Peña optioned to become super-sub

Eric Hinske finally escaped Pittsburgh yesterday and made it to the Bronx in time for the Yanks’ evening affair against the Mariners. When Hinkse donned number 14 and was activated, the Yankees optioned Ramiro Peña to Scranton for his AAA debut. This is, though, a demotion with a purpose.

Peña, a little guy at 5’11” and 165 lbs., is not your typical middle infielder and doesn’t yet profile to be one. He’s a scrawny glove man with no power and little on-base ability. In 2008, playing his age 22 season, he experienced a second stint at AA. During an injury-free season after making it through just 52 games in 2007, he OPS’d .687, a good .050 points higher than his Minor League average. A hitter he is not.

Peña’s value lies on the other side of the ball. Not really a highly-regarded Yankee prospect, he is a glove man who can play second, third and short at a high level. During his three-month stint on the Yankee bench, he displayed his aptitude in the field, and the Yankees walked away impressed.

He may have hit .267/.308/.349 with 17 strike outs in 92 plate appearances, but the Yankees don’t mind. They want him for his glove. To that end, they have sent him down to AAA to become a super-utility player. “They told me I have a chance to be here for a long time,” Peña said to MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo on Wednesday.

What then do the Yankees expect from Peña, who will play some center for Scranton? In an ideal world, the Yankees are looking for their own version of a Felipe Lopez. They want a guy who can come off the bench, handle the bat, run a bit and, more importantly, play anywhere on the field.

It sounds like a great idea, but can it work? Lopez made his Major League debut at 21 and has played for five different teams. He owns a career OPS+ of 90. For what he is, he’s not terrible. Yet, he’s not a comp for Peña. In similar Minor League experience, Lopez turned in an OPS of .771. He’s a vastly superior offensive player than Peña is and a seemingly better base runner also.

I don’t mean to knock Peña. He certainly filled in admirably after both A-Rod and Cody Ransom went down. He can bunt; he can run; he can field. As Joe Girardi said, with more than a little hyperbole behind it, “He did more than what we expected. He was great.”

Yet, without the final component — that ability to hit just a little bit more, to get on base a little more frequently — the Yankees might be chasing something that doesn’t exist. Ramiro Peña is a glove man backup infielder. Maybe they should just keep him that way.

On the composition of the bench

With Xavier Nady out for the rest of the season, the Yankees’ roster picture has become clearer. Whereas before they were awaiting the return of a player who would add depth, now they know that player is not coming. The Yankees have a number of options moving forward, both for the immediate future and in preparation for the July 31st trade deadline.

Starting in the present, PeteAbe reports that Jose Molina will return in about a week. The Yankees could do one of three things:

  1. Carry three catchers and option Ramiro Pena to Scranton
  2. Option Cervelli to Scranton
  3. DFA Jose Molina

Let’s rule out the third option, since it’s not at all likely. If they release Molina and Posada gets hurt, they’d be stuck with Cervelli and Cash instead of Cervelli and Molina. The latter is preferable. Cervelli isn’t that much better than Molina, anyway — if he’s better at all, which at this point I’m not about to declare.

Carrying three catchers would mean Jorge Posada is the de facto DH. Pete says that Jorge isn’t “going to be the DH because the Yankees aren’t releasing or trading Hideki Matsui.” Yet this scenario would allow them to start one of Cervelli and Molina, use Matsui as a pinch hitter, and then substitute the other, with Posada still available as an emergency. It’s certainly not the most efficient use of roster space. This option is also unlikely, unless the Yankees are more concerned about Jorge’s health than they let on.

This leaves optioning Cervelli to Scranton. By all appearances, this is what will happen. He’ll get regular reps at AAA in preparation of taking over for Molina in 2010. Meanwhile, he serves as an insurance policy in case either Molina or Posada go down again. Yes, it’s nice to have him around, and I can see why everyone is high on him, but let’s not let his personality overshadow his ability. Right now, there’s no harm in having him in AAA.

