Position player questions starting to be answered

Boesch seems like a safe bet for the Opening Day roster. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Boesch seems like a safe bet for the Opening Day roster. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees showed up to camp last spring with the bench mostly set, but this year was a different story. None of the four bench spots were accounted for when position players reported last month — there were favorites for jobs, but nothing was close to set in stone — and right now the only guarantee is that either Chris Stewart or Frankie Cervelli will be the backup catcher while the other starts. The backup infielder, backup outfielder, and remaining bench spot are still undecided.

Less than two weeks before Opening Day, those three bench questions are joined by two injury-related questions in the starting lineup. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira will be out until May, possibly longer in the case of the latter, meaning the Yankees must also sort through their assorted scraps for an outfielder and a first baseman. Thanks to some recent roster moves, these five position player questions are starting to be answered.

“There is no guarantee for anything … We will continue to evaluate these guys as we move forward,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings and Dan Martin after Matt Diaz was released over the weekend. “Maybe one piece is gone, but it’s still going to play out probably for the next two weeks … We just thought the other guys were ahead of him and to be fair to him to have a chance to [play] somewhere else.”

In addition to Diaz being released, youngsters like Slade Heathcott and Zoilo Almonte were sent to minor league camp and effective removed from the outfield competition. Juan Rivera has played an awful lot of first base lately in the wake of Teixeira’s injury — he’s played the outfield just once in the last eight Grapefruit League games — and seems to have been dropped from the outfield race. That leaves Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, Melky Mesa, and Thomas Neal in the competition.

With all due respect to Neal, who has quietly had a nice camp, the other three guys stand out as prohibitive favorites. I think the Yankees consider the 27-year-old Boesch is the no-doubt replacement for  Granderson — I think he would play right with Ichiro Suzuki shifting to left, putting the weaker defender in the smaller field — just because he’s left-handed and has played everyday the last three years. That said, Boesch signed a split contract and Buster Olney confirmed he has two (!) minor league options left, so he could be sent to Triple-A in a heartbeat. The fact that he’s the only left-handed hitter left in the competition leads me to believe he has a leg up on a big league roster spot come Opening Day.

Francisco. (Presswire)
Francisco. (Presswire)

That leaves Francisco and Mesa to battle it out for the right-handed outfield/DH role, and the Yankees always seem to lean towards the veteran when it comes to these part-time/reserve roles. Going with Francisco and sending Mesa to Triple-A allows the team to keep both players and frankly they could use the depth. Neither guy is like to hit much and while Melky2.0 is the better defender, Francisco is solid in the corner spots. Keeping him with Mesa in Triple-A is preferable to having Mesa in the show with no backup in the minors just in terms of having as many warm bodies as possible. Both guys will be needing over the course of the 162-game season.

Since the Yankees don’t need a fifth starter until their seventh game of the season and can backdate a DL stint ten days into Spring Training, they could have Phil Hughes start the season on the DL due to his back problem and carry an extra position player. Hughes would still be eligible to come off the DL in time for that seventh game, but the club would buy itself just a tiny bit more time to evaluate their position player options. It’s the difference between carrying both Rivera and Dan Johnson at the start of the season rather than just one or two. The Yankees only figure to see one left-handed starter in those first six games (Jon Lester on Opening Day), so having Johnson around would be helpful.

We still have no idea who the Yankees will carry north as the utility infielder, but Jayson Nix might have a leg up on Eduardo Nunez because of his versatility and defensive reliability. Going into the season with Boesch, Francisco, Rivera, and Johnson leaves the team just one spot for a utility man even if they open with Hughes on the DL. We know they’re just dying to use Nunez at short when Derek Jeter plays DH against lefties, but he hasn’t played any other position in camp. If they’re going to use him as the utility infielder, they’ll need to get him a few reps at second and third just to prepare him for the season.

With Diaz released and some others assigned to minor league camp, it looks more and more likely the Yankees will have both Boesch and Francisco on their Opening Day roster. Rivera and Johnson are the obvious first base fill-ins, but the club would need to manipulate Hughes’ injury — if they backdate his DL stint ten days, he can’t pitch in a Grapefruit League game during that time and will have to get his work in on the minor league side — to buy a temporary extra roster spot. The competition for the outfield, first base, and bench spots is still relatively wide open, but the picture is much clearer right now than it was just one week ago.

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2013 Season Preview: The Designated Hitters

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees will open 2013 with their fifth different primary DH in the last five seasons, and that is completely by design. Hideki Matsui‘s knees relegated him to almost exclusive DH duty in 2008 and 2009, creating roster and lineup inflexibility. The team dealt with a similar issue in 2010 with Jorge Posada.

