Building a better bench

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Even though the Yankees have been dealing with an inordinate amount of injuries over the last week or so, they haven’t missed a beat because of their part-time players. The most obvious example is Frankie Cervelli, who went 9-for-17 with three walks and just one strikeout in five starts while Jorge Posada nursed a sore calf last week, but Randy Winn has also stepped it up with a .400 OBP and one very big homer after Curtis Granderson hit the disabled list. Even Ramiro Pena has chipped in a little with the stick while catching everything hit within a ten foot radius as a spot starter and mid-game replacement.

One of our few mantras here says that it’s tough for the Yankees to build a decent bench because good, versatile players just don’t want to sign here as free agents. Why would Reed Johnson or Mark DeRosa or Jerry Hairston Jr. sign here when they could land similar salaries elsewhere yet be guaranteed more playing time? To have a shot at a championship? Please, they have families to support and having a greater opportunity to play this season will affect future earnings. Can’t blame them for that, we’d all like an early retirement.

That basically leaves the Yankees with three options for building a bench: trade, sign flawed free agents with a limited market, or promote from within. There’s always the Rule 5 Draft, which the Yanks tried this year with Jamie Hoffmann, but very rarely does that route prove fruitful. The Opening Day bench featured two homegrown products in Cervelli and Pena, while Thames and Winn represent those flawed free agents with limited markets. Winn didn’t hit a lick last year and was basically cast as a defensive whiz in the corner outfield spots who can run the bases, while the only thing Thames brings to the table is the ability to hit lefties.

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson, AP

Essentially, in building their bench, the Yankees have taken an approach similar to how they build their bullpen: Have lots of options in the form of cheap and interchangeable pieces. Relief pitchers are the mecca of volatility, but bench players aren’t too far behind. Even Hairston, widely regarded as one of the game’s best bench players, has seen his wOBA fluctuate from .245 to .387 to .312 to .206 in the last four seasons. If a player manages to get 250 plate appearances off the Yankees’ bench, the difference between a .350 OBP and a .300 OBP is thirteen times on base. A little BABIP luck or a few games with a particularly big  strike zone can account for that difference over a 162 game season. It’s all about sample size; the less a player players, the less predictable their performance is, so why pay big for that unpredictability?

Granted, Winn isn’t exactly buying store brand groceries with his $1.1M salary, but he’s still cheap. Thames is making just $900,000, the two kids are basically at the minimum. That’s a four man bench for less than $3M, with other minimum wage players like Greg Golson, Kevin Russo, Juan Miranda, and Eduardo Nuñez just a phone call away. All of the recent injuries have given the team a chance to see what they have in-house, and if they don’t like what they see, they can go out an make some small moves at the trade deadline to shore things up, just like they did last season. Bench players — especially for a team like the Yankees, who are basically set at all eight positions — are the opposite of critical.

Despite losing their starting centerfielder, starting catcher, starting second basemen, and primary designated hitter for various lengths of time in May, the team ripped off a six game winning streak and has outscored their opponents 60-35 this month. Of course starting pitching has a lot to do with that, but the bench players have stepped right in and done the job. Considering how volatile those part-time players can be, it just makes sense to build a bench on the cheap and have lots of options.

Yanks have few options for long reliever

The Yankees have two questionable pitchers scheduled for the next few games. Sergio Mitre hasn’t started a game since last year, and while he has looked mostly good in his 9.2 innings this year, he might not be long for the game. Even if he pitches well he has to deal with the fatigue factor, significant because he hasn’t pitched more than three innings since spring training. He appeared to tire late in his last appearance against Baltimore, leaving two sinkers up in the zone to the final batter, Ty Wigginton, who deposited the final one in the seats.

