The Yankees made a solid move today in acquiring veteran left-handed hitter Eric Hinske from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hinske, a former Rookie of the Year (Toronto, 2002) was a solid reserve presence on back-to-back pennant winners with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and the Tampa Rays last year, and now has the chance to add a third postseason team to his resume.
Able to play all four corners, Hinske has some power and is willing to take more than the occasional walk, so he’ll fit right in with the Yankees. He’s a career .254/.337/.436 hitter, which is not a good figure for a corner starter but you’ll take it for a four-corner reserve. No fun against southpaws at .221/.298/.363, Hinske’s numbers against opposite side pitchers are .264/.347/.456.
The 31-year-old gives the Yankees the kind of valuable bat off the bench they haven’t had in some time. That he can play third base is key. If Alex Rodriguez is going to take days off, this is a better choice than Cody Ransom and about a thousand times better than Angel Berroa. Hinske is not a very good defensive third baseman, but his ability to hit the ball with some authority should ease the pain of those Rodriguez rest periods.
With Rodriguez swinging a hot bat, it seemed as if Rodriguez and Joe Girardi were going to make a point of forgetting their previous agreement about off days. This happened last week — after skipping one game in Florida, Rodriguez played in eight straight games and started seven straight. One wonders if Brian Cashman looked at the trouble that Mike Lowell has been having lately — he had 15 CCs of fluid removed from his hip yesterday, also received a shot of a lubricant, and today was placed on the DL — and wisely concluded that he’d better give Girardi a real alternative to Rodriguez at third base before they killed the presumptive team MVP.
This is not a criticism of Girardi. As I wrote here last week, Girardi has been given conflicting imperatives: win now, win every day, and then, somewhere down the line, don’t kill A-Rod. Given that the alternatives to Rodriguez were spectacularly weak, it’s hard to blame Girardi for prioritizing his first mission at the expense of his second. Breaking Rodriguez might not get him fired, but failing to reach the postseason will. You understand why his instinct, even if on a subliminal level, would be to gamble on the slugger triumphing over pain instead of hoping that Berroa, Ramiro Pena, or Ransom might deliver a big hit, or even a small hit. If the Yankees were 3.5 games ahead instead of behind, the decision to bench Rodriguez would be easier on Girardi, but they’re not.
Ironically, Girardi could end up back in the same head space, only for different reasons. Again, Hinske is not a great defensive third baseman, and it’s possible that he’ll be a bit rusty. He hasn’t played very much third base since 2004, making just 21 appearances at the hot corner (three this year). The Blue Jays bumped him off of third base for Corey Koskie and then Troy Glaus, while in his Boston and Rays stops he was behind Lowell and Evan Longoria, so he had to get into the lineup in other ways. A few well-timed misplays and Girardi’s sense of well-being might get shaken enough that he’ll be reluctant to entrust Hinske with too much hot corner time. Still, if he times the Hinske starts so they don’t coincide with Chien-Ming Wang’s games, the Yankees should be okay. It’s also not as if A-Rod has been excelling on the fielding job; the bad hip would seem to have limited Rodriguez’s range.
In exchange for making Girardi’s life more interesting, the Yankees only had to give up Eric Fryer, the Minor League outfielder acquired for Chase Wright, who does not project to be more than a role player in the Majors, if that, and righty pitcher Casey Erickson, a 23-year-old Sally League reliever.
In his career, Hinske has had the unusual honor of being both a surprise and a disappointment. A 17th-round draft pick of the Cubs in 1998, Hinske raked in the Minor Leagues, batting .285/.380/.511. His defense troubled the Cubs, though, and so even though they were in desperate need of a third baseman at the time, they palmed him off on the A’s for Miguel Cairo. This was a Hall of Fame-level dumb move, as Cairo didn’t last even a full season in Chicago, and in any case he was Miguel Cairo. The A’s held Hinske in the Minors for a season, then sent him to the Blue Jays for Billy Koch. This was a Hall of Fame-level smart move, as the A’s got 44 saves out of Koch in 2002 and then flipped him to the White Sox for Keith Foulke, who was even better. Meanwhile, Hinske played third for the Jays, hit 24 home runs, and won the Rookie of the Year award.
The Jays rushed right out and signed Hinske to a five-year contract, but Hinske was unable to follow up on his production. His walk rate slipped, and his power and batting average went along with it. His 2003 season was subpar and his 2004 was miserable. By 2005 he had been moved to first base, which was an odd decision for the Jays to make given just how bad he had been the year before. He bounced back to some degree in 2006, but by then he was already slipping into utility work.
Kudos to Brian Cashman on this one. Adding a player who slugged .465 a year ago really gives the Yankees the added A-Rod protection they’ve needed all season. The move comes a bit late, but it’s a good one. At this writing, the Yankees haven’t announced the roster move they’re making to get Hinske a spot in the dugout. It should be Brett Tomko who goes down, but it’s hard to imagine the Yankees reducing their staff to 11 pitchers, so one assumes that Pena is headed for the sticks.
ON REFLECTION, IT SEEMS UNLIKELY THAT BIN LADEN THINKS MUCH ABOUT BUCKY DENT, BUT THE POINT STILL STANDS
I’m normally pretty happy when publishers drop a free baseball book on me, but in the case of a new book on, well, something to do with Bucky Dent, they can leave me out. On Saturday, I received an unmarked envelope bearing only my address and a mint condition 1978 Topps Bucky Dent card. There was no return address.
