THOUGH HIS LORDSHIP’S STATION’S MIGHTY
THOUGH STUPENDOUS BE HIS BRAIN
These are the slow days. Sure, we’ve got the major awards coming out, but as far as actual movement, not much is happening. Clubs can’t negotiate with outside free agents until Friday, but even then, few players will move before December 1, the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to free agents. Those that receive an offer have a choice — they can take it and return to their team, or decline it and continue on in pursuit of a contract from a new team. If a Type A or Type B free agent is offered arbitration, he’ll cost the signing team a draft pick. Those that aren’t offered arbitration don’t cost anything but money. For obvious reasons, teams don’t want to punt a first-round pick for no reason — well, a few teams have punted them for a very specific reason, which is that if they don’t have a first-rounder, they don’t have to spend first-round money — it pays to wait until the offers have gone out. Signing a player before December 1 invokes the draft-pick penalty; since the players’ team didn’t have a chance to offer him arbitration it’s assumed that they would have. There isn’t much that Brian Cashman can or will do now except to survey the landscape, try to lay the groundwork for future deals, and wait for the market to coalesce.
Perhaps the best (only?) news surrounding the Yankees today is that the list of Minor League free agents is out, and among those able to depart the Yankees is 24-year-old corner infielder Eric Duncan. The New Jersey native was the Yankees’ first-round pick in 2003, the 27th player taken overall. With the benefit of hindsight, we can name a few players who were on the board at that time and actually made the Majors, which is something that Duncan will never do — Daric Barton, Carlos Quentin (No. 27), Matt Murton, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Adam Jones (No. 37), Scott Baker (No. 21 in the second round) and Andre Ethier (No. 25 in the second round). Several other fringier types have also made the climb. Three pitchers the Yankees drafted have made it — Tyler Clippard, T.J. Beam and Jeff Karstens. It was not a good draft.
Duncan had some things going for him when the Yankees took him, including good power and a solid batting eye for a teenager. Sadly, he never grew from there, never added anything else or developed the skills that he did have. There were some back injuries along the way that might have had something to do with, or perhaps Yankees scouts and decision-makers just missed, or there was some combination thereof at work. I once interviewed Duncan and he came across as someone who wasn’t having a great deal of fun. He was only 21 then. He’ll turn 25 in a few weeks, and I doubt he’s much happier now given that he hasn’t done anything of note in years. This season he batted .204/.242/.285 and was benched in the second half as the Yankees gave up on him.
Even had Duncan improved a great deal at the plate over the course of the last six years, he was probably doomed anyway. He was selected as a third baseman, but he never could field the position with any consistency, and the Yankees pushed him over to first base beginning in 2006. First base may be one of the most defensively forgiving positions, but it’s also the most offensively demanding, and any kid that moves over there had better learn to hit with real authority if he wants to have any kind of career. Production of, say, .250/.330/.430 may cut it at third base when combined with decent defense — heck, the Phillies just went to consecutive World Series with Pedro Feliz hitting less than that — but a team will only accept that kind of production at first base if they have absolutely no choice or they’re the Kansas City Royals, and the Yankees will never be mistaken for the Royals.
It would be nice to say that Duncan might prosper with a move to another organization, but it seems like it’s too late for that. For their part, the Yankees get to make a clean break with a mistake and an era in which they could do no right in the amateur draft (if they need help staying humble, they can always think about the gamble they took on Andrew Brackman). Alternative Triple-A third baseman Cody Ransom is also a free agent, as is Double-A third baseman Marcos Vechionacci, another non-prospect who once looked like he could develop something. It should be a clean sweep at the hot corner for the farm system, but don’t get too excited, as the Yankees didn’t really have anyone pushing them — though perhaps Brandon Laird’s good showing in the Arizona Fall League (.337/.406/.640 with six home runs in 86 at-bats) bodes well for his making the move up to Double-A Trenton in the spring, though I fear what the cold winds of Trenton will do to the home runs Laird must hit to advance himself.
The presumed end of Duncan in the Yankees organization (they could opt to re-sign him, though there is no real reason why they would) is another reminder that they’ve had much more success developing pitchers than position players in recent years. That’s not a criticism — there were literally decades where they couldn’t draft and develop anything — but a reminder that there is still more work to be done if the Yankees do not want to continue to be at the mercy of the free agent market when it comes to filling out the team’s needs.
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.