YANKEES (SS) 4, PHILLIES 1
Didi Gregorius capped a three-run inning in the fourth with an RBI double and made a sensational play in the field in the first as a New York split squad downed Philadelphia on a damp and rainy day at Bright House Field in Clearwater, FL.
Rookie right-hander Bryan Mitchell set the tone for the Yankees’ pitchers by facing the minimum in two innings. Jaron Long (1-0), the son of former hitting coach Kevin Long, took over for Mitchell and pitched a scoreless third to get credit for the victory. Branden Pinder did not give up a run in the final two innings to earn a save.
The Yankees batted around in the fourth off losing pitcher Michael Nesseth (0-1).
Mark Teixeira singled to begin the inning and Greg Bird followed with an RBI double to score Kyle Roller, who pinch-ran for Teixiera. One out later, Ramon Flores plated Bird with a single. Two batters later, Gregorius scored Aaron Judge with a ringing double off the wall in right-center.
The Yankees added a run in the sixth on an RBI single by Nick Noonan.
The Phillies scored their lone run when Xavier Paul led off the seventh with a home run off the first offering from right-hander Mark Montgomery.
Replacing a legend is not easy but Gregorius does not see himself as replacing Derek Jeter. He says that he is playing the same position Jeter did.
But he is not going to try to be Jeter. He is just going to be the best Gregorius he can be.
That was on display on Friday when speedy Odubel Herrera, who stole three bases in an exhibition game against the Yankees on Wednesday, slapped a high hopper to Gregorius’ left to start the game.
Aware of Herrera’s speed, Gregorius quickly gloved the ball, did a 360-degree spin behind the bag and fired a strike to Teixeira at first to beat Herrera by a step. Then, after a Freddy Galvis single, Mitchell fielded a Grady Sizemore comebacker, whirled to throw to Gregorius covering second and the 25-year-old shortstop lost the grip on the ball.
After recovering the ball, Gregorius fired quickly to first to nip Sizemore on what was a nifty recovery to save the double play.
Yankee fans realize though Jeter won five Gold Gloves in his storied career that his range over the past few seasons was not that good. Watching Gregorius glide to his right and to his left makes this new shortstop very dynamic.
His skills are going to be very obvious. Defense is no problem.
But when Gregorius added the RBI double in the fourth, it gave manager Joe Girardi a sign that just maybe there may be a bonus if Gregorius’ offense improves.
For now, it is only spring training. There will be time to develop that offense. It will just take a little time and a little patience. But get used to seeing Didi’s plays on ESPN pretty frequently. He is that good.
- Yankee pitchers Mitchell, Long, Nick Goody, Matt Tracy, Montgomery and Pinder held the Phillies to only four hits. They struck out four and walked two. Mitchell, 23, made his major-league debut last season and he was impressive in his two innings. Mitchell has an outside shot at making the team as a reliever but more likely will go to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as a starter and be available as a emergency starter should the Yankees require one.
- The Yankees succeeded with a very balanced offense. They rapped out 10 hits in the game and no player collected more than one. Phillies pitchers made things harder for themselves by issuing six walks.
- Bird continues to impress with the bat. The 22-year-old power-hitting first baseman broke open the scoring with a double in the fourth and he is hitting .429 in the early going. With Teixeira entrenched at first for a few more years the Yankees can afford to allow the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Bird develop as a hitter. He batted .271 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 102 games in two minor-league stops last season.
- The only real negative was that the Yankees struck out 11 times in the game. Top catching prospect Gary Sanchez, 22, went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
The features BOMBER BANTER and ON DECK will be included in the next post.
With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them.
Mark Teixeira, 34 (.216,22 HRs, 62 RBIs, 123 games)
There was a time not long ago that Teixeira was considered to be among the best players at his position and he was a feared hitter in the middle of Yankees’ lineup.
But the past three seasons Teixeira has had to deal with a series of injuries that have rendered him ineffective when he did play and unavailable to play for long stretches. He has played in only 138 games in the past two seasons largely because of a wrist injury he suffered in March 2013.
Teixeira was taking batting practice before an exhibition game for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic when he tore the sheath in his right wrist. Rather than surgery on the wrist, Teixeira elected to rehab it and come back to play for the Yankees in May of 2013.
However, after 15 excruciatingly painful games Teixeira had to admit he needed surgery and 2o13 ended up being a lost season after he hit just .151 with three homers and 12 RBIs.
So Teixiera entered 2014 hopeful that after the surgery in July and a chance to heal slowly that he would be back to averaging the 37 homers and 114 RBIs he put up for the Yankees from 2009 to 2012.
After a cautious spring things looked good when Teixiera displayed his old power and he was producing offense for a very weak Yankees’ lineup. There also were some hints along the way that things were still not right with the wrist.
