YANKEES 8, TWINS 7 (10 INNINGS)
On a night where the team was literally battered, bruised and besieged leave it to a former New York Yankees shortstop to provide the Yankees with the mistake that handed them a hard-fought 10-inning walk-off victory at Yankee Stadium on Monday.
Chase Headley’s hard-hit bases-loaded grounder clanked off Eduardo Nunez’s glove just enough to allow Greg Bird to score the winning run as New York came back from a 7-5 deficit to beat Minnesota on what was Frank Sinatra Night.
And in true Sinatra-like fashion, the Yankees did their way.
Facing Twins closer Glen Perkins, Bird opened the inning with a line-drive double in the gap in right-center. The only reason Bird was in the game is starting first baseman Mark Teixeira was forced to leave the game in the sixth with a bruised right leg.
Brian McCann, who had driven in five runs on the night with a two-out three-run homer and a two-out two-run single earlier, delivered a double off the glove of left-fielder Eddie Rosario, which should have scored Bird easily with the winning run.
However, Bird went back to tag up at second base and was unable to score because Rosario got the ball in quickly.
With Bird at third and McCann on second, the Twins intentionally walked Carlos Beltran, who had tied the game up with one out in the sixth inning with a two-run home run. Twins manager Paul Molitor then replaced right-fielder Torii Hunter with infielder Eduardo Escobar and positioned him to give the Twins five infielders.
Headley then slapped a 1-2 pitch on two hops to Nunez at shortstop. But Nunez – who basically punched his ticket out of New York because of chronic fielding issues – allowed the ball to carom off his glove.
Nunez inexplicably threw to first base to retire Headley after Bird already had scored the decisive run.
I want to wake up in a city
That doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap
The Yankees’ walk-off victory allowed them to extend their lead in the American League East over the idle Toronto Blue Jays to a full game.
But getting from Point A (the game) to Point B (the victory) proved extremely difficult despite the fact that McCann provided rookie right-hander Bryan Mitchell an early 3-0 lead on a night that CC Sabathia was scheduled to pitch but didn’t because Yankees manager Joe Girardi wanted to give all his starters an extra day of rest.
So the Yankees opened the first with Jacoby Ellsbury reaching on a single and Alex Rodriguez drew a one-out walk. One out later, McCann launched a 0-2 fastball off right-hander Kyle Gibson deep into the right-field bleachers for his 21st home run of the season.
The Twins got one of the runs back in the second inning when Rosario and Kurt Suzuki hit a pair of two-out singles and Nunez capped it by lining a wicked line drive that struck Mitchell in the face and the ball caromed into center-field to score Rosario.
Mitchell immediately fell to the ground with blood pouring profusely from his nose. Mitchell was able to walk off the mound with a towel covering his face with what later was diagnosed as a nasal fracture.
Girardi called upon rookie right-hander Caleb Cotham to replace Mitchell and Cotham was able to strike out Aaron Hicks to end the inning with Suzuki on third and Nunez on second after a stolen base.
But the Twins took advantage of the inexperienced Cotham in the third inning. Brian Dozier led off with a single and, one out later, Miguel Sano stroked his eighth home run of the season into the left-field bleachers.
Forced to leave Cotham in because the Yankees were a man short in the bullpen with Mitchell starting, Trevor Plouffe exploited it by singling to right and Hunter reached on a fielder’s choice in which shortstop Didi Gregorius mishandled his ground ball for an error and it allowed Plouffe to reach third.
Rosario followed with an RBI single to center and the Twins took a 4-3 lead.
But the Yankees reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the frame after Ellsbury singled, Brett Gardner walked and Rodriguez hit a hard-hit grounder that caromed past Plouffe into left-field for an error. Ellsbury, however, was thrown out at home plate on a throw from Rosario. It was his 11th outfield assist of the season.
Because the Twins were running the bases every chance they got in the game, Rodriguez decided to steal a base on a befuddled Gibson. That proved to be a very smart move.
One out later, McCann dumped a bloop single to right that allowed both Gardner and Rodriguez to score. The Yankees reclaimed the lead 5-4.
But it did not last for even one hitter in the fourth. The Twins again exploited Cotham when Hicks led off with his eighth home run of the season into the Yankees bullpen in right-field.
Two batters later Cotham left in favor of left-hander Chasen Shreve after being charged with four runs on six hits in just two innings.
But the normally reliable Shreve was ambushed in the fifth inning when Plouffe led off by cracking a 1-2 pitch that also landed in the Yankees bullpen for his 18th home run of the season.
Plouffe extended the Twins’ lead to 7-5 with two out in the sixth. After Joe Mauer and Sano reached on two-out singles off left-hander Justin Wilson, Plouffe followed with an RBI single to left.
But the seesaw game swung back again in the sixth inning after Teixeira battled Gibson to draw an 12-pitch walk. Bird pinch-ran for Teixeira after the veteran first baseman fouled a pitch off his right leg earlier in the at-bat.
Molitor replaced Gibson with left-hander Brian Duensing. After Duensing struck out McCann, Beltran tied it 7-7 with his 13th home run of the season and his third homer in his past four games.
Gibson, who entered the contest with an ERA over 10.00 in four career starts against the Yankees, was charged with six runs on four hits and three walks and struck out two in five-plus innings.
The game remained tied despite the fact the Yankees loaded the bases with one out against first left-hander Ryan O’Rourke and then right-hander Casey Fien. The Yankees had McCann and Beltran up with the bases loaded but McCann was retired by Fien on a weak infield popup and Beltran struck out swinging.
But the Yankees bullpen trio of right-hander Adam Warren (seventh), right-hander Dellin Betances (seventh, eighth and ninth) and left-hander Andrew Miller (10th) held the Twins to one hit and one walk and struck out five in the final four innings to set up the walk-off victory in the 10th.
Miller (1-2) was credited with his first victory of the season in relief. Perkins (1-4) took the loss.
The Yankees improved their season record to 65-52. The Twins dropped to 59-59.
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
- McCann had himself a MVP-like night after going 3-for-5 with a single, double, home run, a run scored and five RBIs. The five RBIs tied a career high, which he has done six times. You think that was good? Well, how about his work behind the plate? McCann threw out three Twins base-runners to become the first Yankees catcher to do that since Jose Molina did it 2011 against the Boston Red Sox. McCann threw out Dozier in the fourth, Hunter in the fifth and Nunez in the seventh.
- Beltran’s hot streak in August continued in a big way on Monday. He was only 1-for-4 but that one was a game-tying home run. This season eight of Beltran’s 13 home runs have either tied or given the Yankees a lead. Beltran is batting .317 with five homers and nine RBIs halfway through the month. It appears Beltran is tired of being platooned with Chris Young and he now has become a must-start every day.
