Thursday, May 2, 2013

2013 Yankees Position Players Report Card; The First Month

Written prior to Tuesday night's game.

No one is comparing the current New York Yankees squad to the 1998 team that won 114 regular season games, but clearly they are not the '62 Mets either. Despite injuries to a number of their regulars, the Yankees finished the first 25 games of the season with a 15-10 record. It left them three games behind the surprising Boston Red Sox in the AL East and atop the AL wild card race. 

Doom and gloom was the theme during Spring Training. Alex Rodriguez was already out until at least July with hip surgery, and was under the scrutiny of the Commissioner's office for allegedly being tied to an anti-aging clinic in Florida that was a front for selling performance enhancing drugs (PED). Derek Jeter had a setback as he tested out the ankle he broke during last year's playoffs, and then a new fracture developed after the team went north. 

Curtis Granderson broke his forearm in the first Spring Training game when the Blue Jay's J.A. Happ hit him with a pitch. Mark Teixeira injured a tendon in his wrist while getting ready to represent the US in the World Baseball Classic. Phil Hughes dealt with a bulging disc and was shut down. On and on it went. Throw in the departures of Nick Swisher and Russell Martin via free agency and a powerful ball club suddenly looked old and weak. 

General Manager Brian Cashman, who broke his leg sky diving, shuttled in players to fill in the holes. Minor leaguers, former Yankees, beat up veterans, come one come all, Uncle Brian wants you! 

Cashman had enough heads up notice about A-Rod to sign former Red Sox enemy Kevin Youkilis to a free agent deal. He signed free agent Travis Hafner as a power bat for the left-side of a DH platoon. He swung a deal for Vernon Wells after the Los Angeles Angels picked up the bulk of Wells' hefty contract. Not satisfied with outfielder Juan Rivera or veteran Dan Johnson as a solution for first base, Cashman brought in Lyle Overbay just days before Spring Training ended. 

The outfield was bolstered with the signings of Ben Francisco and Brennan Boesch after they had been released by their current teams. The acquisitions of Wells and Hafner, in particular, were met with skepticism by Yankees fans and ridiculed by some in the media. There are many games left in the season, but no one is snickering now. 

The Yankees newcomers have been a large part of the Yankees' April success as has the starting rotation and bullpen. To no one's surprise another key has been the production of Robinson Cano, who started out the season poorly and then caught fire. 

The Head of the Class 

Travis Hafner: "Pronk" slugged 127 home runs and drove in 434 runs1 from 2004-2007 while a member of the Cleveland Indians. Then his body fell apart and before you knew it, Hafner was a 36-year old has been. For the moment anyway, Hafner has found the Fountain of Youth in the Bronx. His six home runs in 62 at-bats are already half the total he hit in his final season with Cleveland last year. 

Hafner leads the Yankees in on-base (.413) and slugging percentage (.661), which also means he leads the league in the combo, aka OPS (1.075). This past Saturday the Yankees were in a 3-0 hole to the Toronto Blue Jays until Hafner tied it up with one swing. Then with the game tied at four apiece, Hafner hit one off the wall in the 7th inning for a game winning triple. The only concern was would he make it to third base without pulling, breaking, or spraining anything. 

Vernon Wells: The former Blue Jay was once atop the league as well- a stud five tool player whose stellar performance from 2002-2007 reeled in a seven year, $126MM deal from the Canadian franchise. The big money in the deal didn't kick in until 2010, by which time Wells was broken and bent. Toronto finally found a taker in the Los Angeles Angels and shipped him there prior to the 2011 season. 

Two straight sub-.700 OPS seasons on the left coast made Wells' services no longer wanted in California. One problem though - he was still owed $42MM. With the regular season less than a week away, the Angels sent Wells and $29MM to the Yankees for a couple of lower level minor leaguers. 

Being in pinstripes rejuvenated Wells' psyche; playing left field every day, Wells is among the team leaders with a .304/.374/.557 slash line. After hitting 11 home runs in 77 games with LA, Wells has already hit six with his new club and has been solid in the outfield. 

