The Last Question of Spring Training

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Spring Training is about more than just players getting into shape for the upcoming season, there are also roster spots up for grabs and jobs to be claimed. That isn’t going to be the case in Yankees camp this spring, however. Less than three days into workouts, the club already has 24 of 25 roster spots accounted for following last night’s Eric Chavez re-signing. Here, take a look…

Starting Lineup (9) Bench (4) Rotation (5) Bullpen (6 of 7)
Derek Jeter Frankie Cervelli CC Sabathia Mariano Rivera
Curtis Granderson Eduardo Nunez Hiroki Kuroda David Robertson
Robinson Cano Chavez Ivan Nova Rafael Soriano
Alex Rodriguez Ibanez/Jones Michael Pineda Boone Logan
Mark Teixeira Phil Hughes/Freddy Garcia Cory Wade
Nick Swisher Hughes/Garcia
Raul Ibanez/Andruw Jones ???
Russell Martin
Brett Gardner

The Hughes-Garcia battle for the fifth starter’s job will end with one in the rotation and one in the bullpen, so the only serious, wide-open competition remaining is that last bullpen spot. The Yankees could go any number of ways with that spot, with plenty of candidates to serve as a second lefty (Mike O’Connor, Cesar Cabral, Clay Rapada), another multi-inning guy (D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Brad Meyers), or a typical one-inning reliever (George Kontos*, Matt Daley, Adam Miller, Manny Delcarmen).

* Kontos suffered an oblique injury yesterday, so he’s going to be behind everyone else in this fight for the last bullpen spot.

Because both Ibanez and Chavez landed guaranteed big league contracts, there’s no mystery. They’re going to make the club barring injury, so Russell Branyan and Bill Hall are nothing more than insurance policies. The same can be said of Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson, who are both out of minor league options and must first clear waivers before being sent down. The former might clear, but the latter will definitely get claimed as a left-handed hitting fourth outfield type with speed and defense. Some team (likely in the NL) will find a use for Dickerson. Brandon Laird, Ramiro Pena, et al are headed back to Triple-A to open the season.

I don’t think having close to the entire roster already set is much of a problem, though I would have preferred to see both Ibanez and Chavez get minor league contracts and compete for their roster spots in Spring Training. Even a fake competition would have been fine, you want guys to push each other. Competition is a healthy thing. That’s not the case though, and the Yankees will go through camp trying to sort out their last bullpen spot and figure out who will be the fifth starter. All the other questions have already been answered.

Yankees re-sign Eric Chavez

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The writing was on the wall as soon as A.J. Burnett was traded to Pittsburgh. First the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez to serve as the left-handed half of the DH platoon, and now they’ve re-signed Eric Chavez to fill out the bench. The guaranteed one-year contract is still pending a physical, which is no slam dunk given Chavez’s injury history. Jon Heyman and Ken Rosenthal say the deal is worth $900k with incentives.

Chavez, 34, produced a powerless (.094 ISO) .294 wOBA in 175 plate appearances last season, missing nearly three months with a broken bone in his foot. He did play surprisingly excellent defense at the hot corner (not so much at first because of inexperience), and I say surprising only because I thought all the back and shoulder injuries would have taken a toll on his glovework. Chavez did have a knack for big hits (.419 wOBA with men in scoring position), but we’re only talking 47 plate appearances.

The Yankees will need to make a 40-man roster move to accommodate Chavez, though they can slide either Joba Chamberlain or Pedro Feliciano to the 60-day DL. I have a hard time believing there were so many other clubs willing to sign him that the Yankees had to offer a big league contract, but what’s done is done. Would have been nice to at least fake some competition in camp before essentially finalizing the bench.

Open Thread: 2/21 Camp Notes

Kuroda's face pretty much says it all. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Day two of workouts is in the books. Here’s the latest from Tampa…