- Let’s give a shout out to Brian Cashman for having the foresight to release “Eduardo Scissorhands” (Nunez) on April Fool’s Day of 2014. That seems appropriate since Nunez committed 42 errors in 270 games with the Yankees between 2010 and 2013. Now he is the Twins’ problem and his shaky fielding handed the Yankees a victory. “It’s all my fault,” Nunez told reporters. “The pitcher did his job. I have to do my job and make the play. It’s all on my back. This game. I think I lost the game.” Well said, Scissorhands!
- I have no idea what the Yankees see in Cotham, 27. He looked tentative on the mound and he seemed absolutely afraid to throw a pitch in the strike zone. It might get hitters to swing out of the zone at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but not in Major League Baseball. There is a strong possibility that Cotham will be shipped back to Scranton now that he is sporting a 7.36 ERA in just two games.
- Rodriguez’s struggles continue and they are getting worse. He was 0-for-4 with a walk, which means he is now in a 3-for-37 (.081) skid since Aug. 6. His season average has sunk 19 points from .281 to .262 and he struck out 10 times in those 37 at-bats. He was rested on Saturday so that is not an excuse. Perhaps he needs to be lowered in the order. That is what got him going early in the season.
X-rays of Mitchell indicated a small nasal fracture but the team is also going to monitor the 24-year-old right-hander for concussion symptoms. He is expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list prior to Tuesday’s game. . . . Precautionary X-rays taken on Teixeira’s right leg just above his knee were negative. Teixeira, 35, was unable to put any pressure on the leg after the game and he is listed as day-to-day. . . . As part of a salute to the late Frank Sinatra on Monday, his son Frank Jr. sang the national anthem before the game and the first 18,000 fans (21 and over) were given free Frank Sinatra music download cards.
A battered and tired Yankee team will resume its three-game home series with Twins on Tuesday.
Sabathia (4-9, 5.23) will pitch for the Yankees with that extra day of rest. Despite giving up two runs on nine hits and two walks in six innings against the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday, the Yankees gave him just one run of support and he took the loss.
Veteran right-hander Mike Pelfrey (6-7, 3.70 ERA) will pitch for the Twins. He held Texas Rangers to one run on four hits and one walk with four strikeouts in seven innings of a 11-1 victory on Wednesday.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.
BLUE JAYS 3, YANKEES 1
TAMPA – Mark Buehrle pitched 6 1/3 strong innings and Toronto took advantage of some sloppy defensive lapses to end New York’s seven-game wining streak on Sunday in front of a paid crowd of 10,983 at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
On this 35th birthday, Buehrle (1-1) yielded one run on seven hits and he did not walk or strike out a batter in a 98-pitch outing. Left-hander Aaron Loup recorded the final two outs in the ninth to earn a save.
Right-hander Michael Pineda (2-1) entered the game not having given a run in nine innings of work covering four appearances (three of them starts).
However, the Blue Jays touched him for a run in the second inning after a Edwin Encarnacion reached first on a fielding error by Eduardo Nunez. Adam Lind followed with a single and Dioner Navarro scored Encarnacion with a lined single to center.
They added a pair of runs in the fifth when Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie led off the frame with back-to-back singles. On an attempted sacrifice bunt by Ryan Goins, Pineda threw the ball wildly past first to allow Rasmus to score. Lawrie later scored when Pineda uncorked a wild pitch.
Despite the loss, Pineda pitched well in giving up three runs (two earned) on six hits and one walk while he struck out two.
The Yankees’ lone run came in the sixth when Ichiro Suzuki led off with a double and Brett Gardner singled him to third. Suzuki then scored on a double play off the bat of Derek Jeter.
The Yankees’ Grapefruit League record dropped to 15-10-2. The Blue Jays are now 12-11.
- With Jacoby Ellsbury out of the lineup for the past week with a sore right calf, Gardner has been doing a great job in the leadoff spot for the Yankees. He was 2-for-3 on Sunday and is 12-for-42 (.286) this spring with a .354 on-base percentage. The Yankees now look very smart in deciding to not trade him and instead sign him to a four-year extension.
- Dellin Betances made a giant statement toward staking his claim to a bullpen spot in the seventh inning. With one out, Cesar Cabral entered the game and promptly gave up a single to Maicer Izturis and then walked Munenori Kawasaki and Melky Cabrera to load the bases. Betances came in and struck out Jose Bautista and then retired Encarnacion on a fly ball. In eight games, Betances is 0-0 with an 0.87 ERA with nine strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings.
- Carlos Beltran is looking much more comfortable at the plate lately. He was 2-for-3 on Sunday with a single and a double. In his past five starts, Beltran is 8-for-17 (.471) to raise his spring average from .120 to .262.
- Because backup infielder Brendan Ryan is nursing a back injury that likely will land him on the disabled list to start the season, Nunez is probably going to earn a spot on the roster. But is becoming increasingly apparent that Nunez’s act is wearing thin. His throwing error, his second of the spring, helped open the floodgates. In addition, he was 0-for-3 and he is hitting .238 this spring. The Yankees need to look into cutting ties with this infielder I have dubbed “Eduardo Scissorhands.”
- It is a good thing that Jeter is Derek Jeter and not Derek Smith. If he were Derek Smith he would be booed unmercifully for his struggles hitting this spring. After going 0-for-3 on Sunday and hitting into a double play that killed a potential rally, he is 5-for-44 (.114). Jeter also leads the team this spring by grounding into five double plays. Manager Joe Girardi can say he is not concerned all he wants but WE are very concerned.
- Cabral’s outing on Sunday was shocking considering how well he had pitched up to that point. Despite the hiccup, Cabral has not given an earned run this spring and has eight strikeouts in 8 innings of work. His competition, Fred Lewis, also has 0.00 ERA but hitters have hit .242 off him while they hitting only .115 off Cabral.
Ellsbury participated in a full workout on Sunday and will play in a minor-league game on Tuesday, Girardi told reporters. Ellsbury has been nursing a sore right calf he injured last Friday. An MRI taken two days ago revealed no structural damage but the Yankees want to make sure their starting center-fielder is 100 percent before he plays. . . . With the Yankees not playing a game on Monday, Girardi will have right-hander Ivan Nova pitch in a minor-league game at the team’s complex in Tampa to stay sharp. Nova pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday in his most impressive outing of the spring.
The Yankees will not play again until Tuesday when they play host to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Right-hander David Phelps (1-0, 2.75 ERA) will have his last chance to show he deserves the No. 5 spot in the rotation. He will start for the Yankees.
