Yanks can do better than Miguel Cairo

I’ve never tried to hide my dislike of Miguel Cairo. Part of it is because he’s not a very good baseball player. Part of it is because I picked him up on the recommendation of a friend in fantasy baseball way back in 1998, and he burned me with a .268/.307/.367 season. But mostly, it’s because he’s not a very good baseball player. I was quite relieved when in the winter of 2005, Brian Cashman declined Cairo’s (or, more accurately, his agent’s) demand for a one-year, $2 million contract — though I was obviously dismayed at the ensuing moving (need I even mention it here?).

Yankees fans fell in love with him in 2004, by far his best major league season, when he hit .292/.346/.417. Predictably, his OPS dropped in his 2005 stint with the Mets, tumbling from .763 to .620. Yes, 2004 was nice for Cairo, but it will never be reflective of his true ability. Rather, his 2003, 2005 and 2006 seasons demonstrate what he will provide a team. In those seasons he OBP’d .289, .296 and .280, respectively. Even in a utility position, that is simply atrocious.

Baseball traditionalist like John Sterling try to have you believe that Cairo provides value. “It seems like he’s on base in every game he plays,” says Sterling (roughly paraphrased, though that may indeed be the exact quote). This simply is not true. A utility infielder has two jobs: to play good defense and to not kill the team at the plate. Even a .320 to .330 OBP would be acceptable for a utility infielder. Yet, Cairo hasn’t even broken .300 in the past two years. As for his defense, it’s average at best. The Yankees can and should get better than a limp bat and average defense from a utility infielder.

Problem is, quality utility infielders aren’t exactly common, and when they are effective, it’s not usually on a consistent basis. However, when you know a player won’t be effective — and we know that of Cairo — why even bother? What, you can’t find another infielder who will OBP .280?

I’ll admit, there’s an inherent problem with the Yankees finding a quality utility infielder: lack of playing time. A-Rod, Jeter and Cano aren’t the type that take days off, so barring DL-inducing injuries a utility infielder would be looking at starting maybe 15 games, and getting an additional 20 or so late-inning at bats in blowouts. Why, then, would a player sign on when there’s a good chance they’ll only get between 80 and 100 at bats?

Perhaps that’s the reason why Ronnie Belliard signed a deal to play backup for the Nationals. Personally, I can’t stand the guy and the way his tongue hangs out at the plate — it makes him look like a cartoon dog. But he’ll supply you with the desired .320 to .330 OBP, though I can’t speak for his defense. He’s played exactly one major league game at shortstop, but that can be remedied. When Jeter rests, Alex moves to short (there’s no reason to rule that option out), and Belliard plays third.

The question, though, is whether the Yankees approached him and he turned them down because of the playing time issue, or if they even thought to approach him at all. It’s quite a shame when Miguel Cairo is signed as a utility infielder before Ronnie Belliard, so I’m really hoping it’s the former.

This shouldn’t be an issue next season. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez (a nickname I’m hoping sticks even after the government official leaves his post) should be in the utility role by then. I’m sure we’ll be writing about his performance and progress over the course of the year.

Giambi doesn’t want to play half a game

I heard this in a soundbyte by Jason Giambi on ESPN Radio this morning, so unfortunately I don’t have a link to provide. The long and short of it: Giambi is going to prepare this spring as if he’s a first baseman. Says him, it would make it easier to step into the role if forced to during the season. We all know Giambi, though; he’s not exactly going to be content riding the bench for all but his three to five at bats.

This leads me to a misconception among some Yankees fans (though I’m not sure how common): that Giambi is being pulled from first base because he’s a terrible defender. While that’s true, it’s certainly not the entire reason why Brian Cashman plans to use him as a DH this season.

Rather, Cashman’s plan revolves around Giambi’s health. He’s 36 years old, and his body is a bit older because of his steroid abuses. Playing out in the field — diving for the occasional ball out of his range (if you can call it range) and stretching for throws — is only going to expedite the breakdown of his body. There’s significant risk that if he’s out there four or five times a week, we’ll see a late season drop-off similar to 2006. With a hitter of Giambi’s caliber, there’s no reason to take that risk.

There are but two factors that stand in the way of this being a perfect move. First is the issue of Giambi’s splits. It is common knowledge that he has hit significantly better over his career while playing the field (.871 career OPS as a DH, 1.011 as a first baseman). There’s really no explanation for it beyond his comfort factor, and that may not even go a long way in this case. However, if he’s spending a full year at DH, it stands to reason that he’ll find his groove in that role and produce like he did as a first baseman.

The other factor is the platoon at first base. Doug Mientkiewicz was brought in to hit against right handers, and Andy Phillips and Josh Phelps are left to duel over the other side. Problems exist with both halves of the platoon. Minky has relatively even splits (.759 career OPS against righties, .780 against lefties), and actually hits for a tad more power against lefties (.400 career SLG vs. .420). If you plan to use him as your starting first baseman — which isn’t exactly a wise move in my opinion — there’s no reason to set him up with a platoon.

