Pitch-perfect spring bodes well

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.

…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.

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 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&gt; 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. 


  1. juliasrants

    I think it remains to be seen if the Rays will increase their salary bottom line or not. If they have a good season this year – and don’t win it all – I could see them increasing it. The taste of victory is hard to pass up.


  2. daniloalfaro

    “The differences aren’t significant, especially if Gardner’s power surge was truly an artifact of early spring training.”
    By the same token, of course, Melky’s .345/.419/.491 could be an artifact of spring training, too.

  3. iamanycguy

    Years ago in the early sixties, during an All Star game, the great Gene MAUCH, tried something radical. He decided that he was going to lead off the National League team with his power hitters like MAYS and AARON. He thought that perhaps that would allow them an extra at bat in the game. What resulted was a slaughter of the American League team that began in the first inning. I believe Johnny CALLISON homered in that inning to give them before the AL came to bat. I’m not saying that a radical approach like that would work but isn’t it worth a try in the few remaining games ? The AL was shell shocked and demoralized before they had their first at bats.

  4. midcoaster@gwi.net

    Let’s suppose for a moment that Gardner is the real thing. It still would not be unusual for a player who is the real deal to have a 1 for 30 streach in April just from pressing. I get the feeling that a couple of 0 for 4s and it will be Melky Time in the Bronx.
    As for the Gardner home runs I think one sure way for him to fail is to swing for the fences. He should forget about HRs for now and just try for base hits. If he hits 2 HRs this year and does everything else right he will be an asset. More HRs will come with experience -if he ever gets there.

  5. mattymatty2000@hotmail.com

    Steve, the Rays have enough talent in their minor leagues and under control that, baring a ridiculous spate of injuries, they should be competitive with the Yankees and Boston for the next five to seven years.

  6. yankee7777

    This is the weakest hitting outfield the yankees have maybe ever had.
    I also will watch the track meet that the other teams have with Damon and Gardner.

  7. kornewguy@yahoo.com

    I think the most striking thing about the Melky-Gardner sweepstakes, and the thing that won Gardner the job, was the absence of power from Melky. Gardner should have more triples than Melky. He’s faster. But Melky should have more home runs and doubles because he’s supposed to hit better for power. He didn’t. So all things considered, the numbers are pretty much the same, except where each is supposed to excel over the other. There, Gardner has the clear edge, because Melky failed to show that he can return to his 2007 form.

    As far as the Rays are concerned, they are by no means a one-shot wonder, but let’s be careful to not crown them a dynasty prematurely. Rays ownership this week confirmed that they have hit their payroll ceiling. A bad injury to a key guy, and they’re done. Ownership also indicated that they did not think they had a whole lot of extra money going into next year, so they are likely to lose a large slate of players. I think it will be back to Yanks-Sox beating each other up for the 1-2 spots, with the Rays a few games behind.

  8. letsgoyankees

    yankee7777-Damon and Nady are decent hitters. And if we try to get Swish in there, there’s another decent hitter. And Gardner’s an unknown. He could be a bust, or he could be great. We don’t know. No way we’re the weakest outfield the Yanks have ever had.

  9. yomomma139

    I wonder if Clueless Joe will have the balls to sub the Melk Man for Gardner when a throw might need to be made in a close game. That is the ludicrous part of his decision on his CFer: he would have to take out a slightly better def OFer solely b/c that OFer has a rag arm. Along with Damon’s rag arm and Nady’s average arm, it’s going to be a ‘run wild’ season for opposing teams. With almost anyone taking 2nd easily and going 1st to 3rd no problem, tell me again how they are going to win more than 89 games, please??? Oh well, at least a repeat of last year gets, besides mountains of frustration, Clueless Joe fired.

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