The Phillies will counter with right-hander Jeff Manship (1-0, 2.25 ERA).
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
It is hard enough to win games with a full roster in the American League East. It is difficult when your team is riddled with crippling injuries. It becomes darn near impossible when the team loses its heart and soul.
That is pretty much what the New York Yankees lost last season without its future Hall of Fame shortstop and captain Derek Jeter.
The team has spiraled downward ever since Jeter broke his right ankle in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers in 2012.
The Yankees were swept in that series and they stumbled to a tie for third place in the division with the Baltimore Orioles and missed the playoffs for only the second time since 1994, the season before Jeter made his major-league debut.
Jeter, 39, tried to get back on the field for the 2013 season. But each step forward led to two steps back.
During spring training, the Yankees brought Jeter along slowly, not allowing him to play in the field until the third week of exhibition games. However, it was obvious in watching Jeter run out the batter’s box that he was just not right.
He favored the left ankle and had none of the usual spring in his step.
When X-rays indicated an additional break in the ankle, Jeter was placed on the 60-day disabled list and the usual critics and naysayers came out of the woodwork claiming Jeter was too old to play shortstop and that he would never be the same.
Jeter took that as a challenge and tried to come back on July 11. However, that comeback was short-circuited when he suffered a mild strain in his left quad running out a grounder in his first game back. He went on the 15-day disabled list with quite a bit of frustration after being so sure he was ready.
Activated on July 28, Jeter showed the Yankees just a hint of what they were missing when he went 2-for-4 with a home run against the Tampa Bay Rays.
That comeback was ended just three games later when an examination on Aug. 3 indicated Jeter sustained a Grade 1 strain of his right calf. He was placed on the disabled list for a third time. This was pretty much par for the course when it came to many of the Yankees returning from injuries in 2014 only to wind up back on the disabled list.
Just ask Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis and Alex Rodriguez. Jeter had a lot of company on the team’s sickbay.
Jeter returned to the lineup on Sept. 1 and that comeback lasted just a total of seven games. Jeter re-injured his surgically repaired left ankle and, after a few days to assess the injury, Jeter offiicially was shelved for the season on Sept. 11.
The 13-time All-Star ended up playing in just 17 games batting .190 with a home run and seven RBIs. One big wasted season filled with frustration for a player who has always prided himself on playing every day since he became the team’s starting shortstop in 1996.
He also had to abandon any hope of potentially being able to surpass baseball’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, who amassed 4,256 hits. Jeter was ahead of Rose’s pace at the same age entering the 2013 season. If Jeter had any intention of playing long enough to break that mark it is went up in smoke last season.
Yankee fans received a bit of a jolt when the Yankees signed shortstop Brendan Ryan to a two-year, $5 million contract on Dec. 2. It raised some eyebrows because some Yankee watchers thought it signaled that the team might be making the move to replace Jeter with the 31-year-old veteran.
But the Yankees quickly squelched any talk about that because Jeter. who was scheduled to play under a player-option contract in 2014 worth $9.5 million, was handed a one-year, $12 million deal by the Yankees. You do not replace a shortstop by offering him more money than his contract specified.
Jeter revealed to reporters on Nov. 14 that his ankle has healed and that he was “100 percent sure” that he would return to his role as the every day shortstop for the Yankees in 2014. Jeter said he was only working on strengthening his body for the coming season and was not worried about his ankle at all.
Of course, he did admit that although he wants to play every day, he is sure that he will get some at-bats as a designated hitter, which is fine with him.
The naysayers still do not believe that Jeter can come back at his age and play at the same level he did before the injury. That is fine if they think that, Jeter says.
Jeter will just have to prove them wrong as he did in 2012 when he led the majors with 216 hits after he hit a career low .270 in 2010 and spent the first half of the 2011 season hitting around .250. Many baseball experts thought Jeter was done then. But after adjusting his swing rehabbing a calf injury during the All-Star break, Jeter raised his average to .297 by season’s end.
The lesson: You may not want to give up on a guy who has five championship rings and career total of 3,316 hits.
The only real question about Jeter will be his ability to field such a demanding position at an advanced age. Players such as Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel have done it, but for some reason the ankle and leg injuries Jeter sustained last season give some people pause.
However, whatever range Jeter once had, he lost a long time before the ankle injury. Though Jeter has been awarded five Gold Gloves, including one in 2012, number-crunching gurus have been criticizing him since he won his third award in 2008.
Jeter’s defensive strength has never been totally about range. It is his sure-handed playmaking on the balls he does reach. In 2012, he handled 506 chances and committed only 10 errors. He also formed what has to be the franchise’s best double-play combination in history with second baseman Robinson Cano.
Yankee fans know the difference when Jeter is not in the lineup too. Eduardo Nunez has struggled most of his career playing the position and fans even dubbed him “Eduardo Scissorhands.”
With Jeter’s injury troubles, you would think that Nunez, 26, would have been able to take advantage of the opportunity and make his own mark at the position in 2014.
Unfortunately for Nunez, he could stay healthy and he regressed with his bat. Nunez batted .260 with three homers and 28 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 90 games. In 75 starts at shortstop, he committed 12 errors, which pretty much played himself out of a job when the Yankees signed Ryan on Sept. 10.
Ryan started all 17 of the Yankees’ remaining games in 2014 and batted .220 with a home run and one RBI. He committed only one error in those games and he is generally accorded to be one of the better fielding shortstops in baseball though he has never been awarded a Gold Glove.
According to FanGraphs Ryan recorded 22 defensive runs saved in 2010, 18 in 2011 and 20 in 2012.
The big knock on Ryan is that he is a career .237 hitter with 19 home runs and 187 RBIs in seven major-league seasons. He is no threat to take Jeter’s job at shortstop but he gives the club some excellent insurance at the position.
However, Nunez’s days with the Yankees appear to be numbered. The team seems to have given on him completely. So Nunez enters 2014 in a position where he should not be looking to buy a home in the tri-state area around New York City.
The Yankees already trimmed the roster of versatile infielder Jayson Nix on Dec. 2 when he was not tendered a contract offer for the 2014 season along with rookie infielder David Adams and right-handed pitcher Matt Daley.
Nix, 31, spent two seasons with the Yankees as backup infielder. Like many of the Yankees, Nix suffered a broken left hand in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 21 in which he was struck by a pitch by knuckleball right-hander R.A. Dickey and missed the remainder of the season.
Nix batted .236 with three home runs and 24 RBIs in 87 games before succumbing to the injury.
The Yankees signed free-agent infielder Kelly Johnson to a one-year, $3 million contract, which means the 32-year-old veteran could figure in the mix to play second base.
