Tagged: Gulf Coast League

Yanks Hoping Gregorius Doesn’t Come Up Short

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.

SHORTSTOP

Didi Gregorius, 25 (.226, 6 HRs, 27 RBIs, 80 games)

It is tough to ask any player to take the place of a legend but it must be an even greater lift to ask Didi Gregorius to follow the 19 seasons Derek Jeter gave the New York Yankees.

Throughout the offseason the names of Troy Tulowitzki, Elvis Andrus and J.J. Hardy were bandied about in the press as the speculation on who would replace Jeter grew louder. When the Yankees elected instead to offer right-handed starter Shane Greene to the Detroit Tigers in a three-team trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gregorius was anointed as Jeter’s replacement.

The shock may still have not worn off.

Gregorius has been a top prospect with the D-backs for several years after he was obtained from the Cincinnati Reds in 2012. His first taste of the majors came in 2012 when he was a September call-up of the Reds and he hit .300 in just 20 at-bats.

After his trade to Arizona, Gregorius played in 103 games for the D-backs in 2013 and he was a bit of a disappointment in batting .257 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs. The D-backs were expecting a lot offensively from a player that was so gifted defensively.

Looking at Gregorius’ 2014 numbers would have you surmise he was a complete failure. But the D-backs will tell you that was not the case. Instead, Gregorius was passed on the depth chart by fellow prospect Chris Owings, who hit .261 with six homers and 26 RBIs in 91 games after taking over as the team’s primary shortstop.

Ask anyone in the D-backs organization and they will tell you that Gregorius is far superior to Owings as a fielder (5 errors for Gregorius to 11 for Owings) with far superior range. They also will tell you although Owings won the job with his offense that Gregorius has a far higher ceiling with his offense than Owings.

So the Yankees were not taken. It actually may be that the Yankees took the D-backs.

The Yankees looked at lefty-swinging Gregorius’ splits against right-handers and left-handers and discovered that he batted . 262 against right-handers in 544 at-bats and only .184 in 180 at-bats against southpaws.

The Yankees are looking into the possibility of using Gregorius in a platoon with veteran shortstop Brendan Ryan this season. Ryan, 32, would take most of the at-bats against left-handers and leave Gregorius to face the right-handers he feasts upon.

The Yankees believe that Gregorius has the ability to hit double-digit homers at Yankee Stadium as he develops. Though Gregorius did steal 44 bases in the minors, including 16 for with two Class-A Reds farm teams in 2010, he has not developed into a skillful base-stealer at the major-league level.

It appears that 2015 is going to be a proving ground for Gregorius and Yankee fans obviously will compare their young shortstop to the legend that was Jeter.

But the Yankees point out that Jeter batted .256 with four homers and 50 RBIs in 145 games in his final season. The Yankees believe Gregorius could top those totals in 2015.

Should Gregorius falter to such a degree that he will have to be sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees would be forced to move their starting second baseman Stephen Drew back to his original shortstop position.

Drew, 31, was shifted to second base by the Yankees after he was obtained from the Boston Red Sox in a deal for Kelly Johnson on July 31. The former Diamondbacks shortstop had only played shortstop since he began his major-league career in 2006.

But with Jeter in his final season Drew was forced to move and when the Yankees made the deal for Drew it was just assumed he would shift back to shortstop after Jeter retired. But the Yankees had other ideas.

The Gregorius deal at first seemed to indicate Drew’s stint with the Yankees was over but the Yankees finalized a one-year, $5 million deal in January with Drew and they installed him as the team’s starting second baseman for 2015.

Drew is coming off his worst offensive season of his career after hitting woeful .162 with seven homers and 26 RBIs in 85 games with Red Sox and Yankees.

Though Drew has never won a Gold Glove his defense is considered well above average at shortstop. He is coming to spring training still learning the intricacies of second base.

Should the Yankees be forced to send Gregorius down and shift Drew the team would need a second baseman. They have super-sub Jose Pirela, 25, who made a great impression with the team in his late-season call-up, hitting .333 in seven games

But the Yankees seem very committed to their new shortstop who was born in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He already appears to have the right attitude.

