Rounding up the 2011 position battles

h8 bunts. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Given the general construction of the roster from year to year, the Yankees have very few position battles in Spring Training. Last season it was the fifth starter’s job (gift wrapped for Phil Hughes) plus some miscellaneous bench and bullpen jobs, and the year before that Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera had to duke it out for the centerfield job. That’s pretty much it, it’s not often the Yankees have a position up for grabs and need to fill it in camp, at least not a significant position anyway.

This year is no different. Everyone knows about the fifth starter’s job and the last spot on the bench, but there’s also a spot in the bullpen to be decided and the backup shortstop is still an unknown. Let’s recap the positions still up for grabs in camp this spring…

Position: Utility Infielder
Candidates: Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez

The Yankees need to carry someone on the bench capable of playing shortstop, and these two are the only guys on the 40-man roster capable of doing so (meh, I guess Derek Jeter qualifies). Pena is the incumbent while Nunez is the (apparent) hot shot prospect, and both bring different things to the table. Pena is all defense while Nunez can hit for an empty average and play a little defense. The Yankees apparently believe that Nunez is a future everyday shortstop, and if that’s the case, sitting on the bench five or six days a week won’t help his development. My guess is that Pena gets the job for a third straight season.

Position: Backup Catcher
Candidates: Frankie Cervelli, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine

Russell Martin has already been declared the catcher, and Brian Cashman has maintained that there will be an open competition for the backup job. That sounds great, but the choice here is pretty obvious. Cervelli backs up Martin while Montero and Romine play every single day in the minors. Hey, it’s great to say there’s a competition to motivate everyone, but the Yankees won’t have to spend much time mulling this one over.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Position: Last Man On The Bench
Candidates: Pena, Nunez, Ronnie Belliard, Eric Chavez, Justin Maxwell, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, Kevin Russo

I already explored this a few days ago so I’ll keep it short. Maxwell and Nunez should play everyday for Triple-A Scranton rather than rot on the big league bench, while Golson, Russo, and Curtis really don’t offer much to the team. Belliard and Chavez at least bring veteran presents (the kids will love ’em) and in Belliard’s case, familiarity with the role. Chavez is a lefty bat, something the bench lacks, which helps his cause. I don’t believe he’ll be able to stay healthy for any length of time though, so I suspect Mini-Manny will get the job almost by default.

Position: Fifth Starter
Candidates: Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Sergio Mitre, misc. prospects

I’m assuming that Ivan Nova will get the fourth spot, a fairly safe bet. Mitre has started a dozen games for New York over the last two years (three in 2010), and his shiny 3.33 ERA last year masked a miniscule strikeout rate (4.83 K/9) and homer tendencies (1.17 HR/9). The Experience can get grounders like a mofo (50.9% last year, 58.7% career), pretty much is only redeeming quality. Colon reportedly threw well in winter ball (where he was managed by bench coach Tony Pena), but it’s been a full year since he was on the big league mound and about four years since he was effective. Now 37, he’s definitely the long shot of the bunch.

Garcia is probably the front-runner based on 157 innings he threw last year that were unquestionably below average but still better than replacement level, which is what Mitre and Colon seem destined to be. The Yankees have some minor league depth to try out, namely Hector Noesi, D.J. Mitchell, and David Phelps, but they’re all in need of more Triple-A seasoning and shouldn’t have their development path altered when a guy like Garcia can be thrown to the wolves for the first month or two of the season. One of them could surprise in camp, for sure, but I’d rather see the kids be the fallback option and not the first attempt at a solution.

Position: Long Reliever
Candidates: Same as the Fifth Starter, plus Romulo Sanchez, Daniel Turpen, Robert Fish, Ryan Pope, Brian Schlitter

Six of the seven bullpen spots are already accounted for (Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Pedro Feliciano, Boone Logan), so that last spot will end up going to someone capable of throwing three or four innings at a clip. Romulo is out-of-options, meaning he has to pass through waivers to go back to the minors, and chances are he’ll be a goner at some point. Turpen and Fish are Rule 5 Draft picks, so unless they spend the entire 2011 season on the 25-man active roster, they’ll have to be offered back to their original clubs. Expect them to be gone before the end of Spring Training. Pope and Schlitter are short relievers with no and little big league experience, respectively, and I’m willing to bet they’ll be riding the Scranton-New York express all summer.