Then comes Javier Vazquez, who will make his first start since May 1 on Tuesday. He has yet to clear 5.2 innings this season, and even in his best start, a six-strikeout performances against the A’s on April 20, he left plenty of outs for the bullpen to cover. Maybe the layoff has afforded him the time he needed to rediscover his fastball command, but the Yanks can’t quite bank on that. They must prepare themselves for two consecutive short starts, just in case the worst case scenario becomes reality.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Under normal circumstances, the Yankees would have the situation covered. Al Aceves could pick up in long relief of Mitre tonight, and they could piece together a few appearances tomorrow if Vazquez continues to struggle. Romulo Sanchez then might be available on Wednesday to provide relief if the need arises. But with Aceves nursing a back injury sustained while pitching Saturday, the Yanks might have to look elsewhere for long relief. It would be one thing if this were an isolated injury. Aceves, however, has been battling back issues since the middle of last season.

As Marc Carig reports, Aceves might be ready to pitch in relief this evening. He woke up on Sunday feeling better, and with another day’s rest might be back in form. Given his recent history of back troubles, though, I bet the Yankees would love to give him another day off. That way he could still play caddy to Vazquez if needed. The team would still prefer to have a long reliever tonight, in case Mitre fades early or proves ineffective. No one currently in the bullpen appears particularly qualified for the role. Joe Girardi didn’t reveal much when asked about the possibility, but given the current roster construction it’s a strong possibility.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Who would they recall from Scranton, though? Mark Melancon would normally be a primary option, but today is only the seventh day after the Yankees optioned him. He’ll have to spend 10 days in the minors before they can recall him, unless they place someone on the DL. Since the Yankees will almost certainly recall someone from the 40-man roster, they’re left with just a few options. In fact, given the pitchers on the 40-man, they have just two.

First is a familiar name, Jon Albaladejo. He made a name for himself early in spring training by getting lit up nearly every time out. In 14 appearances for Scranton he’s pitched fairly well, allowing just three runs. Encouragingly, he has struck out 18, but also has five walks and two home runs, which bring his FIP to 3.57, much higher than his 1.76 ERA. He also hasn’t pitched more than 1.1 innings in any given appearance this year, so he might not be best suited for long relief right now. Knowing they can send him down the very next day, though, the Yankees might opt to recall him this evening.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The more interesting option is Ivan Nova. Added to the 40-man roster this winter after a strong 2009 season, Nova has started the season strong in Scranton. He has started six games, throwing 37 innings to a 2.43 ERA and 3.15 FIP. He also does a decent job of keeping the ball on the ground. The most telling sign that the Yankees are at least thinking about recalling Nova is how they’ve scheduled him. He last pitched on May 3. Zach McAllister pitched the following night. Last night, though, McAllister pitched again. That’s not to say that the Yankees did it because they planned to recall Nova. They have, however, kept the option open.

Again, with concerns about Mitre’s stamina, recalling a long man for tonight seems like a smart move. The Yankees already have 13 men on the pitching staff, so they can send out someone easily. Sanchez appears a likely candidate because of his workload last night, but I don’t think the Yanks should get in the habit of sending down guys who have pitched effectively. After another disappointing performance, David Robertson might spend some time in AAA. The Yanks could then recall an outfielder once they option Nova. A defensive option would certainly help keep Marcus Thames‘s outfield innings in check.

While it’s no lock that the Yankees recall Nova, it certainly makes a degree of sense. He’d be available to relieve either Mitre or Vazquez, and would allow the Yanks to take their time with Aceves. It’s encouraging that he has recovered so quickly from his injury Saturday, but there’s no reason to push it. The Yanks have some flexibility now, so they might as well use it to their advantage. Adding Nova as a long man would do just that.

Fan Confidence Poll: May 10th, 2010

Record Last Week: 5-1 (42 RS, 22 RA)
Season Record: 21-9 (178 RS, 111 RA, 22-8 Pythag. record), 0.5 games back
Schedule This Week: @ Tigers (four games, Mon. to Thurs.), vs. Twins (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

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Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

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Yanks on the other end of 9-3 blowout

Three games at Fenway, three blowouts. The Yanks, thankfully, found themselves on the winning end of two, leaving the Red Sox another game back. It doesn’t matter much at this point in the season, but it’s encouraging to be ahead early. The 24-6 advantage in the series’ first two games certainly made the 9-3 loss easier to handle.

