The pitchers and catchers of the New York Yankees have reported to spring training camp in Tampa, FL, and the position players will soon be joining them. The Yankees’ first scheduled exhibition game is a week away. There are very few jobs on the line this spring as it is with most seasons with the Yankees. But there are four battles worth watching this spring and the result may determine how successful the team will be in 2013. Let’s look at them.
4) STARTING CATCHER: FRANCISCO CERVELLI vs. CHRIS STEWART
With the departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent, the Yankees will be looking at replacing him from within their own ranks. The Yankees elected not to sign such free agents as A.J. Pierzynski and Miguel Oilvo. The problem is that Martin not only provided the Yankees with Gold Glove-quality defense behind the plate, he also provided power despite the fact his batting average was stuck below .200 for most of the 2012 season. The two main candidates to replace Martin are Cervelli, 26, who had been the team’s primary backup catcher in 2010 and 2011 but was optioned to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre on the final day of spring training last season due to the acquisition of Stewart, 30, from the San Francisco Giants. Cervelli arrives as the team’s best hitting option because he owns a career .271 batting average. But he lacks power and, although he calls a good game behind the plate, his throwing can be very erratic. He has a career success rate of throwing out 19.8 percent of base-runners. In contrast, throwing out base-runners is Stewart’s forte. He has nailed 33.7 percent of potential base-stealers and Stewart’s other defensive skills are pretty much on par with Martin’s. The big negative with Stewart is that he is a career .217 hitter and he has no power. In addition to this battle, there are a pair of catchers looking to make an impression in rookie Austin Romine, 24, and non-roster invitee Bobby Wilson, 29. Romine is coming off a season in which he was plagued by a lower-back strain that limited him to just 33 games in the minors last season. Wilson, a former backup catcher with the Los Angels Angels, was released by the Toronto Blue Jays after spending the entire 2012 season at Triple A. Romine’s strong suit is defense and manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, both former catchers, believe Romine is ready to catch at the major-league level now. The issue with Romine is that he has to prove he is healthy and he has to improve as a hitter. Wilson is almost a carbon copy of Stewart. He has nailed 27.1 percent of potential base-stealers but his career major-league batting average is .208.
PREDICTION: Cervelli should win the job, barring injury, which is a legitimate concern. Cervelli has suffered three separate concussions, a broken wrist and a broken bone in his foot over the past five seasons. So his durability is an issue. Stewart, on the basis of his solid season as backup in 2012, seems to be almost assured of retaining his job. But Romine is worth watching this spring. If he is healthy and he shows signs his hitting is improving he might get a promotion to the majors this season. But realistically the Yankees would prefer that he get in a full season at Scranton and he could be promoted in September with a hope he can compete for a starting role in 2014. Wilson will be insurance in case there is an injury to Cervelli or Stewart and he likely will share the catching chores with Romine at Scranton.
3) RESERVE INFIELDER: JAYSON NIX vs. EDUARDO NUNEZ
Although this is, in a sense, a rematch from last spring, it also is not. Confused? Well, Nunez was actually competing for the backup infield spot with Ramiro Pena and Nix, who was signed as a minor-league free agent, was just invited to spring training. Nunez, 25, easily won the role by hitting .372 while Pena hit .240. Nix, 30, was a longshot to make the team and did not. However, he did open some eyes by hitting .323 and flashing some solid defense at second base, third base and shortstop. Nix also proved valuable in that he could play the corner outfield spots. So he was optioned to Scranton and he hit .233 there before he was summoned on May 3. Nunez was hitting a sizzling .294 but his penchant to commit careless fielding errors doomed him. He was optioned to Scranton on May 11 and Nix became the team’s backup infielder. Nunez’s season pretty much fell apart after that. He suffered an injury to his right hand that sidelined him for most of the minor-league season. He was recalled to the Yankees when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1 but the Yankees top brass insisted that Nunez was being groomed as primarily a shortstop and that he would not used as a utility infielder anymore. Nix,meanwhile, flourished in his role, hitting .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 174 at-bats in 77 games. Though Nunez is clearly a better athlete, a better hitter and a better base-stealer, Nix was so much steadier in the field that the Yankees were pleased with his work. Nunez committed seven errors in 38 games with the Yankees while Nix was charged with only three. A quick look at the Yankees’ depth chart on yankees.com shows something interesting this spring. Nunez is listed as the primary backup at second, third, shortstop and leftfield. Huh? I guess the Yankees changed their minds about Nunez not being a utility player and he will battle Nix for the role. If anyone believes Nunez is going to shed his nickname of “Eduardo Scissorhands” this spring than I have some prime swampland to sell you. But the Yankees may need his hitting and his base-stealing ability more than they need his fielding this season. The Yankees lost a lot of power from the 2012 club and they may need to score more runs by moving runners around the bases and stealing more bases. That would favor Nunez, who actually embarrassingly was third on the team last season with 11 stolen bases despite playing in only 38 games. Nix is still in the picture because of his fielding and steady play. It is going to be a very close call either way it goes.
