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.