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It wasn’t that long ago that the Yankees played some of the
smartest baseball in the major leagues. Now it seems that their Baseball IQ has
fallen off a cliff, even among veteran players who should know better. How else
to explain Andy Pettitte allowing a second baserunner to steal home plate
against him over the last three years? Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-out steal of home
on Sunday night provided the Yankees with their signature embarrassment in a
weekend filled with lowlights. Jorge Posada, who had just reminded Pettitte about
the possibility of a steal, didn’t help matters by reacting slowly to
Ellsbury’s charge, while also failing to block home plate. Just flat out
Brian Cashman’s inability to build a bench has also cost the
Yankees, who are enduring a third straight spring filled with injuries. How is
it possible for a team with the resources of the Yankees to go into a season
with a journeyman like Cody Ransom and a past-his prime Angel Berroa as the
primary backup options at third base? The Yankees are struggling to score runs
right now, in part because Alex Rodriguez remains sidelined but also because of
the anemic production of the backup third basemen and starting center fielder
Brett Gardner. How much longer before the Yankees give Jim Edmonds a call?
The Cubs can sympathize with the Yankees. Milton Bradley
remains out of the starting lineup, joined now by Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez,
who are also hurt. With a deeper bench than the Yankees, the Cubs are better
equipped to handle the crush, but losing three regulars (including their top
two players) from the starting eight ranks as nearly an impossible predicament.
Lou Piniella has also made another lineup change, moving Alfonso Soriano back
to the leadoff slot in spite of his lack of patience…
How much longer will the Mets wait on Oliver Perez, who was
assaulted by the Nationals in his start on Sunday? The Mets will likely give
Perez at least one more start; if he pitches poorly, he’ll either be dispatched
to the bullpen or head back to the minor leagues for a mid-season adjustment.
Perez would have to approve any demotion to Triple-A, however, which becomes
unlikely when one remembers that his agent is Scott Boras. I just don’t see Boras advising Perez to
accept such a move, even if it is for his own good…
I’m sure that this has been pointed out by other writers,
but that awful Citi Field patch worn by the Mets looks exactly like the
Domino’s Pizza logo. (I have nothing against their product; I just don’t think
a ballteam should have a patch that looks like it belongs on a box of pizza.) While
on the subject of the Mets and their colors, I wish they would go back to
wearing their traditional pinstriped uniform for all home games. The Mets, who
wore the stripes in the finale of the Washington
series, appear much more dignified wearing their traditional look, which also
serves as a reminder of the glory days of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Tug
McGraw. And don’t get me started on the Mets’ black uniforms, which make little
sense for a team whose colors are blue and orange.
Now that we’ve had a few days to digest the major transaction of last week, it’s time to ask the question: what effect will the addition of Mark Teixeira have on the rest of the Yankees’ lineup configuration? More specifically, the Yankees need to find a new role for Nick Swisher, who was originally targeted to play first after being acquired for Wilson Betemit. They also need to figure out roles for Xavier Nady and Hideki Matsui, while deciding who will play center field on a regular basis.
In the aftermath of the Teixeira signing, I’ve heard a few observers suggest that the Yankees will put Swisher in center field, sandwiched between Johnny Damon in left and Nady in right. That alignment would maximize the Yankees’ offensive potential, but would also leave them with a below-average defensive center fielder, continuing an unsavory tradition that first began with Bernie Williams’ declining years. Personally, I think the Yankees want better defense in center field, a desire that will lead to Brett Gardner winning the position in spring training.
Another potential solution, one that seems to be more popular, would be to trade one of the following: Swisher, Nady, or Matsui, thereby alleviating the logjam in right field and DH. Some teams have already shown interest in one of the spare outfielders, including the Reds, Giants, and Mariners. If I were in the shoes of Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman, I wouldn’t necessarily vote against that possibility, but only if the Yankees could acquire something of value in return, specifically a veteran center fielder or a backup catcher, or a useful pitcher. There should be no giveaways here; if the offers for Nady, Swisher, and Godzilla are subpar, the Yankees should keep them all. There’s nothing wrong with having one of those veterans on the bench each day. The Yankees have operated without a competent bench for far too long.