Biggest Blunder: Thames can’t track it down

Photo credit: Winslow Towson/AP

Marcus Thames is a DH, and he reminds us of that nearly every time he plays left field. Last the Red Sox hit plenty of balls his way, including one that got them started. With J.D. Drew standing on second and two outs in the second, Jeremy Hermida took a 2-1 fastball the other way. Marcus Thames couldn’t handle it, and it dropped in for a two-base error. Burnett got out of it by throwing three straight curveballs to Darnell McDonals, and it didn’t seem like much to worry about at the time.

This didn’t feel like the tuning point of the game, though. It was just one run, and Burnett did get the next hitter. Maybe it was the biggest statistical swing, but the biggest emotional swing clearly came an inning later. First with the Ortiz ground-rule double, then with the Beltre double. It hurts to give up anything to David Ortiz these days, especially when it really gets the Sox going.

Biggest Hit: A-Rod ties Frank Robinson

Photo credit: Michael Dwyer/AP

The only blemishes on Jon Lester’s performance came in the fourth, when his team already had a 6-0 lead. Nick Swisher led off the inning with a home run, and then two batters later Alex Rodriguez hit his third of the season. Lester was pretty sharp the rest of the way, allowing just two hits, walking a guy, and hitting another. The Yanks put up a fight at times, but they were short lived.

A-Rod’s home run was, as you surely heard on the broadcast or the highlights, was his 586th, tying him with Frank Robinson on the all-time list. That was just his third of the season, giving him one every 43 PA. That pace should start to pick up. He has a few more to hit before he reaches No. 6, Sammy Sosa, at 609. If he picks up the pace a bit he could accomplish that this year.

Umpiring bad, but no excuse

Photo credit: Michael Dwyer/AP

Arguing with an umpire over balls and strikes is a fool’s errand, but I don’t blame Joe Girardi for registering his complaints with Tim McClelland. His strike zone extended as low as the shins at times, and that pitch to Thames was clearly outside. I’m sure that Girardi didn’t get tossed over one bad call, though. I’m sure he was miffed at how McClelland’s zone affected his starter.

A poor strike zone, though, doesn’t excuse a performance like Burnett’s. The Red Sox seemed to have a plan, hitting almost everything to the left side. Of the 26 batters Burnett faced, 19 put balls in play, and nine hit safely. Another was the Thames error. The three walks didn’t help either. All three of those batters came around to score.

As well as Burnett has pitched this year, a start like this was inevitable. If you choose to read the outlets that publish them, you’ll likely see an article or two about Burnett’s poor performances at Fenway Park. It’s poor timing, for sure. The Yanks had a chance at a sweep and set back the Red Sox even further. But as long as he reverts to his dominant form next start it won’t matter much in the long run.

Annoyances

Two out runs. Six of the Red Sox nine runs came across with two outs on the board. Yes, two-out runs will happen. They’re part of the game. That doesn’t make them any less annoying.

Ortiz’s ground rule double. I know I mentioned it before. It was that annoying.

Joys

A-Rod and Swish moving up on the all-time HR list. (Swisher now has 140, tied with Joe Crede, Pinky Higgins, Terry Pendleton, and Adam LaRoche for 464th all-time).

Romulo Sanchez enforcing. He took his job seriously, retiring 11 of the 13 Red Sox he faced, striking out three. Even if the Yanks send him back tomorrow in exchange for a fresh reliever, he’ll get another shot this year.

WPA Graph & Box Score

This one’s not so bad if you ignore everything from 3 on.

Box Score

Up Next

The Yanks fly to Detroit to meet up with some old friends for the next four days. The Sergio Mitre Experience plays the warm-up set tomorrow night against Dontrelle Willis.

Still no Montero as SWB wins again

Make sure you scroll down for tonight’s game thread.