  • As always, Chad Jennings has today’s bullpen and hitting groups. The big leaguers all threw yesterday, so today was featured all of the minor leaguers and non-roster invitees. David Adams, Justin Maxwell, and Andruw Jones were the only non-catchers to hit. All three are coming off some kind of injury, though Jones said he feels great and was able to get in better shape this offseason after knee surgery.
  • We have our first injury of Spring Training. George Kontos tweaked his oblique during his bullpen session, but hopes he’ll only miss a few days. Joe Girardi suggested that it could be a few weeks, which is no surprise since obliques are tricky. If he does miss more than a few days, he’ll fall behind the rest of the pack in the competition for that last open bullpen spot. [Jennings]
  • Adams and Maxwell got a little one-on-one instruction from Mick Kelleher at second and Robbie Thomson in left, respectively. The perks of showing up to camp early, I suppose. [Jennings]
  • “I’ll believe it when I see it,” said David Robertson when asked about Mariano Rivera possibly retiring. “When you talk about replacing Mariano Rivera, I don’t think that can be done.” Amen, David. [Jack Curry]
  • Joe Girardi accidentally mentioned Eric Chavez when talking about his bench, then backtracked. This is only noteworthy because the two sides have been talking about a contract recently, and this could be taken as an indication that a deal is all but wrapped up. [Joel Sherman]
  • The annual team bonding exercise will be held on March 1st, the day before the Yankees’ first exhibition game. [Bryan Hoch]
  • If you have ESPN Insider, I highly recommend reading today’s blog post from Buster Olney. He spoke to Michael Pineda and others following the big right-hander’s first official workout as a Yankee yesterday. At this time of year, it’s hard not to get excited when you read stuff like that.

Here is your open thread for the night. All three hockey locals are in action, but talk about whatever you want here. Go nuts.

Procedural Note: Pitchers can now be placed on 60-day DL

Via Alex Speier, today is the first day pitchers can be placed on the 60-day DL. The Red Sox stuck Bobby Jenks on the 60-day today to make room for Chris Carpenter, who they acquired from the Cubs as compensation for Theo Epstein. Not that Chris Carpenter, the one the Yankees drafted and didn’t sign back in 2007. I assume today’s date applies for all teams; I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t.

Anyway, this is noteworthy because the Yankees have a full 40-man roster following the Raul Ibanez signing, though they have two candidates for the 60-day DL: Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano. If they were to sign Eric Chavez or anyone else to a big league deal, they won’t have to remove someone from the roster just yet. This buys guys like Chris Dickerson, Justin Maxwell, and Brad Meyers some more time with the team, which is always a good thing.

Yankees roster flexibility going forward

In the mid-00s the Yankees frequently fielded inflexible teams. Led by expensive veterans, they typically had set players in each of the nine lineup spots, with little room for platooning or pinch-hitting. That made it tough to sign bench players, leaving the Yankees without much depth. Those times have clearly changed.

With some veterans needing extra days off, and with platoon-able players at some positions, the Yankees of late have taken advantage of those bench spots. They’ve filled them with guys who can hit, and guys who can run. That comes in handy not only when handling the eight players in the field, but also the DH spot. Best of all, the Yankees still have some room to maneuver with the final bench spot.

Raul Ibanez will likely get most of his playing time as the DH against right-handed pitching. Since the Yankees faced a righty starter roughly twice as often as they did a lefty starter, this could constitute a significant number of plate appearances. In fact, against righties the Yankees are pretty well set one through nine. When a lefty comes in, they still have Jones to pinch hit.

Andruw Jones will play a hybrid role. He signed with the Yankees for less money than other teams offered, so it stands to reason that he expects more playing time. Chances are he’ll start every game against left-handed pitching, whether in the DH spot or in left field, giving Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson a day off.

Eduardo Nunez‘s role will involve subbing for all three infielders when they need time off. The Yankees have talked about using Nunez more often, though, perhaps spelling Alex Rodriguez on some days, while A-Rod DHs. That could come against left-handed pitchers, perhaps on days that Jones subs for Gardner in left field. That would certainly help fill the remaining DH at-bats against left-handed pitching.

With these three shuffling playing time, the Yankees will have filled a lot of at-bats — and innings in the field. After counting Francisco Cervelli as the backup catcher, the Yankees still have one bench spot left. That could go to either:

Eric Chavez, with whom the Yankees have been speaking, could return to his role from last year. That would involve him spelling A-Rod at third from time to time, and perhaps taking reps at first when Mark Teixeira takes a rare day off. Chances are the Yankees would want to use Chavez primarily against right-handed pitching, in order to maximize his value at the plate. Those reps at third would come best when A-Rod needs a full day off, rather than a half day (since Ibanez figures to be DHing against RHP).

Bill Hall, whom the Yankees signed to a minor league deal, is a bit more flexible than Chavez, since he can play the outfield in addition to third base. He’s probably not playable at shortstop or second base at this point, but he does at least have experience there. He’s right-handed, so he could more cleanly spell A-Rod, even when A-Rod is taking a half day off to DH.

