, he will play solidly in the field and give a good effort at the plate. That is what the Yankees hope he can do.

Nunez, 25, started the season as the team’s infield backup but his careless errors in the field cost him the job. Manager Joe Girardi and the Yankees’ front office agreed to send Nunez back to Triple A to play shortstop exclusively.

However, Nunez spent most of his time in the minors sidelined with a right-hand injury. There are no questions about Nunez’s bat. He is a career .272 hitter with the capability of stealing 40 bases in a full season.

But Jeter, 38, is still the shortstop and Nunez is a butcher in the field, hence the nickname “Eduardo Scissorhands.” He was on a pace to commit 42 errors if he had played every day in 2012.

The Yankees look at Nunez as a potential right-hand DH in 2013 at this point. Nunez is not a home run hitter but he could possibly hit 10 home runs and drive in 60 runs if he got 425 or so at-bats. The Yankees also missed his speed last season.

Nunez stole 22 bases in 112 games in 2011 and he actually led the Yankees for most of the 2011 season with 11 until A-Rod and Ichiro Suzuki passed him in September. Nunez along with left-fielder Brett Gardner and Suzuki would give the Yankees a speed game they were lacking in 2012.

But the Yankees likely will not use Nunez at third base and there is a good possibility that Nunez could be traded to a team needing a shortstop before the season starts. They will listen to offers anyway.

Behind Nix the Yankees do not have a lot of major-league-ready options at the position.

David Adams, 25, and Corban Joseph, 24, are on the 40-man roster but both are primarily second basemen.

Adams hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs at Double-A Trenton in 2012 while Joseph hit a combined .276 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs between Trenton and Triple-A Scranton.

Adams, a third-round draft selection out of the University of Virginia in 2008, has been held back by a severe ankle injury. Joseph is a fourth round pick in 2008 out of Franklin High School in Franklin, TN.

Joseph would seem to have more upside because of his power and the fact that he bats left-handed. The Yankees could use a left-handed hitting infield backup. But Joseph is not considered as a shortstop. The same for Adams.

Both were elevated to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule V draft in 2013 and both will get opportunities to play in spring training. But Nix and Nunez have a huge upper hand on them because neither of the youngsters have played a significant amount of time at third base. In addition, neither player is among the Yankees’ Top 20 prospects.

The only third baseman among the Top 20 prospects is the Yankees’ first selection in the 2011 draft Dante Bichette Jr., son of the former Colorado Rockies slugger of the same name.

Bichette, 20, opened eyes last spring when he was placed on the traveling squad for an exhibition game against the Houston Astros and he hit a pair of solo home runs in his two at-bats in the only game in which he played. However, his 2012 season was a major disappointment because he hit only three home runs, drove in 46 runs and batted .248 at Class-A Charleston (SC).

But because he was the Most Valuable Player of the Gulf Coast League in 2011 and he has adapted better than expected at third base, the Yankees have high hopes for the Maitland, FL, native. However, he appears to be more than two years away from being ready for the major leagues.

Third base appears to be a big issue for the Yankees entering 2013.

Rodriguez is sidelined once again and his replacement Youkilis has had issues with injuries of his own. There appears to be an adequate backup in Nix but the Yankees have limited options behind him. The jury on Bichette is out for now but the Yankees remain optimistic he can follow in his father’s footsteps.

This is definitely not the Yankees’ strongest position entering the season and there will be a lot of people crossing their fingers Youkilis stays healthy and Rodriguez come back strong. It seems an awful lot to ask for at this point.

NEXT: SHORTSTOP

 

Mo’s Return In 2013 Keeps Yanks’ Bullpen Strong

PART 2: THE BULLPEN:

The Yankees figured to have a strong bullpen as they entered the 2012 season. Perhaps the best in baseball.

Of course, having the best closer baseball has ever seen and will see in Mariano Rivera was a large part of that strength. However, in 2012 Rivera was not a big part of the team’s success.

Everybody remembers that day at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City last May when “Mo” tried to shag a ball he should not have and tore his MCL in his left knee. He later had surgery and missed the rest of the season.

But the Yankee bullpen was rescued by a fluke signing of Rafael Soriano in 2011 over the objections of general manager Brian Cashman. Nonetheless, the Yankee brass overruled Cashman and signed the former Tampa Bay Rays closer coming off a 2010 season in which he saved 45 games and a had a 1.73 ERA.

That deal looked wasted in 2011 when Soriano pitched in mediocrity and then injured his elbow before finishing with just two saves and a 4.12 ERA. He was baseball’s most expensive seventh inning pitcher in history.

In 2012, he saved the bullpen by stepping in for Rivera and notching 42 saves in 46 opportunities with a sparkling 2.26 ERA. Many thought that with Rivera gone that the Yankees would sink in the American League East. But Soriano proved them wrong.

It is no wonder that Soriano elected to opt out of his contract and seek a closer’s role of his own as a free agent. The Yankees might have panicked to find a suitable closer for 2013 had Rivera not decided to come back for one last hurrah.

