On the surface, the Yankees appear to be preparing for life with Robinson Cano in 2009. They’ve already given Cano permission to play winter league ball for at least a month, so that he can continue using his newfound batting stance. They’ve also made arrangements to have batting coach Kevin Long work with Cano during his winter league stint. And they appear to be on the verge of hiring minor league defensive coordinator Mick Kelleher as first base coach, largely because they believe that Kelleher will have a positive influence on Cano the way that Larry Bowa once did.
But not so fast. The Yankees, despite the warning signs listed above, will likely listen to several offers for Cano, their starting second baseman who played in a cloud-filled funk for most of the season. And that’s the smart thing to do. Of all the players the Yankees are likely to deal this winter, Cano still has the most trade value. He could become the centerpiece to a deal for a starting pitcher (like Jake Peavy), a first baseman (just for the heck of it, let’s say James Loney), or an outfielder (like David DeJesus). With Cano traded, the Yankees would likely step up efforts to sign free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson, a player with which the Yankee front office is infatuated. Hudson, while five years older than Cano, would represent a significant defensive upsurge over Cano, who may lack the desire and work ethic to achieve his Gold Glove potential.
If I were the Yankees, I would dangle Cano to the Dodgers, whose manager (Joe Torre) and third base coach (Bowa) simply adore the player they came to know during their days in New York. The Yankees should find out if the Dodgers would trade Matt Kemp for Cano straight-up. Or how about Cano and Melky Cabrera for the athletic Kemp, who would give the Yankees the kind of young, power-hitting outfielder they really need? The Yankees could then use Kemp in center field for a season, before shifting him to left field in 2010, when top prospect Austin “Ajax” Jackson is projected to be ready for major league service.
Another possibility could involve the Royals, who have been dissatisfied with the lack of progress made by DeJesus. Although he hasn’t become the star that the Royals once projected him to be, DeJesus is better than any of the Yankees’ current center field options. If the Royals were willing to throw in a spare first baseman or a prospect into the deal, the Yankees might have enough to surrender Cano. As with Kemp, DeJesus could play center field for a season or two, before Jackson makes the move from Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
All things considered, trading Cano might be the Yankees’ best option in trying to upgrade their problematic center field situation this winter. There are no premier center fielders available in this year’s free agent market, whereas there are plenty of first basemen (Mark Teixeira and possibly Adam Dunn) and starting pitchers (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Derek Lowe, among others). Furthermore, second basemen are a lot easier to find these days than are quality center fielders. Given these realities of the marketplace, the Yankees’ preferred solution might be to trade Cano after all–despite all the hype about him winning a batting title one of these years–and start moving in a different direction at second base.
Is a young George Steinbrenner running the Brewers? Or, if you’ll give forgive me for a hockey reference, maybe an old Phil Esposito? That’s my immediate reaction to Monday’s stunning news that the Brew Crew have fired manager Ned Yost, replacing him with bench coach Dale Sveum. In fairness to Steinbrenner, this is almost an unprecedented move by the Brewers, firing the manager while the team is in the middle of a playoff race in September. Generally, Steinbrenner reserved most of his firings for June, July, and August–and not in the middle of the final month of the regular season. Precedents be damned, Brewers GM Doug Melvin decided that a change was in order after watching his team get swept four straight games over the weekend by the Phillies. Melvin has been intensely loyal to Yost for most of the last two years, resisting calls for his firing by many fans who have become dissatisfied with the team’s underachieving ways. But even Melvin realized that the Brewers were not playing up to snuff and were simply not responding to Yost’s nice-guy ways.