“You can’t replace a legend, and it’s not replacing,” Gregorius told listeners on MLB Network Radio. “He (Jeter) has been playing for a long time at shortstop and he decided to retire. The spot was open. So I’m not thinking about replacing anything. It’s just me just coming in there to try to play my game.”

The Yankees minor-league options at shortstop are not real good, hence the deal for Gregorius.

Carmen Angelini, 26, hit .212 in 110 games between Double-A Trenton and Scranton last season. Ali Castillo, 25, batted .254 with two homers and 42 RBIs in 120 games at Trenton.

Former first-round draft pick Cito Culver, 22, hit .220 with five homers and 48 RBIs at Class-A Tampa. Culver has major-league defensive tools but his offense is holding up his progress.

The big buzz at shortstop for the Yankees surrounds 19-year-old Jorge Mateo. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2012, Mateo made his pro debut last June and teams are already asking about him in trade talks.

His biggest asset is his speed. He stole 11 bases in just 15 games with the Yankees’ Gulf Coast League team. He has a wiry build but he already shows an ability to hit for average and the promise provide double-digit home run power down the line.

Scouts are already saying that the Yankees have not had a shortstop at this level with as much of a ceiling since Jeter. That is high praise.

OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: AVERAGE

The decision to deal for Gregorius was a bold move and it will define what direction the Yankees will take in the post-Jeter era. General manager Brian Cashman has stayed away from high-priced free-agents to fill spots.

We will see if it is successful.

Gregorius can certainly field the position and that is going to be very helpful. His offense could be a problem but at least the Yankees are thinking of using a platoon in order to keep Gregorius hitting only against right-handers.

There also will be less pressure for the young shortstop batting ninth in this order. Plus, if the Yankees are correct about his power they could catch lightning in a bottle and have something very special for many years to come.

I know Yankee fans would have wanted Tulowitzki to play short so the Yankees could make a run at the World Series. However, Cashman and manager Joe Girardi may have more of a long-term strategy in mind.

Both Gregorius and Ryan are terrific defensive players and that is what you want in the middle of infield. Drew can also play the position so there is some depth.

The problem is that most of the Yankees’ minor-league shortstops are not real prospects. But keep an eye on Mateo. He seems to have the makings to be the real deal.

NEXT: OUTFIELD

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Ichiro’s ‘Act’ In Bronx Held Over For Two Seasons

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.

NEXT: CATCHER

 

Jeter’s Availability For Opening Day Up In Air

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

 

Yankees Hoping Youkilis Healthy, A-Rod Returns

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.

NEXT: SHORTSTOP

 

Jeter Bests Shortcomings To Have Banner Season

The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.

SHORTSTOP – DEREK JETER (15 HRs, 58 RBIs, .316 BA, 99 Runs, 9 SB)

There are just some people who are fortunate enough to have everything go their way in life.  They have a dream job, they make a good amount of money and they date all the beautiful women.

That is Derek Jeter and his 2012 season was something he can brag about.

In 2010, he suffered through a subpar campaign in which he hit .270 and he looked like he was nearing the end at age 36. In the first half of 2011, it got much worse.

Jeter was struggling with a no-stride batting approach that batting coach Kevin Long suggested. He abandoned it and his average tumbled even more. Then he suffered a calf injury that landed him on the disabled list.

He went to Tampa,FL, to rehab the injury and then took the time to work with his old batting coach Gary Dembo to rediscover his old swing. All Jeter did after rejoining the Yankees was hit .336 the rest of the way and it re-established his credentials as one of the best singles hitters of his generation.

But as the 2012 season began there were still those that doubted Jeter could maintain the stroke that got him 3,000 hits and had him at a lifetime batting average of .313.

In the first half, Jeter was able to keep that pace by hitting .303. It seemed every day he was passing players like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken on the all-time hits list. He also was driving the ball well enough to hit seven home runs and drive in 25 runs from the leadoff spot.

The only negatives is that he scored only 42 runs and stole six bases. The runs total had a lot to do with the fact the Yankees were the worst team in baseball at hitting with runners in scoring position. The stolen base total had more to do with Jeter turning 38.

He stole 30 bases in 2009 but is pretty obvious that Jeter has to choose his spots more carefully now. The good thing is that Jeter realizes it and does not get thrown out on the bases trying to prove he can. He is much smarter than that.