Indications are Rivera will be ready to go when spring camps open in February. Rivera, 43, was 1-1 with a 2.16 ERA and five saves in six chances when he went down in 2012. In 2011, he was 1-2 with a 1.91 ERA and 44 saves in 49 opportunities. So as long as Rivera’s knee is sound, the Yankees will have no worries about their closer in 2013.

With Soriano gone, it would seem to be an issue if the Yankees did not have David Robertson, who was an American League All-Star selection in 2011 with a 4-0 record and 1.08 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. In 2012, Robertson got off to a slow start with a ankle injury suffered in spring training.

He later had to be placed on the disabled list at midseason in May with an oblique strain. He simply was not the same pitcher early in the season as he was in 2011. But in the second half, Robertson flashed his old form. After a brief and unsuccessful trial as a closer he was shifted back to his eighth inning role and he flourished again.

He was 2-7 with a 2.67 ERA but he was finally his old self by late August and for the September stretch run. At age 27, Robertson becomes a very valuable pitcher for the Yankees with the departure of Soriano. Robertson will also have to adapt to close on days Rivera is unable to pitch. The Yankees do not seem worried about it though.

Behind these two hard-throwing relievers, the Yankees will seek to build another strong bullpen with a pair of similarly hard-throwing veterans in right-hander Joba Chamberlain and left-hander Boone Logan.

Chamberlain, 27, missed most of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He missed the start of the 2012 season after suffering a break of his right ankle in a trampoline accident in Tampa, FL.  He was 1-0 with a 4.35 ERA in 20 2/3 innings over 22 appearances late in the season.

He returns in 2013 without injury and seeking to regain the consistency he enjoyed in 2011 when he was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA before he injured his elbow. If he does the Yankees will not miss Soriano at all. Chamberlain figures to be the logical choice to pitch most in the seventh inning. If he measures up to the challenge the Yankees’ bullpen will again be very strong.

Logan, 28, has been the unsung hero of this bullpen for a long time.

Sure he can be erratic at times. But he also has now put together three very good seasons with the Yankees. Miscast as a lefty specialist for two seasons, he was able to step out of that role in 2012 and post a pretty good season.

He was 7-2 with a 3.74 ERA and held opponents to a .234 batting average. The elevated ERA was largely due to the fact that he was pressed into service more than he had in the past and the additional innings caught up to him. He pitched in a league-high 80 games and manager Joe Girardi would like to cut that down to a more realistic 60 to 65 in 2013.

But with Chamberlain, Robertson and Rivera on the disabled list at one point last season, Logan pitched in a lot of games he would not have pitched in normally. A healthy bullpen should make him more effective as well as additional man to pitch in the seventh inning.

Girardi was able to cobble together a pair of specialists out of left-hander Clay Rapada and right-hander Cody Eppley and he was very pleased with the results he got from them.

Rapada, 31, was 3-0 with a 2.82 ERA. But against lefties he was plain nasty. They hit just .186 off him and he looks to have an inside track on keeping that role in 2013.

Eppley, who was picked up off waivers from the Texas Rangers early in 2012, turned into an effective pitcher against right-handers. He had a 1.93 ERA against righties and they hit just .227 against him. The 27-year-old veteran was 1-2 with a 3.33 ERA overall and he earned Girardi’s trust as the season progressed.

Depth in 2013 does not look to be an issue. There are a number of candidates to challenge for spots in 2013.

David Phelps, 26, is thought of primarily as a starter based on his success in the minor leagues. But he could settle into a long reliever/spot starter in 2013, the role he largely held in his rookie season as he compiled a 4-4 mark with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts).

Phelps will get a chance to crack the 2013 starting rotation in the spring but he only likely will have a chance if there is an injury or Ivan Nova continues to pitch poorly. Long relief looks to be a good bet or he could be sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to keep him stretched out as a starter as an insurance policy on what is a veteran starting rotation.

The Yankees signed free-agent right-hander David Aardsma last season even though they knew he was recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Aardsma, 30, saved 38 games in 2009 and 31 games in 2010 for the Seattle Mariners before he injured his elbow.

He pitched in only one game for the Yankees late last season but the Yankees saw enough renew his contract option for 2013. So Aardsma could very well win a spot in the Yankees bullpen this spring if he regains his hard-throwing dominant arsenal. Aardsma could be helpful both in the middle innings or as a late-inning option for Robertson and Rivera when they are unavailable to pitch.

The Yankees also have a veteran right-hander in Jim Miller, 30, who was 2-1 with a 2.59 ERA in 33 appearances with the Oakland Athletics last season. Miller oddly is tougher on lefties than he is on righties. Lefties hit just .136 off him in 2012 while righties solved him to the tune of .283. The Yankees will see how he fits in this spring.

Cesar Cabral, a 2012 Rule 5 draft acquisition, spent the entire season on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left elbow as he was competing for the lefty specialist role with Rapada last spring. After compiling a 3-4 record and a 2.95 ERA in the minors 2011 with 70 strikeouts in 55 innings, Cabral will get a chance to display his power stuff this spring with a chance of supplanting Rapada or earning a spot as a third lefty in the bullpen. Cabral is only 23 and he has a high ceiling as a reliever.