Early in the season he suffered a calf strain that shelved him for two weeks and then there were short stretches where Teixeira had to admit to manager Joe Girardi that he could not play because wrist was sore.
Many MRIs and cortisone shots followed and Teixeira learned from doctors that the wrist surgery was successful and the soreness was normal. But it pained Teixiera that he could not suit up and play. Even more, he also could not produce the power and runs the team needed when it so badly needed it.
Teixeira was not able to generate much for the Yankees in the second half, hitting only five homers after the All-Star break. He also struggled from the right side of the plate, where he managed just four of his 22 home runs.
There also were signs of fatigue from not being able to work out over the winter as he would have liked because of the surgery. He also suffered through a ribcage injury, a left lat strain and an injury to his left pinkie finger.
The problem for Girardi and the Yankees was exacerbated by the fact that the Yankees had precious little power at all and there was no one on the roster who specifically was designated to play first base behind Teixiera in 2014.
As a result, the Yankees were forced to use eight other players when Teixeira was sidelined: Kelly Johnson (23 starts), Brian McCann (11), Chase Headley (6), Francisco Cervelli (5), Scott Sizemore (1) and Carlos Beltran, Brendan Ryan and Austin Romine were moved there during games.
None of these players had any significant experience at the position and it showed.
Teixeira has always been considered among the best fielding first basemen in baseball. He has five Gold Gloves to his credit, including three of them won with the Yankees. But even that skill left Teixeira to some degree last season.
After averaging 4.3 errors a season over 10 seasons in the major leagues, Teixiera committed six in just 116 starts in 2014.
The Yankees do have to be asking themselves if Teixeira is in a permanent decline due to advancing age or can he somehow regain his health enough to produce the 39 homers and 111 RBIs he produced in 156 games in 2011.
The other problem Teixeira has had to face is his sinking batting averages.
From his second season with the Texas Rangers in 2004 through his first season with the Yankees in 2009, Teixiera never hit below .281 while hitting all those home runs and driving in all those runs.
But since 2010 Teixeira has never batted above .256. Teixeira even understood this and tried to correct it in 2012. But he gave up when he realized that he was signed in 2009 by the Yankees to a eight-year, $180 million contract to hit a lot of home runs and drive in a lot of runs no matter where his batting average landed.
So Teixeira continues to take a pull-happy approach and utilize an uppercut swing designed to elevate the ball over the short porch in right-field. That is why he receives a pretty steady diet of breaking pitches and a lot of pitches on the outside corner that are harder for him to pull. Hence, the lower batting averages.
At this point, the Yankees open camp hoping that Teixeira is healthy and the wrist is no longer an issue. After all, both David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox and Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays were able to put up great numbers in their second season after similar wrist surgeries. The same should hold for Teixeira.
The Yankees, however, do have a fallback position for Teixeira in 2015 to make up for the grievously stupid mistake they made of not having an experienced backup in 2014.
The Yankees were able to acquire veteran first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones from the Miami Marlins in December as part of a five-player deal where the Yankees shipped infielder Martin Prado in exchange for right-hander Nathan Eovaldi.
Jones, 33, is a left-handed hitter with power who hit 15 homers and drove in 53 runs in 146 games with the Marlins last season, primarily as their starting first baseman (122 starts).
Much like Teixeira, Jones is not looking to win a batting title. He has averaged .253 in his seven major-league seasons. But he also has hit 117 home runs in that span, including a career-high of 27 for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012.
So Jones gives Girardi and the Yankees some flexibility if Teixeira can’t answer the bell for a game or two this season or is simply in need of a day off. Jones’ power also means the Yankees won’t suffer as much of a dropoff without Tex.
It is first time the Yankees have had a creditable backup for Teixeira since the Yankees had outfielder Nick Swisher, who the Yankees allowed to walk as free agent after the 2012 season.
The Yankees attempted to trade for Jones in the past when he was with the Pirates but were not successful. The reason general manager Brian Cashman wanted Jones so badly is because he has a swing tailor-made for Yankee Stadium’s shorter dimensions in right field.
“Obviously, his left-handed bat is made for our ballpark,” Cashman told reporters. “You saw us go through a season last year where we didn’t have a legitimate backup first baseman. Now we do.”
Jones came to the major leagues as an outfielder and he is not considered a skilled fielder at first base. He committed 13 errors there last season. But even with the defensive shortcomings it is good to know he can play the position for significant stretches if he is needed.
Jones’ versatility also makes him a potential backup in right field for Beltran, who also went through a injury-plagued 2014 season that was derailed by a bone spur in his right elbow. Jones has started as many as 78 games in a season in the outfield in his career and Girardi would be comfortable playing him there if he is needed.