Barring a trade, here’s the alignment I would try, one that would make defense and flexibility higher priorities. I’d put Swisher in right field, where he would platoon with Nady. I’d tell Nady to bring his infielder’s glove to spring training and be ready to put in work as a backup at both the hot corner and first base. Matsui would remain in the DH role, where he would give way to Jorge Posada on days in which the Yankees faced left-handers. And then I’d hand the center field reins over to Gardner, who gives the Yankees the most range and speed of any of their outfielders. If Gardner, batting ninth, ends up a failure against major league pitching, then the Yankees can always try Melky Cabrera or Swisher later in the season.
Defense, flexibility, and the bench. Those should be the Yankees’ points of emphasis. Either directly or indirectly, Teixeira will help all three areas. Now it’s up to Cashman to make the next right move.
When Brian Cashman shows a willingness to break out of his conservative shell, he is capable of making some very good trades. He did exactly that on Thursday, when he stole switch-hitting Nick Swisher from the White Sox for a dubious package of enigmatic infielder Wilson Betemit and two questionable pitching prospects, Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez. (Do you remember when guys used to spell thier name as “Johnny?” Whatever happened to that tradition?) Swisher gives the Yankees three major attributes: power, patience at the plate, and versatility. These are three qualities that the Yankee roster desperately needs after a disappointing season that saw the team rank among the bottom half of the American League in runs scored.
In making this deal with the White Sox, Cashman has provided a classic example of swiping a player when his value is down. Just a year ago, Swisher was the best player on the Oakland A’s and a shining example of Billy Beane’s Moneyball concepts. Since Swisher is only 28 years old, I’d say he is likely to bounce back from a season that saw him bat .219 for Chicago. Bad luck, as much as anything, seems to have played a role in his low batting average. If he plays every day for the Yankees, he is fully capable of hitting 30 home runs and drawing 100 walks, and those are numbers that can help any team. His versatility will also provide some assistance. The Yankees indicate that Swisher will be their regular first baseman, but he is also a plus defender in either left or right field, and capable of playing some center field in a backup capacity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Swisher split his time in 2009 between right field and first base. He could platoon with Xavier Nady in right, and then switch to first base on days when a left-hander starts for the opposition. That’s exactly the kind of flexibility the Yankees have lacked in recent years because of the presence of too many DH types like Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui.
Clearly, the White Sox sold way too low on Swisher, but they could potentially benefit from the deal if Betemit blossoms on the South Side. Betemit is one of those players who looks attractive to a contending team as a utility infielder because of his live bat and versatility, but he needs regular at-bats to keep his long swing in tune. He would also help himself by dropping about ten pounds; his weight was a constant concern for the Yankees. (He might also benefit from giving up switch-hitting, since he often looks helpless from the right side.) I still think that Betemit could develop into a .270 hitter with 20 home run power and decent on-base skills. The White Sox would be smart to make Betemit their starting third baseman, or at least platoon him with Josh Fields. Otherwise, they’ll be disappointed with Betemit as a sporadic backup player.
With the trade of Swisher, along with the Matt Holliday deal and the trade that sent Kevin Gregg to the Cubs for top prospect Jose Ceda, we’ve seen three deals within the span of three days. And just think, the free agent signing period hasn’t even begun until today (Friday). If the early signs are any indication, this may turn out to be one of the busiest Hot Stove sessions we’ve seen in decades.
In less than one week, Brian Cashman has transformed his public image from that of Stand Pat Gillick to Frank “Trader” Lane. Or better yet, he has pulled a few pages from the playbook of Whitey Herzog. Better still, he seems to have reincarnated the spirit of Charlie Finley. In making three deals in under seven days, Cashman has launched a massive effort to re-tool the Yankees for what they hope is a strong two-month push for a playoff spot out of the stacked American League East.