The Yankees do have some interesting young reliever candidates in their minor-league system but most of them have to be considered as longshots to make the 2013 roster.

Chase Whitley, 23, was 9-5 with a 3.25 ERA at Scranton and the right-hander compiled a 1.07 WHIP in 80 1/3 innings over 41 games. The Yankees like his competitiveness though he does not appear to have closer stuff.

Right-hander Preston Claiborne, 24, pitched impressively enough at Double-A Trenton (2-2 with a 2.22 ERA in 30 games) to earn a promotion to Scranton, but he may need some more work. He was 4-0 with a 4.05 ERA in 20 games there. But the Yankees still like the tall Texan and he does have strikeout stuff (78 punchouts in 82 innings).

The most impressive young pitcher the Yankees have in the minors is 22-year-old right-hander Mark Montgomery. Montgomery began 2012 with the High-A Tampa Yankees, where he was 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA. He also struck out an unbelievable 61 batters in 40 1/3 innings.

He carried that power stuff to Trenton, where he was 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 15 games. He saved 15 games overall in 2012 and to say that Montgomery figures to be a long-range prospect as a future major-league closer would be putting it mildly. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, he may not seem like your typical closer. But neither was Robertson and look where he is now.

Montgomery’s progesss is worth watching in 2013.

The Yankees 2013 bullpen prospects, much like their starting staff, appears to be in pretty good shape and fairly set. I do not expect Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild to be begging Cashman for additional help here. Soriano walked out but with Rivera back for one last season and depth at the back end the Yankees’ bullpen should remain one of its strengths.

Girardi has been a master at building a bullpen and utilizing it in a proper way. Other than Logan, no one was really overused in 2012 and that should be the trend again in 2013.

Not many teams can boast a bullpen this good and this deep.

NEXT: STARTING LINEUP

 

Ichiro Final Piece To Yankees’ Explosive Outfield

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.

RIGHT-FIELD – NICK SWISHER  (24 HRs, 93 RBIs, .272 BA)

CENTER-FIELD – CURTIS GRANDERSON (43 HRs, 106 RBIs, .232 BA)

LEFT-FIELD – ICHIRO SUZUKI (9 HRs, 55 RBIs, .283 BA, 77 Runs, 29 SB)

Sometimes the outfield you leave spring training with is not the one you end up with. That us true for the Yankees this season.

Left-fielder Brett Gardner,29, played in only nine games before a diving catch in left resulted in a right elbow injury that eventually required surgery and wiped out pretty much his entire season. With his loss the Yankees also lost his 40-plus stolen bases and his Gold Glove-quality defense.

So the Yankees improvised and used 40-year-old Raul Ibanez and 35-year-old Andruw Jones to fill the hole Gardner left. Since Ibanez and Jones were expected to be the team’s platoon designated hitters, it allowed manager Joe Girardi to use veterans like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on more occasions at DH.

It worked pretty well.

Though the Yankees lacked speed on the bases and lost some defense in left, Ibanez and Jones combined to hit 18 home runs and drive in 51 runs in the team’s first 81 games. But because of their advanced age and because the Yankees kept hoping Gardner would return, the Ibanez-Jones platoon in left was expected to be only temporary.

When Gardner was unable to return after a second rehab stint, the Yankees decided they had to make a move and they obtained All-Star and multiple Gold Glove-winning outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners in a trade completed on July 23.

Suzuki, 38, immediately brought all the elements to the Yankees that Gardner was expected to provide. Suzuki agreed to come to the Yankees to play left-field, hit eighth in the lineup and to sit against some left-handed pitching.

Suzuki had been a shell of his former self in Seattle. He hit a career low .272 in 2011 and he was hitting just .261 with four home runs and 28 RBIs with the Mariners when he was obtained. General manager Brian Cashman hoped a change in scenery and an opportunity to play for a contender would re-energize Suzuki.

It did, too.

Suzuki immediately meshed in the clubhouse and, as he got more comfortable in pinstripes, his bat heated up and he took off.

Suzuki hit .297 in August and an amazing .385 in September. He also was so instrumental in the Yankees’ late-season push to the American League East title that Girardi moved him to the No. 2 spot in the order and kept him in the lineup against left-handers.

With Derek Jeter batting leadoff, the Yankees have the two best singles hitters of their generation in one lineup. Between the two of them, they have 5,910 major-league hits and a career batting average of .317.

They may have seen their better days on the bases but both are capable to stealing a bag when it is necessary.

Since becoming a Yankee, Suzuki has hit five home runs, drove in 27 runs and batted .317 with 14 stolen bases. With a chance to win his first championship since coming from Japan in 2001, Suzuki is playing as if he wants it real bad.

This deal by Cashman was a real gem and it could pay off big this postseason.

Meanwhile, in right, just call Nick Swisher “Mr. Consistency.”

In his four seasons with the Yankees, Swisher, 31, has hit between 23 and 29 homers and driven in between 82 and 93 runs each season. In the first half of this season, Swisher hit 12 home runs and drove in 46 runs. In the final 81 games, Swisher hit 12 home runs and drove in 47 runs.