In addition, Jones is the odds-on favorite to be the team’s primary designated hitter this season. Because of Jones’ defensive shortcomings he is a natural DH because the Yankees would love to have his power bat available on a team that desperately needs it in 2015.
Behind Jones the Yankees may be doing some experimentation this spring with third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
The 39-year-old veteran might see some work at the position this spring since Headley is projected to start the season as the team’s third baseman. Though Rodriguez did move from shortstop to third base when the Yankees signed him as a free agent in 2004, he has never played a single game at first base in his career.
So it remains to be seen how A-Rod will fare at first base. But his former Rangers teammate Teixeira made the switch in 2003 and became proficient. The jury is out on Rodriguez being able to make the same switch at this advanced stage of his career.
And even should he be successful in making the switch, he will not be playing the position much with Teixeira and Jones ahead of him on the depth chart.
The Yankees also were very pleased with what they saw of McCann in the 11 games he started at first base in 2014. McCann, 31, showed good reflexes and some defensive skill at the position.
However, he would just be an emergency candidate in 2015, although we could see the Yankees eventually shift McCann to the position when Teixeira’s contract expires after the 2016 season.
The Yankees also have a potential replacement for Teixeira in their minor-league system named Greg Bird.
The 22-year-old former high school catcher for Baltimore Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman in Aurora, CO, has flourished as a hitter ever since he was moved to first base.
Bird, who bats left-handed, hit a combined .271 with 14 home runs and 43 RBIs in 102 games between Class-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton last season.
Bird takes a very patient approach to the plate and he led the minor leagues with 103 walks in 2013. The Yankees believe he has the ability to hit for both power and average at the major-league level.
Bird was the sensation of Arizona Fall League in 2014. He was named the AFL Most Valuable Player representing Scottsdale this winter. The Yankees have issued him a non-roster invite to spring training.
Realistically, Bird has no shot of making the team. But he will get his first chance to see how he measures up against some of the best in the game. He is ticketed for Double-A with a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season possible.
In any event, Bird gives the Yankees a solid young player who could be a productive first baseman at the major-league level.
Kyle Roller, 26, hit .300 with 26 home runs and 74 RBIs in 125 games between Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2014. His 26 home runs actually was the not only the best minor-league total, it was also the best in the entire organization.
Unlike Bird, Roller takes more of an all-or-nothing approach to the plate as his 289 strikeouts in his past two minor-league seasons would attest. Though Roller does have very good power from the left side, his path to the majors is blocked.
He also is a non-roster invitee to spring training. He likely will end up at Scranton for another season but could see a temporary call-up should the Yankees need a backup first baseman.
OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: GOOD
Because of Teixeira’s declining batting average and injury problems, he is no longer considered among the elite first basemen. Having said that the Yankees still do need a healthy Teixeira in 2015.
They need the more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs he produced from 2004 to 2011. Only one other first baseman did that for a longer period of time and that was Albert Pujols.
If you throw in Teixiera’s sparkling defense and his ability to save his fellow infielders errors, you have the makings of a quality first baseman. However, Father Time seems to have caught up with Tex.
He begins the spring with a lot to prove this season. The Yankees hope he is up to the challenge. They see him as a player who will fill either the fourth or fifth spot in the batting order so they do have a lot riding on his health.
Having a quality backup like Jones available makes the Yankees feel a whole lot better have the parade of players they out there in 2014. Though his defense is nowhere near that of Teixeira’s, Jones gives the Yankees a productive power bat to deploy at first should Teixeira for some reason be unable to play.
Bird appears to be a potential star in the making if he continues to develop as he has in the minors. It gives the Yankees some hope when the Teixeira era at first base finally ends.
NEXT: SECOND BASE
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.
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!
RIGHTFIELD – ICHIRO SUZUKI (28 Rs, 5 HRs, 27 RBIs, .322 BA, 14 SB)
When the Yankees made the trade to bring Ichiro Suzuki to The Bronx it was looked at initially as a temporary fix to the Yankees’ injury to top base-stealing threat Brett Gardner. After all, Suzuki’s contract with the Seattle Mariners expired after the 2012 season and the Yankees were unsure if the 39-year-old All-Star had very much left in the tank.
Suzuki seemed to fall off the proverbial cliff after he hit .315 with six home runs and 43 RBIs and 42 stolen bases in 2010. In 2011, the career .322 hitter batted only .272 with five home runs and 47 RBIs and 40 stolen bases.
In addition, Suzuki was hitting .261 with four homers and 28 RBIs and 15 stolen bases for the Mariners at the time of the trade.
But Suzuki took to New York quicker than anyone would have expected and he seemed to be rejuvenated being part of a pennant chase for the first time since his early seasons with the Mariners.
As a result of Suzuki’s renewed bounce in his step and the fact the Yankees allowed rightfielder Nick Swisher to sign a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Indians this winter, Suzuki was granted a two-year, $12 million deal to take over for him. General manager Brian Cashman was pleased Suzuki settled for much less than perhaps he was worth to stay with the Yankees.