Johnson has also played first and third base and the outfield. He also, unlike Ryan, Nunez and Nix, bats left-handed.
The Yankees are not exactly rich at the shortstop position in the minors at this point.
Addison Maruszak, 26, batted .254 with four home runs and 32 RBIs in 94 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He is not considered as a prospect for the big leagues.
Former first-round pick Cito Culver, 21, is not making much progress in the minors. Though Culver can flash some leather with the glove the offensive part of the game has eluded him up to this point.
Culver hit a combined a combined .248 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs in 120 games in two stops at the Class-A level in 2013.
The Yankees, it is safe to say do not have another Jeter waiting in the wings to take his place.
So it is a good thing that Jeter is saying he is healed and will be ready to go when camp opens in February. He is the one player the Yankees can’t afford to be without in 2014. They need his bat, they need his glove and they need his leadership by example.
Expecting him to be the fresh-faced kid that 20-plus homers and drove in 90 runs in his heyday would be expecting way too much, But the Yankees will take the numbers he put up in 2012 when he hit .316 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs.
Betting against Jeter has never been a safe bet before and may not be a wise one now.
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.
Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!
SHORTSTOP – DEREK JETER (99 R, 15 HRs, 58 RBIs, .316 BA, 9 SB)
To say that Derek Jeter is the living, breathing embodiment of all of what the New York Yankees is about is pretty obvious.
Jeter has been the face of the franchise since he was a rookie in 1996 and, at age 38, he still plays with the same youthful enthusiasm and holds an appreciation for the game he loves so dearly.
This season Jeter does not have to overcome the whispers that he is a washed up player on the downside of a brilliant career. He collected a major-league-best 216 hits last season and his batting average was actually three points higher than his career average of .313.
After a 2010 season in which he hit .270 and he spent the first half of the 2011 languishing around .250, Jeter rediscovered his “old stroke” while rehabbing a calf injury over the All-Star break and he has not stopped hitting since. The whispers about his age have been muted.
In fact, he was the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2012.
Of course, age not only brings wisdom. It also invites nagging injuries and Jeter had a brush with that reality during the Yankees’ pennant push in 2012. A deep bruise on his left ankle had him hobbling most of the latter stages of the season. Perhaps he should have sat out a week but Jeter insisted on playing to help his team win the division.
Then he led them to a victory in five games in the American League Division Series over the Baltimore Orioles by hitting a robust .364.
He had high hopes of leading them to a victory in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers but the noble team captain fractured his ankle in the 12th inning of the game of the series and the Yankees went down in flames in four straight games to the Motor City Kitties.
Jeter had surgery on the ankle in October and Jeter will need four to five months to recover from the procedure. That puts his participation in spring training in question. Manager Joe Girardi said that he will not count out his 13-time All-Star shortstop from playing on Opening Day.
Jeter is reportedly in Tampa, FL, but he is keeping weight off his ankle. So a lot of Jeter’s preparation and conditioning work for the 2013 season will be delayed. That likely means you will not see much of Jeter during the exhibition season, which begins on Feb. 23.
The Yankees obviously will take a very cautious approach with Jeter throughout the spring. If it were any other player, you would doubt he would be ready for the opening bell. But Jeter has a way of surprising Yankee fans.
The question will be what kind of season will Jeter have? Will he continue to hit as he did in last season or will he regress to what he did in 2010?
Much of that answer rides on how healthy Jeter will be and how healthy he can remain for the 162-game schedule. Yankee fans know enough about Jeter to know that if he is 100 percent and he can stay healthy that he likely will come very close to his 2012 numbers.
Jeter spent most of the season as the team’s leadoff hitter, a role he pretty much has held for the past four seasons. Though he never again will approach his career high of 34 stolen bases in 2006, Jeter remains one of the smartest base-runners in the game.
He rarely gets picked off, thrown out stealing or fails to take an extra base when he can. His instincts are impeccable and he can steal a base when he asked to do so.
The biggest question Jeter will face in 2013 will come in the field even though Jeter has won five Gold Gloves in his career. Range for a 38-year-old shortstop is already a question. The larger question is will the ankle injury cut down his range further?
The Yankees won’t know until they see how Jeter plays in the field this season. Two things are in Jeter’s favor, however.
First, as a veteran who knows where to play the hitters, Jeter is able to get to balls a more inexperienced shortstop might not anticipate. The second thing is that Jeter rarely makes careless errors on the balls he does reach. In 133 starts at shortstop last season, Jeter committed only 10 errors, two less than he committed in 2011 in 121 starts.
His .980 fielding percentage was four points above his career mark. So Jeter is no slouch in the field despite his shortcomings with his range.
One thing will be clear during spring training, Yankee fans will see a lot of Eduardo Nunez at the position.
Nunez, 25, would be considered the heir apparent to Jeter if Jeter did not have two seasons left on his contract with the Yankees. After all, in 180 major-league games Nunez has a .272 average with seven home runs and 48 RBIs and 38 stolen bases.
As a right-hand batter Nunez has a line-drive stroke that finds the gaps and he can run like the wind on the bases. The Yankees think he could start for a lot of teams at shortstop because of his bat and his athleticism. But there is huge caveat here.
Nunez has been unable to harness his skills in the field. There is no doubt Nunez has superior range to any shortstop the Yankees have had in recent memory. But Nunez also is inclined to make careless fielding and throwing errors, hence his nickname among Yankee fans as “Eduardo Scissorhands.”
He began the 2012 season as the Yankees’ backup infielder. But after committing a series of baffling errors at third base in early May, Girardi and the front office elected to ship Nunez back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with the idea of returning him to exclusively at shortstop.
Nunez, however, was unable to hone his skills much because he landed on the disabled list for a huge chunk of the season with a right hand injury.
The reason the Yankees still have him on the roster is they would need him if Jeter were somehow unable to return for the first part of the season or if he suffered some sort of setback in his rehab.
Nunez could open 2013 as the starting shortstop and then could remain as a right-hand designated hitter and backup middle infielder for the Yankees because his bat and his speed could be desperately needed on a team that has much less power than it had in 2012.
Nunez actually led the Yankees in steals for much of the season, even though he was sent out in May, until Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki passed him for the team lead in September. That is how bad the Yankees fell off in stolen bases in 2012. Nunez ended up with 17 stolen bases in just 44 games.
Over a full season, Nunez could easily reach 30 to 40 bases and Girardi might see a lot of value in that.
The Yankees also have veteran infielder Jayson Nix to play shortstop.