Melvin has set himself up for a major second guess here, but I applaud him for firing Yost, who has clearly been overmatched as a manager and simply doesn’t have enough of a mean streak or strategical acumen to thrive at the major league level. As for the hiring of Sveum, that may be another story entirely. Prior to being a bench coach, Sveum had been targeted by some Brewer observers as a poor third base coach with a history of making questionable decisions for his baserunners. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be a poor manager, but it does make one wonder. More pertinent is whether Sveum will avoid being the kind of enabler that Yost was to his players, constantly glossing over mistakes and making excuses for fundamental errors. If Sveum is cut from that same too-forgiving cloth, the Brewers may be doomed to an also-ran finish in the wild card race. If Sveum is willing to bring some fire and brimstone to the Brewers, perhaps Milwaukee’s talent will win out; after all, they’re the most talented team among the wild card contenders, better than Philadelphia, Houston, and possible even the Mets. We’ll see…
Speaking of managers who act as enablers to players, Joe Girardi finally took off the rose-colored glasses that he had been using on Robinson Cano all season and benched the enigmatic second baseman for lackadaisical play on Sunday afternoon. After watching Cano lollygag after a ground ball that had eluded Jason Giambi, a play that resulted in two bases for the Rays, Girardi removed Cano from the game. Not satisfied that his message had been completely received, Girardi also benched Cano prior to Monday night’s game against the White Sox. Frankly, it’s about time. Cano’s lackadaisical efforts in the field, his mindless first-pitch swinging at the plate, and general cluelessness with regard to fundamentals have gone unpunished all summer long. He’s been one of the biggest culprits in New York’s season of underperformance. If a mid-game removal and a subsequent sitdown aren’t enough to motivate the listless second baseman, the Yankees may have to consider the option of signing someone like Orlando Hudson as a free agent and trading Cano for the best available package this off season…
It’s hard to believe that 36 years had elapsed since a Cubs pitcher last threw a no-hit game. Carlos Zambrano ended the drought on Sunday when he silenced the Astros, though he had to do it in front of a neutral site crowd of fewer than 25,000 fans at Miller Park, which hosted the game because of the devastating presence of Hurricane Ike in the state of Texas. The last Cubs pitcher to throw a no-hitter was blast-from-the-past Milt “Gimpy” Pappas, at the time an aging but effective right-hander. Pappas accomplished the feat against the Padres on September 2, 1972, almost exactly one year before he would retire at the tender age of 34. This was the same game in which Pappas actually came within one batter of pitching a perfect game. With two outs and no one on in the ninth inning at Wrigley Field, Pappas issued a controversial walk on a disputed 3-2 pitch. To this day, Pappas has contended that home plate umpire Bruce Froemming blew the call; the two have carried on a feud ever since. Bad call or not, Pappas did recover to finish off the no-hitter, an accomplishment that Zambrano finally matched on Sunday.
Robinson Cano might not be the biggest individual disappointment in major league baseball this year, but he has to rank among the top five failures. In Wednesday afternoon’s loss to the Twins, Cano went hitless at the plate and committed three mental mistakes in the field as the Yankees fell, 4-2, to close out a 3-and-7 road trip. Without those mistakes, the Yankees might have played the Twins to a tie, setting the stage for a second straight day of extra innings.
The Yankees envisioned Cano having a breakout season in 2008, hitting .315-plus with power and playing Gold Glove defense at second base. Instead, they’ve watched Cano sink to his lowest major league levels, as he struggles to hit .265, shows no additional patience at the plate, and waltzes around the infield, playing the position without passion or hustle. The regression is so stunning that I have to believe Cano misses the influence of Larry Bowa, the Yankees’ former third base and infield coach. Bowa, with his relentlessly aggressive style, had a way of lighting a fuse under Cano; without Bowa, Cano plays too often as if he is sleepwalking.
In 2008, the Yankees have shown many deficiences–a lack of hitting, no bench, inconsistent starting pitching, and age. They’ll need to fix at least some of those areas over the winter. They’ll also need to address the mindset of Cano. If he continues to play more and more like Horace Clarke, and less like Rod Carew, the Yankees will again find themselves in third place–or worse–in 2009…
With the Yankees on the verge of falling completely out of the playoff picture, the Rays and Red Sox can breathe easier. Or can they? There’s no guarantee that the American League wildcard will come out of the East, so the Rays and Sox will need to stay ahead of the pace set by the Twins and/or the White Sox. That mission became a bit more difficult this week. The Red Sox had to place Mike Lowell and Tim Wakefield on the disabled list, weakening the middle of their lineup and the back end of their rotation. Thankfully, the Red Sox have depth. They can move Kevin Youkilis to third base, and slide Sean Casey in at first base. They also made a wise move in picking up the durable Paul Byrd, who has pitched well since the All-Star break and should be a short-term improvement over the enigmatic Clay Buchholz.
In the meantime, the Rays will have to operate without the ailing Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, both out with hand injuries. Longoria’s injury is especially cruel; he had become the league’s second best third baseman, right behind Alex Rodriguez. Crawford, while having a down year, remains one of the league’s most intimidating baserunners, an outright blazer who can steal bases and distract pitchers almost at will. The Rays simply aren’t as deep as the Red Sox, a factor that may force the front office to become more serious in its pursuit of Gary Sheffield. Baltimore’s Melvin Mora and Seattle’s Adrian Beltre could become targets, too, depending on the length of Longoria’s stay on the disabled list…
It appears that the Reds will receive Micah Owings from the Diamondbacks as one of the players to be named later in the Adam Dunn deal. I’d like to see the Reds get creative with Owings and use him in a pitcher/player utility role, ala Brooks Kieschnick a few years back with the Brewers. Owings has had little success as a major league pitcher, but has shown legitimate hitting talent, whether it’s starting the game or pinch-hitting. The Reds could platoon Owings with Joey Votto at first base, giving him regular duty against left-handed pitching. On the other days, Owings would be available to pinch-hit, or log some innings out of the bullpen, especially in games that have degraded into blowouts. In this day and age of 12-man pitching staffs, a versatile player/pitcher like Owings would give the Reds an extra bat and an extra arm.