I subsequently have learned that this was done on behalf of a forthcoming book. Now, look: as I said, it’s cool to get free baseball stuff in the mail, but sending mysterious envelopes with no return address to a fellow’s home is no way to go about it. This is, I am told, supposed to be viral marketing. That term is ironic, because that’s what it made me think of — viruses. It occurred to me the second after I unsealed the stupid thing that you’re not supposed to open unidentified mail, that not too long ago there was a freak sending anthrax all over the place, that every once in awhile some fringe reader expresses hostility that goes beyond a mere friendly disagreement about baseball, and that I have a wife and two young children in the house. I was not amused. I was worried, and I kicked myself for unsealing the envelope. The Bucky Dent card was no solace: sometimes bad things come in attractive packages, and anonymity would seem to be something of an antonym for publicity.
So hey, marketing geniuses: if your goal was to trouble me on a perfectly good Saturday and make me associate your book with anonymous anthrax mailings, congratulations. You did your job. Next time, be intelligent enough to include a return address and a flyer so it’s clear what the heck you’re trying to accomplish. I wish the author all the success in the world with his book, and this should not be construed as reflecting upon his efforts. In fact, I hope he does so we
ll that next time he’ll be associated with a better, smarter set of publicists.
MORE FROM ME
Reflections on relief pitchers at Baseball Prospectus.
NO MATTER WHAT
HAPPENS, IT’S GOOD FOR THE YANKEES
The next two weeks are going to be a fascinating, possibly
decisive time for the Yankees. First, they should have Jorge Posada back on
Friday, which means they’ll have something like their full offensive complement
for the first time all year–Brett Gardner
substituting for Melky Cabrera for the next several days
notwithstanding, though Brett is actually out-hitting Melky in May,
.357/.449/.619 to .321/.348/.429, so you can’t say the lineup is suffering too badly
for his absence.
The Yankees then take their reconstituted offense into
battle against the Indians, a team that’s no pushover but has real pitching
problems–even during their recent little winning streak, they were pounded more
often than not. Following four games at Cleveland,
where the Indians are 10-11, they go home for three against the Rangers, a
dangerous team but one that is not nearly so dangerous on the road due to their
low on-base percentage. Yes, their power hitters are going to knock a few balls
out of Yankee Stadium II, but so will the Yankees, and they should have more
runners on when they do so.
The Rangers are followed into New York by the Rays, 12-16 on the road and
suffering from a rapidly unraveling pitching staff. After that series, the Yankees go to Boston, where they get another chance to make
some kind of statement against the Red Sox. Before the Red Sox get to that
point on their journey, the Sox have three games at Toronto, which means that no matter what
happens, one team next to the Yankees in the standings will be losing. Then it’s
off to Detroit,
where the Tigers are a tough 15-7 and currently lead the American League in
lowest run average. Finally, they entertain the Rangers at home while the
Yankees are grappling with the Rays. This could be the moment where the Red Sox
see the race slipping away. Their starting pitching is surprisingly poor. Josh
Beckett has now had five straight quality starts, but there are still problems
beyond him, like getting Daisuke Matsuzaka under control, Jon Lester fixed, and
figuring out how to get rid of Brad Penny so one of the kids can come up and
presumably have an ERA under 6.00. They have let David Ortiz kill them all
season long, and replacing him is going to be a painful and divisive thing to
do. This organization is endlessly resourceful, and they won’t just fall apart,
but they have real problems right now.
As for the Jays,
after the Red Sox, they host the Angels for three and the Royals for three,
both winnable series but neither sure things, followed by four games at Texas, which won’t be
easy at all.
THE BULLPEN: A QUICK
Remember Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell. Better by far to
give Mark Melancon a long look before dealing the farm for a Jose Veras
MAKE IT STOP!
Are we done with Angel Berroa yet? Has anyone yet explained
his purpose? Does he have incriminating photos of someone?
It’s a small thing, a very small thing, the 25th
man, but then, remember what Joe Torre did with Homer Bush in 1998. Flexibility,
or for that matter a useful hitter off the bench, would allow the Yankees to
win more games. This would seem… obvious.
THE AROUND (AND
Giants 6, Braves 3:
Randy Johnson threw six strong innings for victory No. 299 (one run, three hits,
no walks, five strikeouts). You’d rather not see him back into 300, and some of
his recent starts have been rough. He’s an amazing physical specimen: in 52
innings, he’s got 54 strikeouts, 9.35 per nine innings. The man is 45 years
old, and there are many, many 25-year-olds who don’t get that many batters to
swing and miss. Only 12 pitchers have thrown as many as 100 innings in a season
at Johnson’s age or older. At 45, Nolan Ryan struck out 8.98 batters per nine
innings. Phil Niekro struck out 6.10 as a 46-year-old Yankee in 1985. There
have been five geriatric seasons in the 5.00s, including Satchel Paige’s 5.93
in 1952. (Paige was a lot further above his league average than Niekro was
above his.) Johnson has the second-largest differential between his rate and
the league strikeout rate after Ryan.
Angels 3, White Sox 1:
Everyone pitched well, even Gavin Floyd and someone with the last name of
“Weaver.” These things happen. In fairness to the last-mentioned, he currently
ranks second in the league in ERA, about a run and a half behind Zack Greinke.
Obligatory former Yankees watch: Bobby Abreu went 2-for-3, as did Juan Rivera,
who is now batting .293/.335/.415, which is kind of like current Brett Gardner,
but without the speed and defense or the promise of improvement.