That leaves the guys from the fifth starter competition, so it seems like the runner-up for the last rotation spot gets the last bullpen spot as a consolation prize. Mitre is probably the best fit here, since he has experience as a long reliever and filled that role just last year. Either way, just like every other job listed in those post, the long man is sure to change over the course of the season, so don’t get too attached.

As the Old Guard bows out…

Andy Pettitte went out on top. He still had the itch when he called it a career last week, and he knew he could still pitch well, still get Major Leaguers out, still win games. It wasn’t time to say good bye, but we had no other choice.

Something about Pettitte’s retirement struck a heartstring for many Yankee fans. It’s not just the fact that the team badly needed his arm in the rotation or his calming demeanor on the mound. That’s almost too altruistic. Rather, his retirement, at least for me, resonated on a more personal level. If Andy Pettitte is facing down baseball mortality, aren’t the rest of getting older?

I don’t remember the first time I witnessed an Andy Pettitte appearance in person. By the time baseball resumed in 1995 after a crushingly disappointing end to the 1994 season, Pettitte’s name had become a fixture around the Yanks. He was featured in the team’s “Down on the Farm” section in the annual yearbook, and while not widely regarded as a youngster, the Yanks thought they had something.

I was 12 when Pettitte made his Yankee debut just like I was 12 when Derek Jeter burst onto the scene, 12 when Mariano Rivera arrived and 12 when Jorge Posada showed up. That was the year Bernie Williams cemented himself as a big-time New York star both during the regular season and epic ALDS against the Mariners. I was eight the year Bernie made his big league debut.

Throughout high school, these guys were the stars I watched mature into a cohesive team. Once or twice, I would head from school to the stadium for a student special on Tuesday or Wednesday nights. A valid ID would net a $10 Tier Reserve seat, and in those days, we could move up at will. On a good night, the old stadium will host 30,000 fans as the Yanks went about their winning ways year after year after year.

As the years wore on, those five players would be the stand-outs. They had a pretty damn good supporting cast too. Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius played their roles while Chuck Knoblauch had his moments, for better or worse. Paul O’Neill too, the Yankees’ own warrior, deserves a big tip of the cap too. I watched David Wells throw a perfect game while working on a science project at home, and I heard the end of David Cone’s perfect day on a blisteringly hot afternoon in Western Massachusetts. I remember the anticipation of El Duque’s debut, and the overhyped and perhaps slightly underappreciated nature of Hideki Irabu’s tenure in the Bronx.

Through it all, though, Andy, Derek, Jorge, Bernie and Mariano served as icons of a farm system. This was the true core of a championship team developed from within and allowed to grow. Bernie didn’t fit into the Mel Hall-dominated clubhouse as a shy young kid, and George Steinbrenner always wanted to trade Andy Pettitte for something worse. But they stuck around — and won — for years.

Bernie, the oldest, was the first to go. Felled by a knee injury, he didn’t retire after 2006, but the Yanks weren’t interested in guaranteeing him dollars. It was a bitter divorce smoothed over by time, and after arriving late at Andy Pettitte’s press conference, Williams announced that he too is about to officially retire. Of course, he’s the last one to know that he’s retired, but that’s how it is for many of these guys. “I think one of these days I’m going to make it official,” Williams said. “It’s redundant, but after five years, I think I’m pretty much done.”

Bernie’s last appearance was a strike out against Kenny Rogers in the 2006 ALDS. Andy Pettitte’s last appearance ended with a Bengie Molina groundout. He left it all on the field during Game 3 of the ALCS, but much like in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, the other team’s pitcher was just better.

