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!
SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (33 HRs, 99 RBIs, .313 BA)
I remember very well a day before a spring training game in 2005 seeing this tall, thin Yankee rookie swatting line drives all over the field in batting practice. The swing was smooth and effortless while the ball jumped off his bat.
I asked someone about this kid Robinson Cano and what I heard back impressed me. “Cano is just a colt now. But very soon he will be a thoroughbred,” he said.
Eight years later his words ring true. Cano has grown up before our very eyes and now he is the best player in pinstripes. He is no longer a boy among men. He is the man the team revolves around.
Sadly, this very well could be Cano’s last season with the Yankees. The team is under a strict edict from owner Hal Steinbrenner to reduce payroll to $189 million by 2014 and Cano can become a free agent after this season.
After a season in which he set a career high in home runs and hit above .300 for the seventh time in his nine major-league seasons and won his second Gold Glove and fourth Silver Slugger awards it is a pretty sure bet that Cano would command a lot of money on the open market. Add the fact his agent is Scott Boras and you can, pardon the pun, bank on it.
The Yankees are going to have to be mighty creative to find the dollars to keep Cano, 30. But they likely will make every attempt to open the vault wide enough to keep their best player. It would be a good thing, too.
With Alex Rodriguez saddled with a string of injuries the real foundation of the team’s growth is Cano. Second basemen who can hit home runs, drive in runs and hit above .300 are not exactly plentiful. Cano is simply the best second baseman in baseball and there is no one in the Yankee organization, let alone any organization, that can really replace him.
So you would think it would be wise for Yankee fans during spring training to watch Cano carefully because it could be the last time they see him. One problem with that: Cano is committed to play his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.
So the Yankees likely will not get Cano back until the latter stages of March.
Cano’s 2012 season was marked by some milestones. But it was hardly the banner season the Yankees expected from him.
Cano struggled in two major areas: (1) In the first half of the season Cano was woefully inept at driving in runners in scoring position. That is why he failed to drive in more than 100 runs. (2) He suddenly ran into trouble hitting left-handers. He hit just .239 against them while he pounded right-handers at a .357 clip.
Cano actually rescued his season with an incredible stretch of games in late September. After Sept. 1, Cano hit six home runs and drove in 24 runs while batting .348. The Yankees would appreciate more consistency from Cano and they hope he can return to bashing left-hand pitching as he did in throughout his career up until last season.
Given that this is Cano’s contract season and given his past track record, this could be the breakout season everyone has been predicting for him. With a bit more discipline at the plate Cano could very well win a batting title, hit 30-plus home runs and drive in more than 120 runs.
Cano’s big failing at the plate has been a product of his immense talent. Cano can simply put a swing on any pitch in or out of the strike zone. So pitchers lure him with a lot of breaking pitches out of the strike zone and then pound him with hard stuff inside to tie up his swing.
Cano obliges them by swinging at less than optimum pitches and he gets himself out. If Cano ever lays off pitches out of the strike zone consistently throughout a season he might very well hit .340. He is just that good.
Over the years, Cano has been saddled with the tag “lazy.”
That is a product of his nonchalant style of play. But last season there were times that Cano made outs on the bases he should not have made. Here is something that might surprise you: Cano is simply a terrible base-runner and he always has been.
Some players have good instincts on the bases like Derek Jeter and some players like Cano don’t. Cano never was called upon to bunt or steal bases throughout his minor-league career because he was such a productive hitter. It has just carried over to the major leagues.
He is not a fast runner and he just never worked on base-running much because he never had to really worry about it. Last season it was obvious.
Cano attempted five steals last season and was succcessful three times. In his career he has stolen 31 bases but he been thrown out 27. Rickey Henderson he is not!
But Cano was able to score 105 runs, the fourth season in a row he has topped the century mark in runs scored. So as long as the Yankees do not have him running wild on the bases, Cano’ s weakness will not hurt the team.
The “lazy” tag also has had a serious effect on how Cano’s fielding has been judged. Early in his career, Cano did make careless errors by trying to look cool fielding routine grounders. Since then he has grown into an exceptional fielder who should have won the last six Gold Gloves instead of just two.
Cano simply has more range than second baseman in baseball. That applies to ground balls and pop flies. No one can range as far into the outfield to catch pops and few can master the play to his right on grounders better than Cano.
