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Blogging Baseball: How Do Yankees Grade As Spring Training Opens?
February 20, 2009 - John Whittaker
It's cold, windy and snowing -- which makes this a perfect time for the first of probably 50 Yankees blogs you'll have the privilege of reading this year.
I know it's early, but frankly, I need a little spring on a day like today. I got a fricking ice cream headache walking from the car to the office. It's the thought of baseball, and the warm days and nights that come with it, that get us through a crappy day like this.
Since I'm not at Legends Field (unfortunately) the best thing I can do is at least focus a little on the product on the field (there's more to the game than steroids, thankfully). To start with, let's take a look at the Yankees and grade them, Bill Simmons style, now that pitchers and catchers have reported.
Infield: It's hard to argue with the offense the Yankees have put together in the infield. Alex Rodriguez is in the top 3 offensively at third base with or without his, um, helpers, Derek Jeter is still a top 10 shortstop, Robinson Cano continuously pops up among the top 6 or 8 offensive second basemen on any list despite his struggles last season, and Yankees fans (including you, News Gal) will love Mark Texeira. The infield is the heart of the team, and if it fulfills expectations, the Yankees should return to the playoffs. If Jeter starts feeling his age, Cano sucks again, Texeira gets off to a slow start and A-Rod struggles under the weight of being A-Rod, this could be a long year.
"Writes Of Spring" - And Yes, I Stole That From The Sports Guy
Bill Simmons once wrote this phenomenal column about the types of stories that come out of a typical spring training.
Usually, this is the time of year I start looking forward (if you read the column, Simmons did not) to stories about how the new guys are fitting in, how that journeyman pitcher who was given a non-roster invitation to camp is making out or what over-the-hill player is taking advantage of his last chance to make good. (see, Mussina, Mike, in 2008).
Now that spring training has officially started - the Yankees did hold their annual steroids news conference - it should be time for those stories to start trickling out of Tampa.
Alas, it's not to be.
They've been drowned out in the mass of A-Rod steroid stories.
I won't go into all the spring training angles Simmons discussed in this column in depth, but I will give a rundown of the categories and who it applies to on the 2009 Yankees.
As spring training moves on, and hopefully the New York media moves on from the A-Rod story, I'll be able to comment on some of these categories in more depth.
THE NEW GUY (Sabathia, Burnett, Texeira)
THE WASHED-UP GUY (Matsui)
THE SLEEPERS (Humberto Sanchez, Shelley Duncan)
THE UNHAPPY GUY (Has Yet To Be Named)
THE POSITION CHANGE (Nick Swisher)
THE FINAL STRAW (Melky Cabrera)
THE RECLAMATION PROJECT (Brett Tomko/Jason Johnson)
THE GUY WITH NO ANGLE (Mariano Rivera)
THE NEW COACH WITH THE MAGIC WAND (Girardi still applies)
THE INJURED-BUT-HOPEFUL PITCHER (Chien-Ming Wang)
THE GUY LOOKING TO MAKE AMENDS (Um…A-Rod)
THE GUILLOTINE GUY (Burnett)
THE DEPARTED, BITTER STAR (Carl Pavano - not a star, but it works)
THE CLUBHOUSE LEADER (Jeter)
THE JOURNEYMAN PITCHER WHO FINDS A HOME (Edwar Ramirez)
THE QUIRKY VETERAN (Swisher)
THE GUY WHO ALWAYS WANTED TO PLAY HERE (Texeira)
THE FOURTH OUTFIELDER WHO COULD START ON MANY OTHER TEAMS (Swisher)
THE LAST STAND (Melky Cabrera)
THE PHENOM (Phil Hughes)
THE NIGHTMARE PITCHER FROM HELL (Kei Igawa)
THE GUY WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE (Robinson Cano)
THE LOVABLE BENCH GUY (Johnny Damon, Jose Molina)
THE "KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR THIS GUY" GUY (Mark Melancon, Austin Jackson, Humberto Sanchez, Andrew Brackman)
Outfield: I'll tell you what Brian Cashman was thinking when he put this bunch together …. Actually, I have no idea whatsoever what Cashman was thinking. Either Matsui or Damon (both signed through 2009) needed to go so the team can get younger and more athletic, yet as spring training opens they're both vying for at-bats. He tried to build a team around pitching, but then gave it an outfield defense shakier than a one-legged fat guy. Nady, 29, hit 25 points better than his career batting average last year, and has been traded an awful lot for a 29-year-old with 30 home run power. Either he's been severely misjudged by several teams (my personal hope, kind of like Paul O'Neill) or he is what everybody thought he was (which sucks for the Yankees). In center, Melky Cabrera looked great through April last year, then took the David Caruso (if you don't know who he is, then the joke works perfectly) swan dive for the rest of the season. I love the way Brett Gardner runs the bases and plays defense, but I think he won't ever hit enough to be more than a fifth outfielder - he's the dictionary definition of a AAAA player (too good for Triple A, not good enough for the majors). Somewhere, Nick Swisher and his 219 batting average last year are trying to get into the lineup. Personally, I think Swisher's due for a rebound, and if he can hit .270, he'll probably hit about 30 homers and drive in between 90 and 100 runs, depending on where he hits in the lineup. Personally, I think the best players are Swisher, Nady, Damon/Matsui and Cabrera. And, you have perennial prospect Austin Jackson in camp -- if he outhits Gardner and Cabrera, how do you send him down to AAA? I haven't seen this many question marks since Oscar the Grouch held punctuation day on Seseme Street.
