March 21st Camp Notes

Shortstop power! (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Here’s what went down in Tampa today, just over a week from Opening Day…

  • The Yankees held a staff meeting, presumably to discuss the fourth and fifth starter spots, though Ivan Nova is looking more and more like a lock. (Buster Olney)
  • Meanwhile, it’s sounding more and more likely that Brett Gardner will hit leadoff, at least early in the season. Joe and I discussed this very topic on today’s RAB Radio Show. (Jack Curry)
  • Pedro Feliciano threw 25 pitches in the bullpen and said he felt good. He’ll throw batting practice or another bullpen session on Wednesday, then hopefully get into a game on Friday or Saturday. The lefty is battling a sore triceps. (Erik Boland)
  • Joba Chamberlain will pitch in tomorrow’s game, so his strained oblique is doing well. Greg Golson took batting practice today; he’s been sidelined by some kind of rib/oblique injury. (Chad Jennings)
  • Mariano Rivera threw two uneventful innings in a minor league game and said everything felt fine. He’ll make another appearance either Wednesday or Thursday. Boring Mo updates are good Mo updates. (Boland)

The RAB Radio Show: March 21, 2011

We’re all talked out on the fourth and fifth starter battles, so we move onto what is perhaps the one remaining questions of the spring. Who will bat leadoff? The Yankees have placed Gardner in that spot for the past couple of games, and the beat crew seems increasingly convinced that’s how Girardi will fill out his lineup card on March 31. Mike and I muse on the issue.

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Handicapping the back-of-the-rotation battle

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The regular season is now just ten sleeps away, but the Yankees have yet to announce who will serve as the their fourth and fifth starters at least at the outset of the season. I think we all expect the team to go out and get someone via trade at some point during the season, but for now, these guys will have to do. Given what we’ve seen in Spring Training, not necessarily in statistical performance but how they’ve looked on the mound, let’s slap some odds on each guy’s likelihood of breaking camp with the big boys cracking the rotation …

Ivan Nova (Odds: 3-2)
Nova’s case for a rotation spot started last September, when he was serviceable (4.50 ERA, 4.36 FIP) in seven starts and did no worse than earn himself a long look in camp. He’s toying with a new slider and stands out from the pack for no other reason than because he’s not some retread. Nova’s a homegrown guy and those are easy to like, but his limited exposure in the show will work against him. That and the fact that he has two minor league options remaining, since the team could safely stash him in Triple-A and then summon him at a moment’s notice. My guess is that he starts the season in the rotation, but who am I to say?

Freddy Garcia (Odds: 5-1)
The favorite for a job coming into a camp, Garcia is having one of his trademark awful springs at a time when he really can’t afford to. Ben chronicled the problem with Garcia last night, though he has one thing on just about all the other rotation candidates: a recent history of staying on the mound. He threw 157 innings with the White Sox last year, and although they weren’t high quality innings, they were innings nonetheless. Reliability counts, even in tiny little amounts.

Bartolo Colon (Odds: 10-1)
Perhaps the surprise of Spring Training so far as been Colon, who’s come out of the gate throwing 94 four-seamers and sinking his two-seamer against both lefties and righties. He’s also featured some kind of offspeed pitch, probably a splitter but more of a junkball, that has kept hitters off balance. Remember, Colon was pitching in winter ball just a few weeks before camp opened, so he’s (theoretically) ahead of the other guys and his stuff could just be a mirage. Once he steps on the mound in meaningful games against hitters with something more than tee-times on their minds, chances are this story will take a turn for the worst. Regardless, he hasn’t hurt his chances this month.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Sergio Mitre (Odds: 100-1)
Beset by an oblique issue, albeit slightly, Mitre hasn’t really gotten into this competition all that much. He’s started just one game in camp with three other long-relief appearances, and part of that is a function of there being only so many starts to go around, but you’d have to think he’d be getting a longer look if he was a legit candidate (Nova, Colon, and Garcia have each thrown at least five more innings in actual games this spring). The Yankees know Sergio and what he’s capable of, so perhaps he isn’t as high priority as the other guys. Either way, he always seemed destined for that same long-reliever role he’s filled over the last year-and-a-half.

* * *

We’ve been playing the fourth and fifth starter guessing game pretty much all winter, so these not completely arbitrary odds are nothing more than a snapshot in time, a record of where the competition stands as of March 21st. Both Colon and Garcia have the ability to become free agents if they don’t make the team out of camp, and it would be surprising to see the Yankees squander assets like that so early in the season.