If Josh Phelps mans the other side, there won’t be much of a problem (.857 career OPS against lefties). Problem is, no one knows if he’ll impress enough to make the team, and if he does, his health comes with no guarantees. Beyond my opinion that Andy Phillips has no business on the Yankees roster, he has terrible numbers against lefties (a career .489 OPS against lefties, compared to .746 against righties). To place him in a platoon would be beyond foolish; it would actually make the team worse.

So what if Phelps doesn’t stay healthy or doesn’t play well enough to make the team? I suppose Andy Phillips could serve as the backup first baseman, but there are certainly better options. Why not let Giambi serve as the backup and play once a week in the field? That will keep him a bit happier, since he’ll get some playing time out there. And it will allow the Yankees the flexibility of an extra roster spot which they can use on someone who impresses in camp (Kevin Thompson and Bronson Sardinha are the guys I’d like to see). Of course, this path would give cause to sentimental fans to scream: “Give the spot to Bernie!” You could do worse, I suppose, but the team should be concentrating more on finding filler cogs in its minor league system.

This, of course, is all contingent on how things play out this spring. The point is, though, that the Yankees would be wise to let Giambi take some fielding practice in Spring Training. Lord knows, we don’t want to see Andy Phillips’ name on the Opening Day roster in any kind of platoon scenario.

Image courtsey John Iacono/SI

The Alex and Derek show marches on unnecessarily

It’s funny how some things work out. As I was searching for a suitable picture of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, I found that the first Google hit for jeter arod is a story from 2004 about the how the friendship between the two stars remained in place but had cooled in the then three years since this infamous Esquire article.

Funny, I could swear that is nearly the exact same story as the one developing this week about A-Rod’s comments and Jeter’s response. Are the reporters in Tampa really that hard up for news?

Let’s be honest: It is unreasonable to expect that 25 guys on a baseball team will be best friends. I know this from experience. For ten years, I played on numerous teams. I played on after-school teams, summer teams and high school baseball teams. There were plenty of guys with whom I was friends and with whom I’m still friends nearly six years after my last game, but there were also plenty of guys about which I could care less. That’s all part of being thrown together into a situation with people who start out as complete strangers.

But when we stepped into the dugout, it didn’t matter who we ate lunch with in the cafeteria, how well we did or didn’t do in classes and what our weekend plans were. It didn’t matter if we were best friends, passing acquaintances or bitter enemies. We played baseball as a team. We were on the field to win, and we worked hard together to achieve that goal. We put aside our differences, sucked up our past problems and played to win.

That’s exactly what Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter have to do now.

It’s clear that these two stars aren’t exactly best buddies. While the staid Chad Curtis once called out Jeter because of his friendship with Rodriguez, those days are long gone. That fateful Esquire interview in April of 2001 drove that nail deep into the coffin.

But that was six years ago, three of which the two superstars have spent on the same team. It’s time for these men to put aside their differences and support each other on the field.

I’m going to lay the blame for this soap opera squarely on the shoulders of the usually untouchable Yankee Captain. Last season, Jeter, who has publicly supported the oft-beleaguered Jason Giambi over the years, refused to come to Alex Rodriguez’s support. It’s not his business, Derek said, who the fans cheer on and who they boo.

Well, as captain of the Yankees, it’s certainly his business to lead the team and stand up for his teammates. If that means sticking his neck out for the psychologically fragile Alex Rodriguez, so be it. If his words would help the team, then Derek must deliver.

(Image of Derek and Alex getting along from Scout.com)

Don’t call the rotation set

FoxSports’s Dayn Perry did me a favor. Mere hours after my Pavano commentary, he went ahead and posted his ”Top 10 Spring Training position battles”. Contained therein is issue of the Yankees fourth and fifth starter spots, and of course Pavano is included. This gives me segue to ponder what happens if Pavano – or Igawa for that matter – doesn’t pass muster this spring.

Many Yankees fans would immediately bring up Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner, who both performed well during brief stints with the team last year. However, the problem with judging them on their 2006 performance is the small sample size: Karstens pitched 42.2 MLB innings, Rasner just 20.1.

Beyond their brief performance, which shouldn’t be used for anything beyond determining their output, both have spotty minor league track records. Rasner in particular is troubling. I expressed enthusiasm when the Yankees picked him up off waivers from the Nationals prior to the 2006 season, mainly because of his low walk rate. Rasner made significant progress on that front during his minor league career. In his final NCAA season with Nevada, he walked 4.24 batters per nine over 104 innings, far from a number that will find success in pro ball. However, he showed greater command immediately, walking 3.08 per nine over 104 innings in A ball. The next year, in A+ ball, he walked 2.34 per nine over 119 innings. In AA the following year, Rasner walked a mere 1.94 batters per nine over a career-high 150 innings. Jim Bowden released him after the season, though.

