Yanks grit out win against Jays

With the Yanks 2-7 in their last nine games, any kind of win last night would have felt good. The Yankees did us one better, winning in a convincing manner and getting production from all around the lineup. Best of all, they beat up on a pitcher they have never seen before, who was actually pitching well. Thoroughly enjoyable game all around.

Things started off a bit shaky in the first. After Mark Teixeira ripped his first single since May 6, A-Rod walked to put him in scoring position. Yet Robinson Cano, hitting .186 with runners in scoring position coming into the game, flied out. And so continued the team’s futility with runners in scoring position.

The bottom of the first can be summed up thusly: If I told you that Andy Pettitte would walk three Blue Jays in the inning and allow only one run, would you believe me? I don’t think I’d believe me. But it happened. The run scored in maddeningly frustrating fashion, which made it all the worse. In the end, considering the circumstances, one run wasn’t all that bad.

Then, in the second, something amazing happened. Something glorious. The Yanks put together a rally, and it started with the bottom of the order. It actually started with the sixth hitter, but under normal circumstances Melky will hit much lower, so we’ll just call it bottom of the order, mmmmkay? After he doubled, Brett Gardner put every ounce of grit and heart and hard work behind a swing and deposited a ball just over the 328 ft. sign in right. Gardner’s first career homer gave the Yanks a 2-1 lead.

As if things could get stranger, Ramiro Pena followed that with a triple. Then, after a Frankie Cervelli ground out, Johnny Damon hit yet another triple. Mark Teixeira poured it on with another hit, this one a double, giving him a 2-2 start to the night. Finally, after an A-rod walk, Robinson Cano came up in the exact situation as the previous inning: first and second, two out. Only this time his team was up 4-1. Once he put a ball in right field, it was 5-1.

While big innings are quite fun — and good for the nerves — we’ve seen the Yanks post a few of them this season, yet we haven’t seen the kind of consistent offensive output one would expect from a serious contender. So it came as a relief when Tex hit a sac fly in the fourth to plate the Yanks’ sixth run of the game. Things got even brighter in the fifth, when a Robinson Cano leadoff double led to two more runs, including a triple by Gardner. Looks like the kid wants to play. Too bad Melky is going so well right now.

The game wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Pettitte, but he got the job done for six innings. After the three walks in the first he allowed only one the rest of the game. The only real trouble he ran into after the first was in the fourth, when the Jays mounted something of a two-out rally which was kickstarted by a Scott Rolen “oops” infield single. Six innings, two runs. The Yanks will take it almost every time from Pettitte.

Get this: a Blue Jay doubled to lead off in three innings last night. None of them came around to score. That’s Scutaro in the third, Rolen in the sixth, and Wells in the eighth. Each time the Yanks pitchers — Pettitte and Al Aceves — were able to retire the subsequent Jays in order. Pettitte benefitted from a caught stealing in the third. While you’d like not to see the leadoff double in the first place, that’s a good job of the Yanks tonight of bearing down and not letting it hurt them.

The only downer of the night was Nick Swisher, who did not join the Yanks onslaught. His 0 for 5 night extended his slump to 3 for his last 30. Despite this, he still has an OPS of .956. That’s how awesome Nick Swisher is. Want to see another reason Nick Swisher is awesome:

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While Nick Swisher has actually hit .143/.208/.333 over the last seven days, ESPN.com has him at .333/.429/.750. Apparently, they took his awesomeness factor into consideration.

CC gets a chance to follow up his brilliant performance from last Friday. He’ll oppose reliever-turned-starter Brian Tallet. After last night’s win, this one I’m looking forward to.

Gardner takes home 2009 Dawson Award

Via PeteAbe, new center fielder Brett Gardner was named this year’s winner of the James P. Dawson Award, given annually to the most outstanding rookie in Yankees’ Spring Training camp. He’ll be honored before tomorrow’s game against the Phillies, the Yanks’ final game in Florida of the preseason. Let’s hope things go better for Gardner than they have for the previous winners, which includes Shelley Duncan, Kei Igawa, Eric Duncan and Bubba Crosby.

