With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.
PART FOUR – THE BENCH
PRIORITY NO. 1: Who will replace Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones?
The Yankees bench is the only place, other than the starting pitchers, where there will be a few changes. The Yankees will retain all their starters in 2012.
The bench will be a different story. starting at designated hitter.
Jesus Montero figures to be the current odds-on favorite to win that job coming off his very nice debut during the Yankees’ stretch run to the division title. Though he is only 21, Montero is showing skills with the bat that are far beyond his years.
Normally the Yankees would prefer to have a left-handed DH to take advantage of right-handed pitching and the short porch in right. But Montero has never been platooned in the minors and his power stroke is to right-center. If Montero does well in spring training it would be hard to keep him off the roster and even harder to not start him at DH.
Of course, there are those in the Yankee organization who believe Montero should develop as a catcher. But Montero’s defense behind the plate is still not as polished as it could be and the Yankees face a lot of teams like the Rays and Angels who will steal at the drop of a hat
But if Russell Martin is the starting catcher placing Montero as his backup would mean he would only start once a week and he could not DH, less the Yankees lose the DH if Martin is injutred. That is why it is more likely the Yankees will keep either Francisco Cervelli or rookie Austin Romine as the backup catcher to Martin.
Though Cervelli still needs to work on his throwing, he is still considered a very good defensive catcher who calls a good game and has the trust of the pitching staff. Likewise, both manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, who know a thing or two about catching believe that Romine, at age 22, is already a major-league catcher defensively.
The battle in the spring may come down to two factors:
(1) Cervelli, 25, will have to prove to the Yankees he is over the concussion that short-circuited his season in September and that he can stay healthy. Cervelli has sustained a broken wrist, various concussions and last season broke a bone in his right foot fouling off a pitch in spring training.
(2) Romine will have to prove he can improve as a hitter at the major-league level. Romine will never be the power threat Montero will become. But the Yankees would like him to at least hold his own much like Cervelli has since he has become the backup catcher.
Keeping either Cervelli or Romine will allow the Yankees to keep Montero as a DH and emergency catcher much like they had last season with Jorge Posada, though Posada was only used once in that capacity. Montero, however, could get some starts behind the plate against teams that do not steal bases. He surely will see some action behind the plate.
The only other holdover from the bench last season will be Eduardo Nunez, 24. Nunez received 309 at-bats last season as the primary infield backup in 2011. He was impressive, especially when he started at shortstop in place of an injured Derek Jeter and third base for an injured Alex Rodriguez.
Nunez hit .265 with five home runs and 30 RBIs. Nunez has the ability to drive the ball into the gaps and he also showed the ability to fly on the bases. In his 83 starts, he stole 22 bases. After that kind of rookie season, it is easy to see why general manager Brian Cashman bristled when the Seattle Mariners sought to add Nunez to a deal to bring Cliff Lee to the Yankees in 2010 that Cashman said no.
However, Nunez comes into camp with a lot of work to do on his defense. Nunez led the Yankees in errors with 20.
Nunez is tall and lean and his footwork on ground balls is atrocious. That leads to a lot of fielding errors. In addition, Nunez tends to throw wildly to first when pressed by fast runners or when he has to range deep for balls. That will take a lot of work this offseason and this spring to correct. The Yankees realize he will never be Ozzie Smith. They just would like him to cut his error rate to a respectable level.
Otherwise, 26-year-old Ramiro Pena will have a shot to reclaim his old job back. Though Pena is a lot steadier in the field, he hit only .100 in 40 at-bats last season and he does not have the line-drive bat or speed that Nunez presents.
Besides Posada, to whom the Yankees will decline to offer a contract, the Yankees also will not bring back reserve outfielder Andruw Jones or reserve infielder Eric Chavez.
Jones was largely a disappointment until midseason, when he got hot and hit .291 with nine home runs and 21 RBIs. Jones, 34, finished the season with a .247 average, 13 home runs and 33 RBIs as the right-handed=hitting DH and backup outfielder.
Chavez, 34, probably would be welcomed back by the Yankees if he wanted to play for the team. But Chavez is looking to possibly signing as a free agent to resume his career as a starting third baseman.
Chavez signed with the Yankees as a backup because of a series of neck and back injuries had him shelved for the better portions of the previous four seasons. Chavez signed with the Yankees in hopes of being able to re-establish himself as a starter who can still help a club.
He failed to stay healthy with the Yankees, though, when he broke a bone in his right foot running the bases in Detroit in early May and he did not return until July. In 160 at-bats, Chavez hit .263 with two home runs and 26 RBIs.
The Yankees would love to have his left-hand bat back as a backup to Rodriguez, who has been slowed by nagging injuries himself for the past four seasons and who is need of more rest these days at age 36. Chavez also spellled Mark Teixeira at first base and provided a veteran left-handed bat off the bench.
So now the Yankees will be looking to add a right-handed hitting outfielder and a lefty hitter who can play some first base and maybe some outfield and third.
The reason they need a right-handed hitting outfielder is because Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson are left-handed hitters and Nick Swisher is a switch-hitter who will hit primarily as lefty with the predominantly right-handed starters in baseball. It would be nice to have a right-handed hitter to spell either Gardner, Granderson and Swisher.
In addition, Gardner hit a paltry .233 against left-handers last season. It would be nice to have a free-agent outfielder like Reed Johnson, who as a right-handed hitter who batted .309 overall and .305 against left-handers in 2011. Johnson is hustling overachiever who also plays solid defense in all three outfield spots. The only thing he can’t do like Gardner is run. He has only 39 career steals.
That is the kind of cheap role player the Yankees will be looking for. The Yankees do have a lot of young outfielders in the minors such as Chris Dickerson, Greg Golson, Justin Maxwell, Colin Curtis and Melky Mesa. But Dickerson and Curtis hit left-handed and Golson and Mawelll have been disappointments as right-handed hitters. Mesa, 24, may need a year of seasoning before he is ready.
The Yankees also will be in the market for a left-handed hitting infielder who can play first, some third and perhaps the outfield. In other words, they are looking for an “Eric Hinske type.” Hinske, 34, has made a career as backup at third, first and the outfield and he has played on a lot of teams that have made the playoffs.
Last season, he hit .238 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs in 236 at-bats with the Braves. Hinske, however, is not a free agent.
The Yankees might take a look at Russell Branyan, 36, who has hit two of the longest home runs in Yankee Stadium history. Branyan hit .197 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in 127 at-bats for the Diamondbacks and the Angels last season. Branyan can play first, third and the outfield, however, he would be a real liability in the outfield.
But Branyan can still hit for power. He has 194 career home runs and most of them have been as a bench player.
He also could help the Yankees as a lefty DH against some tough right-handers.
The Yankees do have Brandon Laird to play both first and third base. However, Laird is a right-handed hitter and the Yankees are already loaded with right-handed hitters on the bench. Laird seems more likely to be ticketed back to Triple-A or a trade to another organization with A-Rod blocking his path to the majors.
But, in any case, the Yankees are not going out of their way to sign expensive free agent hitters this winter. If Yankee fans envision a lineup of Albert Pujols batting fourth, Prince Fielder batting fifth, Rodriguez hitting sixth, Carlos Beltran hitting seventh and Nick Swisher batting eighth and Teixeira batting ninth, you can keep on dreaming. It is not going to happen.
This team is going to allocate its free-agent dollars to acquiring starting pitching, period.
The rest of the moves Cashman will make are small ones like adding two bench players like he did in signing Jones and Chavez last winter.
This concludes the series on potential off-season moves. I will have an update to the starting pitching search in my next post. Stay tuned!