Suzuki had made it clear that he did want to remain in New York. So it seems both sides are very happy with the deal.
Suzuki will never be able to replace Swisher’s power and production but he is an upgrade in terms of hitting, speed and defense. That is all part of the tradeoff the Yankees had to accept in order to rebuild a team that lost 94 home runs when Swisher (24), Russell Martin (21), Raul Ibanez (19), Eric Chavez (16) and Andruw Jones (14) signed elsewhere this offseason.
Suzuki will join with Gardner, Eduardo Nunez, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson as part of the group that is expected to be stealing a lot of bases in 2013 because of what the Yankees lost in terms of power. The Yankees will not be able to play station-to-station baseball while waiting for home runs.
Suzuki’s two-year deal signals the Yankees are committed to him and what he can provide at the top of the lineup by getting on base and running the bases.
Last season, Suzuki approved the trade with some conditions laid down by the Yankees. He agreed to hit lower in the batting order, to a platoon that would sit him against left-handers and agree to switch to leftfield. Suzuki accepted the stipulations and never complained about where he hit, where he played and when he was benched.
However, when Suzuki got red hot in September manager Joe Girardi stopped platooning him against lefties, moved him up in the batting order and shifted him to rightfield so Swisher could replace an injured Mark Teixeira at first base.
So expect Suzuki to be playing every day, hitting second and playing rightfield in 2013. Suzuki basically changed the manager’s mind the old-fashioned way: He played so well that Girardi had no choice but to play him and those conditions Suzuki was signed under have been tossed out the window – for good.
Suzuki’s calling card has always been his magical bat. Despite an unusual batting style, Suzuki seems to be able to know when it is best to pull the ball and when to go with a pitch. He confounds pitchers with his ability to spray the ball all over the field.
He may no longer have blazing speed as he did when he won his Most Valuable Player and Rookie of Year awards in 2001, but Suzuki can still leg out infield grounders for hits, take an extra base on napping outfielders and he can even steal a base or two when necessary.
Suzuki stole 29 bases last season between the Mariners and Yankees and he led the Yankees with 14 steals despite playing in only 67 games.
With the short porch in right-field, Suzuki can also surprise a pitcher or two by turning on an inside pitch and putting it into the seats. Suzuki’s career high in home runs is 15 that he hit in 2005 and he only has reached double digits in three seasons. But it is good bet they he could reach double digits in 2013.
He hit five dingers in only 227 at-bats with the Yankees last season.
Where Suzuki really shines is as a defender. From 2001 through 2010 he won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves with the Mariners. Granted, he has lost a step, but Suzuki can still flash some leather in the outfield. He also possesses an excellent arm in rightfield. With Granderson and Gardner, Suzuki forms a rare outfield that boasts three centerfielders.
This is an outfield that is also loaded with speed and skilled fielders. It might be the best defensive outfield the Yankees have fielded in some time.
The only potential negative with Suzuki might be if he regresses as a hitter as he did with in the Mariners in 2011. The Yankees are on the hook for two seasons with Suzuki and they would rather he continue he hit the .322 he did with the Yankees last season.
The Yankees were dealt a serious blow to the 2013 plans when Ibanez opted to sign as a free agent with his old Mariners team. The Yankees made it clear that they wanted to keep Ibanez as their left-hand designated hitter and part-time outfielder.
At the moment the plans behind Gardner, Granderson and Suzuki look a little murky.
The Yankees did claim right-hand hitter Russ Canzler off waivers from the Cleveland Indians. Canzler, 26, can play first base, leftfield and DH.
Canzler hit three home runs, drove in 11 runs and hit .269 as a September call-up with the Indians after leading the International League with 36 doubles, 22 home runs and 79 RBIs in 130 games at Triple-A Columbus.
Canzler provides the Yankees primarily with a right-hand bat who can back up Mark Teixeira at first base. But he did play 47 games with Columbus and 11 games with the Indians in the outfield. His range in the outfield is limited and he would be a significant dropoff from Gardner as a defensive outfielder.
Jayson Nix has been invited to spring training again primarily to compete with Nunez as a backup middle infielder but Nix also can play some outfield.
Nix made nine starts in the outfield last season and acquitted himself well. He committed only one error. Though he is much better as infielder, Nix provides Girardi with a lot of options on where to play him.
Nix, 30, hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 177 at-bats last season.
Cashman is looking to bolster the outfield before spring training camp opens next month and he has a few targets that could be on his radar.
His first option is former Met outfielder Scott Hairston, who is currently seeking a lucrative two-year deal on the free-agent market.
Hairston, 32, hit 20 home runs and drove in 57 runs and batted .263 with the Mets last season. His main calling card is his power and his ability to crush left-handed pitching.