Jeter made the All-Star team as the starting shortstop and he actually earned it rather than getting the nod simply because of his reputation.

You would think Jeter might have slowed down a bit in the second half. Instead, he just got better.

He raised his overall average 10 points, hit eight home runs, drove in 33 runs and scored 57 runs to come within a single run of scoring 100.

Jeter had scored at least 100 runs in 13 of his 17 full seasons in the majors. But the fact he missed had more to do with the flux in the batting order behind with injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and the inconsistency of the team’s hitting with runners in scoring position.

Jeter’s numbers this season are unprecedented for shortstops his age. There are few shortstops who are in baseball at that age. There are fewer who actually able to start. And Jeter is the only one who has actually led the major leagues in hits with 216.

That is Jeter’s second highest total of hits in his career. He had 219 hits in his magical 1999 season when he hit .349 with 24 home runs and 102 RBIs when he was 25.

Jeter is not 25 any more and he will never approach those gaudy power numbers of 1999. But the Yankees can live with the 2012 numbers.

“The Captain” is not quite ready to take his commission and retire. Why should he?

The only area where Jeter does show his age, besides stealing bases, is in the field. But even there, Jeter can still make the plays with amazing precision.

Jeter only committed 10 errors this season, two less than he committed in 2011. He also did that with much more chances because he was on the disabled list for about a month last season.

I know the sabermetricians out there use Jeter as their favorite whipping post because of his reduced range in the field. That is true. Jeter is no longer able to range far to his right and he maybe lets a few balls get through he used to reach easily. But he still plays the position at a high degree of skill.

His five Gold Glove awards do not lie.

It goes back to that old argument of do you want a steady hand at shortstop who may not have much range or do you want a shortstop with the range of half the Earth who too often throws the ball into the seats? Given this choice I would take Jeter every time. That is the choice manager Joe Girardi has made when critics have suggested Eduardo Nunez should play shortstop.

Girardi knows better and the fans who sit along the first-base line at Yankee Stadium thank him for it.

The only comparison to Jeter I can make is Ozzie Smith, who played at a very high level with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992 at age 38. He hit .295 and stole 43 bases.

“The Wizard” is in the Hall of Fame and Jeter is going to join him someday. Special players to do special things and Jeter and Smith are as special as it gets at the shortstop position.

Smith is the best fielder I have seen at the position and Jeter is, by far, the best pure hitter of them all.

MIDSEASON GRADE: A-

SECOND-HALF GRADE: A

OVERALL GRADE: A

BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (4 HRs, 18 RBIs, .243 BA)

Nix was discussed in detail in my post grading Robinson Cano.

He spent most of the season as Jeter’s backup at short after Nunez was demoted for treating the baseball like it was a hand grenade.

Nix started 15 games at shortstop and committed only one error. He was steady with the glove and he contributed well with the bat, too.

Nix, 30, will never come close to being the athlete Nunez, 25, is. Nunez is faster, a better hitter and he has much better range in the field. But you also know Nix will make the pays in the field and he will not hurt you when he plays.

Nix, however, will miss the early part of the playoffs with a left hip flexor injury. So Nunez will be Jeter’s backup at shortstop for now.

The Yankees have high hopes he can be the future of the Yankees at shortstop. But he is a work in progress.

He was making an alarming number of errors when the Yankees demoted him in May. Girardi said they were hurting Nunez’s development by making him a utility infielder and said the team will try to keep him at shortstop.

That should help Nunez, who is more comfortable there. Nunez is a very good line-drive hitter with excellent speed and he helps balance the Yankees’ lefty-laden lineup. If he can just harness the fielding aspects of the game he could become a very good player at short.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

SECOND-HALF GRADE: C

OVERALL GRADE: C

Nunez played in only 38 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre due to a nagging right thumb injury so Ramiro Pena ended up playing the most there. However, after Pena was recalled on Sept. 1 a calf injury to Teixeira forced the Yankees to bring in Steve Pearce to back up at first and Pena was designated for assignment.

The Yankees also played veteran Doug Bernier at Scranton but he is career journeyman without any prospect of remaining with the Yankees except as a future coach.