Nix was signed as a minor-league free-agent and invited to spring training last season. He hit well over .300 in the spring and impressed the team enough to get an assignment to Scranton. When Nunez was shipped out, Nix was pressed into service and he had a solid season.
Nix, 30, hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs and filled in well at second, third and short. He also played some outfield. Though Nix will never wow you with his bat or his glove, he also does not make careless mistakes in the field either. He committed only four errors in the 52 games he started last season.
Nix was designated for assignment by the Yankees on Nov. 30 to make room on the 40-man roster for reliever Mariano Rivera, who was re-signed to a one-year contract. But Nix agreed that of he was not picked up by another team he would accept assignment to Scranton.
So Nix will be invited to spring training with the same opportunity he was offered last season. He will have a leg up on Nunez because Nix can play third and Nunez likely will not be used there again.
There is a chance that if Jeter proves he is healthy and Nix has a good spring that Nunez could be packaged in a deal for players the Yankees might need for the roster. The Yankees are looking for a backup corner infielder to replace Eric Chavez, who signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Nunez may be the best trade bait the Yankees have right now.
In the minor leagues, the Yankees have a trio of middle infielders who are among their Top 20 prospects, however, only one of them has reached Double-A Trenton. So help at this position is years away.
Jose Pirela, 23, was signed as shortstop but has played all over the diamond. The 5-foot-10, 191-pounder out of Venezuela hit .293 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs in 82 games at Trenton last season. He has line-drive power and only average speed. He is now being thought of as a potential middle-infield backup at the major-league level.
Angelo Gumbs, 20, was also signed as shortstop out of high school in Southern California but he played his first two seasons as a second baseman. The team’s No. 8 prospect hit .272 with seven home runs, 33 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 67 games at Class-A Charleston last season. An elbow injury he suffered in June shelved him for the rest of the season.
Gumbs is very raw but he does show promise as a hitter and he plays with an all-out style scouts love.
Austin Aune, 19, is a pure shortstop who hit .273 with a home run and 20 RBIs while stealing six bases in 39 games at Class-A Tampa in the Gulf Coast League. Aune is a potential five-tool player out of Texas who bats left-handed with plus power. He has good range and a great arm at short but the former two-sport star who spurned Texas Christian to sign with Yankees may end up as an outfielder at some point.
The Yankees know their future at the position is a long way off. The immediate concern is getting their captain and their leader Jeter healthy for the coming season. Though 38-year-olds tend to take longer to heal, Jeter is more than capable of making a full recovery in time for the start of the season.
The Yankees are lucky to Nunez available to play until Jeter is ready. Nix provides even more insurance at this position.
Shortstop does not to be appear to be a major concern. The only way it would is if Jeter has a major setback and Nunez is traded. A season with Nix starting at short would be disaster. The Yankees still need Jeter as much as Jeter needs them.
NEXT: SECOND BASE
Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!
THIRD BASE – KEVIN YOUKILIS (19 HRs, 60 RBIs, .235 BA)
With Alex Rodriguez headed for surgery to his left hip this month the Yankees were forced to take a plunge into the free-agent market for a replacement and they chose 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis.
The former Red Sox nemesis has had his own issues with injuries throughout his career but the Yankees needed someone who could play the position and provide some offense until Rodriguez is ready to to return to action, which won’t come until at least June.
Youkilis enters 2013 free of the swirling rumors of his commitment to the game former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine thrust upon him last season. After he was traded to the Chicago White Sox he did pick up his production, hitting .236 with 15 home runs and 46 RBIs, largely batting second.
After undergoing sports hernia surgery that ended his 2011 season, Youkilis suffered through the early part of 2012 with a groin injury that landed him on the disabled list. When Will Middlebrooks produced good numbers in his absence, the Red Sox decided to send him packing to make room for the rookie.
Youkilis has never played in more than 147 games in any of his seven full major-league seasons, which was in first full season with the Red Sox in 2007. His best season with the Bosox was in 2008, when he hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs.
But Youkilis’ all-out style of play has also left him susceptible to nagging injuries, which have lessened his power and production numbers. In addition, Youkilis’ unusual batting style, which worked well for him when he was younger (He hit a career-high .312 in 2008), has left him less effective the last two seasons in which he has hit .258 and .235.
It will be the job of hitting coach Kevin Long to get Youkilis back on track at the plate with is timing and to get Youkilis driving the ball as he did so well at Fenway Park. As a right-hand hitter, the Yankees will not be looking for big-time power from Youkilis. But they would like him to get back to hitting closer to his lifetime .283 average and driving in runs.
There is a good possibility that Youkilis might slide into the No. 3 or No. 5 spots in the batting order to separate left-handers Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. That means the Yankees will be counting on Youkilis to provide solid production in the heart of the batting order.
A lot will depend if Youkilis is 100 percent healthy when he reports to camp in Tampa, FL, and he can remain healthy. He will have to because the Yankees’ options behind him are quite limited and much less productive.
As a fielder, Youkilis is considered an excellent first baseman. He won a Gold Glove for his work there in 2007. However, he is not as accomplished as a third baseman. Of course, he is actually still considered above average at the position.
There is no doubt that injuries have had an effect on his fielding at third the past two seasons. He made nine errors in 2011 and he committed the same total in 2012. So the slip in his fielding percentage at third had to be due in large part to the sports hernia and groin injuries.
His career fielding percentage at first is .997 but at third it is .966. But the Yankees feel if he is healthy, he can play the position more than adequately. Fielding, after all, was not a strength of A-Rod’s game either.
Of course, it is hard to know what the strength of Rodriguez’s game is really. Last season was another one of those seasons that he has failed to provide the production the Yankees needed and his season ended with a late injury which may or may not have contributed to his poor postseason.
After playing in just 99 games in 2011, largely due to a right knee injury, Rodriguez played in 122 games in 2012. He missed more than a month of the season and returned in early September after being struck in the left hand with a pitch from Seattle Mariners ace right-hander Felix Hernandez.
But when he was healthy, Rodriguez did not produce much in the way of power or runs batted in. He finished the season hitting .272 with 18 home runs and 57 RBIs. Batting in the middle of the most productive lineup in baseball in 2012, A-Rod hit .200 with the bases loaded and .230 with runners in scoring position.
But the most telling statistic is this: Rodriguez hit a home run every 25.7 at-bats in 2012. In his career, he has hit a home run every 14.9 at-bats. To say the 37-year-old three-time Most Valuable Player is suffering through a serious erosion of his skills is putting it mildly. It even lead to his being pinch-hit for at a critical point in the 2012 American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.
So even when Rodriguez returns the question is how much can the Yankees count on him? Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since 2007.