Diamondbacks 5: After a miserable, miserable, rehearsals-for-retirement
start, Brian Giles has hit .295/.407/523 over his last 14 games, throwing in
nine walks. It’s something, though 14 games is hardly definitive. Good to see
the Padres bounce back over .500 after their recent winning streak was
terminated; usually a fringe team that starts acting dominant for a couple of
weeks will quickly demonstrate the way gravity works (as in, what goes up must
Twins 4, Red Sox 2:
Solid work all around by Twins pitching in this one, including three innings of
scoreless relief, 1 1/3 by Jose Mijares, a rookie lefty with a
ninth-inning-worthy fastball-slider combo currently working the middle frames…
Another two-hit day for Ellsbury; if you get your batting average up high
enough, eventually it won’t matter if you don’t walk or hit for power. Said
batting average is higher still than your current .307; see Dernard Span–the
difference is a few more extra-base hits and about 14 more walks in exactly the
same amount of playing time.
Mets 7, Washington 4: A
wild, wild night for Johan Santana, who still seems on pace to win that elusive
third Cy Young award. Three straight wins for the Mets with a lineup that for
the Yankees would be missing Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada. It’s
the Nats, of course, so thank the Lords of Good Timing, but all credit to the
Mets for being able to execute… And Daniel Murphy, who banged a home run off a
rather idiotically placed sign.
Reds 6, Astros 1:
Seventh straight loss for the Astros, who are starting to get to the place
where a 100-loss season becomes a real possibility–something that has never
happened in what has been a generally successful franchise despite never having
had a champion. From 1969 through last year, the club had won 175 more games
than it had lost… It’s not clear who they can trade, as the few exciting
players are signed to outsized contracts, and they have no impact-level
prospects, so the journey of the ‘Stros, not just through the rest of this
year, but into the next, is going to be an interesting one. As C-3PO said,
there’ll be no escape for the princess this time… Remember I was talking about
Phil Hughes and quality start percentage a couple of days ago? Bronson Arroyo
is at 60 percent, but his ERA is over 5.00–in his three losses, his ERA is
Indians 12, Rays 7:
The Rays continue to lead the AL
in runs scored per game, but their pitching is like Cerberus’s chew-toy. That
they are hitting so well despite their injuries and a B.J. Upton who ranks as
one of the most futile hitters in the biz is amazing. The regression of the
hurlers is less so, and was widely predicted, though I for one was not so quick
to believe it. I certainly had higher hopes for control artist Andy Sonnanstine,
who has not been so controlling this year. As we saw with Ian Kennedy, a
similar pitcher last year, this model of hurler is either all right or all
wrong–their (lack of) stuff doesn’t allow for a middle ground. The good news
for the Rays is they have some alternatives, such as David Price (now up with
the club) and Wade Davis (not yet).
Marlins 6, Phillies 2:
Sometimes even the champions lose to a pitcher named Burke Badenhop, though not
often. Forty-five thousand watched this one at Philadelphia, and as Casey Stengel liked to
say, the attendance was robbed. If Ryan Howard was hitting better than
.227/.303/.455 (four home runs, 88 at-bats), they’d at least have more to talk
about during these Badenhop bow-downs.
Mariners 6, Athletics
1: Nomar Garciaparra heads back to the disabled list. Just thought I would
point out the biggest non-news of the day. I’d also like to point out that
Mariners infielders are hitting .236/.280/.375 as a group, and that’s counting
Russell Branyan. With his fourth cought stealing, Ichiro equals his total for
all of 2008.
Dodgers 8, Rockies 6:
Andre Ethier had better hurry and find his stroke, because if Juan Pierre is
still hitting .400 when Manny comes back, even I’m going to have a hard time
arguing that he should be benched–that Pierre has allowed the Dodgers to feel
so little pain over Ramirez’s banishment is one of the stories of the year. The
story of the game was that Joe Torre’s pen bent but didn’t break.
Cubs 5, Pirates 2:
Notable mainly for Carlos Zambrano’s ejection-worthy explosion and the
relocation of the Cubs to a game over .500.
Tigers 8, Royals 3:
Another strong start for Rick Porcello, though the low strikeout rate is still
troubling. Kyle Farnsworth threw a scoreless inning in the loss, his usual spot
for scoreless innings.
Orioles 12, Blue Jays
10: Add Nolan Reimold to the list of possibly invigorating youth the
Orioles are now playing with–next year, the AL East could be an even more
difficult place to win a pennant than it is now, though pitching is still going
to be a problem by the Bay. As for the Jays, by the All-Star break we’re not
going to remember they were ever in the race.
Cardinals 3, Brewers
2: In which the Cardinals take control, largely due to their busy bullpen,
though Todd Wellemeyer was solid for five. You wonder if LaRussa’s hardworking
relievers can keep up the pace for the rest of the year, though to be fair he
has spread out the work… Albert Pujols has just one home run in the last two
MORE FROM ME
continues to be wholesomely updated with new entries, and I’m about to start an
argument with a commenter. Warning: politics!
LET’S KILL TWO!
If the Yankees hitting into three key double plays on Tuesday night bugged you, if you were awake to be bugged, then know that it’s about par for the course for these Yankees, who have gone for the two-outs-on-one-swing sale in about 11.6 percent of their opportunities this year, the seventh-worst rate in the majors this year. The Mariners lead the majors, hitting into a double play in 13.6 percent of their chances. This is kind of amazing, as the Mariners also have the lowest on-base percentage in the majors. They reach base less than anyone else, then kill the few runners they get faster than anyone else.