Given the propensity for injury (especially with two guys like that), it’s better to have more pitchers around anyway, even if they stick them in the bullpen for the time being. Plus the team will also get the first few weeks of the season to evaluate them a little bit further, against real big league hitters. Every little bit helps, even if these guys will (hopefully) be gone by July.

2011 Season Preview: Quality of the bench

One issue that plagued the Yankees through the mid-00s was the lack of a quality bench. This included both the position players and the bullpen. Both units tended to be sub-par. As we covered last week in our 2011 season preview, the bullpen looks a lot better, in terms of Opening Day personnel, than it has in many years. The bench, too, has a stronger feel this year. With plenty of spare payroll, the Yankees were able to land a few chips that they haven’t sought in years past. For the first time in a long time they’ll have two quality bench bats to start the year.

Andruw Jones

(Kathy Willens/AP)

For most of the off-season, Jones and the Yankees appeared a natural match. They needed a fourth-outfielder, preferably a righty, and Jones needed a part-time destination. It took a while for the move to finally happen, and even longer for it to become official, but Jones is in a Yankee uniform for 2011. He’s not the same player that ranked among the most valuable in center field from 1998 through 2005, but he can still play a useful role.

For the past three seasons Jones has been a part-time player, either because of injury or ineffectiveness. Right knee problems completely sapped his 2008 season. In 2009 he appeared to be on the comeback trail, but fell off considerably after a hot start. Last year, with the White Sox, he started similarly hot, and while he dropped off it was not nearly as dramatic. At season’s end he had produced a .364 wOBA in 328 PA. The Yankees will gladly take that from him in 2011.

Not only can Jones provide some value with the bat, but his defense can still come in handy. He’s no longer the best-in-league center fielder, but he can fill in there if needed. More likely he’ll play left field against tough lefties, relegating either Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson to the bench. This is a level of versatility the Yankees did not have in Marcus Thames.

Eric Chavez

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

When the Yankees signed Eric Chavez to a minor league deal just before the start of spring training, it appeared to be an insignificant move. After all, Chavez hadn’t gotten as many as 300 plate appearances since 2007, and has been generally awful since 2006. Even then, since 2004, when he was limited to 125 games due to injury, he hasn’t measured up to the lofty standards he set in the preceding five seasons. But at age 33 there’s still potential. The Yanks, as it turns out, were right to jump on it.

In Chavez the Yankees have a player who can back up both Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. If Jorge Posada hits the DL for the fourth straight year, he and Jones can platoon at DH. He also provides a lefty off the bench, which can prove useful in late-game situations. The need for a lefty off the bench last year wasn’t great, since there weren’t many players for whom Girardi would pinch hit. But with Russell Martin on the team, and with the repeated possibility of guys such as Kevin Russo getting playing time, having Chavez’s bat in late innings will help plenty.

While spring stats mean little, Chavez has impressed during his time this March. Even when he makes outs he’s hitting the ball hard. He will certainly travel north with the team, with the hope that a part-time role will help keep him healthy and productive. It might not be striking gold, but the Yankees have done very well for minimal risk.

Ramiro Pena / Eduardo Nunez

(Kathy Willens/AP)

It just feels as though the Yankees want Nunez to fill that utility infield role. In recent games they’ve tried him in the outfield, a sign that they’re grooming him for a super utility role. It hasn’t appeared pretty, though, and chances are Nunez will stick to the infield, at least in 2011. But will he play behind Jeter, Rodriguez, and Cano, or will he take regular reps at AAA?

The Yankees are always in a tough position with the utility infield role. It doesn’t make sense to take anyone significant, because Jeter and Cano do not take days off. Even last year, through his struggles, Jeter played in 157 games. Cano played in 160. There will be some at DH, and some of those games won’t be starts. Still, it leaves possibly a dozen games, absolute max, that will require a utility infielder as a starter. That’s why Pena makes sense. His noodle bat won’t hurt too much, since his playing time is limited. If either Jeter or Cano requires a DL trip, the Yanks can recall Nunez to play full-time.

(And at third base it’s a non-issue, since Chavez is there to play when A-Rod needs days off.)