Triple-A Scranton (9-3 win over Durham)
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 5, 2 RBI, 1 K, 1 CS
Reegie Corona, 2B: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 SB – had been six for his last 31 (.194)
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 0 for 5
Juan Miranda, 1B: 1 for 4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K - just three for his last 17 (.176)
David Winfree, RF: 3 for 5, 2 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K - second straight game with a jack
Jon Weber, DH & Matt Cusick, 3B: both 2 for 5, 1 RBI – Weber scored one run, Cusick two
Chad Huffman, LF: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 BB – it seems like he’s getting hits every day, but his avg is just .232
Robby Hammock, C: 1 for 3, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB – got picked off second … still no Jesus Montero
Zach McAllister: 7 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 5-9 GB/FB – 66 of 99 pitches were strikes … still not getting them to hit the ball on the ground as much as he used too
Royce Ring: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 11 of his 20 pitches were strikes … served up a homer to a two-time big league All Star
Mark Melancon: 1.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 15 of his 21 pitches were strikes (71.4%)

[Read more…]

Game 30: Finish Them

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola, AP

The Yanks have already won this weekend series, but that’s never enough. They’ve got a chance to finish off the sweep in Boston, and when coupled with the Rays getting perfect game’d in Oakland, they’ve also got a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the AL East. It won’t be easy though, the Red Sox are sending their best arm out to the mound in Jon Lester.

Here’s tonight’s lineup, which looks a bit more like the A-lineup than what they’ve had to throw out there the last few days…

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, DH
Thames, LF
Cervelli, C
Gardner, CF

And on the mound, Allen James Burnett.

First pitch tonight is scheduled for 8:05pm ET, and the game can be seen nationally on ESPN. Enjoy.

CC does Dallas

When A-Rod broke an unwritten rule few were aware even existed, all hell broke loose in Oakland. The date was Thursday, April 22, and Dallas Braden and the A’s were playing the Yanks in the final game of a three-game set. On his way back to first from third base on a foul ball, A-Rod stepped on the pitcher’s mound, and Dallas Braden didn’t take too kindly to it.

At the time, Braden railed on A-Rod, and he sounded both full of himself and as though A-Rod had run over his dog. “I don’t care if I’m Cy Young or if I’m the 25th man on the roster. “If I’ve got that ball in my hand and I’m out there on that mound, that’s not your mound. If you want to run across the mound, go run laps in the bullpen. That’s my mound,” he said, later adding. “I don’t go over there and run laps at third base. I don’t go over there. I don’t spit over there. I don’t spit over there. I stay away. You guys ever see anybody run across the mound like that? He ran across the pitcher’s mound, foot on my rubber. No. Not flyin.”

A-Rod: “He just told me to get off his mound. I was a little surprised. I’ve never heard that, especially from a guy with a handful of wins in his career…It’s not really a big deal. I didn’t know he was talking to me. I thought it was pretty funny actually…I’ve never heard of that in my career.”

End of story, right? Well, not if you’re Dallas Braden. Speaking to Comcast’s Bay Area affiliate, Braden had a laughable message for A-Rod. “There are things that are going to have to happen,” Braden said. “Out of respect to my teammates, out of respect to the game. I think he’s probably garnered a new respect for the unwritten rules and the people who hold them close to their game. But I think you’re right, we don’t do much talking in the 209.” The 209 is a reference to Stockton, California, the birthplace of Braden. For an area that doesn’t do much talking, Braden couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

When the Yankees heard of Braden’s latest comments, they tore into the A’s lefty, and Bob Klapisch nailed down the goods from A-Rod’s teammates. As A-Rod said he no longer wanted to discuss it or give Braden more headlines, Yanks’ GM Brian Cashman added his two cents. “Braden is wrong and Alex is right,” he said to Klapisch. “The more Dallas talks about it, the sillier he looks.” Indeed. Dallas Braden does indeed come across as an immature young pitcher with no sense of respect for the game or his boundaries. Even if A-Rod broke an unwritten rule, Braden has topped him by yammering about this for two weeks.

The final word though belongs to CC Sabathia who summed up this entire incident and Dallas Braden’s response in one of the better quotes we’ll read all season. “He’s a clown,” Sabathia said. “Guy says he’s from the 209, what the [bleep] is that? That’s where I’m from and I don’t know what he’s talking about. Two-oh-nine. He needs to just calm down – put that in the paper. That’s just tired.”

Update (6:27 p.m.): In news too coincidental to be anything but true, Dallas Braden just wrapped up a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Athletics Nation opted to take the high road in their gloating toward A-Rod, and the Yanks can move into sole possession of first place in the AL East with a win tonight against Boston.