Sorting out the last bench spot

I can has bench job? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You know we’re getting down to the final few days of the offseason when we’re continually talking about the last spot on the bench. The Yankees have a few in-house options for that spot alongside Andruw Jones, Frankie Cervelli, and Eduamiro Penunez, so let’s sort them out…

Justin Maxwell
What He Offers: speed, power, walks, defense
What He Lacks: contact skills, durability

Probably the most physically gifted of the team’s fifth bench options, Maxwell’s relatively short big league career (260 PA) features a .178 ISO and 14.8% walks, exceptionally good numbers. For comparison’s sake, Jason Heyward had a .179 ISO with a 14.6% walk rate in his stellar rookie season last year. I could be a function of small sample size, though it’s worth noting that in exactly 900 PA at the Double and Triple-A levels, Maxwell owns a .222 ISO and an 11.6% walk rate. The underlying skills are there, which Baseball America noted when they named him Washington’s eighth best prospect before last season. He’s also a high-percentage basestealer (78.9% success rate in the minors) with a pair of 35 SB seasons under his belt in the high minors.

Guys with power, speed, the ability to draw walks and defend well in center are a rare breed, but what’s holding Maxwell back are some big time holes in his swing. He’s struck out in 37.9% of his big league at-bats, 26.6% in Double and Triple-A. He’s very similar to Andruw Jones in that you’ll get a low batting average, but he’ll still get on base at an okay clip and occasionally run into a few pitches. There’s also the injury bug. Maxwell is on his way back from Tommy John surgery right now (on his non-throwing elbow), but he’s also battled wrist and toe issues in the past.

Greg Golson
What He Offers: speed, defense, a tiny amount of power
What He Lacks: ability to draw walks, make consistent contact

Golson did a fine job as a late-inning defensive replacement and occasional pinch-runner last year, but he’s been around long enough that we know what he brings to the table offensively, and it’s just not much. In nearly 1,600 PA at Double and Triple-A, he owns a very good .161 ISO (though most of that is tied up in Double-A) but subpar walk (5.7%) and strikeout (34.1%) rates. Thankfully he can defend very well in three outfield spots and be a highly effective basestealer (78.9% success rate with no fewer than 20 SB in four of the last five years).

Limited by his lack of offensive ability, featuring not even one standout tool at the plate (power or getting on base or being able to make a ton of contact), means Golson’s speed and defense have to be that spectacular for him to hold down a roster spot.

Colin Curtis
What He Offers: a little of this, a little of that
What He Lacks: a standout tool

Lil' CC did a good. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The forgotten man, Curtis has one thing on both Maxwell and Golson: he’s a left-handed hitter, and the Yankees have zero of those on their bench right now. He’s a classic ‘tweener, doing just enough to get by but lacking a standout tool that can carry him. His offensive performance at Double and Triple-A is fine but nothing special (.118 ISO, 8.5% walks, 17.7% strikeouts) in a little more than 1,400 PA, and he’s never been much of a basestealer (just 25-for-42 in his career). Curtis can man the outfielder corners capably and play center in an emergency, but he’s not good enough to play their regularly.

* * *

Of course, the wildcards in all of this are are Kevin Russo, Eric Chavez, and Ronnie Belliard. Russo isn’t not great offensively (.093 ISO, 8.7% walks, 17.0% strikeouts in over 950 PA at the upper levels of the minors) or on the bases (55-for-77 in SB attempts in his career, 71.4%), but he does something none of those three guys above can do: play the infield. The Yankees have groomed him as a utility player basically his entire career, so he has experience playing the three non-first base infield spots as well as all three outfield spots (mostly left though). Since that last man on the bench doesn’t figure to see too many plate appearances, maybe they’ll decide to go with the versatile guy just to have at least two players on the bench capable of playing the infield (Russo and Penunez) and two capable of playing the outfield (Russo and Jones).

As for Chavez and Belliard … they’re the veterans on minor league deals. I have little faith in Chavez staying healthy or being productive through Spring Training, though it’s worth noting that his lefty bat would make sense for the bench. Belliard is probably the front-runner for a job given his versatility and occasionally productive bat, though he’s not going to swing the balance of power in the AL East.

If I’m picking out of those six, I’d probably go with Belliard for the time being. Maxwell is clearly the best player of the bunch, and that’s why he should spend the summer playing regularly and batting near the top of Triple-A Scranton’s order. He’s been banged up pretty bad in three of the last four years, so catching up on some at-bats wouldn’t be the end of the world. I think the chances of the Yankees carrying both Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena to start the year went down considerably once Belliard and Chavez came aboard, but I’m not sure how much that helps. Granted, it’s the 25th guy on the roster, but a little optimization never hurt.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 7th, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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Preparing for the new season

In the early minutes of Super Bowl XLV, we caught a glimpse of Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez some popcorn in one of Cowboys Stadium’s luxury boxes*, a subtle reminder that baseball season is on the horizon. Football season is over while basketball and hockey are in their versions of the dogs days of summer, but equipment trucks across the country are now en route to Spring Training facilities in Florida and Arizona. Pitchers and catchers are due to report in just a week, position players a week after that.