What looked to a be a lock that he would eventually break Barry Bonds’ dubious all-time home run record of 762 looks to a longshot now. But the real problem is the Yankees are on the hook for paying Rodriguez, in sickness and unproductive health, through the 2017 season.
So unless A-Rod gets tired of being booed, looking like a fool striking out against mediocre pitchers and he decides to retire, the Yankees have a 6-foot-3, 225-pound albatross around their necks. General manager Brian Cashman has been ordered to reduce payroll to $189 million by 2014 and it will be hard to see how they can remain competitive as long as they are paying big bucks to an unproductive has-been.
But we will see how it all plays out when Rodriguez does make it back to the field in 2013.
Likely, he will not play much third base.
Though Rodriguez two Gold Gloves as a shortstop with the Texas Rangers in 2002 and 2003, he has never been considered a very good fielder at third base. His career fielding percentage at the position is .964 and it was .957 in 2012. He committed eight errors in 81 games at the position last year.
The previous injury to his right hip pretty much has robbed him of some of the lateral quickness and smoothness he needs to field at the hot corner.
So upon Rodriguez’s return it is more likely he will assume the designated hitter role for most of the rest of the season in order to keep his surgically repaired left hip from acting up again.
The Yankees do not have much in the way of options at third base behind Youkilis.
They were hoping that they could convince Eric Chavez, 35, to come back for a third season. But the free agent elected to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Though Chavez was unable to physically handle playing third base on a daily basis, he did contribute mightily to the Yankees at third and first base and as a DH and pinch-hitter. He hit .281 with 16 home runs and 37 RBIs in 2012. He also played 64 games at third base and flashed some of the form that led to him winning six consecutive Gold Gloves at the position from 2001 through 2006 with the Oakland Athletics.
He and his left-hand bat will be missed in 2013.
Instead the Yankees will have to look to Jayson Nix, 30, as the primary backup in 2013.
Nix entered the 2012 season as a minor-league player invited to spring training by the Yankees. After hitting over .300 in the spring Nix was assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but he was recalled on May 3 when the Yankees decided that Eduardo Nunez was ill-suited to be a utility infielder.
Nix hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 177 at-bats as largely a backup to Rodriguez at third base and Derek Jeter at shortstop.
Nix was designated for assignment by the Yankees on Nov. 30, 2011 to make room on the 40-man roster for All-Star reliever Mariano Rivera, who was signed to a one-year contract. But Nix agreed to accept an assignment to Triple A in order to remain with the team. He will be invited to spring training and he has an excellent chance of retaining his backup infielder role.
Though Nix will not knock down any fences, he will play solidly in the field and give a good effort at the plate. That is what the Yankees hope he can do.
Nunez, 25, started the season as the team’s infield backup but his careless errors in the field cost him the job. Manager Joe Girardi and the Yankees’ front office agreed to send Nunez back to Triple A to play shortstop exclusively.
However, Nunez spent most of his time in the minors sidelined with a right-hand injury. There are no questions about Nunez’s bat. He is a career .272 hitter with the capability of stealing 40 bases in a full season.
But Jeter, 38, is still the shortstop and Nunez is a butcher in the field, hence the nickname “Eduardo Scissorhands.” He was on a pace to commit 42 errors if he had played every day in 2012.
The Yankees look at Nunez as a potential right-hand DH in 2013 at this point. Nunez is not a home run hitter but he could possibly hit 10 home runs and drive in 60 runs if he got 425 or so at-bats. The Yankees also missed his speed last season.
Nunez stole 22 bases in 112 games in 2011 and he actually led the Yankees for most of the 2011 season with 11 until A-Rod and Ichiro Suzuki passed him in September. Nunez along with left-fielder Brett Gardner and Suzuki would give the Yankees a speed game they were lacking in 2012.
But the Yankees likely will not use Nunez at third base and there is a good possibility that Nunez could be traded to a team needing a shortstop before the season starts. They will listen to offers anyway.
Behind Nix the Yankees do not have a lot of major-league-ready options at the position.
David Adams, 25, and Corban Joseph, 24, are on the 40-man roster but both are primarily second basemen.
Adams hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs at Double-A Trenton in 2012 while Joseph hit a combined .276 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs between Trenton and Triple-A Scranton.
Adams, a third-round draft selection out of the University of Virginia in 2008, has been held back by a severe ankle injury. Joseph is a fourth round pick in 2008 out of Franklin High School in Franklin, TN.
Joseph would seem to have more upside because of his power and the fact that he bats left-handed. The Yankees could use a left-handed hitting infield backup. But Joseph is not considered as a shortstop. The same for Adams.
Both were elevated to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule V draft in 2013 and both will get opportunities to play in spring training. But Nix and Nunez have a huge upper hand on them because neither of the youngsters have played a significant amount of time at third base. In addition, neither player is among the Yankees’ Top 20 prospects.
The only third baseman among the Top 20 prospects is the Yankees’ first selection in the 2011 draft Dante Bichette Jr., son of the former Colorado Rockies slugger of the same name.
Bichette, 20, opened eyes last spring when he was placed on the traveling squad for an exhibition game against the Houston Astros and he hit a pair of solo home runs in his two at-bats in the only game in which he played. However, his 2012 season was a major disappointment because he hit only three home runs, drove in 46 runs and batted .248 at Class-A Charleston (SC).
But because he was the Most Valuable Player of the Gulf Coast League in 2011 and he has adapted better than expected at third base, the Yankees have high hopes for the Maitland, FL, native. However, he appears to be more than two years away from being ready for the major leagues.
Third base appears to be a big issue for the Yankees entering 2013.
Rodriguez is sidelined once again and his replacement Youkilis has had issues with injuries of his own. There appears to be an adequate backup in Nix but the Yankees have limited options behind him. The jury on Bichette is out for now but the Yankees remain optimistic he can follow in his father’s footsteps.
This is definitely not the Yankees’ strongest position entering the season and there will be a lot of people crossing their fingers Youkilis stays healthy and Rodriguez come back strong. It seems an awful lot to ask for at this point.
The New York Yankees have played 33 percent of the season and their record stands just about where it was in 2011 when the Yankees were 31-23. That team ended up winning 97 games to lead the American League. The question is in 2012 can the Yankees reach the same heights with the loss of Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, young right-handed starter Michael Pineda and an offense that seems to sputter with runners in scoring position. Let’s examine how the Yankees have fared.
Last season the Yankees wielded a powerful offense despite the fact only Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano had what could be called good seasons. Their hope in 2012 was that Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Brett Gardner would join them along with new designated hitter Raul Ibanez, who replaced the retired Jorge Posada.
