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Observations From Cooperstown–Lineups, Ellis, and Dave Smith

Posted By Bruce Markusen On December 26, 2008 @ 6:02 pm In Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen | Comments Disabled

We now know that Mark Teixeira will play first base and bat third (or possibly fourth) in the Yankees’ revamped lineup, but what effect will his addition have on the rest of the lineup’s configuration? The Yankees need to find a new role for Nick “Son of Steve” 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 number of 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.

Another potential solution would be to trade one of the following: Swisher, Nady, or Matsui, thereby alleviating the logjam in right field and DH. I’m not necessarily against that possibility, but only if the Yankees can acquire something of value for one of those players, specifically a 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, keep them all. There’s nothing wrong with having one of these veterans on the bench each day. The Yankees have operated without a competent bench for far too long.

Here’s the alignment I’d prefer, 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 Brett 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…

* * *

Dock Ellis, who died last week at the age of 63, is best remembered for his tumultuous days with the Pirates, but he became a significant character in Yankee history despite spending a relatively brief tenure in pinstripes. Acquired as part of the Willie Randolph heist with the Pirates, Ellis became one of Billy Martin’s favorite pitchers in 1976. Martin liked Ellis’ willingness to take the ball every fifth day no matter how his arm felt. He also appreciated Ellis’ eagerness to throw inside. Ellis garnered a few headlines when he hit Oakland’s Reggie Jackson with a pitched ball and then privately told teammates that he did it because of something that had happened five years earlier, when Reggie stood at home plate and admired his long All-Star Game home run—which had come against Ellis.

With his braggadocio, his talent, and a manager firmly in his corner, Ellis should have pitched for years in the Bronx. But there was one problem: Ellis did not appreciate the management style of the Yankee owner. During the spring of 1977, the Yankees struggled to win games in the Grapefruit League, prompting some players to become concerned about the looming presence of George Steinbrenner. Ellis, in response to a question from a reporter, became sarcastically philosophical about the Yankees’ spring woes. “The more we lose, the more Steinbrenner will fly in. And the more he flies, the better the chance there will be a plane crash.”

Later in the spring, Ellis and The Boss became involved in a nasty verbal confrontation in the clubhouse. Steinbrenner expressed his displeasure with the earring that Ellis was wearing. Ellis responded to the Boss, telling Steinbrenner that if he didn’t like the earring, he would wear it while he pitched. By the end of their exchange, Ellis challenged Steinbrenner to trade him. Just a few days later, the Yankees did just that, trading Ellis to the A’s for fellow right-hander Mike Torrez. Steinbrenner wanted to expand the deal to include Mickey Rivers, another player he wanted gone; in exchange, the Yankees would receive the switch-hitting Billy North. Thankfully, Yankee GM Gabe Paul talked Steinbrenner out of the four-player deal, instead limiting the trade to Ellis-for-Torrez.

Torrez, who pitched solidly in pinstripes, would end up the winning pitcher in the final game of the 1978 World Series before opting for free agency. He just wasn’t as colorful as Ellis. Then again, few were…

* * *

Finally, this story didn’t receive the attention that it should have, but one of the great closers of the 1980s passed away just a few days before Ellis lost his battle with liver disease. Dave Smith, the anchor of the Astros’ bullpen for much of that decade, died from a heart attack on December 17. He was just 53.

Smith, it seems, was always underrated, both during his career and in retirement. Maybe it was his name, which was so plain-sounding. Or perhaps it was his physical appearance. Smith was one of the most un-athletic pitchers I’ve ever seen. With his large gut, paunchy face, and bushy blond hair, Smith looked more like a retired surfer than a star reliever. He didn’t throw hard either, but instead relied on a devastating change-up. When Smith had good command of his change, hitters found him close to unhittable. From 1985 to 1990, Smith quietly assembled a stretch of hallmark seasons for the Astros. He became a component of some awfully good pitching staffs—an underrated and essential component.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com and can be reached via e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

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