Hairston hit .286 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs against lefties last season. Though he has played some second base in the past, Hairston is primarily an outfielder and he only committed one error in 108 games there last season.
The Yankees covet him because he has power, which the Yankees need, and he balances out the starting outfield, which is comprised of all left-hand hitters. The Yankees see Hairston as part-time outfielder, a platoon DH and valuable pinch-hitter off the bench.
The only sticking point is the amount of money he is seeking and the Yankees are not real keen on offering him a two-year deal. They are hoping Hairston will lower his demands.
Another potential target could be 6-foot-5 first baseman-outfielder Michael Morse of the Washington Nationals.
Morse, 30, had a breakout season in 2011 in which he hit .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs for the Nationals. But injuries limited him to just 102 games in 2012 in which he batted .291 with 18 home runs and 62 RBIs.
The Nationals had him scheduled to move from left-field to first base this off-season when they acquired centerfielder Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins and shifted rookie centerfielder Bryce Harper to leftfield. However, the team decided to re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche so Morse is currently relegated to the bench.
The Nationals reportedly are looking at trading Morse for a left-handed relief pitcher and some prospects. The Yankees do have a pair of lefties in Boone Logan and Clay Rapada to offer but there is not much depth behind them in the minors. The Yankees could use Morse in the same way they planned to utilize Canzler – at first base, leftfield and DH.
Morse is a right-hand hitter but his power is intriguing.
This is hard to believe but – in the absence of the Yankees making a deal or signing an outfielder – the Yankees will actually be giving long looks to two of their own minor-league outfielders this spring.
Melky Mesa, 25, hit a combined .264 with 23 home runs and 67 RBIs and 22 stolen bases between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. However, Mesa hit only .230 at Scranton after hitting .277 at Trenton so he may require an additional season before he is ready.
Mesa’s combination of power and speed would be a big boost to the Yankees and he does fill a need for right-hand hitting outfielder. Mesa is also a natural centerfielder and he can easily play all three outfield spots if needed.
The downside is the Yankees are unsure of he can hit major-league pitching. They hope to get some more definitive answers this spring. Mesa figures to play a lot after only getting 13 at-bats and hitting .231 last spring.
The Yankees also have a very intriguing young outfield prospect in Zoilo Almonte, who is a power-hitting switch-hitter.
Almonte, 23, impressed Girardi last spring when he hit .286 in only 14 at-bats. Almonte then followed that up by hitting .277 with 21 home runs and 70 RBIs in 106 games with Trenton.
Unlike Mesa, Almonte is primarily a corner outfielder and he has just average speed (15 steals in 19 attempts last season). Defensively, he is still a work in progress. His range and fielding are just average but he does have a pretty good arm (10 outfield assists last season).
Almonte does have a slim chance of making the jump from Double A but he will need to have a monster spring training that forces Girardi to keep him on the roster. It is all up to Almonte to see if can handle the rigors of the major leagues. But it will be tough to ask him make the jump because it rarely happens in the major leagues and it even more rarely happens with the Yankees.
The Yankees seem to not even care about a player unless he is 34 with years of major-league experience. Almonte would be in a locker room of players he watched while he was in grade school. That would be a lot of pressure on him but his power potential makes him a very viable prospect to watch this spring.
The Yankees are actually loaded with some very special outfield prospects further down in their minor-league system.
Mason Williams, 21, is the team’s second-ranked prospect behind catcher Gary Sanchez. He hit .298 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 91 games between Class-A Charleston and Class-A Tampa before a torn labrum ended his season early.
Williams is an excellent left-handed hitter who should develop more power as he gains experience. He also looks as if he will be a very good base-runner and he is above average defensively as a centerfielder. Williams is 6-feet tall and weighs just 150 pounds but he should gain weight and strength and may even draw comparisons to another centerfielder Williams by the name of Bernie.
The Yankees are also excited about No. 3 prospect Tyler Austin, 21.
Austin hit a organization-best .354 combined in 2011 and he followed that up by hitting .322 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs and 23 stolen bases in four minor-league stops last season.
After playing first and third base his first two seasons, the Yankees moved him to right field last season and he played very well there. While Sanchez and Williams get most of the attention, Austin is considered a very good prospect and 2013 could propel him into the Yankees’ plans in 2014 and beyond.
The Yankees also have a pair of young slash-and-dash hitters who have a chance to make the parent team down the road in Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores.
Heathcott, 22, was the team’s first draft pick in 2009 but has been hampered by on- and off-the-field problems. But the left-handed hitter got back on track by hitting a combined .302 with five home runs and 29 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in the Yankees team in the Gulf Coast League and with Tampa in the Florida State League.
Heathcott is an aggressive player with excellent speed. If he can be more selective at the plate and on the bases he could turn out to something very special.
