The Yankees tend to treat the waiver wire as an afterthought, but I’d like to see them take an aggressive approach and make a play for Josh Bard, newly released this week by the Red Sox. Perhaps Bard would take a minor league deal, with the stipulation that he has to be on the major league roster by a certain date. Why am I singing the praises of Bard, he of the .270 on-base percentage and .279 slugging percentage in 2008? There are several reasons. Over a much larger sample size of games in 2006 and ’07, Bard was a very good offensive catcher. Anyone who can slug .537 while playing half of his games at Petco Park, as Bard did in 2008, has some measure of offensive talent. Bard is also a switch-hitter, giving the Yankees some flexibility in case Jorge Posada hits the disabled list for the second straight season. Additionally, Bard is a relatively young 30, having never caught more than 108 games in a single season dating back to 2002.
Bard was hitting over .400 for the Red Sox this spring, but fell victim to the Tim Wakefield hex. On a team where Jason Varitek, a highly skilled defensive catcher, has inexplicably never adjusted to the nuisance of the knuckler, the Red Sox’ backup catcher must be able to catch Wakefield every fifth day. (The job goes to rookie George Kottaras.) Bard cannot handle the knuckleball with any more dexterity than Varitek, but that’s not a problem for a Yankee franchise that hasn’t had a knuckleballer since Joe Niekro in 1987. (I’m not including Wade Boggs’ one-game cameo in 1997.) At the very least, Bard would represent an upgrade over no-hit wonder Kevin Cash, currently slated to do most of the catching at Scranton-Wilkes Barre . . .
While we’re on the subject of the knuckleball, the Yankees have had very little connection to the pitch during the expansion era. According to research, they have had only three fulltime knuckleballers over the last 50 years. Not surprisingly, two of them were the Niekro brothers, whose Yankee days stretched from 1984 to 1987. The third was a journeyman right-hander named Bob Tiefenauer, who appeared in ten games for the Yankees in 1965.
At least five other Yankee pitchers have thrown the knuckleball with some regularity over the past five decades. They are Doyle Alexander (1976, 1982-83) and Luis Tiant (1979-80), who mixed occasional knucklers into their wide assortments of pitches. (Perhaps Alexander should have used the knuckler more often during his second Yankee stint.) From the 1960s, we find relievers Bud Daley, Ryne Duren and Pedro Ramos as intermittent practitioners of the knuckleball.
The Yankees’ announcement that Hideki Matsui will not play the outfield until at least June is one of the least surprising developments I’ve heard this spring. With five fulltime outfielders (Damon, Gardner, Cabrera, Nady, and Swisher) expected to be on the Opening Day roster, the Yankees really have no need to play Matsui—the worst defender of the bunch—in the outfield over the first two months. If the Yankees want to work Posada into the DH mix, they can always use him against left-handers, sitting Matsui down and making him available for late-inning pinch-hit chores.
The more pertinent news has to do with the way that Matsui looks at the plate this spring. Through Wednesday’s action, Matsui had compiled a .588 slugging percentage in his DH-only role. After watching “Godzilla” play on Tuesday night against the Pirates, I’m ready to proclaim him the early favorite for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. The game marked Matsui’s fourth consecutive start at DH, an indication that his right knee is nearly ready for the start of the season. In his first at-bat, Matsui turned on an inside fastball, launching a tower-scraping drive high over the right field wall at Steinbrenner Field. It was the kind of swing missing most of last season, as Matsui struggled on balky knees, one of which was recovering from surgery while the other was anticipating a similar procedure. While much of Yankee camp has centered on the abilities of new third baseman Cody Ransom, Matsui’s early season role has been underplayed. With Alex Rodriguez on the DL, Matsui will serve as the Yankees’ cleanup hitter, making him resident protection for Mark Teixeira. A good start for Godzilla will help soften the blow of losing A-Rod for any length of time, whether it’s four, five, or six weeks.
Bruce Markusen can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.