His arm is exceptionally great for a second baseman and Cano does not credit for being accurate with it also. Roberto Alomar may have set the standard for fielding during his career but Cano is shattering that standard and setting one of his own.
The other thing that sets Cano apart is his turn of the double play. In the last six seasons, Cano has turned no less than 92 double plays and no one can turn and flip to first better than he can. In doing all that work in the field last season, Cano committed only six errors. Wow!
That 2012 Gold Glove award was well deserved.
Another Cano attribute throughout his career is his durability despite playing a middle infield spot. In his last six seasons, Cano has never played less than 159 games. He played in 161 games last season.
When you add it all up you get one very exceptional player and one who is destined to be a very rich one come the 2014 season.
Behind Cano last season was Jayson Nix, not that he was needed much.
Nix, 30, made only five starts at second and he did not commit an error there. Nix hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 74 games with the Yankees after being recalled on May 8 to replace Eduardo Nunez as the Yankees’ backup middle infielder.
Nix obviously will never match Cano with his bat or his glove. The Yankees just ask him to play his solid, nonflashy game and not make mistakes. Nix does that very well and he will get a chance to do it again in 2013.
Though he was designated for assignment on Nov. 30 after reliever Mariano Rivera was re-signed, Nix accepted assignment to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and he will compete with Nunez for the backup middle infield spot this spring.
Nunez, 25, won the backup infielder job over the recently released Ramiro Pena in 2011 but promptly lost early in 2012 season when he began treating ground balls like hand grenades. Nunez made so many sloppy fielding errors that he was dispatched to Scranton to work on exclusively playing shortstop.
He enters camp in 2013 with some very positive things in his favor. Nunez can hit (his career batting average is .272) and he can run (38 steals in 46 career attempts). The right-hand hitter also could be valuable as a replacement to Andruw Jones as a platoon designated hitter.
But Nunez likely will get most of his work in spring training at shortstop replacing Jeter, who is in the process of rehabbing after surgery on a fractured left ankle he suffered in the first game of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.
Jeter’s rehab is expected to run through part of the exhibition schedule and it is unclear if he will be ready to start for the Yankees on Opening Day. So Nunez will be of more value at shortstop, which is his natural position.
Nunez did make one start at second base last season and characteristically he committed an error there. It is good thing Cano is durable.
The Yankees will have a chance in Cano’s absence this spring to look at a pair of young second basemen who are on the 40-man roster, David Adams and Corban Joseph.
Adams, 25, hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs in 86 games at Double-A Trenton. He has carried that into the Arizona Fall League, where he is hitting .286 with three home runs and 15 RBIs and was named Player of the Week in the fifth week of the season.
Adams, a third-round pick of the Yankees in 2008 out of the University of Virginia, has been hobbled most of his minor-league career with a serious ankle injury. But he is healthy now and he is hoping to regain his prospect status.
Joseph, 24, hit a combined .276 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs in 131 games at Trenton and Scranton.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2008 draft out of Franklin (TN) High School, Joseph has more power than Adams and he has the advantage of passing Adams to Scranton while being a year younger.
Neither player looks to be threats to Cano at all, obviously. But they will get a chance to develop just in case Cano departs in 2014.
Further down the line the Yankees have Jose Pirela, 23, and Angelo Gumbs, 20.
Pirela hit .293 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs in 82 games at Trenton. The Venezuela native is being looked upon as a potential middle infield backup utility infielder with a good line-drive bat but he lacks speed.
Gumbs, the team’s No. 8 prospect, was signed as a shortstop but has played second base in his two years in the minors. He hit .272 with seven home runs, 36 RBIs and 26 stolen bases at Class-A Charleston (SC) in the South Atlantic League. An elbow injury ended his season in June.
Gumbs plays an aggressive style and shows that he has a good bat, which makes him a young player worth watching in 2013.
But Gumbs is a long way away from making the majors and Cano simply is the industry standard at his position. It also looks like he will be that standard for some years to come.
There is no doubt Cano will be motivated to produce in 2013 and he could have that monster season for which everybody has been waiting. The Yankees will need that from him in a season that appears the team will be lacking some power and a team that will be minus Rodriguez for much of the season.
The Yankees simply will go as far as Cano can possibly carry them this season.
