What the hell is the 13th man, some of you are probably wondering right about now?! Basketball has a sixth man, hockey has a third-man-in, and baseball has a 10th man, so what exactly is the 13th man? With 12-man pitching staffs becoming the norm throughout the major leagues today, teams generally now have 13 position players from which to fill out their lineup and bench. That figures to be the case with the Yankees, who will carry a four-man bench in support of their regular nine-man lineup.
Barring injury, 11 of the 13 slots have been decided. They include two catchers (Jorge Posada and Jose Molina), five infielders (Jason Giambi, Wilson Betemit, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez) and four outfielders (Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, and Hideki Matsui). That leaves two open slots. One of those will likely be filled by Shelley "Slam" Duncan, who is off to a riveting start in the Grapefruit League. Yankee management, from the front office down to the coaches, loves Duncan’s work ethic (he took 200 grounders a day in the early part of spring training), enthusiasm, and raw power from the right side of the plate. Let’s face it, they want Duncan to make this team. Heck, I want Duncan to make the team. Only a brutal spring performance would ruin Duncan’s bid, and right now, it doesn’t appear that Slam will crash. So Duncan figures to be the 12th man.
That leaves us with one open spot for a position player—the aforementioned 13th man. Although the Yankees are publicly keeping an open mind, let’s rule out young first baseman Juan Miranda, who will likely start the season at either Trenton or Scranton. We’re left with an intriguing battle featuring four non-roster players and a minor league prospect who received a cup of coffee in 2007. With that in mind, let’s examine the five candidates and their worthiness.
Morgan Ensberg: He has the most impressive resume of the contenders, but is also the oldest at age 32 and is learning to play first base for the first time in his career. A solid defensive third baseman, Ensberg should be able to handle first base with little trouble, but the question lingers: will he start to hit again? He had big years for the Astros in 2003 and 2005, and emerged as a huge component of Houston’s World Series club in ’05, but hasn’t been the same hitter since injuring his shoulder in the middle of the 2006 season. Instead of hitting like Morgan, he’s been hitting more like Morganna. Ensberg is also one of those rare players who sometimes becomes too patient at the plate. Like former big league outfielder Rich Becker, Ensberg can look so passive that he creates the impression that all he wants to do is work out a walk, which may be a sign that he lacks confidence in the strength of his shoulder.
Still, Ensberg ability to draw walks and hit home runs fits in with the general Yankee gameplan. He has also hammered left-handed pitching throughout his career, to the tune of a .405 on-base percentage and a .530 slugging percentage in 686 plate appearances against southpaws. Considering that his primary role would consist of playing first and DHing against lefties, and backing up A-Rod at third, Ensberg seems like a solid fit.
Jason Lane: Like Ensberg, Lane is learning to play first base and also provides the potential for right-handed power on a left-hand dominant club. At 30, he’s two years younger than his former Astros teammate, and brings the added benefit of being able to play all three outfield positions. Unfortunately, that’s where his advantages end. Lane has had only productive season in the major leagues; that was in 2005, when he slugged 26 home runs and came within a whisper of slugging .500. He has been positively brutal the last two seasons, including a failed late-season tryout with the Padres. Unlike Ensberg, Lane hasn’t hit left-handers especially well, so he may not fill the need for lineup balance. He’s also not your prototypical fourth or fifth outfielder. Defensively, Lane is OK, but nothing special, and doesn’t have enough speed to give the Yankees a pinch-running option. In order to make the Yankees’ roster, Lane will have to hit exceptionally well this spring; even then, the Yankees would be wise to take a pass and try to send him to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Or perhaps trade him to the Mets, who could use a warm body from the right side of the plate.
Chris Woodward: Like Lane, the 31-year-old Woodward has had one big year. That was way back in 2002, when he pounded out 13 home runs in semi-regular duty as the Blue Jays’ shortstop. Since then, he hasn’t put up a slugging percentage of even .400 and hasn’t reached base at anything better than a .337 clip. So what does Woody do? Well, versatility is his particular claim to fame. He played seven positions for the Mets in 2005, then showed up at six positions in 2006. A shortstop by trade, Woodward can play all four infield positions and has experience in all three outfield slots. There is some value in carrying a jack-of-all-trades, but the Yankees already have a versatile infielder in Wilson Betemit, who is a much better hitter, can switch-hit, and happens to be five years younger than Woodward.
In the old days (I’m thinking of the seventies and eighties), teams often carried two utility infielders as part of a contingent of 15 or 16 position players. So under that structure, there would be room for both Woodward and Betemit. But in today’s game, with only 13 position player slots, that kind of arrangement doesn’t make sense—unless both utility guys can hit like Tony Phillips or Cesar Tovar. Woodward is clearly not that kind of player, meaning the Yankees should take a pass and try to stash him at Scranton Wilkes-Barre.
Nick Green: He’s a lot like Woodward, only he’s a little better defensively and doesn’t play the outfield, outside of three career games in right field. He’s never had a big season offensively, which puts him behind Woodward, Lane, and Ensberg on the depth chart. Frankly, the 29-year-old Green needs the other contenders to flop and needs some veterans (like the ailing Hideki Matsui) to hit the disabled list to have any chance of making the team.
Alberto Gonzalez: Having been acquired as part of the Randy Johnson trade, Gonzalez is the only one of the five contenders who’s already on the 40-man roster. That won’t help much; he clearly has only an outsider’s shot of making the team—and that’s only if the Yankees decide that Derek Jeter needs a late-inning caddy. Given how the Yankees treat Jeter with ultra-sensitivity, it’s unlikely they would insult him by suggesting he needs to be lifted for defensive reasons. The 24-year-old Gonzalez does have his plusses, however. He’s a brilliant defensive shortstop in the Andre Robertson mold and has the kind of athleticism that should allow him to learn second and third base quickly. He also has just enough speed (38 steals in 57 minor league attempts) to serve as a pinch-runner. But his inability to hit and his lack of experience will probably doom him to start the season at Scranton Wilkes-Barre, where he’ll wait for an injury –or to be traded somewhere else.
So those are the five choices for the 13th man. I’ll take Ensberg, but could see the Yankees, who don’t seem to value good offensive players on the bench, opting for either Lane or Woodward. Who would you choose?
I heard the best possible baseball news on Wednesday—and it had nothing to do with who won or lost an exhibition game, the latest trades or free agent signings, or the most recent steroid updates on Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.
The results of Bobby Murcer’s biopsy show no recurrence of the brain cancer that first struck him a year ago. Yes! as Marv Albert might be tempted to exclaim. The potential abnormality that had concerned his doctors was merely the development of scar tissue, which can be a normal occurrence after the kind of brain surgery that Murcer underwent last year.
This is good news no matter who it might concern, but it is an especially pleasant development because it happens to involve Murcer. Simply put, Bobby Murcer is one of the nicest gentlemen in all of baseball, a man who treats everyone he comes in contact with as if he were a long lost teammate. He is a man with an easygoing nature, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and an eagerness to look first and foremost at the good side of people. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Murcer for MLB Radio; it remains one of the highlights of my broadcast career.
And, oh by the way, Murcer was a pretty good ballplayer in his day, a star during the first half of the 1970s before an unwanted trade led to some unpleasant summers at Candlestick Park and Wrigley Field. At his peak, Murcer was a legitimate five-tool talent who played center field to a Gold Glove level while tailoring his sweet left-handed swing to the friendly right-field fences at Yankee Stadium.
According to a baseball cliche, spring training is one of the best times of the season. That was especially true this week, as we heard some good news about a terrific guy named Bobby Murcer.
Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and can be reached via e-mail at