Update by Ben: While we’re on the subject of Spring Training awards, MLB announced today that the Yankees along with the Astros have captured the Bobby Murcer Award. The Yanks earned these honors by donating the most money in the A.L. to the Baseball Assistance team, an organization devoted to ensuring the financial security of former baseball players and coaches. B.A.T. raised $1.5 million this spring, an increase of nearly seven percent over last year. For more on B.A.T., check out its website.

Graphing the Yanks’ outfield defense

Outfield Defense

That graph comes courtesy of Dan Turkenkopf at Beyond the Box Score. Dan took the vector data from Dave Pinto’s database and plotted it to show where each of the Yanks’ starting outfielders excels defensively. Basically what you’re seeing is how good each player is on balls hit to a specific “zone,” with green being good and red being bad. The center fielder is shown above the corner guys just so you can see the overlap, it doesn’t mean that balls hit to corners will go undefended or anything like that. And also don’t worry about the background, the New Stadium will have the same dimensions as the old joint.

The very first thing I noticed was how bad Nady is on balls hit right at him, basically about five outs worse than expected. He’s even weak to his immediate right and left, which tells me that he’s just not very instinctive out there, and is at his best defensively when it’s obvious off the bat that he’ll need some hustle to get to the ball. You know what would be cool? If Mr. Turkenkopf put one of these together with Swisher in right instead of the X-man. (nudge nudge)

Damon is the opposite of Nady, eating up everything hit close to him, which is what you’d expect from a veteran Major League outfielder. He’s also stronger going to his right, which probably has something to do with him not having to reach across his body with his glove to field balls on that side. Gardner’s very strong out there, making plays on everything hit even remotely close to him. He shows the same pattern of struggling to get to balls that would require him to reach across his body with his glove, so my theory might hold a little water. Of course the small sample size police are in full force with Gardy.

Judging from the graph, it looks like the biggest problem areas are the gaps (expected), specifically the left-center field gap. And, you know, the whole Nady in right field thing. Joe and I have mentioned on the podcast several times that the hardest ball to field is the one hit right at you, but it looks like Nady is the only one in the Yanks outfield with this issue.

This is some really interesting stuff. What do you guys think?

Everybody loves Brett

In Disney World today, the Yankees’ three long relief candidates — Brett Tomko, Al Aceves and Dan Giese — are each scheduled to make their cases for that final spot in the bullpen. Meanwhile, the center field job is all but wrapped up, and Brett Gardner is emerging as the one to start the season manning center field.

For those of us watching the Yankee news over the last few days, this revelation can hardly come as a surprise. After all, the Yankees, as Ken Rosenthal reported, would be willing to trade Melky Cabrera at this point. That kind of news doesn’t leak out five days before you name the trade candidate as your starter.

At the same time, though, Kat O’Brien says that both players will earn jobs with the Big League club. For the Yankees, that’s simply a personnel matter. Melky Cabrera is out of options, and while the Yanks may not have a trade lined up, the Yanks would have to put Melky through waivers to send him down to AAA. We might not be too high on Melky’s future potential, but a 24-year-old with 415 MLB games under his belt wouldn’t clear waivers.

Rob Neyer agrees but only to a point. In a blog post yesterday, Neyer analyzed the Yanks’ center field situation and urged the team to send off Melky if they can. In fact, he doesn’t think both players should earn a spot on the team. While Neyer has a point about that, as I said, the Yanks don’t want to lose Melky and will probably try to trade him this spring. Writes Neyer:

[If] you’re going to get rid of one of them, Cabrera’s probably the guy. At least Gardner’s demonstrated that he can do something (run and field) and might do something else (reach base). At this point, it’s not clear that Cabrera can do anything. And I say that having written — just two or three years ago — that by now Melky would be one of the 10 best center fielders in the majors (not one of my more brilliant predictions).