Next up in the march toward the new era will likely to be Jorge Posada. The one-time catcher will serve as the DH this year, and even if he has a decent season, it’s tough to see the Yanks re-upping with him once he hits free agency. He’s been with the club since they drafted him in 1990. Would Posada call it quits or sign with another franchise?

Once he goes, Derek and Mariano will be the aging duo that survived my trip through high school, through college, through law school. Time might be nipping at Jeter’s heels, and it will one day come a-knockin’ on Mariano’s door too. For now, though, I’ll sit back and appreciate what these Yankees have done and what they still have left to do. For five guys who were Yankees since they were kids, the past two decades have been as close to baseball perfection as it comes these days.

Yanks set to expand Times Square presence

Millions of tourists from all over the country walk through Times Square every year, and odds are good that most of them hate the Yankees. Now, they’ll be greeted with 2000 square feet of the Yankees right in the Paramount building. As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the team has signed a 15-year lease for the storefront next to the Hard Rock Cafe at 1501 Broadway. The team store, says reporter Dana Rubinstein, will open “within the next few months,” and I have to believe the club will shutter the much smaller team store on 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Aves. in exchange for this massive space on the Great White Way.

Open Thread: Chase Wright

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Whenever the name Chase Wright is brought up, you’ll inevitably think of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back homer episode of 2007. Who could forget it? It was horrible. The Yankees called Wright up straight from Double-A and he predictably flopped, and two years later he was designated for assignment and traded to the Brewers for one of the players that eventually went to Pittsburgh for Eric Hinske. That didn’t stop Steve Lombardi from comparing him to Erik Bedard, but that’s cool, we all say stupid stuff from time to time*. In a weird bit of timing, today is Wright’s 28th birthday and also the three-year anniversary of Bedard’s trade to the Mariners. Funny how that worked out, huh?

Anyway, here is the open thread for the evening. Both the Devils and Isles are in action, but talk about whatever you want. Have at it.

* One of these days J.B. Cox will replace Mariano Rivera, you watch! [/Axisa circa 2006]

Red Sox ink Aceves to Major League deal

Via PeteAbe, the Red Sox have signed former Yankee Al Aceves to a guaranteed Major League contract. Buster Olney says he gets $650,000 with incentives, which strikes me as a lot since he’s still in his pre-arbitration years. Jon Heyman says the Mets also offered the right-hander a guaranteed deal, but Aceves wanted to pitch in Boston.

The longman missed basically all of last season with back issues and suffered various setbacks throughout the year. Then, this offseason he broke his clavicle riding his bike and required surgery to repair the damage. Reports in December said he was expected to miss at least some of Spring Training, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to start the season on time. Olney says he passed his physical though for what that’s worth.

Aceves will always be remembered for his heroic relief work in 2009, when he threw 84 innings with a 3.75 FIP. The back injuries last year are nothing new though as he also had some physical trouble in 2009. The Mexican Gangster was awesome, and I wish him the best against everyone but the Yankees.

Russell Martin ‘still not 100 percent’

Via Erik Boland and Brian Costello, new catcher Russell Martin told reporters after today’s pre-camp workout that he’s still not 100% recovered from the hip injury that ended his 2010 season in August, though he hopes to catch tomorrow and is expected to be ready by Opening Day. Martin suffered a hairline fracture in his right hip when he stepped on home plate awkwardly, however there was no damage to his labrum and he did not need surgery. He also told reporters that he’s shed 15 lbs. this offseason doing MMA training, which has helped his endurance. I know nothing of MMA or the kind of training it requires, but I imagine the hip is recovering well if doctors cleared him to do that.

The RAB Radio Show: February 8, 2011

We might have missed a couple of days, but we haven’t skipped a beat. The latest development for the Yankees involves two new competitors for the 25th roster spot. Eric Chavez and Ronnie Belliard are coming to camp on minor league deals. We love the kids and all, but Mike and I discuss why this is a prudent move.

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