SCRATCH THAT PITCHING DIET
As per George King, the Yankees have called up Anthony Claggett as protection for another blink-and-you-miss-it Sergio Mitre start. So much for my suggestion earlier today that the team experiment with a streamlined, 11-man pitching staff. Instead, Mitre necessitates a baker’s dozen. As Roger Daltey sang in “Who Are You,” “There’s got to be another way.” And then he swore.
Cody Ransom, meanwhile, has finally earned his letters: DFA. Ransom provides one of baseball’s best lessons, one that you can apply to just about anything: “Don’t get excited over small samples.” Ransom’s 2008 performance, .302/.400/.651 with four home runs in 43 at-bats, represents little more than the coin coming up heads over and over again for a small space of time. Some would say Ransom earned himself a chance with that performance, but the truth is that it shouldn’t have been a very long one given his age and track record. There are a few players out there–Mark Reynolds comes to mind-who are skilled enough hitters to survive an unusually high strikeout rate. When they do make contact, they do so solidly enough that good things happen a high percentage of the time. Ransom isn’t good enough to overcome the kind of pressure his strikeout rate puts on him. This year only 15 percent of his balls in play have been line drives, which means his batting average on balls in play is only .278. In short, he didn’t put balls in play very often due to the strikeout rate, and when he did put them in play nothing happened.
In the long term, the Yankees are going to need to get back down to 12 pitchers tops, and that could mean the return of Ramiro Pena. Austin Jackson would make more sense, given that the Yankees require a practiced centerfield reserve more than they need a kid with not very much offense and less experience in the pastures. There are only three weeks left in the Minor League season. If Jackson spends most of that time on the New York bench, it couldn’t possibly set him back in any permanent way, and might possibly help.
Of course, until the Yankees find a way to get more than three innings out of their fifth starter, that last roster spot is probably moot. The sad thing is that in the postseason, the fifth starter won’t matter one bit–you could practically send the guy home. The irony, then, is that they’ll need that guy, whoever he is, to make a contribution if they’re going to get to the postseason. In a word: woof.
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.
NOW OUR REVELS ARE ENDED, KIRK
With the demotions of Alfredo Aceves, Dan Giese, and Brett Tomko, all but one of the spring’s competitions and mysteries have been resolved. Brett Gardner (3-for-4 today) is your center fielder. Xavier Nady is your right fielder. Jon Albaladejo is in the bullpen. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui are more or less ready to go. Mariano Rivera seems more than ready to go. Southpaw Phil Coke should make the team, and he looks like he’ll be a weapon. Joba Chamberlain started the spring in the rotation and will finish the spring in the rotation. Any time a setup man blows a lead all season long someone will second-guess his being there, even if he’s 16-1 at the time, but he’s in the rotation. All that remains to be determined is the identity of the reserve infielder, a player who may only cling to the roster until Alex Rodriguez returns. Assuming no major injuries and a timely and effective return for Rodriguez (which is assuming a lot, but let’s go with it), that player should only have minimal playing opportunities… Unless, as I hopefully speculated yesterday, Joe Girardi is brave enough to use a late-inning defensive replacement for Derek Jeter.
KEPPINGER (A BRIEF NOTE)
Earlier this spring I touted Jeff Keppinger as a player who would make a useful A-Rod substitute and post-Rod utility player. While not a defensive standout at any position, he’s adequate around the infield and has a far better bat than either Angel Berroa or Ramiro Pena. Today, the Reds dealt him to the Astros for a player to be named later. As the Astros’ farm system is drier than my aunt’s Thanksgiving turkey, the PTBNL isn’t likely to be anything special, which is to say that the Yankees, had they been in on Keppinger, likely could have topped the offer without giving away anyone of real significance. As the Yankees found out last year, the better your bench players, the better the club’s insurance against injuries to star players. I wrote yesterday that Ramiro Pena could be a fine late-inning defensive substitute, but if he has to start for two weeks the Yankees will suffer greatly. You can’t just look at these reserves as guys who are only going to pinch-run and start once a month when someone needs a day off, and you certainly can’t take the health of your players for granted. Jose Molina should have taught the Yankees that. He’s the true example of what happens when a star player gets hurt, not Erick Almonte.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
It was a bad couple of days for ex-Yankees as Gary Sheffield (499 home runs) and Mike Stanton (1,178 games, second all time) hit the release pile. The Tigers are now free to rotate some useful players, like Marcus Thames and Jeff Larish, through the DH spot. In a spot of good news for a former Yankee, it looks like utility infielder Nick Green has made the Red Sox, Julio Lugo being out and Alex Cora being a Met… Amazing that Alfredo Simon, a pitcher with a career 5.04 ERA in the minors (and a 23-40 career record) will be in the Orioles’ rotation… Chan Ho Park is the Phillies’ fifth starter; in other news, the Phillies will not be defending their championship. They also released Geoff Jenkins, who was made redundant last season after Jayson Werth emerged as an everyday player… The Marlins are going to start Emilio Bonifacio at third base; here’s hoping they enjoy their .350 slugging percentage at the hot corner… Dear Royals: Why Sidney Ponson?
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.