Otherwise, New York has tried to use that DH spot as a revolving door, which is a trend spreading throughout the league. Rather than have one set everyday DH, they’ve picked up a low-cost left-handed hitter to platoon with their older players at the position. Brett Gardner‘s injury forced Raul Ibanez — who was signed to be that low-cost left-handed half of the DH platoon — in the outfield more than expected last season, which is why ten different players started games at DH last year. Only one (Alex Rodriguez) started more than 25 games there.

The Starter(s)
This summer’s low-cost left-handed DH is long-time Cleveland Indian Travis Hafner, who signed a one-year contract with a $2M base salary in early-February. The 35-year-old hit .228/.346/.438 (118 wRC+) with 12 homers in 263 plate appearances last season, including .241/.361/.437 (123 wRC+) against righties. Over the last three seasons, Pronk has hit .267/.363/.447 (124 wRC+) overall and .278/.385/.470 (136 wRC+) against right-handers, which is exactly what the Yankees want him to do in 2013. It’s a very simple job, just hit right-handers and take advantage of the short porch.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees have already admitted their plan to use Derek Jeter as their full-time DH against left-handers, at least early in the season. The move has more to do with getting him off his feet following late-October ankle surgery than his ability to mash southpaws — .364/.399/.542 (157 wRC+) in 2012 and .344/.403/.515 (150 wRC+) since 2010 — which is completely understandable. Jeter, 38, could use the regular rest following surgery even if serving as the DH is only a half-day off, so to speak. That will presumably force Eduardo Nunez into the field as shortstop on a fairly regular basis.

There are two concerns with a Hafner-led DH platoon. One, he doesn’t play a position at all. He hasn’t played first base regularly since 2005 or at all since 2007, so unlike Ibanez last year, he won’t be able to fill-in anywhere in case of injury. That’s already a problem in the wake of Mark Teixeira‘s wrist injury. Second, Hafner himself is an injury risk. He had right shoulder surgery in October 2008 and has been on the DL six times in the four years since, including two times in both 2011 and 2012. Ailments have ranged from shoulder soreness to an oblique strain to knee surgery to a bulging disk in his back. Hafner is a very important part of the lineup early in the season with Teixeira and Curtis Granderson hurt, but he’s unlikely to make it through the entire season unscathed himself.

The Backup
No team carries a backup DH. The position doesn’t exist. If and when Hafner gets hurt, the Yankees will do what they did last year. They’ll rotate players in and out of the position to rest them, with a bench player like Nunez or the right-handed hitting outfielder to be named later seeing more playing time in the field. Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, A-Rod, Kevin Youkilis, Robinson Cano … all of them would see time at DH should anything happen to Hafner.

Knocking on the Door
Again, no team stashes a backup DH in the minors. The obvious answer for the Yankees here would be first baseman Dan Johnson, who looks poised to open the season as Teixeira’s temporary replacement. Outfielders Thomas Neal and Zoilo Almonte, first baseman Luke Murton, and infielders Corban Joseph and David Adams could all be called up if Hafner goes down and see playing time in some capacity. DH depth isn’t clearly defined like it is for other positions, it won’t be one set guy to come off the bench or up from Triple-A if the DH spot becomes suddenly vacant.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Top Prospect
I didn’t rank a single DH prospect in my preseason top 30 list because DH prospects don’t exist. The closest we’ve seen to one is Jesus Montero, who is being given every opportunity to catch in the big leagues. It’s the ultimate last resort position. I guess Ronnie Mustelier could be considered the team’s top DH prospect given his good bat and poor defense, but he won’t be moving there anytime soon. Below-average defense is better than zero defense in some instances, especially since most hitters see their offensive production decline when serving as the DH. It’s not an easy thing to do, sitting around between at-bats.

The Deep Sleeper
The Yankees don’t have a true DH prospect at all, nevermind in the lower minors. If someone is stuck playing DH semi-regularly in a short season league, they ain’t no prospect. I’ll take Yeicok Calderon, who I mentioned yesterday in the right field write-up. He can hit a little but stinks defensively, so maybe he winds up a DH down the line. Otherwise, nothing to see here.

* * *

The Yankees will rely on Hafner and Jeter at DH this year, especially early in the season. Others like Youkilis and Cano will see some time at the position as well, just to get a day away from the field, and guys like Almonte and Mustelier provide some depth in Triple-A. Hafner is very important to the Yankees though, especially while Teixeira and Granderson are out. It’s not at all a stretch to call him their second best offensive player at the moment.

