At the halfway point of the Grapefruit League season let’s look at how the spring position battles are shaping up with the New York Yankees. The analysis will include statistics, track records and a “scout’s eye” view at projecting a winner.
No. 4 and No. 5 starters
Bartolo Colon, 37, 1-0 3.00 ERA, 12 K’s, 1.00 WHIP
Fredy Garcia, 34, 1-1 4.70 ERA, 6 K’s, 1.30 WHIP
Sergio Mitre, 30, 1-0 0.00 ERA, 4 K’s, 1.00 WHIP
Ivan Nova, 24, 0-0 2.25 ERA, 3 K’s, 1.25 WHIP
Nova is a clear-cut favorite for the No. 4 spot in the rotation. His star has risen this spring because of how many inquiries about his availability from other teams. Nova does not have a dominant pitch but he competes and the Yankees like that about him.
Some in Yankee circles believe Nova will be the odd man out because he has options left back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But that may not be the case at all because manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have told reporters they will take the best arms north with them, period.
Nova is not in the category of past Yankee prospects like Phil Hughes. Some scouts believe he overachieved last season at Scranton, where he was 12-3 with a 2.86 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 145 innings.
But Rothschild and Girardi like his makeup and his fearlessness on the mound. So unless Nova really flops in the next two weeks, he is strong favorite to hold the No. 4 spot in the rotation.
Mitre is behind several eight balls this spring. The problem with Mitre is that he performed exceptionally well out the bullpen last season. He did not pitch as well in his three starts. So the Yankees seem to view him as more of a long relief and spot starter candidate.
Mitre did not help his cause by coming up with a mild left oblique strain on the night he was to start against the Red Sox on Monday. He has only pitched five innings this spring and none have them have been starts. So it is hard to say Mitre will have the ability to pull things together in time to make the team as a starter.
With only one bullpen spot open, Mitre is more likely to get that role. One thing weighing heavily in his favor is that Girardi and Rothschild have a history with him. Rothschild worked with him when he was with the Cubs and Girardi used him as a starter when he managed the Marlins in 2007.
Mitre also is different from any of the other relievers the Yankees have in that he can induce ground balls with his sinker.
That leaves Garcia and Colon vying for the No. 5 spot. When camp opened Garcia was the front-runner and, despite Garcia’s weak outing on Sunday against the Twins, he remains the front-runner at the halfway point.
The reason is Garcia’s track record. Garcia made 28 starts with the Chicago White Sox in 2010 and was 12-6 with a 4.64 ERA. He is high WHIP pitcher at 1.38, which means he has to battle with whatever he’s got to get out of jams.
When he is “on,” Garcia can be very good. In 15 starts last season, he held opponents to two runs or fewer. But as the high ERA would suggest, when he is not “on” he can be knocked around like the proverbial boxing tomato can.
If the decision on the No. 5 spot were necessary to be made today, Garcia would clearly have the edge over Colon.
Colon has not pitched in the major leagues since the mid-2009 season, when he was cut by the White Sox after 12 starts, a 3-6 record and a 4.19 ERA. Colon was invited to spring training on the basis of pitching exceptional baseball on a winter league team managed by Yankee bench coach Tony Pena.
Colon surprised the Yankees in two ways. No. 1 he reported to camp heavier than his listed 265 pounds, which displeased the front office. But he has wowed Rothschild and Girardi with his 93-mile-per-hour fastball and devastating sinker.
The Yankees do see Colon as an effective potential No. 5 starter. But they are somewhat leery about his past health issues and his weight problems. But Colon holds more promise because Garcia can’t throw with the same velocity as Colon.
So it comes down to a breaking ball artist with a proven track record of durability against a promising former Cy Young Award winner with a blazing fastball and the waistline of Shamu the Killer Whale.
There is still time for Colon to edge his way into the mix. But it will not be at the expense of Nova. Garcia would be the loser.