How about that for numbers you can count upon?

That has been a Swisher hallmark throughout his career and the Yankees needed him to deliver this season in the absence of Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira for big stretches of the second half. Swisher even hit .273, which is his second highest average in the majors since he hit .288 for the Yankees in 2010.

Swisher also was forced to move from right-field to play first base when Teixeira was injured and he played above-average defense there.

This was an important time for Swisher because he is in the final year of his contract and he can become a free agent at the end of the season.

With the Yankees committed to reducing payroll by the start of the 2014 season and with Robinson Cano looking for lucrative multi-year deal to stay in pinstripes, there is a good possibility Swisher may be playing his last season for the Yankees.

That would be a shame because Swisher’s ability to provide power, production, work pitch counts, play solid defense and his enthusiasm for the game are valuable assets to the team. He would be very hard to replace.

The same goes for Curtis Granderson in center-field.

Granderson followed up a career year in 2011 with 41 home runs, 119 RBIs and a league-leading 136 runs scored with another powerful season in 2012. He hit 43 home runs, drove in 106 runs and scored 102 runs.

Of course, with Granderson you have to take the bad with the good. Granderson hit a respectable .262 in 2011, which is exactly what his career average is. But this season, Granderson hit a career-low .232 and he struck out a career-high 195 times.

Pitchers gave him a steady diet of breaking balls in the dirt and fastballs away and Granderson seemed reluctant to go to the opposite field, particularly with the short porch in right-field of Yankee Stadium a tempting target.

So when Granderson slumps, he can go into long periods where he can’t buy a hit. After a first half in which hit 23 home runs, drove in 48 runs and hit .241, his average dropped nine points while he hit 20 home runs and drove in a much better 58 runs.

Again, with Granderson you take the bad with the good and give Granderson credit because he did lead the team in home runs and RBIs. His contract expires after the 2013 season so the Yankees have to do some head-scratching to figure out how to please Cano, Swisher and Granderson without breaking the bank.

Though the plan when Suzuki was acquired to play Ibanez and Jones less in the outfield, injuries forced Girardi to use both a lot more in the second half than he would have liked.

When Swisher moved to first base to replace Teixeira, Ibanez and Jones were platooned in left-field while Suzuki played right.

Ibanez finished with some pretty good numbers.

He hit 19 home runs, drove in 62 runs and hit .240. He fell off a bit from his first-half numbers (11 homers, 35 RBIs and .237) but that was mostly because he played a bit less and also because he went into a terrible slump at the end of August that extended until he finally caught fire again in the final 11 games he played.

Jones, on the other hand, was a much different story in the second half.

After hitting seven home runs, driving in 16 runs and hitting .230 in the first half, Jones went AWOL pretty much for the entire second half.

He hit another seven home runs, drove in 18 runs but his average dipped an alarming 33 points and he finished at .197. Late in the season Girardi opted to use Eduardo Nunez at DH rather than start Jones against a left-hander.

As a result, Jones was given the word that he will not be on the postseason roster and his days in pinstripes are likely over.

MIDSEASON GRADES:

GARDNER – I

GRANDERSON – A-

SWISHER – B-

IBANEZ – B

JONES – C

SECOND-HALF GRADES:

GRANDERSON – B+

SWISHER – B+

SUZUKI – B+

IBANEZ – C

JONES – D

OVERALL GRADES:

GRANDERSON – B+

SWISHER – B+

SUZUKI – B+

IBANEZ – C+

JONES – D+

The Yankees also played Nunez, Jayson Nix, Dewayne Wise, Chris Dickerson and Melky Mesa in the outfield this season.

Nix and Nunez are primarily infielders, but Nix has played some outfield in the past and acquits himself well in left. The Nunez experiment in the outfield was declared over after some awful misplays early in the season proved he was not suited to play the outfield.

Wise, 34,was released at midseason when Suzuki arrived and he was later picked up by the Chicago White Sox. He got more playing time there and ended up hitting .259 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs and 19 stolen bases for the Yankees and Chisox combined.

Dickerson, 30, has spent the past two seasons with the Yankees, mostly at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Dickerson was recalled on Sept. 1 and hit .286 with two home runs and five RBis in 14 at-bats.

Mesa, 25, was also recalled on Sept. 1 when the rosters expanded and hit .500 in two at-bats in three games.

Dickerson hit .316 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs and he stole 17 bases in 69 games. Mesa hit .230 with nine home runs and 21 RBIs in just 33 games after being promoted from Double-A Trenton.

Colin Curtis, 27, struggled in his comeback season at Scranton after suffering a separated shoulder in spring training in 2011. He hit only .220 with one home run and 23 RBIs in 71 games.

Cole Garner, 27, hit .258 with six home runs and 25 RBIs in 64 games.

Neither Curtis or Garner figure much in the Yankees’ future plans.

However, the Yankees do have a boatload of good young outfield prospects below Triple A.

Mason Wiiliams, 21, is a five-tool center-fielder who hit a combined .298 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in 91 games with Class-A Charleston and High-A Tampa of the Florida State League. Williams is the Yankees No. 2 prospect behind catcher Gary Sanchez. A torn labrum in his right shoulder ended his season in August but the Yankees are high on his future.