The Yankees’ Tuesday night loss to the Devil Rays underscored two of their biggest problem points this season: shoddy defense and an inability to hit with runners in scoring position. In the ninth inning, rookie second baseman Robinson Cano made three different mistakes, including a botch-up of a routine ground ball up the middle that allowed the game’s winning run to scored. After the initial error, Cano passively played a ground ball by the speedy Carl Crawford, who beat the throw to first base. And then when Crawford took off for second base on a stolen basse attempt, Cano took the throw in front of the bag and tried to sweep the tag backward instead of straddling the bag and applying a more direct tag to Crawford. Fortunately for the Yankees, Crawford didn’t come home to score, but the damage had already been done to Mariano Rivera, who didn’t allow a hard hit ball in the entire inning and deserved a better ninth-inning fate… The Yankees’ offense didn’t perform much better. After jumping on Casey Fossum for three early runs, the Yankees failed to score over the final seven frames. They collected 11 hits on the night, but once again couldn’t put forth the kind of timely hit that would have put the game away against a non-contending team. The ankees also showed a terrible lack of patience in the ninth inning, as Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter both swung at first pitches, Posada grounding out to third and Jeter tapping into a game-ending double play. For the Yankees, it was simply one of their worst loss of the season–and the latest in a long line of 2005 defeats to Lou Piniella’s Devil Rays…
The Pirates made news on Tuesday when they announced the firing of Lloyd McClendon and the hiring of Pete Mackanin on an interim basis. Former Bucs skipper Jim Leyland appears to be the leading candidate for the permanent position, with Pirate coach John Russell also in the running. While Leyland’s resume is superior, he might not have the youthful energy needed for the massive rebuilding project the Pirates face. Leyland was considered a candidate for the Mets’ job last winter, but there were questions about Leyland’s willingness to put in the long hours that the modern day managerial job requires… I’d like to see the Pirates go in a different direction. Why not bring back one of the former players from their glory days, one who remembers what it was like to win in a Pirates uniform and who’s had experience as either a major league coach or minor league manager? Former Pirates outfielder Gene Clines, a coach under Dusty Baker in Chicago, is an intelligent baseball man who relates well to players, even ones with difficult personalities like Barry Bonds. (Clines was Bonds’ hitting instructor with the Giants.) Another possibility would be former Bucs third baseman Richie Hebner, who has loads of experience as both a manager and coach in the minor leagues. If nothing else, Hebner would bring some flavor to the Pirates’ dugout, with his off-color language and old style baseball chatter. As Cosmo Kramer would say, Hebner likes to “let the expletives fly.” Given the Pirates’ performance this summer, a few expletives are probably in order…
Speaking of Bonds, he appears ready to return to the Giants later this month, though it remains to be seen whether he plays the outfield regularly or merely comes off the bench as a pinch-hitter. It’s been revealed that former Giants reliever Jason Christiansen was the teammate that grappled with Bonds in an off-field incident earlier this season. (Not surprisingly, Christiansen has since been traded.) According to several news sources, Bonds struck Christiansen in the jaw and Christiansen responded by tying up Bonds in a headlock. If it had been Cliff Johnson putting the temperamental Giant in the headlock, Bonds’ season might truly be over.