Defense: This team is solid at the corners defensively, and Jeter is at least average defensively (though statheads rail about his declining range). Cano, for all his physical gifts, makes about 10 too many boneheaded plays every season, and you just hope the pitching staff can work around them when they happen. Texeira is the best defensive first baseman the Yanks have had since Don Mattingly (yes, he's even better than Tino Martinez, who was no slouch over there). We have no clue what to expect from Posada behind the plate until later in spring training, but at his best he's average (throws decently, too many passed balls, blocks the plate well when he's in the mood). Outfield defense could be scary. If you combine Johnny Damon (arm issues) and Hideki Matsui (declining range), you would have a functional defensive leftfielder. Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner are fine defensively in center, though Gardner's arm is a little bit short for my tastes, and Nady is passable in right. I haven't seen Swisher enough to be able to make an informed decision, but I like the flexibility he brings. Still, I'm uneasy with the outfield defense right now, mainly because left field in Yankee Stadium is as challenging as most centerfields, and the Yankees have penciled in their worst defensive players there. Again, when you're building around two starters who need the ball put in play, you would think range and arm strength would be key for outfielders. Other than Cabrera, there isn't anyone whose arm you would classify as A+ or who you would say has better than average range. Hey, sign me for two years and $10 million - I can't run or throw either, and something tells me I'd hit like Melky and Brett Gardner.
Starting Pitching: Sabathia, Burnett, Wang, Pettitte, and your choice of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Humberto Sanchez, Andrew Brackman or another young guy who burns up Tampa this spring. This is what will make or break the season. I love the CC Sabathia signing - he's the top of the rotation guy you need in the playoffs (we'll overlook the vomit-inducing 1-3 record, 7.92 ERA and 5 innings he averages in his postseason starts). He has the attitude you want from a number 1 starter, and if the Yanks are in New York City on July 4, there's a chance he could win the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. I like Burnett, though he makes too much to be a number 3 starter, which is where he slots best. Frankly, I think Joba Chamberlain might have the best stuff of the three, though you don't know if he'll be in the rotation or the bullpen (more on that later). Then, you have Chien-Ming Wang, who was rounding into form when he got hurt last year and always wins between 18 and 20 games with a 3.7something ERA, and Andy Pettitte, who should give the Yanks 200 innings and be a solid lefty at the end of the rotation. If there are issues, Phil Hughes (don't make a liar out of me, Pocket Rocket) and a host of others are ready to step in with a lot less pressure than they faced last year. Yeah, I like our starting rotation a little bit.