Tyler Austin, 21, followed up a season in which he hit .345 in 2011 by hitting a combined .322 in 110 games as he advanced from Class-A Charleston to Double-A Trenton. He also hit a combined 17 home runs and drove in 80 runs this season. Austin was used at first and third base in previous seasons but played exclusively in right-field this season. Austin is ranked third right behind Williams.

Former 2009 No. 1 pick Slade Heathcott, 22, caught fire this season at High-A Tampa and hit .302 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 60 games. Heathcott is a lefty hitter who slashes at the plate and has very good speed. Heathcott is ranked fifth as a prospect for the Yankees.

In spring training this past March, Zoilo Almonte, 23, caught Girardi’s eye with his bat. Almonte hit .277 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs in 106 games at Trenton. Originally thought of as a potential fourth outfielder in the majors, if Almonte’s power continues to improve he could change that opinion. Almonte is ranked seventh.

When you think Ramon Flores, 20, think of a very raw Ichiro Suzuki. Flores hit a robust .302 with six homers, 39 RBis and 24 stolen bases in 131 games with High-A Tampa. Flores is the 10th-rated Yankee prospect but he is rising like a bullet.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B+

With a postseason outfield of Granderson, Suzuki and Swisher you have an excellent mix of power (76 homers), production (254 RBIs), some speed (41 stolen bases) and some range and ability on defense, particularly with Suzuki in left.

You add outfield backups in Ibanez, Gardner and Nix and you have a pretty solid veteran bench, too.

Swisher and Granderson provide premium power and Suzuki is a perfect table setter with Jeter in the first two spots of the batting order.

Give Cashman credit for striking the perfect deal to replace Gardner in left with Suzuki and the Yankees enter the postseason with the most productive outfield of all the teams who made it to the playoffs. Offensively and defensively it is hard to match this trio.

It has been a strength of the Yankees for most of the season, particularly since Suzuki was added to the mix on July 24 to replace the defensively inferior tandem of Ibanez and Jones.

This may be an older group but in the playoffs experience counts for a lot.

 

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.

 

Martin Catches Fire At Right Time To Save 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.

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.

 

Yankees’ 3 Homers Cooks Bosox’s Goose In Bronx

GAME 99

YANKEES 10, RED SOX 3

The Boston Red Sox are like a cockroach who is on its back with its legs swinging like crazy to stay alive as a huge boot is poised to rub out its very existence. The New York Yankees are that boot and on Friday they came  a step closer to bringing it down on the helpless insect.

Curtis Granderson blasted a grand slam home run and Raul Ibanez and Russell Martin both stroked two-run shots as New York demolished Boston in front of an ebullient crowd of 49,571 at Yankee Stadium.

Phil Hughes pitched around the three solo home runs he allowed to complete a solid seven innings to earn his 10th victory of the season. Hughes (10-8) gave up three runs on five hits and one walk and fanned five batters en route to raising his record to 6-3 with a 2.88 ERA in his 10 starts since July 1.

Hughes was touched for a solo home run in the first inning by Dustin Pedroia that gave the Red Sox a short-lived 1-0 lead. Hughes later surrendered solo shots to Carl Crawford in the third and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the fourth but recovered to retire 11 of the last 12 hitters he faced.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were able to take advantage of a Red Sox starting rotation that entered the game with 12th-ranked staff ERA in the American League.

Journeyman 33-year-old right-hander Aaron Cook (2-4) was greeted rudely with three runs in the opening inning, two of them coming on a two-run home run by Ibanez on a pitch that was actually about neck high on the outside corner. However, Ibanez was able to tomahawk the pitch and line it into the right-field bleachers for his 13th homer of the season.

Ibanez’s at-bat would never have occurred if Mark Teixeira had not beat out a potential inning-ending double-play grounder that scored Granderson to tie the game.

Two innings later, Derek Jeter and Granderson started the inning with back-to-back singles. After a fielder’s choice moved the pair up a base, Teixeira drove in his second run of the game with a sacrifice fly to left.

The next inning, Ichiro Suzuki, who was making his Yankee Stadium debut in pinstripes, lined a one-out single and Martin followed by smacking a low line-drive shot into the left-field bleachers to give the Yankees a 6-3 lead.

Cook left after four innings, having given up six runs on seven hits and one walk while striking out one.

The Yankees removed all hope of a late rally by the Red Sox with four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning off former Yankee right-hander Mark Melancon.

Andruw Jones led off the inning with a double to the gap in right-center. Melancon then hit Eric Chavez with his next offering. After a pair of fielder’s choice outs left Suzuki at second and Martin at first, Melancon walked Jeter on a 3-2 pitch.

Granderson then launched a 1-0 fastball deep into the bleachers in right-center to clear the bases and give the Yankees a seven-run margin the Red Sox knew they could not overcome.