Other Previews: Catchers, First Basemen, Second Basemen, Shortstops, Third Basemen, Left Fielders, Center Fielders, Right Fielders

Replacing Teixeira with a three-headed platoon

(Charles Wenzelberg)
(Charles Wenzelberg)

Barring some kind of unexpected trade, the Yankees are not going to be able to replace Mark Teixeira‘s production while he is out with his wrist injury. Say what you want about his declining performance — you’re kidding yourself if you think he’ll be easy to replace because of his typically slow starts — he was far better than anyone reasonably available as an alternative. The Yankees will simply have to weather the storm and hope they don’t fall too far out of the AL East race while their first baseman (and center fielder) are on the shelf in April.

Given the in-house options, it seems like the best way to replace Teixeira is with a three-headed platoon. Kevin Youkilis is the common player here thanks to his ability to play either corner infield spot. Against righties, the Yankees could run with Youkilis at third and Dan Johnson at first. Against lefties, they could go with Youkilis at first and say, Ronnie Mustelier at third. Here are the numbers (from 2011-2012) for a real quick comparison:

  • Johnson vs. RHP: .291/.409/.549 in 678 PA
  • Youkilis vs. RHP: .227/.332/.395 in 719 PA
  • Mustelier vs. LHP: .305/.357/.506 in 183 PA
  • Youkilis vs. LHP: .294/.407/.528 in 307 PA

Johnson’s and Mustelier’s stats come from Minor League Central because they simply haven’t played much (or, in Ronnie’s case, at all) in the big leagues. That’s going to be a problem pretty much no matter who the Yankees choose to replace Teixeira — they won’t have much of a big league track record. Obviously Youkilis is a concern against right-handers, but we knew that at the time of his signing. Maybe his work with Kevin Long will improve that production, but I’m not counting on it.

Like it or not, Johnson’s and Mustelier’s performances will take a step back from those numbers with regular playing time in the show. If they could manage league average performances against pitchers of the opposite hand while Teixeira is on the shelf, I’d be thrilled. The Yankees would be getting approximately a league average performance from the two corners against righties and much better than that against lefties (thanks to Youkili)s. This is just offensively, remember. There’s no way to replace Tex’s defense.

Now that I think about it, it would probably be easier just to keep Youkilis at third the whole time and stick the defensively challenged Mustelier at first, but the Yankees like to make things unnecessarily complicated and this way they wouldn’t have to worry about teaching him a new position. If they want to keep Youkilis at third, they could use Juan Rivera at first against lefties. He has seen more time at first in camp lately and actually played more games there (54) than in the outfield last year (46). Jayson Nix is another right-handed option, but he’s a third baseman and more of a last resort than anything. Nice fill-in player but not someone worthy of a regular lineup spot, even against lefties.

The season starts in two weeks and two days, and right now I have absolutely no idea what the Yankees will do until Teixeira returns to the lineup. I’m guessing they don’t have a firm plan in place either, but are probably leaning one way or the other. That kinda scares me. First base is one of the most important (arguably the most important) position in terms of expected offensive production, and right now the Yankees are holding auditions for an injury fill-in(s). It seems like an easy spot to fill, but no obvious solution stands out right now.

2013 Season Preview: The First Basemen

Starting this week and continuing through the end of the Spring Training, we’re going to preview the Yankees position-by-position and on a couple of different levels.

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

The Yankees have only had four regular first baseman over the last 20 years, so the position has become pretty low-maintenance in the Bronx. That doesn’t make it any less important though, and this summer the club will have to rely on the most recent of those four first baseman to anchor their offense and be a steadying presence in the lineup. Robinson Cano is clearly the team’s best hitter, but he can’t do it all himself.

The Starter
There’s no doubt Mark Teixeira is one of the most important Yankees heading into the 2013 season. The club lost quite a bit of offense this winter and will be without Curtis Granderson for the month of April, meaning they can’t afford another one of Teixeira’s customary slow starts — during his four years in the Bronx, Tex has hit .209/.336/.386 in April and .271/.361/.525 in the other five months of the season. Perhaps playing in the World Baseball Classic this spring will break that trend, but I’m not counting on it.

Teixeira, who will turn 33 a few days into the season, has all but abandoned any hope of getting back to being the all-fields hitter he was prior to the 2010 season. The short porch in right field was too enticing and he completely changed his approach as a left-handed hitter, opting to pull the ball in the air rather than just drive it wherever it was pitched. That approach is great for power but lousy for everything else, as the shift and routine fly balls have sapped his batting average and by extension, his on-base percentage. Teixeira tried to get back to hitting to all-fields last year and the result was a lot of weak fly balls the other way, so the damage to his left-handed swing is been done. He remains an above-average hitter (116 wRC+ in 2012) but is now just a one-dimensional one.