The Weekend Rumor Mill–July 8, 2005
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Red Sox feel they’ve solved their bullpen problems by moving Curt Schilling into the uncharted territory of late-inning relief. They’re still holding out hope that Schilling can move back into the rotation by August or September, and even if he can’t, they still believe they need to acquire at least one quality reliever through the trade market. Their most desired commodity is Tampa Bay’s Danys Baez, but they’re hoping that the Devil Rays back off on their exorbitant trade demands of three prospects for the talented but inconsistent closer… The Red Sox are also one of several teams that have shown interest in Bret Boone, recently thrown into the wasteland known as the designated-for-assignment list. The Sox’ interest stems from their concern over the shaky defensive play of Mark Bellhorn, whose hands have become a sore spot in 2005. Like the other teams that have expressed a desire for Boone–principally the Twins, Yankees, and the Padres–the Red Sox will have decide whether to give up a small amount of value in a trade that will guarantee them the services of Boone, or wait until he becomes a free agent and hope that he chooses them over other contenders… The Red Sox and Twins do have an advantage over other teams in that they can offer Boone regular playing time this season. In contrast, the Yankees can only promise a platoon opportunity with impressive rookie Robinson Cano, while the Padres can only offer playing time until Mark Loretta returns from the disabled list…
In the meantime, the Yankees have given up on their efforts to acquire Mark Kotsay from Oakland. The reason is simple: Billy Beane’s asking price of top prospects Eric Duncan and Philip Hughes is way too high for the free-agent-in-waiting. The Yankees are now setting sites on Florida’s Juan Encarnacion, who is playing well for the Marlins but remains in the doghouse of Jack McKeon. The Yankees believe that Encarnacion, primarily a right fielder during his career, can make the transition to center field and give the Yankees more range and throwing power than Tony Womack, Bernie Williams, or Hideki Matsui. As always, the obstacle is what the Yankees can reasonably offer in return for Encarnacion. The Marlins would love Tom “Flash” Gordon, but the Yankees can’t afford to give up much more than Mike Stanton and the currently disabled Felix Rodriguez…
In the National League, the Cubs remain the favorites to pry Kotsay away from the A’s. Chicago is more than willing to offer the disappointing Corey Patterson along with some young pitching, which may be enough to convince Beane to pull the trigger. The A’s would then try their Moneyball approach on the talented Patterson, whose lack of patience at the plate remains the biggest landmine between mediocrity and stardom…
After some early-season optimism that he had returned to prior National League form, Javier Vazquez has once again returned to the rumor mill. For all the talk that Vazquez had rediscovered his mechanics and his fastball, his ERA remains mediocre, even in the suppressed hitting atmosphere of the senior circuit. With the Diamondbacks having fallen out of contention in the NL West, they’re now dangling Vazquez to several contenders, including the Braves, Nationals, Orioles, and Indians.
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.
Cano and Carew
Yankees manager Joe Torre took some heat over the internet earlier this week when he compared rookie second baseman Robinson Cano to Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Some of Torre’s Sabermetric critics, who are always on the lookout for axes to grind with the more traditional Torre, belittled the Yankee skipper for making the link between the two, given that Carew won seven batting titles while Cano was rated only a B-level prospect by some scouts. Well, the criticism of Torre is off base here. Torre said that Cano “reminded” him of Carew, in terms of his physical appearance and his swing, and not that he necessarily expected Cano to become as a great a player as Carew. There’s quite a difference between Torre saying that Cano “reminds” him of Carew as opposed to saying that he expected Cano to “become the next Carew.”
Torre has actually used these kinds of comparisons in the past, whereby he creates a depiction of a current player by talking about who that player reminds him of stylistically. Cano has a very smooth swing at the plate, which is probably what influenced Torre to make the Carew remark. A few years ago, Torre talked about the swing of a young Ricky Ledee and how it reminded him of the hitting style of Billy Williams. On another occasion, Torre and former Yankee coach Don Zimmer compared Alfonso Soriano to Hank Aaron, not by saying that they expected Soriano to hit as many home runs but in terms of the similarity in the strength and quickness of their wrists. (And that’s a comparison that was also sounded by several major league scouts.) I think Torre uses these comparisons as a way of conjuring up a mental image for the fans and media (and not to create an undue set of expectations) so that they might have a better idea of how a young player looks in the way that he plays the game. If anything, Torre’s method shows a respect for baseball history and for the strengths of the young player in question. That’s a good thing, and not something meant to create an unreasonable or impossible expectation… Yankee batting coach Don Mattingly also made a comparison involving Cano during spring training, but that analogy didn’t create as much of a firestorm as Torre’s comments. Mattingly said that Cano’s swing and style at the plate reminded him of Ruben Sierra during the latter’s younger days. In terms of statistical output, that’s probably a better gauge of what Cano may be able to do; he’s not likely to win the seven batting championships that Carew garnered with the Twins and Angels, but might be capable of putting up offensive numbers similar to those of Sierra… While Cano doesn’t have the hitting ability or footspeed that Carew had in his prime, he does have one advantage over the Hall of Famer. Cano is a very good defensive second baseman–he’s twice been named the best defender in his league during his minor league days–and likely won’t have to switch positions as Carew was asked to do in the midst of his career with the Minnesota Twins. In 1976, the Twins moved Carew, a subpar defensive second baseman, to the less demanding position of first base, where he played for the remainder of his career.
And Another Thing
For those who are interested, Hall of Fame web manager Dan Holmes and I will be hosting presentations on Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, respectively, in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater this Sunday (May 22) beginning at 1:00 pm. After the presentation, Dan will be signing copies of his book, Ty Cobb: A Biography, and I’ll be signing copies of my book, Ted Williams: A Biography. And then on Monday, May 23, beginning at 10:00 am, I’ll be signing copies of Tales From The Mets Dugout at Augur’s Book Store located on Main Street in Cooperstown.