NEXT: First Base
The New York Yankees have reached the halfway mark of the season and they are comfortably in first place in the American League East. This is despite some injuries to some keep players such as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlain. As we do every year, let’s look at the individual components of the team and issue grades for the first half.
SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (20 HR, 50 RBIs, .316 BA)
If this had been written two weeks ago, it would be written from the standpoint of how the great Robinson Cano was underachieving this season. What a difference two weeks makes.
Cano, 29, has been on fire of late and it could not have come at a better time for the American League’s starting All-Star second baseman. He has driven in runs in eight consecutive games and has 23 in his last 17 games. On June 3, he was batting .284. He has reached the season’s halfway point hitting .316.
In his last 10 games he is hitting .429.
By any definition, Cano is red hot.
That is good for Cano, but it is even better for the New York Yankees.
For much of the first half of the season, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Cano have struggled to hit home runs and drive in runs, particularly with runners in scoring position. That has been borne out by the fact that Nick Swisher had led the team in RBIs for most of the first half until Cano passed him this week.
For most baseball experts, it is not a surprise that Cano has finally began to hit. The only surprise is that it took him this long.
Cano began April by .267 with one home run and four RBIs. That is not a misprint. It was just a single home run and four RBIs.
On May 6, Cano hit a grand slam home run against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium which doubled his production in just one at-bat. That lit a spark that brought Cano close to what he has always been for the Yankees: Their best pure hitter.
In fact, it is safe to say with Derek Jeter and Rodriguez in the twilight of their careers that Cano is simply the Yankees’ best all-around player, period, exclamation point.
Cano leads the team in batting average, is second in home runs, first in RBIs and he fields his position at a Gold-Glove level. He also hits in the middle of the order and he is the hitter opposing pitchers fear the most.
There is no second baseman in baseball that can touch him in the combination of average, power, production and fielding combined. Cano has been the Yankees’ Rock of Gilbraltar. He is the guy Reggie Jackson would say “stirs the drink.”
The only hole in his game this season has been the same problem from which the whole team suffered in the first half of the season: Getting a hit with runners in scoring position. Just a few weeks ago, Cano was last on the team with RISP, hitting a woeful .149 in those situations.
That kind of makes you scratch your head when you see Cano swing so beautifully balanced and with those lightning-quick hands sweeping his bat through the ball. But, for whatever reason, Cano just continued to fail to get hits with runners on base.
He has brought number up to .200 of late. It is still low but pitchers who are scheduled to face the Yankees in the second half may want to prepare for the worst when Cano comes up in those situations from now on.
Cano is on a pace to hit considerably more home runs than the 29 he hit in 2010. He could also shatter the 118 RBI plateau he reached in 2011. He has not come close to the .342 he hit in 2006 but don’t put it past Cano not to do that either. Cano could easily win a batting title or two or three.
The fact is while Teixeira and Rodriguez continue to struggle with their production, Cano is undoubtedly the most important part of the Yankee lineup going forward. If he can continue his pace of June and July, the Yankee offense should continue to be potent and will improve its numbers with runners in scoring position.
If you want to talk defense, Cano has committed just four errors this season. However, that just scratches the surface when you are talking about what Cano contributes in the field.
For years, Cano was overlooked as a defensive player because of the concentration errors he used to make. Cano, because he glides so effortlessly to the ball, often was viewed as a “lazy” fielder. But that ended in 2010, when he won his first Gold Glove.
He should win it annually anyway for his extraordinary range, his unbelievable arm strength and the smoothness with which he turns a double play.
His ability to range from the right-field foul line to left-center to catch pop flies is special in itself.
Yankee fans are very fortunate to be living at a time when the Yankees can boast the best shortstop in their history (Jeter) with the best second baseman in their history. They may not rival the Tigers’ middle infield of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell in terms of years played together but they are certainly more productive as hitters and just as good or better in the field.
Cano is a durable player as well. He has not played in less than 159 games since 2006, his second season with the Yankees when he spent his only stint on the disabled list. This season, he has started 78 of the Yankees’ 81 games and he has played in all of them.
Cano’s prospects for the second half are very good and the Yankees certainly need him to be that good as they head into the more difficult games with their division rivals. There is a chance this could be Cano’s best overall season and that is saying something considering how good his last two seasons have been.