Relief Pitching: The ninth inning is set - I'm taking Mariano Rivera at his word that he'll be ready for opening day. Some guys might have better stats, but Mo makes you feel all warm and snuggly when you have a lead in the ninth inning. I'm looking forward to another season of waking the News Gal up for the ninth inning, which is Mo Time. After him, there are some intriguing pieces, but nothing you really take to the bank, which makes me wonder if Joba Chamberlain doesn't spend this season as the eighth-inning lockdown reliever. He's got the makeup for it, he's definitely got the stuff for it, and the Yankees don't want to use him too much. I think it makes sense for him in the bullpen right now -- again, you get the warm and snuggly feeling with him throwing the eighth, and chances are I'll be waking the News Gal up an inning early when he's pitching. Damaso Marte is a decent lefty specialist, but can't be overused and should never pitch to lefthanders and righthanders (see, Girardi, Joe, misuse of Marte in 2008). Brian Bruney looks great one day, can't find the strike zone the next. I'd like to see him enter the game like he wants to be in there, rather than with that look on his face like he doesn't want to walk the bases loaded and then give up a bases-clearing triple. Jose Veras throws hard and was great before he hit the wall in August. If he's kept fresh, he could be the perfect eighth inning pitcher. Edwar Ramirez has an unbelievable changeup, but falls in love with it sometimes and then gets pounded. He's Adam Sandler circa Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore right now. He's effective with what he's got, but he'd be better if he'd broaden his horizons. The last guy to mention here is Phil Coke, who I liked from his late-season call-up last season, and hope he can make a dent in this year's bullpen. He's unproven, but showed flashes of being a nice pitcher. The top two guys in the pen (if Joba's not starting) are lights out. I feel fine with the rest of those guys in the sixth and seventh innings, but worry about them in constant pressure eighth innings. Let's just say, they have a ways to go before I feel warm and snuggly with them.
Grade: A+ (with Chamberlain in the bullpen), B- (without Chamberlain).
Managing: I'm still a big Joe Torre fan, but I'll admit the Yankees needed a new voice. Enter Joe Girardi, who did a decent job last year handling the mess he was given: two rookies in the starting rotation, losing your top starter in June, the sudden inability of anyone to hit in the clutch, Posada's yearlong injury struggles, Melky Cabrera forgetting how to hit (can we hire the hypnotherapist from Office Space for him?), Robinson Cano hitting Cindy Crawford's weight most of the season. That was all a lot for a second-year manager. But, Girardi has a lot to learn about handling a bullpen, about when to trust his starters and when to yank someone before a game is lost for good, and he needs to settle on some sort of lineup with the crapburger he's been handed in the outfield. He probably lost 10 games last year sticking with a pitcher a hitter or 10 too long, and that could be the difference between the playoffs and being canned in October this year.
Front Office: It's really difficult to grade Brian Cashman. I love the additions he made in the offseason, but would have liked to seen the outfield better defined. How can you go into a season without a bona-fide starting centerfielder? Maybe Melky Cabrera proves me wrong and remembers how to hit, but I'm as uneasy Fredo Corleone in a fishing boat right now about that proposition. Cashman couldn't have known the Ivan Rodriguez trade would backfire worse than the Edsel. For as often as he's tried to remake the pitching staff, nothing has worked (see Brown, Kevin; Vazquez, Javier; Johnson, Randy; Pavano, Carl; Wright, Jaret; Weaver, Jeff; Contreras, Jose; Karsay, Steve; Dotel, Octavio; Rodriguez, Felix). Really, the best moves he's made for the pitching so far were bringing up unheralded Aaron Small, trading for Shawn Chacon (good for a half-season before his subsequent implosion), bringing up Chien-Ming Wang in 2005, and signing Mike Mussina after the 2001 season. Before I can come up with a grade here, I need to let this offseason breathe a little before annointing Cashman the second coming of Gene Michael.
Best Move Of The Off-Season: Signing Texeira. It's not every day a 29-year-old, defensively gifted first baseman hits the open market. After the Yankees opened up the vault for Sabathia and Burnett, I didn't think they would be a player for Texeria, but then, out of the blue, the deal got done. He should provide solid protection for A-Rod, solidify the infield defense, hit between .290 and .310 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. I'm still trying to talk the News Gal into this move (she wanted to see Giambi come back, and she's not happy that Texeira took Giambi's number), but I'm convinced. Pitching wasn't the Yankees biggest problem last year - it was the offense. You need boppers to keep up in the American League East, and Texeira was the best non-Manny Ramirez slugger on the market, at a better price and about 10 years younger. It's amazing what a few hundred million dollars can do.
Worst Move Of The Off-Season: It's hard to say there was a worst move, but something needed to be done with centerfield and the glut of left fielders/designated hitters. No other team wanted one of the Yankees two used up leftfielders, and they couldn't get together with the Brewers on a deal for Mike Cameron, who would have hit .250 with a ton of strikeouts while playing really solid defense. If the Yanks get nothing out of those two positions, standing pat will be Cashman's biggest winter mistake and earn him a high spot on Hank Steinbrenner's People To Be Summarily Fired List.
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