Now, I’m not the biggest Bowden fan. In fact, I feel that he’s the worst GM in the game, and a look at the Nationals rotation and farm system does that opinion justice. But to release a player who continues to improve his control year by year is just absurd without further reason. Even Jim Bowden isn’t that dumb. So what was it that spurred his release?

While his control has increased with each promotion, his ability to strike out hitters has faltered. This, of course, is not a good sign, especially when there is a definite correlation between a greater level of competition and a lower strikeout rate. In his final college season, Rasner struck out 9.43 batters per nine, a very pretty mark that surely helped offset his shaky control. In his first full season of pro ball, that rate declined to 7.69. Okay, fine; that’s an acceptable drop-off for a first-year professional player. Upon his promotion to A+, though, it declined to 6.64 per nine. In AA, it dipped to 5.75 per nine. This rate of attrition does not bode well for a professional player, and it was seemingly cause enough for the Nationals to release him.

Unfortunately, Rasner didn’t get enough work in 2006 to judge progress. His largest sample, at AAA, was only 58.2 innings, hardly anything by which to judge him. His strikeout rate did rise to 7.74 and his walk rate continued its healthy decline to 1.69, but that could have been cause by a number of factors relating to a small sample size, most notably luck. In his short MLB stint, Rasner posted a more than acceptable walk rate of 2.21, though his strikeouts were under 5.00, which brings back his earlier trends upon promotion.

In his favor, he has always kept balls in the park. He’s not a groundball pitcher (has broken relatively even over his minor league career and during his brief major league tours), yet has consistently kept his tater rate at around 0.60 per nine. One would expect an increase by playing in the AL East, but at least he’s got a good starting point.

Karstens faced a similar trend upon promotion to the upper level minors and eventually to the majors. His transition from A ball to AA was rather smooth, going from 7.53 K/9, 2.01 BB/9 and 0.71 HR/9 to 7.83 K/9, 2.24 BB/9 and 0.85 HR/9. He was having an excellent start to his second year in AA (8.15, 1.70, 0.49), but had a bit of trouble adjusting to AAA (5.86, 3.67, 1.10, though both are samples of just 74 innings). Despite the trough transition, he was called up as an emergency starter in August, and by results didn’t fare badly – a 3.80 ERA in 42 innings. He didn’t walk a ton (2.32 per nine), but his strikeout rate was Wangian (3.37), and he remained, as he was in AAA, susceptible to the tater (1.27).

A common sentiment among Yankees fans is that Rasner should be the frontrunner for the next open spot in the rotation. The reasoning is that he’s older and therefore closer to a finished product, and because the Yankees have expressed concerns about Karstens’ endurance (related to his twig-like six-foot-three, 170 pounds – though Yankees.com has him listed now at 175). However, this just isn’t the case.

Rasner may find his place in a team’s bullpen eventually, but to consider him a candidate to start in the Bronx just isn’t reasonable. He’s demonstrated a consistent drop in strikeout rate upon each promotion, which doesn’t normally translate into major league success. Yes, his walk rate has dipped, too, which helps matters. However, in order for that to work, Rasner would have to induce the groundball, which he doesn’t on a consistent enough basis. Given a larger MLB sample size, I would predict a significant increase in home runs, especially in the AL East.

Karstens, on the other hand, hasn’t demonstrated that kind of consistent dip from level to level. Yes, he fared worse upon promotion to AAA and then MLB, but both of those promotions came during the same season. His hot start at AA in 2006 may be indicative of Karstens’ ability to settle in once he’s at a certain level for a while (or it may be a small sample size). NOTE: See comments for correction.

The endurance factor shouldn’t really be an issue for Karstens. He pitched 130 innings between college and Staten Island in 2003, 138.2 innings in 2004, 169 innings in 2005, and 190.1 last year. This steady growth is healthy for a young pitcher, and should afford him the endurance to hit the 200-inning mark this year between AAA and the majors, especially if his off-season workout regimen produces the desired results.

The problem with Karstens may be his lack of an apparent out pitch. This, of course, cannot be measured by the numbers, but it does put his rough upper level transition in perspective. You can get by in the lower minors with decent stuff and good control, despite the absence of an out pitch. This factor is usually exploited in AA, though Karstens didn’t’ seem to face it there. At AAA and the majors, though, it became more noticeable.

We can only hope, though, that the Yankees have the flexibility to start Karstens in Scranton. Better to start him off easy and use him when the inevitable emergency start is needed rather than rush him to the majors where, if his peripheral trends from 2006 continue and he hasn’t developed an out pitch, he would get lit up. Regardless, he’s a better option than Rasner, who the Yankees at this point are better off priming for a career in the bullpen.