Robinson Cano: The only thing that surprised anyone about Cano was his 3-23 (.130), no RBI start to the season. It's no coincidence the Yankees went 2-4 in those six games. Since then, Cano has been tearing the cover off the baseball. He has 30 hits in his last 79 at-bats (.380) with 7 HRs, 8 doubles, 17 RBI, and 15 runs scored. Overall, Cano's now hitting .324 and sports a .986 OPS. 

Defensively, he's been as good as the second Gold Glove Award he won last year. He's handled 102 chances to date without an error. He's also not been distracted by allegations that an acquaintance of his was involved with the same clinic in Florida that A-Rod has been tied to. With their captain sidelined, Cano has stepped up on and off the field. 

Does Nice Work, but There's Room for Improvement 

Brett Gardner: After an April 16 win against Arizona, Gardner's batting average sat at a paltry .240 with an uninspiring .321 OBP. It was not what Gardner nor Joe Girardi had imagined when the Yankees skipper made the center fielder his every day leadoff hitter. Even worse, Gardner did not have a single stolen base. 

Since then Gardner is 14-49 (.286) with a .352 OBP (just about his career average), but has just one stolen base in three attempts. Yankees fans have seen this lack of aggressiveness before from Gardner and it can't go on. The Yankees lineup needs him to revert back to his 2010-2011 form when he had back-to-back seasons of 40+ steals. It also has a direct affect on Cano, who has been in the #2 spot in the order at times and can't afford to put himself in a hole taking pitches for a base stealer that won't run. 

Gardner has shown some surprising pop with three home runs, has 12 RBI and 13 runs scored, and has been rock solid in center field. Now he needs to get moving on the base paths. 

A For Effort 
Lyle Overbay: The Yankees first baseman is a perfect example of why you can't judge a player by strictly looking at his numbers. (Sorry SABRmetricians.) Overbay's numbers are pedestrian - .241/.268/.418 - but Overbay has come through in the clutch in some big spots this season. In the Yankees first win of the season, a psychological must after losing two straight to Boston to start the year, Overbay put the Yankees on board first with a 2-run single, en route to a 4-2 win. 

His RBI triple put the Yankees ahead for good in the second game of their recent four game sweep of the Blue Jays and he had the game winning two run home run the next day off 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. But it's Overbay's defense at first base that has been the key to his play. With Teixeira out, the Yankees needed someone to grab Kevin Youkilis and Eduardo Nunez's stray throws as well as field their own position cleanly. Overbay has done that and more. 

Out on Sick Leave 

Kevin Youkilis: When the Yankees signed Youkilis to fill in for Rodriguez at third base and to occasionally spell Mark Teixeira at first, they knew they were bringing in another player whose best days appeared to be behind him. Youkilis rebounded a bit for the Chicago White Sox after the Boston Red Sox dealt him away at last year's trade deadline, but there were still doubts if his body could ever hold up again through a 162 game season. 

Unfortunately for Youkilis and the Yankees, the answer appears to be no. Youkilis got off to a tremendous start - a nine game hitting streak to start the season (.424 avg) and a gaudy 1.227 OPS - but then his back started to ache. After that terrific start, the beardless, aching Youkilis went into a 3-31 slide at the plate. 

He sat out a week and returned against the Blue Jays this past Saturday, but was sent for an MRI afterwards. The results landed him on the disabled list for at least two weeks. 

Francisco Cervelli: The Yankees enthusiastic catcher has seen his share of bad breaks, both figuratively and literally. After he caught 126 games over two seasons, Cervelli thought for sure he was the backup to starter Russell Martin for the 2012 season. Then at the last minute the Yankees acquired Chris Stewart and Cervelli was relegated to the minor leagues for the season. After he got through the anger and disappointment, Cervelli settled in and came to camp this season prepared to win a spot. 

It didn't hurt that the Yankees let Martin walk and prospect Austin Romine missed all but 14 games last year with a bad back. Girardi said the playing time between Cervelli and Stewart would work itself out and it did just that. Cervelli stepped to the forefront with solid defensive play, his work with the pitchers, and even with his bat. 