With the victory, the Yankees improved their record to a major-league best 60-39 and they now lead the second-place Baltimore Orioles in the American League East by 8 1/2 games. The Red Sox, meanwhile have lost six of their past seven games and they are 11 1/2 games out in last place in the division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Hughes now has been tagged for 25 home runs at Yankee Stadium this season, which is tied for the most in the majors. However, all three were solo shots and Hughes only gave up two other hits in the game and both were in the first inning after Pedroia’s homer. Hughes ended that inning by fanning Saltalamacchia. Hughes has registered 58 strikeouts in his last 68 2/3 innings.
  • Granderson’s home run was the Yankees’ seventh grand slam of the season and it was Granderson’s 28th home run overall. Granderson was 3-for-5 in the game and in his last five games he is 8-for-22 (.364) with three home runs and six RBIs. Granderson also moved into second on the team in RBIs with 58.
  • Ibanex entered the game 3-for-20 (.150) in his last six games but was 1-for-2 with two walks and a strikeout. His home run was only his fourth since May 28.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

Nothing! Hughes was solid and the Yankees used three homers to score 10 runs and they beat their arch-rival in a very decisive fashion. So I can’t complain about a thing.

BOMBER BANTER

Nick Swisher took batting practice and ran the bases on Friday before the game. But he did not start and only was available as a pinch-hitter, manager Joe Girardi said. Swisher has missed the past six games with a strained left hip flexor. It is possible that Swisher could start in Saturday’s game depending on how he feels.  . . .  Right-handed reliever Joba Chamberlain threw a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium before Friday’s game and he is scheduled to make his next rehab appearance for Double-A Trenton on Sunday. Chamberlain is poised to return to the Yankees soon after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year and suffering an open dislocation of his right ankle this spring.

ON DECK

The Yankees are now 6-1 this season against the Red Sox as they continue their weekend series with Boston on Saturday.

The Yankees could deal another knockout blow to the Red Sox with ace left-hander CC Sabathia (10-3, 3.30 ERA) on the mound. Sabathia pitched seven strong innings and could have won his 11th game if Rafael Soriano had not blown a save against the Oakland Athletics on Sunday. Sabathia is 7-9 with a 4.14 ERA lifetime against the Bosox.

The Red Sox will counter with struggling left-hander Jon Lester (5-8, 5.46 ERA). Lester is coming off the worst start of his major-league career. He was blasted for four home runs and 11 runs against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday. Lester also has lost his only start against the Yankees this season at Fenway Park on July 8. He is 8-4 with a 4.33 in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 4:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by FOX Sports.

 

Yankees Give Big Sigh Of Relief As Soriano Shines

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.  

RELIEF PITCHERS

RAFAEL SORIANO (2-0, 1.72 ERA, 19 SAVES)

DAVID ROBERTSON (0-3, 2.42 ERA)

BOONE LOGAN (3-0, 3.54 ERA)

CORY WADE (0-1, 5.79 ERA)

CLAY RAPADA (2-0, 3.00 ERA)

CODY EPPLEY (0-0, 2.53 ERA)

D.J. MITCHELL (0-0, 3.38 ERA)

The New York Yankees season could have very easily ended on May 3 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

Future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera was shagging balls during batting practice, as has been his custom his entire career, when his right knee buckled as he reached the warning track. Rivera went down in a heap and the Yankees lost the best closer in the history of the game for the rest of the season.

However, on May 22 the Yankees ran off a record of 28-11 and they moved from tied for last place in the American League East 5 1/2 games behind to first place in the division and five games ahead.

The starting pitching was a big reason why. The starters who struggled in April pitched better. But there was something else that kept the Yankees going without Mariano Rivera.

That something was Rafael Soriano.

Soriano, 32, was signed by the Yankees for $12 million a season over three seasons in the winter of 2011. Soriano had just come off a season in which he saved a league-leading 45 games in 48 chances with the Tampa Bay Rays and compiled a 3-2 record with a 1.73 ERA.

But why pay so much for someone who would not close games?

General manager Brian Cashman quickly pointed out publicly the signing was not his idea and he disavowed it. But after the Yankees lost out in trying to sign left-hander Cliff Lee the front office figured that with Rivera, Soriano and David Robertson that the Yankees could shorten the game to overcome their starting pitching deficiencies.

On paper, it made sense. In practice, it did not work out entirely as planned.

Soriano was hit hard early and often at the start of the 2011 season. The fans quickly turned on him for his seeming uncaring attitude as he pitched worse and worse. Then he ended up on the disabled list for two months with soreness in his right elbow. The fans also do not like players drawing rich contracts while rehabbing injuries.

Soriano did come back and ultimately was given the seventh inning as Robertson owned the ninth and Rivera was king of the ninth. Soriano finished the 2011 season with a 2-3 mark and a gaudy 4.12 ERA. He saved two games and blew three others.

Soriano then surprised a lot of people by deciding not exercise his opt-out clause in his three-year deal. He was getting paid good money to pitch the seventh inning and he figured it was more advantageous for him to stay. As far as Yankee fans go, they may have enjoyed booing him, but Soriano saved the Yankees’ season by deciding to stay.

When Robertson failed in his first attempt to close for Rivera on May 9 against the Rays and then ended up on the disabled list for a month with a left oblique injury, Soriano was reborn as a closer. He is also proving to be very good at it.