Cabrera’s upside might still be higher than Gardner’s … but the Yankees can’t worry about upside. They’re trying to win right now, and Gardner gives them a slightly better chance of doing that…

The Yankees aren’t going to trade Nick Swisher because they need him. If Joe Girardi can’t somehow get Swisher nearly 500 plate appearances this season, then he’s not a good enough manager for this club. I’m at the front of the line criticizing the supposed decision to make Nady the everyday right fielder, but I’m willing to cut Girardi just a little slack for the moment. There just isn’t any justification for Nady getting more playing time than Swisher in the long run.

In a way, this news is good for Brett, bad for Melky, but in another way, it doesn’t really matter. Gardner will earn the center field at bats until his hitting becomes a liability. If he isn’t doing the job out of the gate, the Yanks can put Melky back into that lineup spot if they haven’t traded him. If neither emerge as viable candidates for the job, Nick Swisher may be pressed into service or Brian Cashman will look elsewhere. For now, though, April 6 will mark the start of the Brett Gardner Era in the Bronx.

Checking in on the center field battle

In 17 days, the Yankees will begin their inevitable march toward a 27th World Series championship. Meanwhile, they still have no set center fielder. With Grapefruit League action a-dwindlin’ in Tampa, it’s time to check in on everyone’s favorite positional battle.

We start with a Jayson Stark rumor:

GLOVE AFFAIR: The most-heard observation about the Yankees this spring: That team could have serious, and potentially fatal, defensive issues. They’re range-challenged in left, in right and at shortstop. (Ed. Note: That’s a shot at Jeter.) They have reliability issues at second. Alex Rodriguez is now a major question on every level. And nobody knows what kind of defensive catcher Jorge Posada is capable of being over the long haul. There are rumblings the Yankees are poking around again on Mike Cameron’s availability.

So basically, that paragraph boils down to blah, blah, blah, and oh, yeah, the Yanks are back on the Mike Cameron bandwagon. If Stark’s sources are telling the truth, I’m not really sure what the Yankees see in Cameron. He’s having a terrible spring for the Brewers; he’s old; and he’s not cheap. The Yanks have two center fielders in camp who could do the job, and while Cameron may still be a better defender than Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, a weaker hitter, is just as good, if not, better at getting to fly balls.

Cameron, a few months older than Johnny Damon, doesn’t fit the Yankees’ move toward younger, more versatile players either. Perhaps the Brewers are trying to stir up interest in a contractual albatross, but I just don’t see Cameron arriving in the Bronx any time soon. Meanwhile, the Brewers are denying any and all trade rumors, and this looks like a big nothing from Stark. Shocking, I know.

Back in Tampa, Bryan Hoch checked in with Melky Cabrera. The displaced starter now battling for his position feels as though he has a shot at the job, and Joe Girardi is conceding nothing. “This offseason, I worked really hard, so when the opportunity came, I’d be ready to play,” Cabrera said to Hoch. “I worked on defense and hitting and was working out every day. It’s helping a lot. I’m ready to go.”

For his part, with a few weeks of spring games left, Girardi is not giving the spot to either player. “Melky’s playing at a very high level, as well,” Girardi said. “I’m happy with the way Melky is playing. He’s really started swinging the bat, and you see him doing little things — bringing the defense in with drag attempts and shooting balls by them.”

For what it’s worth, Brett Gardner is far outhitting Melky in Spring Training. Cabrera is hitting a Melky-ian .250/.341/.361 through around 40 PAs, and Gardner is hitting .382./447/.765 in the same span.

The Yanks though are far from finished with the auditions. According to Hoch, the team likes Cabrera’s arm in center, and the decision may come down to defense, a factor that should favor Gardner’s speed and range. In the end, Hoch notes that the Yanks could carry both players, and considering that Melky is out of options, they very well might so as not to lose the youngster. I wouldn’t, however, pencil in anyone but Gardner for that Opening Day spot quite yet. Who emerges as the center fielder by game 100 is anyone’s guess.

Gardner vs. Gathright

Gardner's Great CatchLast week longtime RAB reader and commenter whozat shot me an email asking me if there was any reason to expect Brett Gardner to develop into a better Major League player than Joey Gathright. The comparison between the two players obviously makes sense since they’re both speedy outfielders who don’t hit for much for power, except that Gardner is called gutty and gritty because he’s white while Gathright is called exciting and athletic because he’s black. I noted in my reply that Gardner had hit for more power in the minors, but overall they had similar career paths and I really wouldn’t expect Gardner to be all that much better than Gathright in the future.