What’s fascinating about the Yankees’ poor performance in double play situations is that for the most part, it’s not the regulars who are doing the damage. This year, the average AL batter is hitting into a twin killing 10.6 percent of the time (the NL rate is almost exactly 10 percent). For example, Derek Jeter has hit into four double plays in 25 opportunities, which is 16 percent. That looks bad, but it’s not, really — one fewer and he’d be right at the league average. The same goes for Melky Cabrera, who has also pounded into four DPs in 25 chances. Brett Gardner, with two in 17 chances, is at the league average, which is surprising given his speed, but less so when one considers that he hits more ground balls than any Yankee except Derek Jeter. The worst Yankees regular is Robby Cano, who has hit into five in 28 chances, or 17.9 percent, but again, that’s not a horror-movie number — Geovany Soto and Mike Lowell are at 30 percent in a significant number of chances (29 and 40, respectively). Several Yankees have actually done a terrific job at staying out of the double play. Nick Swisher, last night’s DP villain, has hit into only two in 33 chances. Johnny Damon has only two. Hideki Matsui and Mark Teixeira are both around six percent.
It’s actually the guys who haven’t played much, or played too much due to injuries, that are driving the Yankees’ into a high number of twin killings at bat. Together, Cody Ransom, Xavier Nady, Kevin Cash, Angel Berroa, Jose Molina, and Francisco Cervelli have hit into 11 double plays in 44 chances, or 45 percent. There’s not much that Joe Girardi can do to address the situation except not play those guys — he already calls as many or more hit-and-run plays as any manager in the game. Unfortunately, he hasn’t always had the choice not to play them, and the existence or continuation of Ransom, Cash, Berroa, and Molina as Yankees was the general manager’s call — but now we’re away from talking about the double play and once more in the realm of depth, so never mind.
In the short term, it’s little consolation that the Yankees blew a chance to take first place in part because of missed offensive opportunities, but at least you can be sure that it was a bit of a poorly timed fluke on the part of two of the three. There’s also an “on the other hand,” which is that when Jorge Posada comes back the team’s double play rate will actually pick up, because Posada runs like the 37-year-old catcher he is. Fortunately, Posada does other things with the bat that more than make up it. You can’t say that about the 11-for-44ers above.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Orioles 7, Blue Jays 2: Just over 10,000 showed up at Camden Yards to see the Orioles deal the Jays their eighth straight loss. During the streak, Jays batters are hitting .251/.306/.331, which is very bad but isn’t too different from what Padres hitters did during their recent winning streak. Of course, the Padres had great pitching, whereas the Jays have allowed nearly six runs a game. No doubt you’ve heard that Matt Wieters finally comes up on Friday. With Wieters, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis the Orioles are finally changing, and none too soon… I’ll talk more about Wednesday’s game in our next entry, but it should be noted that the Jays dropped their ninth straight to the Orioles in daytime action, the pen being unable to follow up Roy Halladay’s strong start. The Jays are now just four games over .500 and the division is wide open.
Mets 6, Nationals 1: The Nats DFA’d Daniel Cabrera. As Bill Ladson reported at MLB.com, GM Mike Rizzo said, “I looked at the execution of the performance and it wasn’t up to par. I was tired of watching it.” You have to appreciate a candid GM. Among other things, this should inoculate the Yankees from having to face the spectacularly tedious Mr. Cabrera during interleague play (as Bob Uecker said in “Major League,” “Ball three… Ball four… Ball eight…”). Adam Dunn homered again… Just sayin’. Another home run for Gary Sheffield, and he’s now batting .291/.430/.535. Talk about getting something for nothing, and a needed something now that the Mets are in the position of having to play 20-year-old prospect Fernando Martinez, who hasn’t actually looked very prospect-y in years.
Reds 6, Astros 4: Another three-hit night for Miguel Tejada, but that was most of the fun as Roy Oswalt is no longer the lucky rabbit of yore. Among the most unexpected events in baseball this season: a Laynce Nix renaissance in left field for the Reds, which is kind of like a Rod Stewart renaissance taking over for the late Joe Strummer in a Clash reunion tour. It’s just not something you’d ever think about.
Indians 5, Rays 1: Can’t tell a lie — Carl Pavano killed. Four Indians hit home runs, three of which probably shouldn’t have been in the lineup, but sometimes you win with your worst foot forward. Both of these clubs lost key players yesterday, with Jason Bartlett hitting the DL with a sprained ankle, and Grady Sizemore may take a seat with a left elbow that’s feeling poorly. The Indians shuffled Matt LaPorta off the roster to get another center fielder up to the bigs, so my criticism of them yesterday was in error.
Phillies 5, Marlins 3: The much-denigrated (at least by me) Joe Blanton had one of the best starts of his career, shutting out the Marlins for seven frames, striking out 11. That has far more to do with the Marlins with Blanton, as their defining characteristic as an offense is the strikeout. Make that double if Hanley Ramirez’s groin sidelines him for more than 30 seconds.
Cubs 6, Pirates 1: Cut short by rain, and you can expect that Lou Piniella danced in it, maybe more like Roger Daltrey closing out “Quadrophenia” than Gene Kelly — this win got the team that was going to end the 100-year-old dry spell to the break-even point. Elements of the Cubs that haven’t disappointed this year: Kosuke Fukudome, Ted Lilly, Johnny Evers. Evers in particular has done exactly what was expected of him.