Since he has taken over, Soriano has saved 19 games out of his 20 opportunities and erased the team’s fears they could not win without Mo.

The fans? They booed him unmercifully at Yankee Stadium when he blew his only save on June 10 against the Mets. Tough crowd.

Yankee fans should be hoisting this man up and celebrating him because Soriano will be a big component of the Yankees’ run in the playoffs. They certainly do miss Mo but they have to be thankful they have a replacement in Soriano who has saved 91 games out of 99 chances since the 2009 season. That is a 92 percent success rate.

The Yankees actually have other more pressing bullpen issues. They revolve around Robertson, who came off the 15-day disabled list on June 15.

In the 11 appearances Robertson, 27, has made beginning on June 15, he is 0-2 with a 4.35 ERA. That is a far cry from the Robertson who made 13 appearances before May 9 and was unscored upon in his first 13 innings of the season with 23 strikeouts.

The Yankees need Robertson to settle back into his groove and just, well, be Robertson again. We will see how it unfolds after the All-Star break.

The injuries to Rivera and Robertson have meant that Boone Logan has pitched in more games and for more innings than he has been used since he was acquired by the Yankees in 2009. The most innings he ever pitched in pinstripes was the 41 2/3 innings he pitched last season in 64 appearances.

But because Logan is no longer the lefty specialist in the bullpen he is being used more often and for longer stretches. Logan, 27, has already thrown 29 2/3 innings and made 41 appearances.

The strain is beginning to show. Logan’s ERA for the first three months was excellent: He was 2-0 with a 2.54 ERA on June 30. But in July, Logan has been scored upon in all four of his appearances and, if anybody deserved an All-Star break it was Logan.

The hope is that Logan will bounce back in the second half and pitch like he did before June 30. The Yankees need Logan to be good in the seventh inning so the Yankees can use Robertson in the eighth and Soriano in the ninth. Logan will be a big key to the Yankees in the second half, no doubt.

Manager Joe Girardi has been praised, and rightfully so, for his ability to maximize a bullpen. This season he has proven what a skill it is.

The Yankees found a lefty specialist in side-armer Clay Rapada during spring training and Rapada has been excellent as getting left-handers out since the 2012 season began.

Rapada, 31, is holding left-handed hitters to a .150 average this season. Amazingly, Rapada is retiring right-handers also. They are hitting .227 off him. But Girardi has wisely tried to keep Rapada as a specialist as much as he can this season.

The Yankees also got lucky when the Texas Rangers waived 26-year-old side-arming right-hander Cody Eppley early in the season. The Yankees claimed him and sent him to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Recalled on April 20, Eppley has provided Girardi with a righty specialist to twin with Rapada.

The results have been very good. Eppley is holding right-handers to a .231 average. Much like Rapada with right-handers, Girardi must keep Eppley away from dangerous left-handed hitters. Overall, Eppley has done an excellent job and he and Rapada have strengthened what already was an excellent bullpen.

That can’t be said of Cory Wade, however.

Wade, 29, was picked up off waivers from the Rays in 2011 – much like Eppley was this season – and he put together a great season. Wade was 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA last season and drew a lot of praise from Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

But 2012 has a been nightmare for Wade.

He compiled an ERA of 1.69 in April and an ERA of 2.92 in May. But in June, Wade hit the skids and he has not recovered.

Beginning on June 16, Wade gave up a home run to Ian Desmond of the Washington Nationals in a game the Yankees won 5-3. Since then, Wade has given up 16 runs in his last 8 innings covering his last seven appearances. Wade’s ERA has ballooned to 6.48 and he has been sent back to Scranton to try and get his groove back.

The Yankees filled out their bullpen just before the break by calling up Triple-A starter D.J. Mitchell to be the long man in the bullpen now that Freddy Garcia is being used as a starter to replace the injured Andy Pettitte.

Mitchell, 25, has a 2.45 ERA in 3 2/3 innings covering three appearances. Mitchell was 5-4 with a 5.36 ERA at Scranton in 14 starts but Mitchell may have more value as a reliever in the majors because he has the best sinking fastball in the organization.

The Yankees would like to use him in situations they might need a double play. But Mitchell is strictly a long man for now.

To replace Wade, the Yankees picked up veteran right-hander Chad Qualls off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies.

Qualls, 33, is 0-0 with a 2.70 ERA in 3 1/3 innings over three games. That is certainly a step up from what the Yankees have been getting from Wade. We will see if he continue to pitch well in the second half.

Overall, this has been one of the best, if not the best, bullpens in baseball this season despite the loss of Rivera.

Girardi was able to slide Soriano into the closer’s role and he has Robertson and Logan to pitch in setup roles. Plus he can mix and match with the righty-lefty combo of Eppley and Rapada. Wade is the only reliever who has been a major disappointment but Qualls was picked up to fill his role until Wade finds it again or not.