The more likely scenario is that the Yankees will offer Colon a minor-league contract with a date specified that if he is not called up he could catch on with another team. This way Colon could work on his weight and the Yankees can evaluate his progress at Triple-A.
Eric Chavez, 33, .370 BA, 5 doubles, 0 home runs and 2 RBIs
Jorge Vazquez, 29, .464 BA, 3 doubles, 3 home runs, 8 RBIs
If this decision came to strictly hitting, Vazquez would the big favorite to win this job. But the Yankees are not going to look at it purely from the standpoint of hitting.
That is bad news for Vazquez.
Chavez has six Gold Gloves in his trophy case that he won as a starting third baseman with the Oakland A’s and the Yankees see his defense at third as superior to that of Vazquez.
The only question about Chavez as he arrived in camp as a non-roster player was his health. He has not played a full season of baseball since 2006. Back and neck injuries have limited him to just 64 games in the past three seasons.
However, Chavez has proven he is healthy this spring and he can only lose this job by getting injured. The Yankees have been impressed with is work ethic and the way he prepares for games. He also has been turning in solid at-bats throughout the spring.
Vazquez came out of nowhere almost. He had a sensational winter league season and was a Caribbean World Series MVP. When camp opened he was lacing line drives and blasting tape-measure shot home runs.
He carried that into the exhibition season and is the team leader in batting average and RBIs and is tied with Granderson with three home runs. So, to say Vazquez has made a positive impression on the Yankee top brass is putting it mildly.
However, he has options left to Triple-A and Chavez belongs on major-league roster. Scouts have said if the Yankees were to release Chavez he would be in high demand with about half of the remaining teams in baseball.
Some scouts believe he could start at third for more than five or six teams. So the Yankees are not letting him go.
Though Chavez needs to work at learning how to play first base in order to back up Mark Teixeira, they are comfortable with putting him in the lineup at third base on the days Alex Rodriguez needs a rest.
Vazquez is more suited as first baseman and his defense there is merely adequate. So he will be sent to Scranton and the Yankees would consider calling him up if anything happened to Chavez, Rodriguez or Teixiera.
He also could be used as a DH if anything happened to Jorge Posada for any length of time.
Eduardo Nunez, 23, .333 BA, 2 doubles, 1 home run, 5 RBIs, 5 SBs
Ramiro Pena, 25, .167 BA, 0 doubles, 0 home runs, 2 RBIs, 2 SBs
On the surface, this appears to be a lock for Nunez. But this is not such an easy decision for Girardi.
Girardi is very fond of Pena and what he has done as a backup infielder the past two seasons. He hit .287 in the 2009 championship season. But last season, Pena hit only .227 and he has been disappointing with the bat this spring.
Pena’s big calling card is his glove. He is an excellent fielder at second, shortstop and third. He also can play the outfield if called upon. He also can steal an occasional base. He stole seven bags in eight attempts last season.
Nunez, however, is the more accomplished hitter. He hit .289 with five home runs and 50 RBIs at Scranton in 2010. In 50 at-bats with the Yankees last season he hit .280.
Nunez is also more athletic and faster than Pena. Nunez stole 23 bases at Scranton and added five more with the Yankees. The question is: Would Nunez be too good a prospect to use as a reserve? Would he benefit more from another season at Triple-A where can develop more as a hitter, fielder and base-runner?
That is Pena’s only hope of winning the job now. Remember that the Yankees rejected a Cliff Lee trade from the Mariners last season because they did not want to add Nunez or Nova to the deal.
Nunez could be a starting shortstop now for some teams. But with the Yankees he may be relegated to backing up Jeter for four more years or he could be a trade chip for a starting pitcher later this season.
Either way, Pena is hanging by a thread to remain the backup here. He still has time to raise his average a bit and save his role. But he better get cracking soon or hope that Nunez flops the next two weeks.
Nunez may just be too good for Pena to hold off.