Cardinals 8, Brewers 1: The Cards are pitching at about 20 percent above league average, the mark of not only a good pitching team, but a staff on the verge of having a great season. Whether the Cards can improve that much more I don’t know, but in this division they might not have to. Extra-credit to Adam Wainwright for his solo home run, thereby batting in as many runs as he allowed in seven innings.
Twins 5, Red Sox 2: One of the season’s great flukes — Nick Blackburn striking out seven Red Sox. Blackburn never strikes out seven anybodies. Jacoby Ellsbury has a 21-game hitting streak going, during which he’s batting .333/.366/.417. During the streak, he’s stolen 10 bases, been caught four times, and has driven in four runs.
6, Tigers 1: How does Jose Guillen have a .412 OBP? Not “how”– that’s like asking where babies come from–I mean, “Why?” …KC shortstops, principally Mike Aviles (now on the DL) are hitting .183/.214/.250 this year. With anything from the position, they might be leading the division right now. It also hurts that David DeJesus is having the worst season of his career. Haven’t mentioned another fine Zack Greinke start, and I won’t, except to say that for some, “potential” is a curse. It’s grand to see someone survive it.
Dodgers 7, Rockies 1: And there was much gnashing of teeth in Denver given the club’s .400 winning percentage, or maybe it was just losing to Eric Milton (and congratulations to the former Yankees’ draftee for making it back). Andre Ethier in May: .190/.298/.266, following up a .306/.423/.553. Shades of Melky ’08! That’s not to suggest that Ethier won’t be back, but that Melky should have been, or maybe that we just don’t know what turns a hitter on or off–the recipe is probably something like one-third mental, one-third physical, and one-third luck (sprinkle lightly with shredded cheese, serve over pasta).
Diamondbacks 6, Padres 5: Thus endeth the Padres’ winning streak, as Max Scherzer strikes out 10 in seven innings… Mark Reynolds is just off of last year’s 204-strikeout pace; he’d finish with 202 in the same number of at-bats. Scherzer is only 2-7 in his brief major league career, but his ERA is 3.21, and he’s K’d 119 in 106.2 innings. Of the current roster, Scherzer and Justin Upton will be part of the next great ‘Backs team, but you can’t be certain of anyone else. At .173/.220/.313, Chris Young has to be one of the biggest failures to launch in recent baseball history, a kid who came up with all the tools but didn’t develop a centimeter from where he started.
White Sox 4, Angels 2: Big day for the Nix family, as Jayson hit two home runs to go with Laynce’s one. What is it with that family and the letter “y?” Big Scrabble fans? Bart Colon’s win pushed his quality start percentage up to 33 percent, still well below average… Bobby Abreu hit his first home run of the season.
Athletics 4, Mariners 3: The A’s did all their scoring in one frame, Jason Giambi driving in two runs on a single as the Seattle pen tossed away six shutout innings from Jarrod Washburn. With Kenji Johjima off for a long stay on the DL, the M’s didn’t call up Jeff Clement, batting .309/.382/.533 at Triple-A Tacoma. The guy has his limitations — he’s an offensive catcher with a big swing — but given that the M’s are by far the worst offensive club on the circuit , you’d think they would go for a little more offense. Oddly, for a team that can’t hit, the Mariners have tried the fewest hitters in the American League. They’re standing pat, even though their lineup looks a lot like that of the ’54 Pirates.
Giants 4, Braves 0: And nothing to say about it except, “Lincecum!” Also, every time I load up the news on the Internet, there’s something about “Jon and Kate.” I have not the foggiest who they are, and don’t think I’m going to try to find out. Jon, Kate, Bread, Circuses — there are bigger fish to fry, like baseball (?).
MORE FROM THE BALLPARK ( 9:35 p.m.)
As I write, the Yankees are batting in the bottom of the fourth. Andy Sonnanstine, who has not been particularly good this year, have held them to one hit (three hits — in the time it took me to complete this sentence, Teixeira singled and Matsui doubled. Either the Yankees are heating up or my sentences are too long). The Rays have played some excellent defense, as is to be expected given that by at least one measure, defensive efficiency, the Rays are the best leather team in the league — just as they were last year.
With two runners on, the ballpark is plenty loud — I wonder if the acoustics are really as has been said or the fans haven’t had enough to cheer about… And Cano flies out to Carl Crawford in left, and all at once it’s quiet again.
A little earlier, A.J. Burnett skipped a ball through Dioner Navarro’s toes, and that reminded me of a brief encounter I had with sports talk radio earlier today. The caller to Sirius-XM’s midmorning show argued that what the Yankees needed to do to beat the Red Sox was hit them with more pitches. We seem to hear this sentiment every time the Yankees drop a series to the Sox: the Sox intimidate the Yankees but the Yankees don’t intimidate them. It sounds pathetic. I can never remember the old saying correctly — is violence the first refuge of the incompetent of the last? It seems to work either way. Whichever the case, such sentiments are an example of it. The way the Yankees will beat the Red Sox is to win some games. I know it’s a novel idea, but if they hit better than .150 with runners in scoring position against Boston, they’ll score some runs, maybe even more runs than Boston scores. Engaging in a beanball war is not going to achieve much more than getting players suspended at best and hurt at worst. These teams see each other a lot of times this year, and the last thing either of them needs is to see sporting competitiveness spill over into violence.
The thing that really struck me about the call, after its ignorance, was its super-ignorance. The Yankees have hit EIGHT Red Sox this year. The Red Sox have hit TWO Yankees. Don’t you have an obligation to watch the actual games before making so reckless a recommendation? Couldn’t the Yankees try hitting a few home runs before starting a fight? All we are saying is give peace a chance. Or at least common sense.