The Yankees do have a potential star in 20-year-old Austin Aune, who hit .273 with one home run and 20 RBIs in the Gulf Coast League. Aune is a lefty hitter with a potential power bat and has good range and a great arm at shortstop. But scouts believe Aune might have to move to center-field at some point to maximize his speed and arm.

Cito Culver, 19, appears to be a bust as the team’s No. 1 choice in 2010. He hit just .215 in 122 games at Class-A Charleston.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A

Jeter has always been an intangibles player. He is given credit for playing the game smart with his positioning and his knowledge of the game is second to none. But when he hits like he did this season, it is something special to watch.

When a career .313 hitter leads the majors in hits and bats .316 at age 38, you have to tip your cap to the abilities of a player like this.

Will he do it again in 2013? Who can say for sure?

All you have to do is watch Jeter in the playoffs because that has been his playground for 17 seasons. Jeter is a career .307 hitter in the playoffs.

So the big stage is not something he ever has dodged. As far as the Yankees are concerned, the Yankees will go as far as No. 2 takes them.

 

A-Rod Again Reaches Half Of His Norms At Third

The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.

THIRD BASE – ALEX RODRIGUEZ (18 HRs, 57 RBIs, .272 BA)

It’s always something.

With Alex Rodriguez it always seems some injury comes up that interrupts his season and rolls him down a highway that is a few exits past his MVP seasons. This pattern has been going since his monster season in 2007 when he played in 158 games and hit 54 home runs, drove in 156 runs and hit .314.

For the past five seasons Rodriguez’s totals have been gradually slipping. The home run totals dropping from 35 to 30 to 30 to 16 and 18 this season. The RBI totals sinking from 103 to 100 to 125 to 62 and now just 57. The batting averages dipping from .302 to .286 to.270 to .276 to .272 this season.

This is not your father’s Alex Rodriguez. The once most-feared hitter in baseball has turned into Scott Brosius before our very eyes and it is pretty to safe to say that age 37 that the vintage A-Rod is not coming back.

After suffering through seasons cut short by a serious hip injury to his injury-plagued 2011 campaign shortened to 99 games because of knee and thumb injuries, this season was supposed to be a big comeback season for Rodriguez.

But after languishing through a terrible first half in which he hit just 13 home runs, drove in a mere 36 runs and hit .266, Rodriguez was struck on the left hand by pitch thrown by Felix Hernandez of the Mariners in Seattle on July 24. A broken bone in the hand shelved him until Sept. 3.

So from the midpoint of the season, Rodriguesz contributed five home runs and 21 RBIs.

A look inside the numbers shows just how far A-Rod’s star has fallen:

  • With the bases empty he hit .300.
  • With runners in scoring position he hit .230.
  • With the bases loaded he hit .200.

His 18 home runs are just two more than he hit in 99 games last season and yet he still hits in the middle of the order as if he was the A-Rod of 2007.

The fact the Yankees are on the hook to pay this large albatross through the 2017 season is quite troubling. When that contract was signed, the Yankees were envisioning Rodriguez becoming the all-time home run champion in pinstripes.

But with Rodriguez stuck on 647 career homers and seemingly unable to hit 20 in a season, he will be lucky to reach 700, much less make to 763 to pass Barry Bonds.

The qustion is how long will the Yankees to allow Rodriguez to underperform for the money his is making and how much he is hurting the Yankees in every game with his strikeouts, weak popups and routine fly balls? Can they afford to keep him? Or are they paying so much for him that they can’t get rid of him?

All I know is what I see and I just see a very sad shell of a player who might be succumbing to aftereffects of performance enhancing drugs. So I do not feel sorry for him. But I do feel sorry for the Yankees being roped into this deal that will hamper their ability to pare salary ahead of the 2014 season.

Rodriguez is also turning into a liability in the field, too.

He made eight errors this season, which sounds OK until you find out he started only 81 games at the position. That total also does not account for the balls that got past him because his surgically repaired hip has robbed him of his lateral quickness. It also does not account for the slow dribblers he was unable to charge fast enough to get the runner at first.

His cannon arm is still there but it can be erratic.

Nope, any way you slice it, A-Rod is just not A-Rod anymore. The sooner Yankee fans realize that the sooner they can stop praying for that game-winning homer in the playoffs. If the Yankees are lucky he will single in a big run with a runner in scoring position.