Flores, 20, is a left-handed hitting machine who batted a combined .303 with seven home runs and 41 RBIs and 24 stolen bases between Tampa and Trenton. He lacks Heathcott’s speed but still stole more bases. He is primarily a leftfielder but can play all three outfield spots and first base.
Fielding will never be his strong suit because his bat is so good. It will carry him the rest of the way to the majors.
The Yankees seem to be deeper in outfield prospects than any other position and that seems to be a good thing considering the team has already lost Swisher and Granderson seems to be headed out the door soon. That would leave Gardner and an aging Suzuki.
So to say the Yankees could stand to have a few of these prospects make an impact in the next few years would be putting it mildly.
There have been rumors the Yankees have talked about possibly trading Williams and Sanchez. But that would seem to be something Cashman would be leery about since he really did get fleeced badly in the Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda deal last winter.
My guess is the Yankees will be very careful which young players they deal but it would seem to make sense that they could trim some of their outfield depth if they need help with their 25-man roster.
Though the Yankees are lucky to be starting three center-fielders with excellent speed in the outfield in 2013, they all hit left-handed and the Yankees will miss Ibanez.
Cashman likely will make some sort of deal to add depth to the outfield and they need someone who can hit right-handed. Canzler and Nix provide some depth but they are not long-term solutions.
Mesa and Almonte provide Girardi with a pair of young options but both are going to have to produce a lot this spring in order to make the leap to the major leagues.
Hopefully, the puzzle pieces can be put together before the start of the 2013 season.
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!
LEFTFIELD – BRETT GARDNER (7 Rs, 0 HRs, 3 RBIs, .323 BA, 2 SB)
Luck has always seemed to turn its back on Brett Gardner.
When he won a job in the Yankees’ outfield in 2009, he seemed to add a new dimension to the offense with his speed. But that season was cut short (108 games) due to a severe thumb injury he suffered sliding into base on a steal attempt.
He has always shown great promise to produce a season in which he would could hit close to .300, steal 60 bases and score tons of runs hitting in front of the Yankees’ powerful home run hitters.
He hit .277 in 2010 and stole 47 bases but he regressed a bit in 2011, when he hit .259 and stole 49 bases. A wrist injury contributed a lot to his hitting woes but surgery on the wrist appeared to have him primed for a big season in 2012.
He was hitting .321 in the 11th game of the season when he hustled in for a sinking line drive in a game against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on April 17. Gardner dove for the ball and caught it but paid dearly by suffering a right elbow injury that landed him on the disabled list. In that game, Gardner hit two doubles, drew two walks, scored three runs, stole a base and drove in a run.
Unfortunately, Gardner would have only three more at-bats the rest of the season and they would come in the Yankees’ final series of the season against the Boston Red Sox.
In between, Gardner would have to suffer a series of stops and starts in his rehab that would baffle the Yankees’ medical staff and elbow specialists alike.
Gardner would rehab the elbow and then show enough progress for a minor-league rehab assignment. However, on two occasions last season Gardner had to shelve his rehab because of recurring pain in the elbow. Finally, Gardner underwent surgery, which ostensibly ended his season.
But the Yankees did see an opportunity to get Gardner ready to play in the playoffs as a potential pinch-runner and late-inning defensive replacement in the outfield. Gardner entered two games in the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles as a defensive replacement and he was 0-for-8 with two stolen bases in three games in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.
But, when you add it all up, basically Gardner 2012 season was just wasted.
Gardner, 29, enters 2013 with a clean bill of health on his surgically repaired elbow. That was pretty much confirmed when Gardner was allowed to hit late in the season and in the playoffs. Hopefully he will be able to return to the same durable player who played in 159 games in 2011.
The Yankees hope so because with Gardner hurt and Eduardo Nunez sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees running game in 2012 was virtually non-existent until the Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki in a trade with the Seattle Mariners in June.
Gardner and Nunez had combined to steal 71 bases in 2011. Last season, in limited play, they stole only 13. The team leader was Suzuki with 14 despite the fact he played in just 67 games with the Yankees.
There is no doubt Gardner and 137 career steals were really missed by a Yankees’ team that had trouble scoring runs in every way except by hitting homers. Gardner provided the speed the Yankees needed and the base-running ability to make other teams make mistakes on pickoff attempts and throws.
The Yankees will have an opportunity to field a roster in 2013 that includes, Gardner, Nunez and Suzuki. They also could possibly get double-digit steals from Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson.
So the Yankees, minus power threats such as Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Andruw, Jones, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez and with Alex Rodriguez out until at least June with a hip injury may have to remake their attack next season around stealing and taking extra bases to make up for the what they lack in power.
