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.
SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (20 HR, 50 RBIs, .316 BA)
If this had been written two weeks ago, it would be written from the standpoint of how the great Robinson Cano was underachieving this season. What a difference two weeks makes.
Cano, 29, has been on fire of late and it could not have come at a better time for the American League’s starting All-Star second baseman. He has driven in runs in eight consecutive games and has 23 in his last 17 games. On June 3, he was batting .284. He has reached the season’s halfway point hitting .316.
In his last 10 games he is hitting .429.
By any definition, Cano is red hot.
That is good for Cano, but it is even better for the New York Yankees.
For much of the first half of the season, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Cano have struggled to hit home runs and drive in runs, particularly with runners in scoring position. That has been borne out by the fact that Nick Swisher had led the team in RBIs for most of the first half until Cano passed him this week.
For most baseball experts, it is not a surprise that Cano has finally began to hit. The only surprise is that it took him this long.
Cano began April by .267 with one home run and four RBIs. That is not a misprint. It was just a single home run and four RBIs.
On May 6, Cano hit a grand slam home run against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium which doubled his production in just one at-bat. That lit a spark that brought Cano close to what he has always been for the Yankees: Their best pure hitter.
In fact, it is safe to say with Derek Jeter and Rodriguez in the twilight of their careers that Cano is simply the Yankees’ best all-around player, period, exclamation point.
Cano leads the team in batting average, is second in home runs, first in RBIs and he fields his position at a Gold-Glove level. He also hits in the middle of the order and he is the hitter opposing pitchers fear the most.
There is no second baseman in baseball that can touch him in the combination of average, power, production and fielding combined. Cano has been the Yankees’ Rock of Gilbraltar. He is the guy Reggie Jackson would say “stirs the drink.”
The only hole in his game this season has been the same problem from which the whole team suffered in the first half of the season: Getting a hit with runners in scoring position. Just a few weeks ago, Cano was last on the team with RISP, hitting a woeful .149 in those situations.
That kind of makes you scratch your head when you see Cano swing so beautifully balanced and with those lightning-quick hands sweeping his bat through the ball. But, for whatever reason, Cano just continued to fail to get hits with runners on base.
He has brought number up to .200 of late. It is still low but pitchers who are scheduled to face the Yankees in the second half may want to prepare for the worst when Cano comes up in those situations from now on.
Cano is on a pace to hit considerably more home runs than the 29 he hit in 2010. He could also shatter the 118 RBI plateau he reached in 2011. He has not come close to the .342 he hit in 2006 but don’t put it past Cano not to do that either. Cano could easily win a batting title or two or three.
The fact is while Teixeira and Rodriguez continue to struggle with their production, Cano is undoubtedly the most important part of the Yankee lineup going forward. If he can continue his pace of June and July, the Yankee offense should continue to be potent and will improve its numbers with runners in scoring position.
If you want to talk defense, Cano has committed just four errors this season. However, that just scratches the surface when you are talking about what Cano contributes in the field.
For years, Cano was overlooked as a defensive player because of the concentration errors he used to make. Cano, because he glides so effortlessly to the ball, often was viewed as a “lazy” fielder. But that ended in 2010, when he won his first Gold Glove.
He should win it annually anyway for his extraordinary range, his unbelievable arm strength and the smoothness with which he turns a double play.
His ability to range from the right-field foul line to left-center to catch pop flies is special in itself.
Yankee fans are very fortunate to be living at a time when the Yankees can boast the best shortstop in their history (Jeter) with the best second baseman in their history. They may not rival the Tigers’ middle infield of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell in terms of years played together but they are certainly more productive as hitters and just as good or better in the field.
Cano is a durable player as well. He has not played in less than 159 games since 2006, his second season with the Yankees when he spent his only stint on the disabled list. This season, he has started 78 of the Yankees’ 81 games and he has played in all of them.
Cano’s prospects for the second half are very good and the Yankees certainly need him to be that good as they head into the more difficult games with their division rivals. There is a chance this could be Cano’s best overall season and that is saying something considering how good his last two seasons have been.
MIDSEASON GRADE: A-
BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (2 HRs, 6 RBIs, .228 BA)
You won’t see Nix play this position much. Cano rarely gets a day off and apparently does not need one.
Since the Yankees chose to send Eduardo Nunez back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Nix has made just two starts for Cano.
He is pretty good as fielder in that he has not committed an infield error this season. But his range is very limited. You also suffer a big dropoff in production with Nix replacing Cano. But that goes without saying.
Nix, 29, is just a solid backup with average skills but has great versatility in that he can also play in the outfield. The Yankees just will miss Nunez’s line-drive bat and speed on the bases. But, then again, Nix will not throw the baseball all over the diamond and kick easy grounders as Nunez did with regularity.
That is the reason he is here and not Nunez.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C
The Yankees have a few really promising middle infield prospects in Claudio Custodio and Angelo Gombs who are far away from the majors. They also have David Adams, who has battled injuries but nonetheless was protected by being placed on the 40-man roster this winter. But it is obvious the Yankees have no plans to let Cano go when his contract expires in two seasons.
At Triple-A Scranton, Ronnier Musteller is trying to hold off up-and-coming prospect Corban Joseph.
Joseph, 23, is hitting .266 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in 32 games played since his promotion from Double-A Trenton. Musteller, 27, is hitting .301 with seven home runs and 34 RBIs in 55 games. But at Musteller’s age the prospect label is pretty much been removed and Joseph is progressing nicely.
Meanwhile, Adams is doing pretty well at Double-A Trenton. The 25-year-old is hitting .284 with three home runs and 24 RBis in 40 games in the Eastern League.
None of these players will have an impact at the major-league level this season because the Yankees have Ramiro Pena and Nunez at Triple-A in case something happens to Cano.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-
Cano is very simply the best second baseman I have ever seen. If you combine his ability to hit for average, power and produce runs with his great dexterity, range and arm in the field, there is just no second baseman in baseball that compares to him.
As his career progresses, he should pass Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg as the best second basemen in the modern era.
But his prospects for 2012 look very good as well. Cano is dangerous when he is struggling but he is pure hell to face when he is seeing the ball and hitting with authority. Even when he makes outs he is hitting the ball hard. That should tell you how good he is as a player.
Cano also possesses the ability to carry the Yankee offense much the way Rodriguez used to be able to do. He is the one player the Yankees can least afford to loss due to injury and he is the team’s key to success in the second half.
He could ride this current hot streak the rest of the way into the playoffs and to a World Series, if the Yankees can get there. It is on that stage, Cano should shine.
He is shining pretty brightly now as the Yankees’ best player.