The crazy thing is that the Yankees could conceivably take both Chavez and Hall, if they were so inclined. We always work on the assumption that they will carry 12 pitchers and 13 position players, but the pitching staff really only needs 11 pitchers — especially if Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia is there to absorb innings as a multi-inning reliever. They probably won’t do this, though; they could use that final roster spot on Clay Rapada or Cesar Cabral, giving them a second lefty in the pen. There is also the issue of finding enough at-bats for a fifth bench player. Chances are, they’ll be able to find bullpen innings a bit more easily.

Still, the Yankees clearly have options this spring. The baseball ops department has done a good job of identifying the team’s strengths and augmenting them. The Yankees now have flexibility on the roster. They can give guys rest without missing too much. That’s in stark contrast to the teams of the mid-00s, which featured veterans and superstars in the lineup, but nary a substitute on the bench. They Yankees might not have a superstar at every position, but they’re pretty well set up to hand out at-bats to capable hitters.

What’s In A Number?

New faces, new numbers. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

One of the general rules of thumb in Spring Training is the higher the number, the less likely the player is to make the team. Chase Whitley (#96) and Graham Stoneburner (#95) should probably start looking for apartments in Trenton rather than start planning for life in the Bronx. Non-roster players with a legitimate chance to make the team like Bill Hall (#40) and Russell Branyan (#45) were issued numbers a little closer to respectability.

New faces Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda were given some old, familiar numbers. Numbers with tiny little bit of history, either for the Yankees or in general. During the number-issuing process, Andruw Jones got caught in the crossfire. Let’s review…

Michael Pineda – #35
For the first time since Mike Mussina in 2008, someone will wear #35 in pinstripes. Pineda wore #36 with the Mariners last season, but Freddy Garcia has seniority and got to keep his number. Moose was a great Yankee, but not great enough to have his number retired. Keeping #35 out of circulation for three years before handing it over to an extremely talented young hurler like Pineda is a fine tribute in my eyes.

(AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Hiroki Kuroda – #18
Believe it or not, there’s actually a little something behind Japanese pitchers and the #18. It’s the country’s recognized “ace number” according to NPB Tracker’s Patrick Newman (and his commenters), a tradition that started way back in the 1930s with Akira Noguchi of the Tokyo Senators. It was later popularized by Tsuneo Horiuchi of the Yomiuri Giants in the 1960s and 1970s. After Horiuchi retired, Masumi Kuwata was given the number and went on to have a lengthy career. The tradition spread and now most staff aces in Japan wear #18, though #11 has started to gain popularity as an “ace number” thanks to Kenshin Kawakami and more recently Yu Darvish. Daisuke Matsuzaka wears #18 with the Red Sox, and the recently signed Tsuyoshi Wada will wear it for the Orioles. So yeah, neato.

Andruw Jones – #22
I don’t know if he got dinner or a watch or something else out of it, but Jones gave up #18 to Kuroda and will now don #22. If you’re the superstitious type, I have bad news for you: the #22 has been worn by some sketchy fourth outfield types in recent years, including Greg Golson (2011), Colin Curtis (2010), Chad Huffman (2010), Randy Winn (2010), and Xavier Nady (2008-2009). Jones is substantially better than all of those fellas, plus I’m not usually one to worry about the bad vibes given off by certain numbers. I expect Andruw to do just fine in 2012, regardless of what number he’s wearing on his back.

* * *

Raul Ibanez will be issued #27 when he reports according to Jack Curry, which can’t be good news for Chris Dickerson. Last year’s #27 is out of minor league options (can’t be sent down without first clearing waivers) and on the outside of the roster bubble looking in at the moment. He’s been given #41.

The numbers 6, 20, 21, 46, and 51 remain out of circulation, and four of the five are likely to get retired at some point. I have a real hard time thinking Paul O’Neill’s number will be retired unless they’re planning some kind of grand, late-90s dynasty number retirement night, where all those guys have their numbers put in Monument Park at the same time. O’Neill’s been retired for eleven years now, it’s time for something to happen with #21, one way or the other.

It’s official: Yankees sign Raul Ibanez

The Yankees have official signed Raul Ibanez to a one-year deal, the team announced. Yesterday we heard that the contract was worth $1.1M with incentives that could push the total value to $4M. The Yankees had an open 40-man roster spot following the A.J. Burnett trade, so no other roster move is required. I don’t love the signing, so please go and prove me wrong Raul.