That may not be a bad thing considering the “waiting for the home run” approach did not work out so well once the playoffs began. Manager Joe Girardi has always favored a National League-style attack of getting runners on base and moving them aggressively around the bases.
But last season Gardner’s injury and Nunez’s demotion altered the attack to a power-only approach with a veteran-laden roster of players who were not fleet afoot.
Ibanez and Jones pretty much took over for Gardner in left field. Ibanez, 40, and Jones, 34, combined to hit 33 home runs and drive in 96 runs but they only combined to steal three bases and all of those were from the older Ibanez.
Neither Ibanez or Jones could match Gardner’s range and fielding prowess, despite the fact Jones won 10 Gold Gloves when he was a young star with the Atlanta Braves. This is where Gardner was truly missed.
There are scouts who believe that Gardner should have won a Gold Glove in 2011. It instead was awarded to Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals. Gardner has superior range, better instincts and a better arm than Gordon.
He had seven assists and he deterred a lot of base-runners rounding third for heading for home because he threw out 12 runners in his first season in 2009.
In fact, Gardner is so well thought of as a defensive outfielder that the Yankees are toying with the idea of moving him to centerfield this season and moving Granderson to left. Though Granderson does have excellent speed and he plays hard, the Yankees are not happy about how he tends to get late jumps and misreads fly balls.
Girardi is low-keying this idea but do not be surprised to see Gardner playing center this spring on the days Granderson is not. It also would not surprise me if Granderson plays some in left under the guise that the team “wants to see” rookie Melky Mesa in center.
Then Girardi likely will make an announcement late in the spring that Gardner and Granderson will switch. He would do this in order to make sure Granderson’s feelings aren’t damaged and he can probably justify it by saying leftfield is just as important to cover than center in Yankee Stadium, which is true.
Though speed and defense are constants in Gardner’s game, he still has some warts, too.
His bat can be erratic. Pitchers love to overpower him with hard stuff up and try to tie him up inside because of his past wrist issues. So instead of hitting line drives, Gardner hits weak pops and grounders.
Gardner also, for all his blinding speed, has never really developed into a very good bunter.
Gardner’s bunting is still a work in progress, which is hard to believe for a player who has played a combined seven major- and minor-league seasons. Juan Pierre practices bunting every day and he is the most accomplished bunter in the major leagues. If Gardner is not doing it than why not? And if he is practicing every day why is he not getting better?
Those are fair questions.
The other maddening part of Gardner’s game is that he does not have an aggressive nature on the bases. Gardner loves to wait for the right pitch and the right jump before taking a base. It sometimes rankles the hitters who are up when he is on because he just waits and wait and waits.
It is admirable that Gardner does not want to get thrown out but base-stealers have to have a riverboat gambler approach to it or they lose the intimidation factor on the bases. Rickey Henderson had the attitude that no one could throw him out. If you did manage to get him, he would dare you to do it again.
Gardner is much more passive and it shows. The Yankees will need him to develop that attitude and perhaps Suzuki could be of some help to him with it.
Even with these weaknesses in his game, Gardner is still going to be very important to the Yankees in 2013. Having him healthy will give the Yankees a genuine 50-plus base-stealing threat and a superb defensive outfielder roaming the vast expanses of Yankee Stadium.
After suffering through a frustrating year with that nagging elbow injury, Gardner seems primed for a big season. For Yankee fans often it is when you are sorely missed that fans take a better appreciation for what you do. My guess is they are going to really appreciate what Gardner gives them this season – if he can just stay healthy.
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.
FIRST BASE – MARK TEIXEIRA (14 HRs, 46 RBIs, .247 BA)
When Mark Teixeira arrived at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa, FL, he vowed we would see a whole new player this season. He said he would bunt against the shift teams employ against him and he would look to go the opposite field to bring his batting average up to his career average of .280.
But that never really happened.
Teixeira, 32, junked that strategy early in the 2012 season because it was not working. He decided the old way would produce home runs and drive in runs. Of course, that is the reason Teixeira is being paid by the Yankees.
What we have left in Teixeira is just a shell of what he was when he hit a combined .308 with 33 home runs and 121 RBIs for the Los Angeles Angels and Atlanta Braves in 2008, a year before he signed his lucrative seven-year contract with the Yankees.
Teixeira has altered his stroke to take advantage of the short porch in right-field in Yankee Stadium. The result is the same thing that happened to Jason Giambi when he signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Yankees in the winter of 2002.
Giambi was coming off a season in which he was the American League’s Most Valuable Player after hitting .342 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs in a not-so-hitter-friendly Oakland Coliseum for the Athletics. Giambi’s career with the Yankees was marked by precipitous drop in batting average while he remained productive in hitting home runs and driving in runs.
In his final season with the Yankees in 2008, Giambi hit .247 with 32 home runs and 96 RBIs.