His .877 OPS was by far the best of his career. He had already slugged three home runs, driven in eight runs, and was 3-8 with runners in scoring position. (All three hits were with two outs.) Then this past Friday night, Toronto's Rajai Davis fouled a ball off of Cervelli's exposed hand. A break occurred and surgery followed that will knock Cervelli out of action for six weeks. The Yankees will now hope Romine can step up (barring another move) to back up Stewart. 

A Hard Worker, Could Hit More 
Jayson Nix: The Yankees utility man has already played second base, shortstop, and third base this season. Nix will now be concentrating on third base with Youkilis sidelined for at least two weeks with a bad back. 

He's been solid for the Yankees in the field, which is the biggest thing you want from your utility man, and has shown double digit power in the past when he has gotten enough playing time. 

It's Time to Do a Book Report for Extra Credit

Ichiro Suzuki
: The veteran hit machine and free agent to be struggled mightily in Seattle last season, and appeared to be done. But after a deal to the Yankees, Ichiro ended the season with a torrid final month. It was so good, the Yankees decided to bring him back with a cheap deal, ostensibly to platoon in right field. Mainly due to injuries, Ichiro has been the everyday right fielder, but has contributed very little. 

The .322 lifetime hitter (which was the same average he had as a Yankee last year), hit just .200 through his first 16 games, before he started to show some signs of life. (He had three hits in April's finale against Houston.) 

Eduardo Nunez; The Yankees have always loved Nunez's potential, but his inability to play consistently good defense has hampered his progress. It was decided that Nunez would play shortstop only this season, so he could concentrate on improving his defense. So far it has worked- Nunez has shown tremendous range to his left and right, and is throwing a much more accurate ball to first base. Now his bat has to get moving. 

It took three hits in the month's final game to get Nunez about the .200 mark. His tremendous speed gives the Yankees an added dimension, but only if he can get on base to use it. (Tuesday night he stretched two hits into doubles by running hard out of the batter's box.) Nunez has 30-40 steal potential should his offensive game come together. 

Headed For Detention

Ben Francisco
: The veteran outfielder may not be headed for the principal's office, but he may get designated for assignment if his bat doesn't improve. Just 3-29 on the season, the right-handed hitting Francisco has started to lose at-bats to left-handed hitters when southpaws are on the mound. He could be the first to go when Curtis Granderson returns. 

Brennan Boesch: The 6'4" left-handed hitter was wildly inconsistent during his time with the Detroit Tigers. He looked like Babe Ruth for a stretch of time and then like a baby batting against grown men at other times. With the free agent signing of Torii Hunter, Boesch became expendable and the Yankees grabbed him off of waivers. 

Boesch is just 7-35, but does have two home runs, a double and a triple. 

How Did You Get in This Class Anyhow?

Chris Stewart
: The Yankees acquired Stewart at the last moment last season, which relegated Cervelli to the minors. Now with Cervelli hurt, Stewart will get the bulk of the playing time behind home plate. He came to the Yankees with a stellar defensive reputation and not much of a bat. Neither aspect of Stewart's game stood out last year. 

Stewart's eight passed balls and four errors didn't make his (career high) .611 OPS look any better. To his credit, he did throw out 23% of would-be base stealers, which was just below the league average. Somehow, Stewart ended this April with a .294 average and a .711 OPS. He's had one error and a couple of passed ball so far, but has thrown out five of nine potential base thieves. 

What's Ahead in the Next Marking Period

Curtis Granderson
: The Yankees center fielder is "probably pretty close to returning"2 according to Girardi. The earliest would likely be mid-May since the "Grandy man" will need to play in some rehab games. 

Corban Joseph: The second baseman was recalled from the minors when Youkilis went on the DL, primarily because he was already on the 40-man roster. 

Austin Romine: He figures to catch twice a week backing up Stewart- likely Phil Hughes or Andy Pettitte and David Phelps/Ivan Nova.

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