Today, Monday, is the last Monday we’ll have to experience without some form of baseball until November. Pitchers and catchers reporting isn’t terribly exciting, but it’s comforting to know that the process of a new season is beginning. Photos of bullpen sessions and reports from batting practice will soon follow, and battles for the few open jobs on the Yankees’ roster will begin to take shape. Robbie Cano will rake and rake and rake, CC Sabathia will treat innings like Michael Cera’s character in Juno treated orange Tic-Tacs, and A-Rod will get caught doing something awkward on camera (he’s already one-for-one in 2011). Some young kid will step up and wow you in Spring Training while another falls back and disappoints. Those are the rites of baseball season, as is this final boring week before camp.

If you’re reading this site, then chances are the game consumes your daily routine nine months out of the year, if not more. This week is the last without baseball for a long time, so enjoy it.

* Don’t hate, you know you’d switch lives with him in a heartbeat.

Open Thread: Super Sunday

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

So, who do you all have today? I’m thinking the Steelers, though for no particular reason. Picking football games isn’t exactly my forte. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:29pm ET and can be seen on FOX, and be sure to chat about it here.

Pitching Options, Part 23094.5

It’s seems like we’ve been doing this forever, looking at vaguely mediocre (sometimes downright bad) pitchers and trying to come up with legit reasons that these guys actually deserve a spot on the team. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m really, really getting tired of this. If Cashman (or anyone else on the Yankees) could just pull a fifth starter out of his closet right about now, I think we’d all really appreciate it. Personally, I wouldn’t even be mad at him for holding out this long. He was just waiting until he was sure he needed to break the emergency glass. So that’s what he meant about preaching patience.

Sadly, this doesn’t look like the case, so it’s back to the depressing reality that if you’re still on the market right now, you’re not very good at all. Rosenthal reported the Yankees are tossing around names of some possible lefties. Stephen’s already covered the Padres, so I thought I’d look beyond of the pitcher-friendly walls of Petco Park and see what else is out there. Luckily, I don’t have to move away from the west to find other possibilities.

Perhaps Joe Saunders? Saunders was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 1999 but didn’t sign, and the Angels nabbed him in 2002 as 12th overall pick. He did well in the minors, although he missed all of 2003 with a shoulder injury between his low A and high A stints. By 2005, he was pitching in AAA, and spent three years bouncing between AAA and the big club, making 13 starts for the Angels in 2006 and 18 in 2007. In 2008, he finally broke into the Opening Day Angels rotation and rewarded the Angels by throwing nearly 200 IP with a 3.41 ERA and a 4.36 FIP, along with a career-low 1.212 WHIP. His 2009, sadly, was not half as impressive, seeing an increase in his ERA, FIP, and BB/9, with a drop in strikeouts. When he performed at his 2009 and not 2008 levels in 2010, the Angels traded him to Arizona for Dan Haren. Saunders’ short stint in Arizona helped his numbers (especially his K/BB, which went from 1.45 to 2.63), but it’s hard to say how much of that was from a whole new crop of batters unfamiliar with him and how much was actual improvement on his part.

Even with Saunders’ All-Star 2008, his numbers have remained fairly consistent. He’s picked up between four and five strikeouts and two to three walks per nine IP each year. What concerns me is the 43.7% of groundballs he got in 2010, a huge decrease from his earlier numbers. Also, Saunders has been moving to progressively more and more hitter-friendly parks, so we’d be looking at an even bigger growth of his HR/FB% if the man was pitching in the bandboxes that the Yankees play most of their games in. The only thing Saunders gives us for sure besides these average-to-mediocre numbers is innings – since his shoulder injury in 2003, the lowest IP he’s thrown so far is 186.

Maybe there’s someone better floating around on the west coast?  Gio Gonzalez, for one, is perfectly accustomed to being moved around. He was drafted by the White Sox in the first round (38th overall), but was traded to the Phillies as a player to be named later when the ChiSox picked up Jim Thome. The Phillies than traded him back to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia, and the Sox sent him away again, this time to the A’s with Ryan Sweeney for Nick Swisher.

As a Bay Area resident, I saw this guy throw a couple of games, and to my non-statistical eyes, he looked good. 2010 was Gonzo’s first full season, and he didn’t disappoint, starting over thirty games with an ERA of 3.23 and a FIP of 3.78. His problem is and has always been his walks: his career-low BB/9 is 4.1, which certainly isn’t anything to be happy about, and it came with his career-low K/9 of 7.7, a huge decrease from his 2009 total of 10 k/9. There’s also the problem of the cost: the A’s could conceivably ask for plenty for Gonzales, who has potential and many years of team control left even if he’s still trying to get a handle on throwing strikes at a major league level.

These guys both line up as solid ‘mehs,’ for the coveted position of fifth starter of the Yankees. They’re coming from weak divisions into the AL East, which is always a cause for concern. Not only that, but even assuming that both pitchers find their best stuff, there’s no denying the obvious: their stuff is just not that good. Baseball, please come back so we can stop writing about all these mediocre possibilities we don’t really want. Thank you.