Teixeira not only took the reins at first base from Giambi in 2009, he became Giambi – even down to Giambi’s annual slow starts in April.
It is a shame that such a talented switch-hitter that could hit with power to all fields has become a “pull-happy” hitter prone to pitchers who feed him a steady diet of breaking pitches in the dirt. But that is pretty much what Teixeira has become.
His numbers this season are just horrendous, too. He is on a pace to hit 28 home runs and drive in 92 runs after hitting 39 home runs and driving in 111 runs last season. Of course, Teixeira was plagued for more than a month with a bronchial infection that did sap him of some strength. He is fine now.
Of course, is does not mean Teixeira can’t go on a tear in the second half and improve those numbers. But he better get busy.
The issue with Teixeira is not just the drop in batting average and production, though. It is his .216 average with runners in scoring position.
He is not alone with this problem. It is pretty much team wide. But Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano are the players who are expected to drive the big runs and it did not happen, for the most part, in the first half.
For the Yankees to be able to succeed in winning the American League East and getting deep into the playoffs, Teixeira is going to have to step it up big time. Home runs are nice but it also comes down to hitting that two-out double in the seventh to tie a game or a single with the bases loaded to give the Yankees a lead.
Those hits are important and Teixeira has just not been getting them with regularity this season.
What you can count on with Teixeira is his exceptional defense. He nearly made it through the entire first half without making a single error. His first was on Monday and it cost the Yankees a game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
But that was the small exception to what has been a huge rule.
Teixeira’s glove at first is simply golden and he been decorated with four of them. If I was doing the voting this season, he would win his fifth.
Teixeira plays with exceptional range around first and his quick reactions allow him to stop a lot of line drives that would be rattling off the right-field wall if he was not there.
You add to that his ability to scoop bad throws to first out of the dirt and you have the consummate first baseman. In this respect, Teixeira is not anything like his predecessor Giambi. But the Yankees have come to expect flashy defense from their first baseman since they got so much of it from Don Mattingly and Tino Martinez.
Teixeira also is a durable player. He has started 74 games at first base and played in 77 of the team’s 81 games. At age 32, he can use a day off here and there to keep him sharp. But the Yankees really need his defense at first.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C
BACKUP – ERIC CHAVEZ (6 HRs, 16 RBIs, .270 BA)
Chavez, 34, is primarily a third baseman by trade and he has played more this season there to back up Rodriguez.
But he also can play some first and he has made four starts there.
After a 2011 season in which he missed more than two months with a fractured bone in his left foot, Chavez has provided the Yankees with quality work off the bench this season.
He is hitting for a decent average considering he does not get regular at-bats and he is providing some power at the bottom of the batting order.
Chavez also has six Gold Gloves in his trophy case when he was third baseman with the Athletics so his value is immense with the Yankees needing to rest Rodriguez a lot and Teixeira some.
There is no way Chavez will provide Teixeira’s level of defense to first base. But he will hold his own here and he really is not needed to play the position much.
The Yankees are also fortunate to have Nick Swisher available to play first on occasion. Swisher has also started three games at first and there is no dropoff in offense when he is there. Oddly, enough Swisher is not really that bad a fielder either. He is no Teixeira, but then who is?
MIDSEASON GRADE: B
The Yankees do not have a high-ranking young first baseman in the minor leagues. At this time, they are fielding a platoon of former major leaguers at first base at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Lefty slugger Russell Branyan, 36, is hitting .298 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs. Righty slugger Steve Pearce, 29, is hitting .321 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs.
Branyan, who has the two longest home runs in the new Yankee Stadium, was invited to spring training as a non-roster player but injured his back as was unable to play in any exhibitions. Pearce was acquired a free-agent out of the Pirates’ organization.
Both are there as insurance in case of injury to either Teixeira or Chavez.
At Double-A Trenton, the Yankees have a right-handed line-drive hitting first baseman in Addison Maruszak, 25, who is hitting .278 with seven home runs and 32 RBIs, and a right-handed power-hitter in Luke Murton, 26, who is hitting .257 with 16 home runs and 42 RBIs.
Neither is considered a top prospect.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C
The Yankees’ success in the first half has been tempered by the slow starts of Teixeira, Rodriguez and Cano and their lack of production with runners in scoring position.
I guess the Yankees are just going to have to accept Teixeira as a 30 home run, 100 RBI player who is going to hit below .260 for the rest his stint in pinstripes.
That said, Teixeira can certainly improve on the 14 home runs and 46 RBIs he has produced thus far – not to mention his horrible .216 average with runners in scoring position.
Though Teixeira’s defense is exceptional, the Yankees need his bat if they want to succeed heading into the postseason. Teixeira’s season will be judged harshly if the Yankees fail to make it to the World Series.
He has got to step it up if he wants to bring a 28th world title to the Bronx.