However, I took a deeper look at the numbers over the weekend, and there aren’t many similarities between the two players beyond physical attributes. One obvious difference is that Gardner was a third round draft pick out of a solid college program while Gathright was a 32nd rounder after the then-Devil Rays found him in a Louisiana adult league. Luckily though, the two players took an extremely similar path to the big leagues, although Gathright’s career began four years before Gardner’s.

Both players were drafted at age 21 and then assigned to a low level squad in the minors (Gardner went to the short season NY-Penn League, Gathright to the Low-A South Atlantic League). Both players started their age 22 season at the High-A level and earned a midseason bump to Double-A, then started the next year back at Double-A before being promoted to Triple-A in the middle of the season. In their age 24 season, their third full professional season, each player started the year in Triple-A before being called up to the big leagues during the summer and finishing the year there. It’s amazingly awesome and convenient that both guys spent their same age seasons at the same levels (and had similar plate appearance totals, no less) despite all the promotions. It made this analysis a ton easier.

I’m going to use three factors to compare Gardner and Gathright: Isolated Discipline, Isolated Power, and Stolen Base Success Rate. Isolated Discipline (or IsoD) is OBP minus AVG, and measures a player’s on-base skills beyond batting average. Isolated Power (IsoP) is basically the same thing except with SLG instead of OBP, and measures a player’s extra base hit power. Stolen Base Percentage is what it is, that’s self-explanatory. Let’s start with the most important thing, on-base skills.

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Open Thread: 100 Names You Need To Know

priceUSA Today ran an article today that basically amounts to 100 young players you need to know for 2009. David Price predictably topped the list, and was followed by Travis Snider of the Jays and Chris Davis of the Rangers. Three Yankees made the list:

35. Brett Gardner, OF, Yankees: Right now, Gardner is stuck in a five-man logjam in the Yankees outfield. Things could clear up for him (a trade of Xavier Nady or Nick Swisher, further club dissatisfaction with Melky Cabrera) or get more crowded (Jorge Posada forced to DH, pushing Hideki Matsui into the outfield mix). Gardner, 25, gives the Yankees a needed burst of speed (he stole 13 bases in 14 tries) and does the little things well, but will need to hit more — maybe a lot more — to get playing time.

84. Austin Jackson, OF, Yankees: The weak link in the Yankees’ lineup, at least offensively, is center field, where either Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera is likely to be on opening day. By some point later in the season, it’s not an unrealistic scenario that Jackson, 22, could be there. He is speedy with the ability to hit for average like Gardner but has more power. Cabrera can do similar things as Jackson offensively but slumped terribly at the plate last year. If Cabrera slumps again, Jackson will be a call away in Class AAA.

97. David Robertson, RHP, Yankees: Robertson, 23, emerged as a steady big-league bullpen option, then hit the wall with an 8.18 August ERA and was sent back to Class AAA. He throws hard enough to be a factor again this season, if not immediately.

These lists are very tough to put together, because you’re not ranking guys based on who’s the best player or prospect, you’re ranking them based on who will have the biggest impact in the big leagues this year. That said, David Murphy (#11) over Colby Rasmus (#12) is laughable.

Couple other quick comments: Clayton Richard (#17) is way too high, Tommy Hanson too low (#34), and JA Happ (#95) extremely too low. I’d have Happ in the top 25, ditto Hanson. I love me some Jason Motte too (#25), dude had 126 strikeouts in 76.2 IP between Triple-A and the bigs last year. And I’m sorry, if you’re going to include guys like Jess Todd, (#44) Adam Miller (#45), Scott Elbert (#50), and Phillippe Aumont (#72), then you have to include Mark Melancon. That’s just crazy.

Anywho, there’s your open thread for the night. The Nets are in D.C., and the Knicks are getting visit from LeBron. Anything goes, just be nice.

Photo Credit: Al Tielemans, SI