This actually figures to be the least important spot on the bench. Oftentimes that title is reserved for backup catchers. But the utility infielder on the Yanks will almost certainly get less playing time than the backup catcher. And that’s especially if a certain top prospect sticks in that role.

Jesus Montero / Francisco Cervelli

(Kathy Willens/AP)

With Cervelli on the shelf to start the season, we can assume that Montero breaks camp as the backup catcher. That will give him a quick taste of the big leagues, affording him maybe three starts each week he’s with the club. Then, when Cervelli returns the team can re-assess. If Martin is playing well they can ship Montero back to AAA and use Cervelli as the backup, which is clearly his most useful role. If Martin isn’t hitting, perhaps they’ll keep Montero around and let him split time and learn at the major league level.

It’s hard for the Yankees to go wrong in this scenario. If Martin is hitting the Yankees have a valuable starter and backup combination. Cervelli can play once a week, which suits him well. If Martin isn’t hitting, the Yankees can put a greater emphasis on Montero, whose bat is, by all accounts, ready for the majors. Either way, the Yankees will likely realize well above average production from their catcher. That’s a good thing, since it’s what they’ve grown accustomed to in the past decade with Posada behind the plate.

It has been a while since the Yankees have broken camp with a high quality bench. They face issues every year in attracting free agent reserve players, since their full-time players don’t leave much room for additional playing time. But this past off-season they took time to build a strong and versatile bench. From the way things appear now, that effort should pay off handsomely. Even if it doesn’t, there’s still room for the Yankees to build the bench the way they did in 2009. There will always be players available around the deadline.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 21st, 2011

Record Last Week: 3-2-1 (32 RS, 16 RA)
Spring Training Record: 10-12-3 (91 RS, 106 RA)
Schedule This Week: @ Rays (Mon. on MLB), @ Orioles (Tues. on YES/MLBN), vs. Blue Jays (Weds). Thurs. OFF, vs. Astros (Fri.), vs. Pirates (Sat. on YES), @ Twins (Sun.)

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The Freddy Garcia conundrum

Freddy Garcia warms up prior to his start on Saturday. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As Spring Training results go, Freddy Garcia’s haven’t been much. He had a few good starts early on when pitchers were still ahead of hitters, but as the Grapefruit League has progressed, his results have regressed. He had a fairly representative start on Saturday when he had trouble at the beginning and end of his outing but kept the Blue Jays off the board in the middle innings. It could mean that he winds up the odd man out.

On the spring, Garcia has now thrown 13.2 innings with mixed results. His ERA is 5.93, but he has issued just two free passes while striking out 12. He can get the ball past hitters at times, but when he misses his spots, he’s fooling no one. Such are the pitfalls of a 34-year-old who can’t muscle the ball past the 90 mile-an-hour mark any longer.

So what future awaits Garcia? The consensus emerging from the Yankee camp with but a week left of Spring Training — and another outing or two at most for the rotation candidates — is that the Chief is falling behind. Brian Costello wrote as much yesterday in The Post. Brian Cashman though had little to say. “We’re going to have to make a call here shortly because we’re going to have to keep stretching whoever we choose out and start settling people in defined roles,” Cashman said. “That’s going to come sooner than later.”

For his part, Garcia said in no uncertain terms that he will either be on the Major League roster or off the Yanks. “If I don’t make the team, what am I supposed to do in Triple-A?” Garcia said to The Post. “I’m 34 years old. I’ve been in the big leagues a long time. There’s nothing to go to Triple-A and prove. It’s either I make the team or not.”

So here, for Garcia, is the $1.5 million question: Can he make the team out of the bullpen if he’s out of the running for a rotation spot? Garcia has said he’s willing to pitch in long relief. Thus, he is fighting for a job with Sergio Mitre. In eight innings this spring, Mitre has given up just two runs while walking no one and strike out six. Despite many fans’ seeming dislike of Mitre, the sinker baller has done the job. He pitches low leverage innings without turning games into disasters, and the Yanks haven’t been willing to let him go.

As Spring Training hits the home stretch then, the position battles are shifting a bit. The rotation is still unsettled, but Garcia is now fighting with Sergio Mitre for the long man role. It might be a bit of predetermined contest though. The Yanks, for whatever reason, like Mitre, but will they go with potential rotation depth? I wouldn’t be surprised if Garcia breaks camp with the team even if he’s in the bullpen for now.