Cano steps up into the fifth spot

Last year Hideki Matsui held down the fifth spot in the batting order. In the 267 plate appearances when he hit behind, for the most part, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, Matsui hit .266/.360/.489 with 7 doubles and 15 home runs. With his departure this off-season, the Yankees had to find someone to replace that production, and probably more. Sorting the lineup ranked high on Joe Girardi‘s priority list, and there is an early indication that he’s finished that task. His lineup card on Tuesday should reflect the Opening Day lineup, and as Mark Feinsand reports, Robinson Cano will hit fifth.

Cano actually saw the second most time in the fifth spot last year, 223 plate appearances. In those he hit .299/.318/.477, a downgrade from his season line of .320/.352/.520. His time in the fifth spot, of course, represents just a small sample, about 34 percent of his season. It’s tough to draw conclusions about his ability to hit in that spot from just a third of his plate appearances. We also won’t learn much by going into Cano’s history hitting fifth. Not only did he hit in front of and behind different hitters, but he also hit there just 61 times in his career before 2009.

The major concern with Cano’s bat in the middle of the order is his ability to hit with runners in scoring position. He should have plenty of those opportunities, since the four hitters in front of him could all have OBPs around (or, in the case of Nick Johnson, well above) .400. In 2009 he came to bat 198 times with at least a runner on second, and hit .207/.242/.332, an OPS about 50 percent lower than his season-long number. He has hit a bit better over his career, .256/.291/.398, but that’s still not a spectacular mark. It pales in comparison to his numbers with the bases empty, .331/.363/.528.

Why, then, would Girardi choose Cano to hit in this spot? As he tells it, Cano’s contact rate, the seventh highest in the majors last season, played a prominent role in his decision. If you look at the contact rate leaderboard, however, there aren’t many middle of the order bats near the top. Another factor, Cano’s high batting average, seems to make more sense on an intuitive level. Again, with four .400 OBP guys in front of him he’ll have plenty of RBI opportunities. If he hits anywhere near his .320 average from last year he’ll almost certainly drive in more than 100 in 2010.

Girardi has also said, and repeated, this spring that he believes Cano’s numbers with RISP in 2009 don’t tell the whole story. “There was a streak when he had made about 10 or 11 outs in a row with runners in scoring position, and he hit nine bullets,” he said when initially addressing the situation. “Over the long term that usually irons itself out, but when you don’t have 600,000 at-bats, it doesn’t iron out. His at-bats, a lot of times were very good with runners in scoring position. I didn’t think he had a lot of luck last year.” If Girardi is correct, and if those nine bullets find a hole this season, Cano could find himself climbing the RBI leader boards.

In terms of talent, Cano seems to fit perfectly into this lineup spot. Over his career he has demonstrated an ability to hit for average, which should play well with so many men on base ahead of him. Yet he has shown a deficiency with runners in scoring position, which doesn’t help his case for the fifth spot. If he turns it around, the Yankees will only benefit. If he does not, there are other options for the fifth spot, including Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson, and even possibly Nick Swisher. Starting with Cano, however, seems like a solid move to start the season.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Open Thread: Pujols for Howard

This one made me laugh. Apparently the Phillies have internally discussed the idea of trading Ryan Howard to St. Louis for Albert Pujols. The plan was to try to sell the Cardinals on the idea that Howard, born and raised in St. Louis, would be easier (and cheaper) to sign long-term than Pujols. Both players can become free agents after the 2011 season, and are basically the same age. Of course, Pujols is the far, far superior hitter. Yeah, Howard has the bigger homerun totals, but Pujols does literally everything else better with the bat.

Phillies’ GM Ruben “fielding percentage FTW” Amaro flat out denied the rumor, which is good. Hopefully he realizes how stupid he would look if he actually proposed such a deal to St. Louis.

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. The only local sports team in action tonight are the Isles, and if you turn the game on right now you could probably catch the last period. I’m sure there’s college basketball on somewhere. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, LaDainian Tomlinson signed with the Jets. Otherwise, have at it.

Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson, AP

Three more reassigned to minor league camp

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees sent righties Grant Duff and Zach McAllister, as well as catcher Jose Gil across the street to minor league camp. This is after nine players were sent down last night. The hard throwing Duff semi-broke out last year, hitting the upper-90’s at times. He wasn’t added to the 40-man roster after the season yet went unselected in the Rule 5 Draft, and there’s a non-zero chance we’ll see him in the Bronx at some point in 2010. Gil is a minor league lifer, and you all know McAllister.