So don’t get your hopes up for a great postseason for A-Rod. It might turn out like all the ones he produced before his epic postseason in 2009, which brought title No. 27 back to the Bronx. The 28th will have to come some other way.

MIDSEASON GRADE: D

SECOND-HALF GRADE: I

OVERALL GRADE: D

BACKUP – ERIC CHAVEZ (16 HRs, 37 RBIs, .281 BA)

I have already discussed Chavez in my post about Mark Teixeira.

Because of Rodriguez’s injury, Chavez was the primary backup at third base and he started 50 games there. If Chavez were a younger player and capable of playing every day, he would have either replaced Rodriguez outright or, at the very least, be the lefty part of a platoon at the position.

Of course, that is if A-Rod was not A-Rod and he was not getting paid big bucks.

Chavez was the better fielder here and you can make a case that he was a more productive hitter. He hit 16 home runs in 278 at-bats. A-Rod hit 18 in 463.

If it were me, I might even consider moving Rodriguez the DH spot and starting Chavez at third against right-handers in the playoffs. It just makes good sense.

MIDSEASON GRADE: B

SECOND HALF GRADE: B+

OVERALL GRADE: B

The Yankees also played Jayson Nix, Casey McGehee and Eduardo Nunez at third base this season. With Nix out of the early part of the playoffs with an injury, Chavez will be the primary backup and Nunez will not play here unless it is an emergency.

McGehee will not make the postseason roster.

In the minor leagues the Yankees have a slick-fielding third baseman in Brandon Laird. But Laird, 25, had a mediocre season with the bat at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, hitting just .254 with 15 home runs and 77 RBIs.

With Rodriguez blocking his path to the majors, Laird has to hope he can find an opportunity with another organization. He has some value as a potential corner infield backup because he play first base also.

The Yankees do have a potential star in last year’s first draft pick Dante Bichette Jr., who spent the season at Class-A Charleston.

Bichette, 20, has a long way to go after hitting .248 with three home runs and 46 RBIs. This was after a season in which he was the MVP of the Gulf Coast League in 2011. But he is still young and the Yankees love his bloodlines to former Rockies outfielder Dante Bichette.

He looks to be a keeper for now.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C-

It is rare when you are talking about a three-time MVP being worse than the player who backs him up. But that is what we are dealing with in Rodriguez. Out of loyalty, his past track record and to keep the peace, manager Joe Girardi has refused to take A-Rod out of the middle of the order.

Fine. I understand that. But one would hope if A-Rod falls flat on his face this October that he will have the courage to do it next season.

There is only so much you can take. Seeing him swing through fastballs he used to crush and pop up pitches he used to hit hard over the fence is just frustrating to watch game after game.

Opposing scouts, managers and pitchers already see what Girardi has refused to admit. Maybe it is because of what happened to Joe Torre after he batted Rodriguez seventh in the 2007 playoffs against the Detroit Tigers. Torre lost his job.

Perhaps Girardi sees a similar fate for him if he does it and the team loses a playoff series. Just don’t be surprised if Rodriguez hits .125 and leaves a lot of runners on base this postseason.

 

Ichiro Drives In 5 As Yankees Clip Blue Jays’ Wings

GAME 112

YANKEES 10, BLUE JAYS 3

When the New York Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners they were just expecting some great outfield defense and some singles and some steals at the bottom of the batting order. It is now beginning to look like they have a top-flight RBI man instead.

Suzuki drove in five runs to lead a late-inning seven-run assault on Toronto pitching as New York put away a badly depleted Blue Jay team on Friday at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

Suzuki gave the Yankees an early 2-0 lead in the second inning by driving in a run beating out a potential double-play grounder. He added a two-run single in the eighth inning and a bases-loaded two-run double in the ninth inning. Suzuki, who had only 28 RBis when he was obtained on July 23, has driven in 11 runs in his last 11 games and nine and his last four games with the Yankees.

Meanwhile, veteran right-hander Freddy Garcia (6-5) pitched six solid innings to pick up his second straight victory. Garcia gave up two runs on four hits and struck four against a Blue Jays team missing Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia and Adam Lind.

The Yankees built an early lead on Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero in second inning after Robinson Cano led off the frame with a single and Romero walked Andruw Jones.