As I put the pen down on this particular entry, it is the top of the sixth. The Rays have two on and one out after a Jason Bartlett sac bunt (Bartlett had struck out in his two previous at-bats, so the bunt sorta kinda makes sense). Burnett is already over 100 pitches, and I see someone loosening in the bullpen. “Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.” Maybe it’s howling at Jose Veras. Wouldn’t you?
SCENES FROM A BALLPARK ( 7:23 p.m.)
The Pinstriped Bible comes to you from the Bronx, New York this evening, where the Yankees and Rays are about to joust. Let’s see… The Rays thrashed the Red Sox, the Red Sox thrashed the Yankees, so next in the sequence is… Yankees thrash Rays? My boss is in the seat next to me, so I’m sticking with that line. Not good to look too curmudgeonly and pessimistic in front of the guy who signs the checks.
Despite the tough losses of the last few days, there was a lot of animated good spirits on display on the pregame field. Bernie Williams was on hand, joking with Derek Jeter, then chatting with Melky Cabrera behind the cage. I couldn’t make out what they were talking about — the ballpark amps were at 11 — but I hope it was some insight about growing at the major league level or how to hit from the right side, and not the best way to shift to an F#m chord from a D#7 diminished chord without breaking your fingers. Reggie Jackson was also on hand, in uniform (Williams was in civvies), watching over batting practice and chatting eagerly with some reporters (off the record ad strictly personal, natch). A few feet away, John Sterling was interviewing Joe Girardi, but somehow Joe was doing a lot more listening than talking.
I briefly tried to imagine that it was 1927, and the Yankees taking batting practice were Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, etcetera, but quickly gave up: it was too bloody loud. In 1927 batting practice must have sounded like batting practice: the crack of the bat, a few people shouting on the field and in the stands.
It must have been pure heaven.
As Nick Swisher came out of the cage, Girardi asked him a question. I assume it was, “How did you feel hitting today?” or something like that. Swisher made a face, shook his head, and must have said something sarcastic, because Girardi bopped him over the helmet with the mitt he was carrying. Swisher isn’t tall, but Girardi had to do a little hop-step-jump in order to pull off the gesture.
Angel Berroa and Brett Gardner took extra batting practice. Berroa caught my eye when he cracked a ball far deeper into the stands than any of the Yankee regulars had–you’ll note that whereas every Yankee starter could put on a show in batting practice, most of them are more applied in their work, drilling line drives in one turn in the cage, pulling balls in another, and so on. Berroa was hitting deep flies, and one traveled deep into the right field bleachers, landing just short of the back row, just in front of the “26 World Champions” sign. This seemed like a wasted drill–Berroa is not going to be cranking balls out of the park under game condition. It’s just not a skill he has. Few hitters achieve any kind of consistency when uppercutting the ball and trying to hit home runs, and Berroa won’t be the first. Why not try to develop a skill that will keep you on a Major League roster instead of one that won’t?
Gardner’s BP seemed, to my weak, rhino-like eyes, to be a mixed bag. On some swings he used the lower half of his body to pull crisp line drives to right, including one which carried out of the park. On a few other swings, he lunged with his upper body as he has been doing in games, and hit something weak the other way. As he finished, he turned to Kevin Long and asked, “How was that?” I didn’t catch Long’s response, as at just that moment, the scoreboard kicked off the Graig Nettles “Yankeeography” at such volume that John Sterling could have been chastising the Hebrews for their dalliance with the Golden Calf, or threatening to turn Sodom into a parking lot. At one point I looked up and saw an image of Tommy Lasorda as big as an aircraft carrier. “Surrender, Dorothy!” he screamed. I dropped to my knees. In doing so, I narrowly avoided being run down by the entire Rays roster, which was engaged in a pregame stretching exercise in which they hopped, skipped, and jumped down the third base line singing, “Three Little Maids from School Are We.” Okay, they didn’t really sing that, but they could have — they were skipping to the proper rhythm.
This should in no way be construed as a comment on the collective masculinity of the Rays. The only point, if there is one, is that grown men rarely looked dignified when hopping and skipping. It’s also a good way to lose your wallet.
ONE MORE QUICK NOTE ON JETERIAN DEFENSE
Last year, opposition batters put 4,351 balls in play against the Yankees. They turned 68 percent of them into outs, which is a low rate. Boston turned 70 percent of balls in play against them into outs. The Rays turned 71 percent of balls in play against them into outs. These differences may seem small, but over the course of a season they can make a difference in a pennant race. Had the Yankees caught balls at the rate that the Red Sox did, for example, they would have retired an additional 74 batters. Had they fielded them at the Rays’ rate, they would have put out an additional 122 batters. The Yankees only allowed 1,170 fly balls all season long, so you can’t blame the entire shortfall on Bobby Abreu letting balls drop at the base of the wall. Their rate of line drives allowed was actually on the low side. Only so many balls were pulled down the lines past Jason Giambi or Alex Rodriguez. No one is to blame, apparently, and yet the balls weren’t caught. This happens year after year — the Yankees don’t catch as many balls as the opposition does, but no one is to blame.
This isn’t an argument. This isn’t subjective. Weak Yankees defense is a fact. You can choose not to see it when you watch a game. In the end, though, you have to account for what actually happens in those games. If the fielders weren’t at fault, then what happened? Unexpected stadium tilt? The moons of Saturn get in their eyes?