MIDSEASON GRADE: A-
BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (2 HRs, 6 RBIs, .228 BA)
You won’t see Nix play this position much. Cano rarely gets a day off and apparently does not need one.
Since the Yankees chose to send Eduardo Nunez back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Nix has made just two starts for Cano.
He is pretty good as fielder in that he has not committed an infield error this season. But his range is very limited. You also suffer a big dropoff in production with Nix replacing Cano. But that goes without saying.
Nix, 29, is just a solid backup with average skills but has great versatility in that he can also play in the outfield. The Yankees just will miss Nunez’s line-drive bat and speed on the bases. But, then again, Nix will not throw the baseball all over the diamond and kick easy grounders as Nunez did with regularity.
That is the reason he is here and not Nunez.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C
The Yankees have a few really promising middle infield prospects in Claudio Custodio and Angelo Gombs who are far away from the majors. They also have David Adams, who has battled injuries but nonetheless was protected by being placed on the 40-man roster this winter. But it is obvious the Yankees have no plans to let Cano go when his contract expires in two seasons.
At Triple-A Scranton, Ronnier Musteller is trying to hold off up-and-coming prospect Corban Joseph.
Joseph, 23, is hitting .266 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in 32 games played since his promotion from Double-A Trenton. Musteller, 27, is hitting .301 with seven home runs and 34 RBIs in 55 games. But at Musteller’s age the prospect label is pretty much been removed and Joseph is progressing nicely.
Meanwhile, Adams is doing pretty well at Double-A Trenton. The 25-year-old is hitting .284 with three home runs and 24 RBis in 40 games in the Eastern League.
None of these players will have an impact at the major-league level this season because the Yankees have Ramiro Pena and Nunez at Triple-A in case something happens to Cano.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-
Cano is very simply the best second baseman I have ever seen. If you combine his ability to hit for average, power and produce runs with his great dexterity, range and arm in the field, there is just no second baseman in baseball that compares to him.
As his career progresses, he should pass Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg as the best second basemen in the modern era.
But his prospects for 2012 look very good as well. Cano is dangerous when he is struggling but he is pure hell to face when he is seeing the ball and hitting with authority. Even when he makes outs he is hitting the ball hard. That should tell you how good he is as a player.
Cano also possesses the ability to carry the Yankee offense much the way Rodriguez used to be able to do. He is the one player the Yankees can least afford to loss due to injury and he is the team’s key to success in the second half.
He could ride this current hot streak the rest of the way into the playoffs and to a World Series, if the Yankees can get there. It is on that stage, Cano should shine.
He is shining pretty brightly now as the Yankees’ best player.
We have reached the midpoint of the 2011 season for the New York Yankees. Despite the pundits dire predictions about their so-called “suspect” starting rotation, they have the second-best record in baseball and the best record in the American League. They finished the first half on a seven-game winning streak and they were 30-12 (.714) from May 17 to July 2, the best record in baseball. Now it is time to hand out our annual report cards for the players who built that record.
SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (,292 BA, 14 HRS, 54 RBIs)
After Robinson Cano’s breakout season of 2010, it was hard to imagine how the 28-year-old second baseman could top it. He hit a team-best .319 with 29 home runs and 109 RBIs. He won both the Silver Slugger Award and a Gold Glove at his position.
How do you top that?
As Cano has witnessed in the team’s first 81 games. You don’t really.
Cano, however, remains the best hitter on the Yankees and the best second baseman in baseball. His first half pretty much proved it and he was voted to start his second straight All-Star Game. All this despite the fact his season was not quite as good as his season in 2010.
The funny thing about Cano is that he is still a superstar that is defining himself even though he is in his seventh season. Those batting titles he was predicted to win have not materialized. His fielding is still wonderful and effortless but fans and critics say he can do more. It is not easy to have all that talent and be able to shape it into what other people think it should be. Cano just seems to be content letting his bat and glove do the shaping and not worry about what people are thinking.
If you double his first half home run and RBI numbers, Cano is right in line with his 2010 numbers. His batting average is 16 points lower than 2010 but only 11 below his career .303 average. It is not hard to imagine that as the warm summer months unfold, Cano’s bat will catch fire as well. He has always been a better second-half hitter. There is nothing to suggest it won’t be the case this season.
There are those who believe, and I am among them, that Cano would actually be the ideal No. 3 hitter for this team. The reason is the No. 3 spot is always reserved for the team’s most feared hitter. Opposing managers will tell you they fear Cano more than any other hitter in the Yankees’ lineup.