MIDESEASON GRADES:

RIVERA: I (for Incomplete)

SORIANO: A

ROBERTSON: B+

LOGAN: B+

WADE: C-

RAPADA: B+

EPPLEY: B

QUALLS: I (for Incomplete)

MITCHELL: I (for Incomplete)

OTHERS

DAVID PHELPS (1-1, 6.46 as a reliever)

RYOTA IGARASHI (0-0, 22.50 ERA)

David Phelps began the season in the bullpen as the long reliever and he actually pitched much better than his ERA indicates. He was shelled for three runs in back-to-back appearances against the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox in late April.

But Phelps, 25, is more suited as a starter and is thought of that way by the organization. After two starts in place of Freddy Garcia in early May, Phelps was sent back to the bullpen when Pettitte was activated on May 13. He stayed until June 2, when he was shipped to Double-A Trenton to get his arm in shape to become a starter.

However, before the process could be completed Pettitte was placed on the disabled list with a broken tibia in his right leg and CC Sabathia had to be shelved because of a groin injury.

Phelps was recalled and pitched out of the bullpen until he was pressed into a start against the Rays on the Fourth of July. Phelps struck out eight batters and gave up only one run in 4 1/3 innings in his best performance of the season.

Now Phelps has been sent back to Trenton to complete the process of building up his pitch count so he can start. It is unclear when Phelps might return to the Yankees or what role he will assume. My guess is we have seen the last of Phelps as a reliever, barring an injury.

Igarashi was called up to fill a spot in the bullpen on May 25 and pitched poorly in the two games in which he pitched. He was sent back to Scranton and was recalled again on June 8 and he gave one run in his one inning of work against his former Met teammates.

Igarashi, 33, is 1-1 with a 2.63 ERA and three saves at Scranton this season. He is there for depth purposes but the Yankees could do better. Igarashi does not appear to be the answer for the Yankees based on what he has done in three games.

MIDSEASON GRADES

PHELPS : I (for Incomplete)

IGARASHI: I (for Incomplete)

The Yankees have some veteran relievers at Scranton, including Igarashi.

Kevin Whelan 28, is the main closer and is 3-0 with a 3.55 ERA and 12 saves.

Meanwhile, left-hander Juan Cedeno, 28, is 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA and former Red Sox right-hander Manny Delcarmen is 2-4 with a 3.86 ERA.

The most impressive young relievers the Yankees are developing are Preston Claiborne, 24, and Chase Whitley, 23.

Claiborme was just promoted to Scranton after going 2-2 with a 2.22 ERA and saving five games at Trenton.

Whitley is 5-4 with a 4.22 ERA in 27 games in Scranton.

Both are right-handers.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B+

There are whispers that Rivera is progressing well in his rehab after surgery on his right knee and that he might be able to pitch this season. That would be bad news to the teams in the A.L. East staring up out of a huge hole in which the Yankees have placed them.

Whether Rivera returns or not the Yankees have an exceptional bullpen that rarely coughs up leads late in the game.

Soriano has 19 saves after 81 games and he has been sensational as Rivera’s stand-in.

There are some concerns before the second half begins.

Both Robertson and Logan need recapture their early-season form. They both have a long enough track records in the majors that they should be able to rebound. Robertson just needs to regain command of the strike zone and Logan just needs rest after absorbing a huge workload in the first half.

Logan leads the American League in appearances and that is an aberration from what Girardi and Rothschild would like from him. But Rivera’s loss impacted Logan the most and he has been forced to pitch a lot of innings and it is catching up to him. Hopefully, the rest over the break rejuvenates his valuable left arm.

The Yankees also have to hope that Wade rediscovers his karma in the minors. Most of the karma he has been exhibiting on the mound these days is bad.

Rapada and Eppley have proved to very valuable specialists and they have been impressive in the first half. They just have to continue to do what they have been doing.

Qualls is a place-holder for Wade and Girardi seems to trust him.

Mitchell can be valuable as a long man but Girardi rarely calls on him. His sinker could have some value in the second half and he is the one reliever that can give Girardi a lot of innings out of the bullpen.

The biggest hope for the second half has nothing to do with any of the pitchers I mentioned.

The Yankees just sent Joba Chamberlain out on a minor-league rehab stint. Because Chamberlain, 26, is coming off Tommy John surgery in 2011 and a severely displaced fractured right ankle, the Yankees were not really expecting much out of the big right-hander.

But if all goes well in his extended rehab stint, Chamberlain could return to the Yankees within a month. That would be a big boost to the Yankees and it should make Logan really smile.

Yankee fans may have forgotten that Chamberlain was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA in 27 games before injuring his elbow last season. If he can get back to that level, Chamberlain could a valuable piece to the bullpen in the sceond half and heading into the playoffs.

The Yankees also had high hopes for former Seattle Mariners closer David Aardsma in the second half. Aardsma, 30, was coming off Tommy John surgery himself last July and was making his final rehab appearances when he suffered a setback and had to be shut down.

Aardsma underwent some tests and is consulting Dr. James Andrews, who performed his surgery, about what his next step will be. But it looks doubtful Aardsma will be able to help the Yankees this season. That is a shame.

But the way the Yankees’ bullpen has been gong this season, they may not need him. The return of Chamberlain, however, could be a real big boost.

 

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