Pete also brings up another notion: option both Cervelli and Pena, and opt to bring up a better bat off the bench. Once Molina returns, the bench will be him, Cody Ransom, Gardner/Cabrera, and Ramiro Pena. There’s not exactly a bopper in there. True, Pena can serve as a late-inning pinch-runner, especially if Gardner starts. Pete suggests recalling Shelley Duncan or John Rodriguez. I’m not so sure.

Over whom in the starting lineup would Shelley Duncan be an upgrade? In other words, for whom would he pinch-hit? Maybe Gardner or Carbera, but even that’s debatable. The league seemingly figured out Shelley after 32 plate appearances — he started his career .321/.406/.857 in 32 PA and finished the season with a .217/.280/.370 run in 51 PA, plus his .175/.262/.281 in 65 PA last year. In theory it would be nice to have Shelley Duncan on the bench — if Shelley Duncan would actually represent an upgrade. Maybe he can provide a short-term burst of production, but he’s not someone who should be on the roster August 31.

As it stands, the Yankees might just be better off keeping both Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena on the bench. Pena can play multiple positions and has some wheels. Ransom also plays many positions. They have four outfielders, and Matsui in an emergency situation. Since they don’t have someone on the farm who can provide an upgrade in a pinch-hitting situation, it’s tough to call on such a move. Again, since the team has some flexibility with Pena they could give it a shot, but they shouldn’t expect much from either Shelley or J-Rod.

This leads to the longer-term lookout, i.e., the rest of the season. Could the Yanks pull a trade for an outfield bat? Someone who could, perhaps, provide a platoon partner for Matsui against tough lefties and buy some days or half-days off for the other outfielders? Perhaps. Steve Lombardi wants a more consistent alternative to Nick Swisher. Says he:

Don’t get me wrong. I know that Swisher works counts and gets walks. And, when he’s hot, Swisher can hit the ball out of the park. But, when he’s cold, he’s beyond ice cold. And, at times, Swisher takes some curious routes on fly balls. Basically, when he’s bad, the Swish Hawk is “T-Long Like.”

While I’m an unabashed Swisher fan, I’m not going to stick my fingers in my ears and ignore his shortcomings. He does have some pretty bad cold streaks, and it would be nice to have someone to give him some time off during them. What’s that worth, though? Can the Yankees get the import (because the answer is not in the system currently) at a reasonable enough price? Can they get him enough playing time to justify the price? Those questions will be clearer as the Xs mount in July and we get closer to the 31st.

For right now, the Yanks can afford to stand pat. There is no pressing need to make a roster move. If the Yankees want to give it a whirl with Shelley or J-Rod, they can do so with minimal risk. If they want to keep things how they are and have two multi-position players, one who can run, on the bench, they can do that. It just goes to show that when you have a solid starting nine, a bench becomes far less important.

A wild and not-so-wild night for Mariano

I think it’s time for a Mariano Rivera Appreciation Thread.

In a way, it’s been a rough month for Mo. In Boston, he didn’t pitch because Joe Girardi opted for lesser relievers late in a close game. In New York a few days earlier, he gave up the game while battling what sounded like a very bad stomach flu. Then against the Mets, he almost drew a loss but walked away with a win when Luis Castillo forgot how to use two hands. After that, he threw an inning against the Nationals on the 16th and well, sat for eight days.

So last night, the Yankees called upon Mariano in the 8th. Tony Peña, taking a page from my playback but no the accepted MLB Managerial Handbook of Relief Pitching, called upon Rivera with the Yanks up by just two runs in the 8th. Rivera recorded the third out of the inning via the K, and then a funny thing happened on the way to the 9th: Rivera actually had to come to the plate.

With two outs and the bases loaded, Mariano Rivera was due for just his second plate appearance of his career. His last time up was June 20, 2006 against the Phillies. It had been a while, to say the least.

Rivera was, of course, unprepared. According to Bryan Hoch, he had to use Cody Ransom’s bat and Alfredo Aceves‘ helmet. Melky offered Mo the use of his batting gloves, and his coaches told him not to swing.