I’ve been highly critical of Cashman throughout the season, taking issue with his lack of initiative and creativity, a seeming unwilligness to make trades of any sort, and an over-obsession with retaining every single minor league prospect within the Yankee organization. Well, Cashman has shut me up but good by executing three trades, all of which seem to tilt heavily in the Yankees’ favor. First, he swindled Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte from the Pirates without having to give up a single one of his most prized pitching gems (Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy or Mark Melancon). Second, he satisfied the team’s gaping need for a competent hitting catcher by swiping Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez from the Tigers for Kyle Farnsworth, who had become expendable because of the emergence of several young right-handed relievers. And then late last night, he pulled off a lesser–but still impressive–deal, when he dumped batting practice right-hander LaTroy Hawkins on the Astros for minor league second baseman Matt Cusick, who was putting up good numbers in Class-A ball.
In making these three swaps, Cashman has succeeded in directly addressing several Yankee needs. He has bolstered the team’s right-handed hitting with both Nady and Rodriguez, solved the catching quandary with I-Rod, bolstered the team’s paper-thin bench, added a capable left-handed reliever in Marte for the late innings, and succeeded in ridding the Yankees of their least effective pitcher. At a time when the Yankees appeared to have a realistic chance of filling only one or two of their multiple needs, Cashman addressed all of the problem areas– with one exception. All that’s left is to bolster the starting rotation, which could happen today with a trade for Jarrod Washburn, or could happen later, if Hughes, Kennedy and/or the injured Chien-Ming Wang find their way back to the Bronx.
Need some right-handed hitting and a lefty reliever? Check. Need a catcher who can hit more than .225? Check? Need to get a warm body for our worst pitcher? Check.
Better said, lets’ call it, “Checkmate.” That’s just how good Brian Cashman’s moves have been over the last six days.
Yankee fans tend to become spoiled by the team’s overwhelming level of success. That’s only natural, given the New Yorkers’ run of 10 straight postseason appearances since 1995. Still, this year’s Yankees team is testing the patience of most pinstriped diehards. With so much talent at hand and a $200 million price tag attached, the expectations have been understandably high since the first day of spring training. Those expectations haven’t come close to being met, however, as evidenced by the team’s current four-game losing streak and a recent run of 0-and-5 in games against the American League’s worst: the awful Devil Rays and Royals.
The Yankees’ play in this current series against Kansas City has been near shameful. Two players have been picked off (including Tony Womack in a back-breaking situation in the late innings), catchable balls have been falling in, the hitters have managed four runs in 18 innings, and supposed ace Randy Johnson allowed a cache of hits against a terrible offense.
This current group of Yankees exhibits a deadly combination–they don’t play hard and they don’t play smart. Unfortunately, poor roster decisions aren’t helping matters. Journeyman Russ Johnson is somehow on the 25-man roster while the more talented (and younger) Andy Phillips is not. There isn’t a real center fielder to be found now that Bubba Crosby is in Columbus. And there’s only one player capable of playing right field, which forces the Yankees to play an outfielder out of position on days when Gary Sheffield’s aching wrist flares up. Here’s the bottom line: the Yankees aren’t going to get better until the following things happen:
1) A true center fielder (Preston Wilson? Gary Matthews, Jr.?) is acquired, allowing Hideki Matsui to play left field every day. The Yankees simply have to address what has become the worst defensive alignment in the American League.
2) Bernie Williams becomes the everyday DH and Jason Giambi isn’t allowed to soak up any more wasted at-bats. The Yankees cannot allow contracts to dictate playing time, not when a playoff berth is at stake.
3) Andy Phillips is brought up to platoon with the aging Tino Martinez at first base. A proven minor league player, Phillips deserves a chance to play against left-handed pitching in the major leagues.
4) Tony Womack becomes a utility player, backing up rookie Robinson Cano at second base and Matsui in left, while also being available as a late-inning pinch-runner. Such a move would improve a woeful Yankee bench, simply one of the worst in the American League.
5) Randy Johnson starts pitching like a dominant No. 1 starter and not an OK No. 3 starter. The Yankees need Johnson to be great, not merely very good.
The last stipulation depends on Johnson himself; the other four depend on Brian Cashman and Joe Torre making some smart decisions about the composition of the roster and the starting lineup. If the proper adjustments aren’t made, the Yankees will miss out on the postseason for the first time in a decade.