PREDICTION: Nunez not only has hitting and base-stealing advantages this spring. He also may benefit from the slow recovery of Derek Jeter from surgery on his fractured left ankle and the presence of camp invitee Dan Johnson. If Jeter can’t start the season at shortstop, Nunez will man the position in his place. The reason Johnson is important is that he is a left-handed power hitter who can play both first and third base. If Johnson can make the team and show he field third base adequately enough, Nunez would only need to back up at shortstop and second base. That would lessen the chances Nix would have to making the 25-man roster. Johnson would, in effect, replace Eric Chavez, who opted to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks. That would allow Nunez to remain as a backup middle infielder and potentially a right-handed platoon designated hitter. If I was a betting man, I would wager that this is the scenario that likely will play out. Nix could accept a demotion to Scranton as insurance. It also is possible that Nunez could be packaged in a trade before the season starts. But that won’t happen until Jeter shows he will be ready to play by Opening Day.
2) BACKUP OUTFIELDER: MATT DIAZ vs. JUAN RIVERA
One of the reasons Nunez is listed as a backup in leftfield is because both Diaz and Rivera are non-roster invitees to spring training. But, rest assured, one of them make the team as a right-handed hitting backup outfielder. Diaz, 34, was released by the Atlanta Braves after suffering through a season cut short in August by season-ending surgery on his right thumb. Diaz hit .222 with two home runs and 13 RBIs. He is a career .291 hitter and he has been an exceptional hitter against left-handed pitching. Rivera, 34, originally came up through the Yankees’ minor-league system and played with the Yankees in parts of the 2002 and 2003 seasons before being traded to the then Montreal Expos before the 2004 season. Rivera was reserve outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season and hit .244 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs. He is a career .274 hitter and h also has been a much better hitter against left-handers. When the Yankees chose to allow Andruw Jones sign with a team in Japan, the Yankees opened up a spot on the roster for a right-handed hitting corner outfielder who could also serve as a right-handed platoon designated hitter. Neither player is considered as accomplished fielders though Diaz has a bit more range. As hitters, Diaz is a better hitter for average though Rivera boasts considerably more power. Because the Yankees starting outfield is an all left-handed-hitting group consisting of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki it is important that the Yankees have a right-handed-hitting option on the bench. So these two players will be fighting it out.
PREDICTION: Because of Rivera’s former ties to the club and the fact he hits with more power, he has a big edge over Diaz. Neither Gardner or Suzuki have much power so it will be important to have a hitter on the bench who can provide it from the right side. Should Girardi also need a right-handed DH, Rivera fits the Jones mold better than Diaz does. Diaz also has slipped significantly since the 2009 season when he hit .313 and he also is coming off surgery. Rivera, on the other hand, also has slipped from his 2009 season when he hit .287 with 25 home runs and 88 RBIs with the Los Angeles Angels. But last season was the first season in which he has failed to connect for double-digit home runs since the 2007 season in which he played in only 14 games. Rivera will likely win the job easily barring injury or something else unforeseen.
1) NO. 5 STARTING PITCHER: IVAN NOVA vs. DAVID PHELPS
Those other position battles are the undercard but this one is the Main Event. It is also odd that there is even a competition involving Nova considering how good he was in his rookie season in 2011. But Nova, 26, struggled from the minute spring exhibitions started in 2012 and it got so bad that he was taken out of the rotation in favor of Phelps by Girardi in September. Nova’s record in 2011 was 16-4 and he was 12-8 last season. However, his ERA jumped from 3.70 to 5.02 and, though he recorded a 1.26 ERA in June last season, his ERA in the other months was: 5.18 in April, 5.87 in May, 5.97 in July, 7.03 in August and 6.23 in September. Ouch! So that is the reason Phelps is challenging him for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Phelps, 25, arrived in camp last spring voted as the organization’s best minor-league pitcher in 2011. Though scouts have always doubted him, Phelps rose through the minors and carries a record of 40-15 with a 2.51 ERA in 90 starts. In spring training, Phelps was 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven appearances and was named the Yankees’ top rookie of the spring. He also earned a spot in the bullpen. Phelps then turned in some sparkling performances as a long reliever and spot starter with the Yankees. He ended the season 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts). This competition is hard to handicap because Nova – truth be told – has the nastiest stuff of any of the Yankees’ starters. Last season he just could not harness it and he got hit hard when he fell behind and had to throw fastballs. Phelps is pit-bull on the mound who has supreme confidence in himself and his stuff.
PREDICTION: I really have no idea on how this will turn out but I still believe that Nova has a bit of an edge on the basis of his rookie season. But Phelps has been doubted at every step of the way since he starred at Notre Dame. You can never measure desire and he has it. I can tell you the loser of this battle will not necessarily be heading to the bullpen. For one thing, Nova has little or no bullpen experience. Another reason is that the Yankees probably will want to make sure that the starter they do not select for the rotation remains “stretched out” as a starter at the minor-league level so they can step in case of an injury. I can also say it is refreshing to see that with homegrown starters like Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes already in the rotation and two homegrown starters like Nova and Phelps battling for the last rotation spot, that the Yankees’ minor-league system is beginning to churn out talent at a time when the payroll needs to be reduced. It sure beats shelling out money to guys like Sergio Mitre and Freddy Garcia. That is progress.