WE KNOW A REMOTE FARM IN LINCOLNSHIRE WHERE MRS. BUCKLEY LIVES… EVERY JULY, PEAS GROW THERE
The moment the Marlins bagged on former Angels’ prospect Dallas McPherson, the 28-year-old who led the minors in home runs last year, his name was circulated as a potential A-Rod sub. McPherson clearly has left-handed power, and the Yankees can use all the power they can get this year. There are two problems: First, McPherson strikes out so much that he would have trouble maintaining a .300 on-base percentage in the majors. Second, his defense at third is suspect. I’ve been skeptical of Cody Ransom’s ability to hit for average as well, but he should be able to field the position and hit a couple of home runs of his own. I figure the added defense makes Ransom a better fit than McPherson, or at least makes the two a wash. Now, you can argue about McPherson being a better bench asset than Angel Berroa or Ramiro Pena, but until Rodriguez comes back you might be forced to actually play him at third base if Derek Jeter leaves a game early, requiring Ransom to slide over to short.
It just occurred to me, reading what I just wrote in the context of our first item, above, that the Yankees worry an awful lot about defense but get very little out it.
If there’s a market for Gary Sheffield’s services, there’s a market for Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady. One also wonders if the Phillies would like to adopt Melky Cabrera — now that Geoff Jenkins has been released, their only reserve outfielder is Matt Stairs. They have rookie John Mayberry on the 40-man as well, but like Stairs he seems to be strictly corner material. Former Yankee Chad Moeller is going to back up Gregg Zaun for the O’s, at least until Matt Wieters comes up. Henry Blanco is going to be the starting backstop for the Padres. Consider those two pieces of information and feel free to speculate about a possible Jose Molina trade market. Say the Yankees brought up Frankie Cervelli halfway through the season, and… but no.
This winter, the Yankees redesigned their pitching staff. While Spring Training statistics and results are generally unreliable and not worth becoming overly excited about, it is at the least a good omen that, through 30 contests, Yankees pitchers have the lowest ERA in the business at 3.41.
Again, exhibitions, with their half-games for regulars and weird weather conditions (the wet and wind in Florida, the dry, heated environment in Arizona) don’t give us a very reliable picture, particularly in a year in which the WBC diluted Spring Training games by sucking off scores of Major League regulars. Further, some of these very effective innings have been pitched by the likes of Brett Tomko and Kei Igawa, who are unlikely to persist in their excellence were they even to make the team, while others were hurled by Phil Hughes and fellow prospects ticketed to the Minors. Even with these caveats, the bulk of the Major League staff has performed well.
There remains much that we do not know and cannot know, such as the long-term viability of pitchers who are traditional health cases, such as A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, or those that are recovering from injury, like Mariano Rivera (although if all healing pitchers looked as good as Rivera has this spring, most of them would be lining up to go under the knife). Still, so far so good. The offense has been good too, though the numbers aren’t as impressive as those of some Cactus League teams that basically play on the surface of the moon.
NOW THAT BRETT GARDNER HAS WON THE CENTER FIELD JOB…
…I’m wondering if he will ever hit another home run. There is something to the idea that he got a running start on the center field competition by lashing out at cold pitchers early in the spring campaign. Even if true, nothing is taken away from the consistency he’s shown, if consistency can be said to apply to 23 games and 55 at-bats. What is most striking, though, about the now-finished center-field competition is what decided it. In the end, Melky Cabrera played almost as well as Gardner did. To date, each has had 55 at-bats. Gardner has hit .364/.426/.636. Cabrera had hit .345/.419/.491. Each has drawn six walks. Gardner’s offensive edge comes down to one more hit, one more triple, and two more home runs. The differences aren’t significant, especially if Gardner’s power surge was truly an artifact of early spring. What’s left are a few things you can see in the statistics, such as Gardner’s speed, showing up in that extra triple and three more stolen bases, and his superior defensive capabilities. Once you throw in Cabrera’s poor 2008 and Gardner’s strong finish to the same, which disposed Joe Girardi towards him, it becomes clear that Cabrera would have had to out-hit Gardner by a significant margin to make this a real competition.
Gardner’s hold on the job is about as secure as Priam’s hold on Troy; there are enemies at the gate as long as Cabrera remains on the team. In the pressurized world of the Yankees, all it would probably take to throw the doors open to Cabrera is a 2-for-20 in the first games. It’s doubtful that Gardner will be shown the same tolerant patience that the Yankees lavished on, say, Kyle Farnsworth, or Cabrera himself.
Unless Cabrera’s nice spring represents some unexpected development in his abilities, I don’t expect him to get too many chances as a Major League regular from here on in, barring injuries. Every team has players like Cabrera, not particularly special talents who become regulars for a year or two out of need or inertia. Sometimes they play well for a time and fool you into thinking they could be more than the sum of their abilities suggests, but ultimately something better comes along and they are replaced. If they move on to other organizations, where that same need does not exist, they have a difficult time breaking into the lineup. Ultimately they become bench players or journeymen Minor Leaguers.
This is, on the whole, the fate of players whose offensive contributions are built around batting average, and when I say batting average I mean .290 and not .330. To be productive, the .290 guy has to hit .290 or better. The problem is, there are always years in which, due to luck, he will hit .260, and then the fellow is below average. That’s Melky, except that in 2007, when he hit .273, he was below average. Last year he hit .249, and he was a weeping wound. He’s still young enough to rebound and even find some consistency, but the odds are against it. Such a development would require him to find both the physical tools and the internal drive to exploit them. That’s asking a lot of a player, to grow his body and his mind.