It is because his swing is so effortless and the ball jumps so hard off his bat that he can turn a game with a key hit. Managers bring in lefties to neutralize him. But Cano merely hits them better than he does right-handers. Cano is hitting a ridiculous .347 against left-handers and a very pedestrian .270 against right-handers this season. So when you see a manager coming out to the mound to bring in a left-hander they are actually playing into Cano’s strength. Like a cobra, Cano can bite the best-laid of plans to get him out.
There have been clamors about his defense this season. The range is still there. He is also making the most difficult plays look easy. But Cano set a high standard last season by committing only three errors.
Much like his lofty hitting, the standard is hard to maintain. So Cano has made six errors and most of those came on routine plays.
That is the curse of being Cano. When the game is so easy to play it is sometimes easy to get bored with the perfection you play it. Cano sometimes does fall into that trap of looking lazy and disinterested. But it is not really true. Can’s defense is still as sterling as it ever was and it would be a crime of he did not collect another Gold Glove in 2011.
See the big question is that if Cano is not the best second baseman in baseball, who is? Dustin Pedroia? He’s hitting .278 with less power and production. Danny Espinosa of Washington has 15 home runs and Kelly Johnson of Arizona has 14. But they are both hitting south of ,244. Ian Kinsler of Texas and Chase Utley of Philadelphia have had off-seasons and have dealt with injuries. Dan Uggla of Atlanta has more power, but he is not a hitter for average and he is a butcher in the field with limited range.
Rickie Weeks of Milwaukee comes the closest to Cano’s physical gifts. He can run better than Cano. But he is not the fielder Cano is.
So the best thing Yankee fans can do is appreciate what Cano is and what he is providing. They are not likely to see a better second baseman in the history of the franchise. Think of him as an Alfonso Soriano who can field like Roberto Alomar and you get a measure of what Cano means to this team. If this team is to win it all in 2011, Cano will have be right in the middle of it — hitting and fielding.
He may not win that batting title this season. But I think Cano would gladly forego it for a championship ring.
Cano deserves an A- for his first half. The only knock is the .292 average, which I believe will be in the .300 range by season’s end, barring injury. They just do not come any better than Cano.
Here is another Cano trait: He is durable. He has started 79 of the team’s 81 games. Eduardo Nunez started the other two and you are less likely to see Nunez here than you will at short and third for two reasons. One is that it is not a position he is as suited to play. The other is he is needed more often to replace the older Jeter (37) at short and Rodriguez (35) at third. The Yankees also have Ramiro Pena on the roster to play second base.
Nunez starred as a hitter replacing Jeter at shortstop but still needs work in the field at age 24. But the fact he hit .339 in place of Jeter is not lost among manager Joe Girardi. It will be Girardi’s task to find places for Nunez to play so he can get his bat in the lineup more. The fact the team sent outfielder Chris Dickerson back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make room on the roster for Jeter is one clue. Nunez might be seeing more time in the outfield in the second half.
Pena, 25, who is hitting .111, is the opposite of Nunez. He can play infield with the best of them but he won’t hit much. His real value is that he is the team’s best bunter and he can steal a base or two even though he is not as fast as Nunez.
At the minor-league level, the Yankees’ best second base prospect is Reegie Corona, a 25-year-old switch-hitter. However, Corona is on the 60-day disabled list with a broken arm suffered during the winter. He has a long way to go in his rehab and it just looks like a lost season for him.
Kevin Russo, 27, is playing second base in Scranton and he is hitting .278 with a home run and 28 RBIs. He is solid in the field but he is not the athlete Corona is and he is a long dropoff from Cano at the position. We likely will not see Russo unless something happens to Pena or Nunez.
FIRST HALF GRADES
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-
Cano is right where he should be in production and he should be better with his hitting and fielding in the second half. The Yankees rely on Cano for so much that he gets taken for granted at times. But managers, coaches and scouts from opposing teams think he is the most dangerous hitter in this lineup. That is a scary thought considering Rodriguez was “that guy” for so long and he still is pretty scary. Just enjoy the second half of watching Cano making everything look easy and helping lead this team to a division title and beyond.
It is almost assured Cano will do just that.
NEXT: THIRD BASE