Rivera ignored those instructions. He swung at a fastball and lined it to Nate McClouth in center. It could have been a two-run single. After the game, Rivera was apologetic. “I’ve got to take a swing,” Rivera said. “I apologized to my pitching coach and manager, but I had to do it.”

The players were laughing about it, and Joe Girardi was fairly amused. “It’s not what you really want to see, but he had quite a swing,” Girardi said. “When he hit it, I thought we were going to get a few more runs on the board.” If only.

Meanwhile, Rivera went back out for the 9th and promptly ended the game. He threw 15 pitches in the 9th, and just four of them were out of the strike zone. No one managed to put the ball in play against the Braves, and Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth and Yunel Escobar all struck out. For Rivera, it was just another night in the park: 1.1 IP, 0 H, 4 K, 15 of 19 pitches for strikes. Game over. Order restored. Yanks win. And that is Mariano for you. What we will do without him in a few years, I do not know.

If the Yanks could shed one contract, who would it be?

When I first read Joel Sherman’s column from yesterday, I kind of laughed. The idea is pretty simple: Allow each team a one-time chance to release one player from a contract. This is akin to what the NBA did in 2005, dubbed the Allan Houston Rule. The team is free from the contract for luxury tax purposes, but still has to pay the remainder to the player. This would theoretically clear up some dollars so teams could wheel and deal a bit more this year at the trade deadline. As it stands, most teams seem unable to add payroll.

At least Sherman admits his flaw early on, in that the Yankees are the only team above the luxury tax threshold. His proposition is to have MLB “use all of those dollars from the Internet, merchandising and the new network to absorb one contract from every team.” Again, this is a fantasy-land proposal. There is no way that MLB would hand Colorado the remainder of Todd Helton’s contract, and they certainly wouldn’t fork over the money left on deals like Barry Zito, Vernon Wells, Oliver Perez, and Alex Rodriguez. So in terms of realism, you can file this under: Not Gonna Happen (unless someone has compromising pictures of Selig).

Since it’s an off-day, though, I figured we could have some fun. Let’s suspend reality for a moment and pretend that MLB institutes this policy. Each team can release one player, and MLB will absorb the cost (maybe just for one year, maybe the whole term of the contract — it matters little). The exception, of course, is the Yankees. Since they’re the only team above the luxury tax threshold, they’re still responsible for paying the money owed to the player they release. They’d still save the luxury tax, but they’d still have to pay the player — and pay him to play for another team, in all likelihood.

The easy answer, it would seem, is Alex Rodriguez. Even A-Rod‘s biggest supporters admit that his contract is atrocious. It runs through his age-42 season, and pays him an exorbitant sum for a yet unknown level of production. To release him would ease the Yanks’ payment into the luxury tax pool, which would then enable them to find other players to replace him.

Two problems immediately come to mind: 1) This would significantly hurt the 2009 team, and 2) They’d have to pay A-Rod over $200 million to play for another team. That team could likely get A-Rod on decent terms, since the Yankees still owe him all that money. So he plays cheap for an opponent. That’s not very attractive. Nor is the prospect of paying him tens of millions of dollars in his decline years.

What would you do, given this scenario? Release A-Rod, immediate consequences be damned, in order to save $20 or so million in luxury tax payments? Release Matsui in order to knock down this year’s payment by a little? Or stand pat? After all, it’s only a few million (because the savings only come on the luxury tax), and players are valuable.

Discuss away. I’d personally stand pat. If you’re going to pay A-Rod anyway, you might as well get what you can out of him.

Cashman: All quiet on the Yankee front

Coming off a series loss to the Nationals, many Yankee fans are eager to see some changes. Let’s get a shake-up! That’ll teach those professional baseball players never to lose again.

In reality, though, the Yankees and the rest of baseball are six long weeks away from the trade deadline. While the market is starting to develop, it is a thin one. The best bats out there probably belong to Adam Dunn for a steep price and Nick Johnson for too much more than he is really worth. The other pieces available for teams are relief pitchers.