THE UTILITY JOB (A BRIEF NOTE)
This corner is all for anyone but Angel Berroa, who is the anti-hitter, and if it’s a young guy so much the better. In case you haven’t checked out the 23-year-old Ramiro Pena, he’s a career .258/.316/.319 hitter in 334 Minor League games through the Double-A level. If Girardi is prepared to use Pena as the purest of defensive replacements, putting a bat in his hands only in blowouts, that’s not a problem. However, if injuries force Girardi to turn to the bench for any length of time, the Yankees will have to look elsewhere–Jose Molina is a better hitter at this moment. That said, Pena is a strong defensive player, reputed to have great range. It would be fascinating if Girardi had the guts–the sheer, General Patton chutzpah–to shake a NY institution to its foundations and utilize a late-inning defensive replacement for Derek Jeter.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
The White Sox waived Jerry Owens, which apparently makes Dewayne Wise their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. Tough to score too many runs when your leadoff man has a .290 OBP, which is what the Sox just signed on for… The Tigers picked up the speedy Josh Anderson from the Braves, which takes Anderson from shooting for Braves starting center fielder, a position for which he was under-qualified, to reserve outfielder on the Tigers and probable regular defensive replacement for Carlos Guillen in left. That’s something he can do… Really curious to see how Jason Motte does as Cardinals closer. He’s a converted catcher who can dial up his fastball, and his Minor L eague strikeout numbers were amazing, with 110 Ks last year in just 67 innings… Rays owner Stuart Sternberg talked about holding the line on payroll in an <A HREF=”http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/rays/article987949.ece”>article</A> this weekend. If the Rays’ budget isn’t going to rise along with its players’ salaries, than this particular threat to the Yankees is going to be short-lived, like Connie Mack’s 1929-1931 A’s.
INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE IN SEARCH OF A-ROD’S REPLACEMENT
As the old Leadbelly song goes, “I may be right and I may be wrong, but you know you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” No doubt Alex Rodriguez will be singing this song now that hip surgery is apparently going to put him on the shelf for a projected 10 weeks. If the story as reported by ESPN is correct, the Yankees will be without their starting third baseman for something like six weeks of the regular season.
Since the news came through, I’ve been plumbing the depths like Cave Carson looking for replacement possibilities that won’t damage the Yankees’ efforts too badly. The two utility infield types currently in camp, Cody Ransom and Angel Berroa, are not good bets. The latter may be one of the worst bets of all time, a career .260/.305/.378 hitter. Ransom has a little more life in his bat, but despite his nice little September hot streak last fall, he’s not likely to produce at a satisfactory level. His career Minor League batting average is .242 and he’s hit about .250 over the last three seasons. Average isn’t everything, and Ransom has some power, but when you start out with a batting average that low, there’s a good chance you won’t hit safely often enough to reach an acceptable level of production.
There are a couple of Hail Mary options on the roster — Xavier Nady and Mark Teixeira (pictured) have done the third base thing in the past, Nady very briefly, Teixeira throughout his brief Minor League career. As with many young third basemen, Teixeira was prone to errors at the position, and the Rangers had Hank Blalock locked in at third, so Teix moved across the diamond and proved to be a very good first baseman. Moving Teixeira back to the hot corner now would allow the Yankees to drop Nick Swisher at first base and Nady into right field. Offensively, this is probably the best possible way to paper over Rodriguez’s extended absence. Defensively, it would all depend on Teixeira’s ability to handle a position he hasn’t touched for six years and what you gauge his risk of injury to be (if any), and if he’s even willing to make an attempt at it.
Such a solution could be flexible, depending on the starting pitcher for that day. CC Sabathia can probably stand to pitch with a weaker defense behind him. Chien-Ming Wang cannot, so his starts would have to feature a “real” third baseman, with Teixeira back at first. It’s messy, but it could work … And I can’t resist saying that Casey Stengel would have done it. Heck, down the stretch in 1954, as the Yankees were trying to avoid elimination, Casey put Yogi Berra at third and Mickey Mantle at short so he could get some extra bats into the lineup. Anything for a win, even if it seems outlandish. It should also be pointed out that the offensive damage done by a Ransom or Berroa would almost certainly outweigh the defensive damage done by putting someone like Teixeira at third.
The Minor League options on hand aren’t strong. Eric Duncan is still kicking around, but he has shown no sign of being a Major Leaguer (scratch one more Yankees first-round pick). Kevin Russo, America’s favorite utility choice, won’t hit either and has spent most of his professional life at second base. There are a number of veteran options soaking up bench spots for other teams, like Mike Lamb with the Brewers and Scott McClain with the Giants (an NRI, he’s probably expendable), but these will have to be pried free, however limited their value. The Yankees cannot give up a player of long-term value for a 10-week rental.
Whatever the solution, which at the moment is not obvious, the Yankees are now in some real trouble. The murder weapon used in the demise of last year’s Yankees team was not the shaky pitching but the presence of three replacement-level hitters in the lineup in Jose Molina, Robinson Cano, and Melky Cabrera. The Yankees just took a giant step back in that direction. If Jorge Posada isn’t ready, if Hideki Matsui isn’t ready, if the second baseman or center fielder doesn’t hit, and Rodriguez is out for an extended period, scoring could be a problem. It might have been a problem even with Rodriguez in the lineup, so short of a season-ending injury, this is about the worst news the Yankees could have received right now.