So it appears Pitchers and Catchers are even closer to reporting than I thought. Despite MLB listing Thursday, February 15, as the reporting date, it appears the actual date is February 13, tomorrow. Regardless, it’s time to get down to business here at the Banter. Today through Wednesday, I’ll look at the three main position battles that will be taking place in Yankee camp this spring. Then Thursday I’ll post my annual breakdown of Yankee Campers.
The Yankees have more decisions to make in camp this year than they have over the past few seasons. Setting aside the usual decisions regarding the 25th man on the roster or the last man in the bullpen, Joe Torre and his staff will have to choose on a right-handed first baseman to platoon with Doug Mientkiewicz, a back-up catcher, and a fifth starter. Today we’ll look a the team’s first-base situation.
The Yankees haven’t entered camp with a question mark in the starting line-up since 2004, when Aaron Boone’s torn ACL set up a third-base battle between the likes of Tyler Houston and Mike Lamb, which then shifted to second base when Alfonso Soriano was dealt to Texas for Alex Rodriguez. Enrique Wilson beat out Miguel Cairo at the keystone that spring, but Cairo—who, for all his shortcomings, was a clearly superior player to Wilson—overtook Wilson mid-season.
The Yankees’ won’t have the luxury of changing their mind at first-base this year. Doug Mientkiewicz enters camp as the established lefty-half of the proposed first-base platoon. Andy Phillips and Josh Phelps, meanwhile, are battling not only to be Mientkiewicz’s right-handed caddy, but for their Yankee careers. Phelps was claimed from the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft back in December. If the Yankees want to remove him from the 25-man roster at any point this season, they must offer him back to Baltimore. Phillips, meanwhile, is out of options and will have to be placed on waivers if he fails to make the Opening Day roster. The stakes is high.
In addition to being the only of these three decisions that the Yankees can’t change their minds about later, the righty first-baseman battle is also the only of the three that is a simple either/or matter with just two players vying for the position. Here’s a quick look at Phillips and Phelps:
||ML career (AB)
||mL career (AB)
It’s clear from their career minor league numbers that Phillips and Phelps are very similar hitters. Both are right-handed, of course, and generate their power with quick bats rather than excessive bulk. From those raw numbers, Phelps would seem to have a bit more power as well as a smidge more strike zone judgment (career mL isolated discipline of .072 to Phillips’ .067), but consider Phelps’ 2006 triple-A numbers above next to Phillips’ 2005 triple-A numbers of .300/.379/.573 in 300 at-bats, or Phillips’ 2004 triple-A stats of .318/.388/.569 in 434 at-bats. Phillips was 28 in 2005 just as Phelps was last year, and both were playing in the International League in similar home hitting environments in Toledo (Phelps) and Columbus (Phillips)—hitting environments that, in terms of raw park factors, are very similar to Yankee Stadium. Consider also Phillips’ superior career minor league K/BB rate: Phillips 1.85 K/BB, Phelps 2.57 K/BB.
Ultimately, what differentiates Phelps from Phillips is major league experience. Phillips, who played college ball at the University of Alabama, made his professional debut at age 22 and earned the Yankees’ Minor League Player of the Year award in his age-25 season, based primarily on a tremendous half season at double-A Norwich. Phelps, meanwhile, was drafted straight out of his Idaho high school, made his major league debut at age 22, and spent his age-25 season hitting .268/.358/.470 as the Blue Jays’ starting DH.
In addition to his late start, Phillips’ progress was derailed by an elbow injury suffered in the Arizona Fall League the autumn after his award winning 2002 season. That injury cost him most of 2003. Thus, instead of establishing himself in Columbus that year and challenging Cairo and Wilson for the open second base job in 2004 (originally a third baseman, Phillips played second base from 2001 to 2003), he was forced to reestablish himself in double-A that spring and was shifted back to third base where he was blocked by Alex Rodriguez. All of that, plus the fact that he was attempting to break into a much tougher lineup in the Bronx than Phelps was in Toronto, put him five years behind his rival’s pace. In terms of major league experience, Phelps’ age-22 to 24 seasons correspond to Phillips’ age-27 to 29 seasons:
| Name (Age)
The obvious difference here being not only the five-year age gap, but the fact that Phelps hit when finally given the opportunity, while Phillips did not. Even Phelps’s worst major league season of more than 12 at-bats, his .251/.304/.450 performance in 371 at-bats split between Toronto and Cleveland in 2004, was clearly better than what Phillips did last year. Speaking of which, here are their career major league K/BB rates: Phillips 4.38 K/BB, Phelps 3.66 K/BB.
If this decision was based purely on the relative offensive merits of these two players, one would have to consider Phelps, who’s more than a year Phillips’ junior, the clear favorite despite the similarity of their minor league records and Phillips’ unfairly small major league sample.
However, offense is just part of the picture. All of the decisions the Yankees have made regarding first base this winter have been made with defense in mind, from declaring Jason Giambi a full-time designated hitter to signing Doug Mientkiewicz as the dominant half of an expected first-base platoon. Of course the jury’s still out on Mientkiewicz’s defensive abilities. He’s a thirtysomething coming off back surgery and the defensive metrics are mixed as to exactly how good he was even before the surgery. Baseball Prospectus’s Rate stats show Mientkiewicz experiencing a steady decline since 2002 with his defense being considerably blow average in each of the last two years. Then again, Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range has Minky up among the elite at the position last year, as is his reputation. But regardless of whether or not Mientkiewicz is still an asset in the field, the message sent by the front office is clear: defense matters.
That’s bad news for Phelps. Phillips’ defensive stats from 2006 largely echo Mientkiewicz’s. Rate has him a tick below Minky, while Pinto ranks him between Nick Johnson and Kevin Youkilis, comfortably above average. Despite his struggles at the plate, Phillips’ defense made a strong impression on Joe Torre last year. Andy can also fill in at third-base and play second and the outfield corners in a pinch—all of which he’s done for the Yankees over the last two seasons. That gives him extra value coming off the bench, which he’d be doing in the majority of the Yankees’ games. Phelps, meanwhile, is generally regarded as a defensive zero. A disaster as a catcher, Phelps has been limited to DH and first base since the age of 24 and has played in the field in just 31 of his 342 major league games since, a mere 9 percent. If that’s not a damning indictment of his defensive abilities, I don’t know what is. By comparison, Phillips has played the field in 91.5 percent of his 142 major league. In raw numbers, Phillips has played defense in more than four times as many major league games as Phelps despite appearing in just two-fifths as many major league games total.
The good news for Phelps is that his Rate stats, while poor and burdened by impossibly small samples, show an improvement trend that suggests that he may have needed a few seasons to learn his new position. Still, I expect that Phillips—who has the added advantage of being a familiar face who seemed to be popular in the Yankee clubhouse last year—will have the inside track to the right-handed first baseman’s job as spring training begins. I also expect that, while both players will have to hit in order to win the job, Phelps’ defense will be watched very closely by Torre and his coaches. If Phelps crushes the ball, but makes a few ugly plays around the bag, he just might be headed back to Baltimore. After all, if the Yankees were willing to field a first-baseman with an iron glove they could have skipped signing Mientkiewicz, kept Giambi and his persistant positional splits in the field, put Hideki Matsui at DH, started the defensively superior Melky Cabrera in left, and given Minky’s roster spot to Bernie williams or, better yet, Aaron Guiel or Kevin Thompson.