For the Yankees, it’s the latter that will attract attention. Outside of some questionable characters manning center field, the Yankees’ 2009 lineup is as set as any team’s. They have top performers at most positions and the potential for a very potent offense. Meanwhile, they spent a lot of money to upgrade the rotation this year and have a few good young arms in reserve.

The bullpen, though, has been a concern. While the Yanks’ relief corps has seemingly solidified in June with Al Aceves, Phil Hughes, Phil Coke and Brian Bruney serving as the Bridge to Mariano, the Yankees aren’t quite satisfied with that mix. Hughes is a starting pitcher long-term and will be back in the rotation to spell either Joba, Chien-Ming Wang or perhaps even Andy Pettitte before too many months elapse. Bruney is a health risk, and the other two can’t do it by themselves.

To that end, the Yankees have already been linked to Huston Street and Jose Valverde as well as Chad Qualls, Russ Springer and even Heath Bell. Jon Heyman yesterday reported on Twitter that the Yanks prefer Street and then Valverde. However, neither the Rockies nor the Astros are ready to start selling.

There is, though, another piece to this Trade Deadline. The economy, not too robust these days, may place a limit on the Yanks’ spending. The team tried to hold payroll steady this year and succeeded. Now, news comes down from Yanks’ GM Brian Cashman that the team is not looking to make a July splash.

Speaking with the Spanish language media on Wednesday, Cashman said that he is hoping the team’s internal pieces will be enough to fill the holes. One day, Damaso Marte may return, and if Wang rounds into form, the Yanks could keep Hughes in the pen for longer than they perhaps expected to. “If we get everyone healthy and performing the way they are capable of here, there will be very little to do. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try,” Cashman said.

That’s a very vague statement from Cashman. He’ll kick the tires, as he should, on those players available closer to the deadline; he may not be able to add much in the way of payroll; and he is optimistic that the injured players can come back and contribute. While I would like to see the Yanks firm up the back end of that bullpen, Cashman’s assessment sounds about right to me.

Rounding second and heading for home

We talk often about quantifying what happens on the field. In order to better understand a player’s value, advanced baseball metrics have moved from the closed doors of teams’ Front Offices to the forefront of the Internet. While, as Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game showed, statistical evaluation in baseball is nearly as old as the game itself, only recently has it moved into the realm of everyday fandom.

Yet, for all the talk of numbers, sometimes things happen that aren’t explained by statistical contributions. Sometimes, the game unfolds in new and unexpected ways. That’s what happened last night.

Luis Castillo’s dropping the pop up last night was unexpected. It doesn’t really happen. In fact, the Yanks hadn’t walked off on an error in six seasons. Yet, the even more unexpected part was Mark Teixeira. On a lazy pop up that should have ended the game, Mark Teixeira scored all the way from first base.

After the game, his teammates praised him. “What stands out is Mark Teixeira’s hustle. That wins the game for us. That’s why he’s my MVP right now. He’s doing everything,” Alex Rodriguez said. A-Rod, of course, had it easy. All he had to do was stand on first base to avoid getting tagged out before Teixeira scored. He did.

Meanwhile, we laugh at overused baseball cliches of grit and hustle. A player can have as much grit and hustle as anyway, but a .320 on-base percentage is still a .320 on-base percentage. What Teixeira did last night though transcends that element of the game. Many players — from scrubs to superstars — would just trot around the bases waiting for the inevitable to happen. Teixeira ran all-out from first to home on a ball that barely made it into right field.

That’s a move that separates the cream of the crop from everyone else. Teixeira gets a run scored. The Yanks get a badly-need win. And I’ll just sit back and admire how Teixeira offers up a complete package, the likes of which the Yanks haven’t seen at first base in a long time. That is $180 million well invested, and you can bet that John Henry, idiotic comments aside, was thinking it just as I was as Teixeira slid home with the Yanks’ 9th run of the night.

Girardi, Manuel handle their players differently

For the past three and a half years, I’ve been writing my own brand of game recaps. Little has changed between then and now. The formula seems to work: find the three most important points of the game and elaborate on them. There’s some chronological narration in there, but that’s only when the chronology is important.