On the other side of the ball, Teixeira has few peers in the field and is one of baseball’s best defensive first baseman. His range actually kinda stinks thanks to his thick lower half and utter lack of foot speed, but he sucks up every ball he can reach and is as good a thrower as you’ll find at the position. The total package is an above-average player but not an elite one despite his salary, and Teixeira is aware of that. The Yankees desperately need him to stay healthy and be productive this summer.

The Backup
With the bench still unsettled, Teixeira’s backup right now is third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Given the team’s lack of hot corner alternatives, I’m guessing the bench will feature a more clearly defined backup first baseman such as 33-year-old Dan Johnson or even 34-year-old Juan Rivera, who played more games at first (54) than in the outfield last year (46). Either way, Teixeira has been a lock for 155+ games played for most of his career and will be counted on for that many in 2013. There will be no platoons or experiments here, Teixeira is the guy. If he gets hurt and misses a few weeks, the drop-off between him and his replacement — or the replacement third baseman with Youkilis sliding over to first — is considerable.

Knocking on the Door
Johnson could either make the team or open the season in Triple-A — I don’t think either would be much of a surprise. If he does open the year on the bench in New York, 26-year-old Luke Murton would get the call as the regular first baseman for Triple-A Scranton. Matt’s little brother hit .249/.327/.464 (117 wRC+) with 25 homers in 526 plate appearances for Double-A Trenton last year, though he isn’t much of a prospect because he struggles against breaking balls and isn’t much of a defender. The righty hitting/righty throwing first baseman is one of baseball’s weakest historical profiles, so Murton is at an even greater disadvantage. He is technically knocking on the door of the big leagues since he’ll be with the Triple-A squad, but I wouldn’t expect to see him wearing pinstripes this year or any other year for that matter.

(Andy Cross, The Denver Post)
Once a catcher, but not any more. (Denver Post)

The Top Prospect
I didn’t rank a single first base prospect in my preseason top 30 list and that’s no accident. It’s a low priority position and very few players are actually drafted and developed as first baseman. Most move there from other more high-profile positions as a last resort. Prince Fielder is the most notable exception.

Anyway, New York’s best first base prospect — 20-year-old Greg Bird — has indeed moved to the position because he couldn’t handle catching full-time due to a back injury. The left-handed hitter owns a .307/.418/.446 (~159 wRC+) career batting line since signing for $1.1M as the team’s fifth round pick in 2011, but unfortunately that performance has come in only 122 plate appearances. Bird offers power and patience and he can really hit, but he’s going to have to keep producing since he’s already relegated to the lowest priority position before his 21st birthday.

The Deep Sleeper
As I said, there aren’t many first base prospects worth knowing throughout the game in general, nevermind in Yankees’ system. Bird is their best prospect at the position by a big margin, but last summer’s tenth round pick Matt Snyder could be a breakout candidate this summer. The 22-year-old hit .299/.397/.428 (147 wRC+) with more walks (26) than strikeouts (19) in 219 plate appearances for Short Season Staten Island last year, but therein lies the rub: his season ended prematurely because of a broke wrist. Wrist injuries tend to linger and impact power output for a year or so, meaning Snyder’s breakout potential is limited.

* * *

The Yankees are setup well at first base with Teixeira, though his production has slipped and he’s no longer the two-way force he was earlier in his career. He’s more of a great complementary player than a cornerstone, which kinda sucks because there is still four years left on his contract. The team lacks first base prospects — specifically at the upper levels of the minor leagues — but that’s not really a big deal at this point. They are going to live and die with Teixeira for the foreseeable future thanks to his contract anyway.

Other Previews: Catchers

Update: Cashman confirms Cervelli doesn’t have an option remaining

February 24th: Cashman misspoke and confirmed to Jack Curry that Cervelli does not have an option remaining. He also indicated the guys who can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers (Cervelli and Stewart) have a leg up in the catching competition. That’s not terribly surprising.

February 9th: Via Chad Jennings: Brian Cashman confirmed that Frankie Cervelli has a minor league option remaining. I was under the assumption that he burned his final option last season, but that wasn’t the case. The Yankees will be able to send Cervelli to Triple-A this year without having to pass him through waivers, which is kinda big considering the wide open catching race. The internal options all stink, but it would be nice to keep everyone around just in case.

Cashman also confirmed that Cody Eppley, Eduardo Nunez, and Ivan Nova have an option left as well. Chris Stewart and Clay Rapada do not, but both are expected to make the team anyway. Both Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz can opt out of their minor league contracts if they don’t make the team out of Spring Training while Dan Johnson’s opt-out date is later in the summer. Unlike the Ivan Nova-David Phelps competition for the fifth starter’s spot, the Yankees will only be able to keep the winner of the Rivera-Diaz competition for the right-handed bench bat role. The loser figures to look for a big league job elsewhere.