Instead, the Yankees can actually only point to one hitter who has truly carried the offense throughout the season and that is Jeter. The 37-year-old shortstop has reached the one-third mark with the third-highest batting average in the American League at .336 with six home runs and 20 RBIs.
It is an extension of the way he has hit since he returned from the disabled list last July and it has finally silenced talk throughout Yankee Universe that his productive days were behind him.
The only disappointing part of Jeter’s season is his run scored total of 30. That number points to the problems the Yankees have had in scoring runs this season when they are not hitting home runs.
The team’s batting average with runners in scoring position is atrocious. Jeter leads the team in that category hitting a mere .262. Ibanez is hitting .256. The rest is abysmal: Swisher, .236; Granderson, .222; Teixeira, .218; Martin, .172; Rodriguez, .170; and Cano, .140.
What is manager Joe Girardi to do? Should he bench A-Rod and Cano in favor of Eric Chavez and Jayson Nix? Should he bat A-Rod leadoff because he is hitting .346 with the bases empty and make Jeter the cleanup hitter?
The problem is all Girardi can do is trust that these hitters will begin to hit more like they have in the past and the law of averages will mean the Yankees will start to begin to punish pitchers who dare to load the bases. The Yankees are 9-for-57 (.158) in those situations this season.
The Yankees have also suffered from a dramatic shift in their offense away from speed because Gardner has been on the disabled list since April 19 with a strained right elbow that has been slow to heal. In addition, Eduardo Nunez was sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after he continued to butcher balls so badly fielding he earned the nickname “Eduardo Scissorhands.” With it, Nunez took his 22 steals playing half the time in 2011.
Without Gardner and Nunez, the Yankees are less of a threat on the bases. Rodriguez has six steals and that ties him for the team lead with Nunez, who had six before his demotion on May 11.
The Yankees hope to have Gardner back within a week and it will be a welcome sight. Gardner was hitting .321 when he was injured and he has the ability to spark the offense with his speed. His exceptional Gold Glove-worthy defense in left-field has also been missed.
There are also hopeful signs that Teixeira is coming out his usual early-season struggles at the plate. In his last 10 games, Tex is hitting .351 with four home runs and 12 RBIs. He has abandoned his “put the ball in play” strategy to increase his batting average and gone back to his “swing for production” approach and it appears to be working.
Just don’t expect Teixeira to anywhere near the .308 average he hit in the season before he joined the Yankees. Those days seem to be behind him much like they were for his predecessor Jason Giambi after he left Oakland.
Cano and Rodroguez also are showing signs of life with the bat. Rodriguez has four home runs in his last four games and Cano was hitting .308 on May 26 until a recent 4-for-29 (.138) slide has dropped his average back to .284.
The truth is that the Yankees only will go as far as the productive bats of Cano, Rodriguez and Teixeira take them. If you triple their current numbers, Cano would have 24 home runs and 72 RBIs, Rodriguez would have 27 homers and 66 RBIs and Teixeira would have 27 home runs and 96 RBIs.
Would anyone like to bet the house that those numbers will actually be their final numbers? It would be a fool’s bet, for sure. But they have to start hitting and soon.
Granderson is having a season much like his breakout 2011 season. He has 17 home runs and 33 RBIs. His .261 average is only a point lower than he hit last season. No problem there. But there are some negatives, too.
Granderson has struck out 61 times in 207 at-bats and that translates to 183 strikeouts for a full season. He also has stolen three bases in six attempts. He also has only one triple.
It would be nice to see Granderson elevate his speed game and cut the strikeouts as the season progresses.
Swisher helped carry the offense in April by hitting .284 with six home runs and 23 RBIs. But in May, Swisher suffered a hamstring injury and he has slumped ever since. He hit just .207 in May with two home runs and nine RBIs. With this being his contract year, Swisher has all the motivation in the world to get busy hitting again. Let’s see if he can.
Ibanez, meanwhile, has been a revelation. Only signed to be a left-handed DH, Ibanez has been forced to play left-field in Gardner’s absence and he has done fine there. Ibanez has also contributed nine home runs and 29 RBIs while hitting.252. Gardner’s return should allow him to get some occasional rest at age 40 and it also might help him stay fresh the remainder of the season.
Andruw Jones, the right-handed half of the DH platoon, is off to a slow start similar to his 2011 season. He has five home runs and 11 RBIs and he hitting .233.
The biggest disappointment in the Yankees’ offense this season has been Martin.
Last season, Martin hit 18 home runs and drove in 65 runs despite hitting .237. This season, Martin is hitting a mere .194 and has four home runs and 12 RBIs. With Martin’s defensive gifts behind the plate, it is inconceivable that Girardi would replace him.
But the Yankees have ben spoiled by the offense Posada provided and there are Yankee fans who are still angry that general manager Brian Cashman traded rookie catcher Jesus Montero to the Mariners. To make them even madder, Montero is on a pace to hit 21 home runs and drive in 81 runs with the Mariners this season.
Martin better pick it up and fast. Backup catcher Chris Stewart is hitting .227 with six RBIs catching just once a week.
The Yankees got tired of hearing that the quality of their starting pitching began and ended with CC Sabathia.
In 2011, they cobbled a starting staff together with retreads like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia and a promising rookie in Ivan Nova and somehow won 97 games and made the playoffs. But they were quickly eliminated to a staff of pitchers that were better in the Tigers.
This season, they ignored the extravagant fixes like C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish and decided instead to sign Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million contract and trade megastar Montero for Pineda. They also re-signed the 35-year-old Garcia after his 12-8 record with a 3.62 ERA.
They were counting on Nova’s continued development after a 16-4 mark and a 3.70 ERA and the return of 25-year-old Phil Hughes, who was throwing with velocity again much like he did in 2010 when he was 18-8 with a 4.16 ERA.
A funny thing happened on the way to the start of the regular season. None of this really worked out as Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild would have hoped.
Pineda showed up to camp this winter overweight by 20 pounds and the velocity on his fastball was down considerably. As spring training unfolded, Pineda never regained the velocity he had last season and after a late spring start he revealed he was pitching with a sore right shoulder.
He underwent surgery to repair a slight tear in his right shoulder and he hopes to return in the early stages of the 2013 season. Scratch Pineda.
The Yankees then hoped Garcia would be able to provide the same ability to keep them in games he showed last season. Unfortunately, Garcia was unable to regain even the modest velocity on his pitches he had last season and he was lit up like bottle rockets at the start of the Chinese New Year.
After four April starts in which he was 0-2 with a 12.71 ERA, Garcia was banished to long relief in the bullpen and there he sits. He has not pitched a game since May 21. Scratch Garcia.