Report: Hechevarria close to signing with Toronto

Via GAK3, Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria is close to signing with the Blue Jays, who will pay him $10M. The 20-year-old reportedly didn’t like his chances of playing shortstop for the Yankees anytime soon, so he instead went with the Jays. We heard the Yanks were favored to sign him just  few days ago.  That’s a lot of cash for a guy who’s basically all projection, but good for him.

Spring Training Game Thread: It’s not raining in Florida

There’s nothing better than baseball on a lazy, rainy Sunday. Even if it is just Spring Training baseball.

CC Sabathia will take the mound for the third time in the exhibition season after getting touched up for nine hits, three walks, and five runs in 4.1 IP during his previous two outings. He said he was having a problem collapsing on his back leg, which left his pitches flat and up in the zone, so let’s see if he corrected that.

Meanwhile, Nick Johnson has been the team’s most impressive hitter in March after working with Kevin Long to use his legs a little more in his swing. He’s 5-for-11 (.455-.571-1.182) with two homers, two doubles, three walks, and just one strikeout, and even his outs have been hard hit. Johnson has more walks (432) than strikeouts (410) since 2003, which is pretty cool, though I’d expect it to change as he faces AL East pitching.

Anyway, here’s the starting nine…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, 1B
Cano, 2B
Swisher, RF
Thames, LF
Gardner, CF
Winn, DH
Cervelli, C
Vazquez, 3B – yeah, that Jorge Vazquez, who has played four games at third since 2003 … should be fun

Scheduled Pitchers: CC Sabathia, Jon Albaladejo, Mark Melancon, Zach McAllister, Dustin Moseley, Ivan Nova

Also scheduled to play: Greg Golson, Reid Gorecki, Brandon Laird, Juan Miranda, Eduardo Nunez, Mike Rivera, Kevin Russo, Jon Weber, David Winfree

According to a release, MLB Network has lifted the NY/NJ/CT area blackout on today’s game, so it’ll be shown live at 1:05pm ET. We’ll just have to deal with the Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Photo Credit: Brian Blanco, AP

How Mariano became Mo

If you’re looking for a little light reading on this Sunday morning, check out this amazing profile of Mariano Rivera, courtesy of Christian Red of the Daily News. It touches on everything from young Mariano’s days as a sardine fisherman to his desire to become a mechanic to his high and low points on a big league mound. It’s long, but it’s well worth the read. Make sure you check it out.

Jeter, Rivera could be dragged into Clemens/McNamee fray

As Brian McNamee and Roger Clemens continue their “he said/he said” spat, most people — and particularly the Yankees — would prefer it if this mess would stay far, far away from the Bronx. McNamee, however, has other plans.

According to the Daily News, in a brief filed on Friday and not yet available to me via the PACER system, McNamee has named a handful of current Yankees as potential witnesses in Clemens’ defamation suit against McNamee. Nathaniel Vinton has more:

The Yankees have never relished the destructive defamation suit former pinstripe hero Roger Clemens brought two years ago against his accuser, former Yankee trainer Brian McNamee, but bigger headaches for the club may yet lie ahead according to a new appeals-court brief issued by McNamee’s defense attorneys.

A footnote deep in the 60-page brief lists current Yankee stars Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter as witnesses McNamee might call to the stand for sworn testimony about Clemens’ purported use of steroids and human growth hormone. Also listed among potential witnesses for McNamee is Angela Moyer, an alleged mistress of Clemens who tended bar near the Upper East Side apartment where McNamee said he visited Clemens after Yankee games to inject the pitcher with steroids and human growth hormone (Clemens has testified he thought the syringes contained vitamin B12).

The brief, which McNamee’s attorneys sent Friday to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, portrays Clemens’ defamation suit as nearly dead in the water. It comes in response to Clemens’ appeal of a lower court’s ruling last year that eviscerated the suit, which Clemens first brought against McNamee on Jan. 6, 2008, three weeks after a report by former Senator George Mitchell first publicized McNamee’s accusations. Mitchell was also listed as a potential witness. He and the others could also be summoned to testify as part of a defamation countersuit that McNamee himself brought against Clemens last year in a federal court in Brooklyn — and will likely pursue, at least in order to recover his monumental legal fees.

If McNamee’s brief is as convincing as the Daily News says it is, the Yankees could be free of having to send their star players to testify. McNamee’s side could file for summary judgment and hope to get the case’s original dismissal affirmed. However, McNamee will continue to push his countersuit in Brooklyn, and only a settlement would stave off a trial.

For the Yankees, Spring Training steroid stories are becoming old hat, and the Roger Clemens mess has been lingering like a bad taste in the back of the team’s mouth since the Rocket’s ill-fated 2007 return to the Bronx. Hopefully, this story will just go away, but then again, we’ve all been hoping that for years with no end in sight.