Jayson Nix attempted to bunt the next pitch and it rolled just out in front of home plate. But Blue Jays catcher Jeff Mathis threw the ball past third baseman Omar Vizquel and into left-field to allow Cano to score and Jones to advance to third. Suzuki followed with a grounder that forced Nix at second but Suzuki beat the relay to first and Jones scored.

The Yankees added a run in the following inning on a leadoff single by Nick Swisher and a one-out RBI single by Cano.

Romero ( 8-9) then shut down the Yankees over the next four innings on just one hit. He left having given up four hits and three walks and struck out two over seven innings.

Kelly Johnson proved to be Garcia’s big nemesis. He struck with one-out solo home run in the bottom of the second inning to halve the Yankees’ lead at 2-1. Two innings later, he followed a bunt single by Yunel Escobar and a lined single by David Cooper with a double down the right-field line that scored Escobar to make it 3-2.

But Garcia ended the threat by striking out Vizquel and inducing Mathis to tap back to the mound.

The game stayed 3-2 until Steve Delabar’s first offering in the eighth inning in relief of Romero was tagged by Mark Teixeira for his 22nd home run of the season.

With two out, Nix and Russell Martin each dunked in a pair of bloop hits and Suzuki followed with an RBI single up the middle to break the game open at 6-2.

The Yankees added four runs in the ninth off rookie reliever David Carpenter and Brad Lincoln. Suzuki culminated the scoring with base-loaded liner that Rajai Davis lost in the lights and it was scored a double.

With the victory the Yankees have now won three games in a row and are 66-46 on the season. They remain 5 1/2 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. The reeling Blue Jays have lost four in a row and are in last place in the division with a record of 53-59.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Suzuki has had at least one hit in 16 of the 17 games he has played with the Yankees. The five-RBI night tied a career high and it was the third time in Suzuki’s career he achieved the feat. But it was the first time since the 2004 season. He also started his first game in center-field since the 2008 season and he has now started in all three outfield position since coming to the Yankees. He was acquired to provide speed, defense and a consistent bat at the bottom of the order and he has done all three very well.
  • Teixeira’s home run was the second straight game in which he has delivered a home run in the eighth inning on the road. Teixeira and Eric Chaez combined to hit back-to-back solo home runs to turn a 3-2 Yankee deficit on Thursday into a 4-3 victory over the Tigers. It was the first time two Yankees had hit consecutive home runs in the eighth inning or later to win a game on the road since Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle did it during the 1955 season. Teixeira extended his team-leading RBI total to 76.
  • Garcia is never going to be confused with Felix Hernandez or Justin Verlander, but he put in another solid effort to win his second straight start. In his eight starts since replacing Andy Pettitte in the rotation, Garcia is 4-3 with a 3.83 ERA. The 35-year-old right-hander has been valuable as a placeholder for Pettitte.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

I can’t think of much to complain about. Garcia pitched well and the offense has scored 31 runs and notched double-digits in hits over the team’s last four games. Perhaps they can put that stretch of nine losses over 12 games behind them now.

BOMBER BANTER

It is possible that left-handed reliever Pedro Feliciano could be added to the Yankees’ expanded roster in September. Feliciano has not pitched since the 2010 season with the New York Mets because he underwent surgery for  torn rotator cuff. On Friday, Feliciano made his second rehab appearance for the Yankees’ rookie Gulf Coast League. Feliciano was signed to a two-year $8 million deal prior to the 2011 season but he has not pitched a single game for the Yankees. He is 22-19 with a 3.31 ERA over 459 appearances over his eight-season career.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their weekend road series with Blue Jays on Saturday.

Ivan Nova (10-6, 4.81 ERA) will get the start for the Yankees. Nova has a lot to prove after giving up seven runs on 11 hits on Monday against the Tigers. He is 0-3 with a 8.36 ERA in his last five starts. Nova is 2-1 with a 3.75 ERA against the Blue Jays in his career.

The Blue Jays will counter with left-hander Aaron Laffey (3-2, 4.39 ERA), who pitched briefly for the Yankees last season. Laffey gave up four runs on six hits in his last start, a victory over the Oakland Athletics. He is 0-1 with an 11.74 ERA against the Yankees in his career.

Game-time will be 1:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.