The Yankees big surprise was when 39-year-old left-handed legend Andy Petitte decided to return to the Yankees after one year in retirement. After allowing Pettitte to build up his arm and legs in the minors early this season, Pettitte returned to the majors on May 13.
In his four starts, he is 2-2 with a 3.49 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. By all measures it does not appear that Pettitte has suffered any regression of his abilities when he was idle. After the loss of Pineda for the season and Garcia’s demise, Pettitte has provided some optimism to the Yankees’ rotation.
The rest of the staff has been down early and getting better lately.
Kuroda in six of his 11 starts is 4-1 with a 1.44 ERA. In his other five starts he is 0-5 with a 8.03 ERA. Inconsistency with his command and perhaps having to adjust to a new league has a lot to do with the bad numbers. But, Kuroda is showing signs of improvement since April 24. Since then he is 3-3 with a 3.40 ERA.
The Yankees have hope the 37-year-old right-hander will continue to improve as the season goes along as he adjusts to a much tougher division like the American League East.
Hughes has also shown signs of finding his rhythm after missing most all of 2011 with weakness in his right shoulder.
The 25-year-old right-hander was 1-3 with a 7.88 ERA in April. Since then he is 4-2 with a 3.94 ERA and he is coming off the first nine-inning complete game of his career as he held the Tigers to one run and struck out eight on Sunday. Hughes is beginning to show the form that he showed when he made the American League All-Star team in 2010.
The enigma of the group has been Nova.
When he is good, it seems he gets little support or he gives up a key home run that beats him. When he is shaky, the Yankees score a lot of runs and he wins anyway.
So Nova is 6-2 with a 5.60 ERA. That is a far cry from his 2011 rookie season when he won 13 straight games.
The home-run ball is killing Nova. Last season he gave up 13 in 165 1/3 innings. This season he has given up 13 in 62 2/3 innings.
The odd thing is Nova probably has more electric stuff than any starter apart from Sabathia. The problem is Nova has been unable to harness it. When you can’t command the strike zone you are reduced to throwing fastballs over the plate and fastballs over the plate can end up in the seats.
So the answer to Nova’s troubles might be easily fixed when he begins to harness that command. He struck out 12 Reds in six innings on May 19 but lost because of three-run home run hit by Joey Votto. That is pretty much defined Nova’s odd season so far.
But at age 25, Nova is capable of good things and the Yankees have to trust he will continue to improve as he gets older. As long as Pettitte, Kuroda and Hughes are pitching well, Nova will be given that chance to grow. The alternatives of Garcia or rookie David Phelps or minor leaguers like D.J. Mitchell do not have the same arsenal Nova possesses.
That is why the Yankees have to continue to use him.
Sabathia has been, well, like Sabathia always has been.
At times shaky early in the season, Sabathia is 7-2 with a 3.12 ERA in his last nine starts. He has 74 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings and his WHIP is 1.24.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Sabathia is simply off to another season like his first three with the Yankees in which he 59-23 with a 3.05 ERA. The 31-year-old left-hander is the rock and foundation of this rotation.
He is pitching like it and as long as Pettitte, Kuroda and Hughes provide quality innings behind him, the Yankees should win enough as Nova develops. If they don’t this season is simply doomed to be a pretty bad one for the Yankees. It is just that simple.
For all intents and purposes the Yankees’ 2012 season should have ended on May 3 when All-Universe closer Mariano Rivera went down in a heap shagging a fly ball on the warning track at Kauffman Stadium.
No doubt about it, losing Rivera was a big blow to the Bronx Bombers.
But Girardi had faith that David Robertson and Rafael Soriano would pick up the slack and the Yankees would be able to carry on without their precious Mo.
However, not more than 12 days later Robertson ended up on the disabled list with a left oblique strain.
Suddenly, the team with the deepest and best bullpen in baseball was no longer as deep or perceived to be as good.
However, Soriano has been successful in all seven of his save opportunities and he is 2-0 with a 1.89 RRA. Those are not too far from Mo numbers so the Yankees still have faith in their bullpen.
Girardi is hoping Robertson is a few weeks away to returning to the team. It is unclear if Robertson will get another opportunity to close. It is more likely he will resume his eighth-inning setup role.
In the meantime, Girardi is getting yeoman work from a mix-and-match righty combination of Cory Wade (2.55 ERA) and Cody Eppley (4.22) and a lefty combination of Boone Logan (2.79) and Clay Rapada (3.86). Phelps is providing quality long relief (2.94 ERA).
So somehow the Yankees’ bullpen is getting the job done despite the injuries and that is a credit to Girardi and Rothschild.
The long-term prospects for the bullpen also appear bright because the Yankees have a number of possible replacements in the pipeline.
One is David Aardsma, a former Mariners closer who is hoping to return to the majors at around the All-Star break. The Yankees also have sinkerball specialist Mitchell a phone call away at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Mitchell is a starter but his long-term major-league career may translate to the bullpen.
The Yankees are also holding out some hope that Joba Chamberlain may recover from his Tommy John surgery and the horrific ankle injury he suffered this spring to pitch some this season. The jury is out but he insists he is ahead of schedule.
The Yankees are pretty much paddling water like most of the other teams in the American League East.
They stand 1 1/2 games out of first place and they are playing the first-place Rays at home beginning on Tuesday.
That will allow the Yankees to get into position to make a push over the next 54 games. After the Rays they will open their interleague schedule starting against the Mets at home this weekend.
The Yankees have the best interleague record in baseball and this period will give them a chance to press into the lead in the division while pretenders like the Orioles and Jays are poised for a slide downward. The Rays and Red Sox look to be ready to keep pace with the Yankees moving into the summer.
The biggest keys to the Yankees’ success lies in its offense being able to turn itself around and begin to hit with runners in scoring position. The team also must get more consistent pitching from Kuroda, Hughes and Nova behind Pettitte and Sabathia.
The bullpen has held together for now and Girardi must hope it continues to hold up in the absence of Rivera.
If I was a betting man, I would not bet against the Yankees standing atop this division at the the two-thirds mark of the season. There is just too much talent on this roster for it not to start asserting itself.
The Yankees have always been a second-half team. They seem to be able to turn it on in the summer months and steam ahead of the pack. I see this happening again soon. The question is who will be with them.
The Rays, boosted by their pitching, should be one. I am not sure how much steam the Red Sox have but I do know that the Orioles and Jays do not look capable of staying with the big boys.
The Orioles are in a slide already and it appears that the ball is over for this Cinderella. The Jays have struggled all season and their pitching is not capable of keeping them in it over the long haul.
So even with no Mo, the Yankees seem to have enough “mo” (as in momentum) to carry them into the summer.