This year, though, one thing changed. I started watching the postgame coverage to hear what Girardi has to say about what transpired. This is mostly to get the rationale for various maneuvers: why X came in to pitch when he did, why did he take Y out of the game, why didn’t Z pitch? It’s been valuable. Even when I don’t agree with his rationale, at least I know where he’s coming from.

I’m not sure how Girardi acted last year — the media seemed a bit harsh on him, and I don’t know if that has to do with how he spoke about the players or just his general demeanor. This year, though, he seems like an affable character. He answers questions as they are asked, and he speaks very well. I’ve actually enjoyed hearing him speak about the game, even after a loss.

What I’ve noticed is that he deflects the blame away from the players. When asked on Tuesday about A.J. Burnett‘s performance, Girardi said “I’ll take the blame” for pitching him on a week’s rest. When reporters reached Burnett, they ended up talking about Joe taking the blame, rather than laying an inquisition on him. It might seem like a small deal, but as A.J. intimated, he appreciated it.

Even more recently, Girardi noted the team’s second-inning failures as a reason the Yanks dropped the Wednesday night affair. There was but one gaffe in the second, and it was Nick Swisher‘s baserunning error. True, Girardi volunteered the quote, but even in doing so he didn’t put the blame right on the player, even when the player clearly deserved it.

As Ken Rosenthal notes, “Joe Torre’s greatest strength as Yankees manager was his ability to deflect attention away from players.” It seems Girardi has learned from that. It’s his team, and he’s out to protect his team from the frothy-mouthed press. Again, I’m sure the players appreciate this at least a little. No one wants to be thrown under the bus by his own manager.

This is in contrast to Girardi’s cross-town counterpart, Jerry Manuel, who seems all too eager to open up about his players, for good and especially for bad. Rosenthal notes some of Manuel’s more pronounced criticisms of his team, including his desire to strangle Ryan Church. You’ll also remember that Manuel grew particularly frustrated with Jose Reyes last year, saying “next time he [throws a tantrum] I’m going to get my blade out and cut him.” That came after the first at bat during Manuel’s first game as Mets’ manager.

The best example of their differences can be illustrated with Manuel’s criticism of Mike Pelfrey last week. The starter, pitching on five days’ rest instead of the normal four, got smoked by the Pirates. Afterward, Manuel said, “I was a little discouraged at Mike being where he was today after getting a day off, and kind of knowing what we needed and just not having it. That was kind of disheartening, because we really needed this game today.” Contrast that with how Girardi handled the press when Burnett threw with an extra couple days’ rest.

(And I’m sorry, even if you like Manuel’s in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is style, it’s ridiculous to call an extra day’s rest a “day off.” We hear over and over again that pitchers are creatures of habit. It’s not that extra rest excuses a poor performance, but it certainly can’t be viewed as a day where the guy dips his toes in the pool, sips fruity rum drinks, and then goes to sleep on top of a pile of money surrounded by many beautiful women.)

I’ll agree with Rosenthal when he says:

I certainly appreciate Manuel saying, “We can’t keep sugar-coating things because that’s not real.” But while I like Manuel a great deal, I’m not sure I would like playing for him.

It’s always refreshing to hear someone tell it like it is. However, that’s shouldn’t be the first priority of a manager. The chief concern is to keep everyone playing at their peaks. It means creating an atmosphere where the players want to go out and fight for you every day. Is that what Manuel accomplishes by constantly pointing out his players’ shortcomings and mistakes?

Having never worked in MLB, and having never been inside a clubhouse, I’m not going to make that call. However, as we saw in the Torre years, the manager’s ability to manage the perception of his players is no secondary task. Is Manuel doing his players a service by outing them to the press? I’m not sure, but I’ll definitely agree with Rosenthal’s conclusion:

The question, in the end, is accountability. Manuel is right to hold his players accountable, but he need not do it so publicly. Accountability also works both ways. It can’t always be someone else’s fault.

Personally, I prefer a manager who handles the press and his players like Girardi, rather than like Manuel and Ozzie Guillen. Clearly, others have different ideas. So, as always, fire away.