The Yankees have now played a dozen exhibition games, more than a third of their spring schedule. So what have we learned thus far?
Over at LoHud, Chad Jennings reports that, in Tuesday’s game, Joe Girardi will start a preliminary Opening Day lineup that is likely to look like this:
R – Derek Jeter (SS)
L – Nick Johnson (DH)
S – Mark Teixeira (1B)
R – Alex Rodriguez (3B)
L – Robinson Cano (2B)
S – Jorge Posada (C)
L – Curtis Granderson (CF/LF)
S – Nick Swisher (RF)
L – Brett Gardner (LF/CF)
Nick Johnson hitting second is among the Yankees’ worst-kept secrets. It was obvious the day they signed him that he was brought in to replace Johnny Damon in the two-hole with ability to work deep counts and get on base. The pleasant surprise from Johnson this spring has been his team-leading three home runs (all of which have come against the Pirates). No other Yankee has more than one. Johnson also has a pair of doubles and is slugging 1.308 and leading the Yankees in most major offensive categories. That despite missing some time after tweaking his lower back when his spikes got caught in the turf rug the team uses to protect the batting circle during batting practice.
Robinson Cano hitting fifth is a direct challenge to Cano to improve his numbers with runners in scoring position. Last year he hit .207/.242/.332 with runners in scoring position, and Kevin Long, who keeps such stats on the Yankee hitters, said that Cano’s swings on pitches out of the zone spiked in those situations. Cano hit .376/.407/.609 in 343 at-bats with the bases empty last year, and one of his goals this spring has been to maintain the same approach with runners on.
I expected Curtis Granderson to be the fifth-place hitter, but with Cano fifth, Granderson seventh makes sense so as not to have lefties hitting back-to-back, particularly when one of them is as susceptible to left-handed pitching as Granderson.
Brett Gardner batting ninth seems to suggest that Gardner is well on his way toward winning a starting job, and to hear Girardi speak to the YES crew during Saturday’s home game, that does seem to be the case. That was the first spring game that featured Gardner in center field and Granderson in left field in the starting lineup, and Girardi said that he was just trying to figure out which arrangement (that or with Granderson in center and Gardner in left) allowed the two to work best together. That clearly implied that Gardner would be starting at one of those two positions.
Gardner has hit just .158 (3-for-19) this spring, two of those hits being bunt singles, and hasn’t stolen a base or delivered an extra-base hit, but he does have four walks and a .304 OBP. His three challengers all have even lower averages and have combined for just one-extra base hit, one walk, and no steals: Jamie Hoffmann .150 (3-for-19, 2B), Randy Winn .133 (2-for-15, BB), Marcus Thames .111 (2-for-18).
In the battle for the backup infielder spot, Kevin Russo has distinguished himself at the plate, hitting .385/.500/.538 (5-for-13, 2 2B, 3 BB) and has rotated through second, third and shortstop without a significant gaffe. I don’t know if he’ll be able to overcome the Yankees’ existing preference for Ramiro Peña, who has struggled at the plate save for an early homer but played outstanding defense, but Russo is certainly making a strong impression, showing a great approach in the plate, and making solid contact with regularity.
Out on the mound, the fifth-starter competition hasn’t even really gotten going yet as Girardi has said the first two starts were mere warmups and leading candidates Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain won’t make their third starts of the spring until Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. That said, neither has impressed in the early going. Chamberlain has been beat up by opposing offenses, but Hughes’ superior numbers hide a lot of hard contact and a lack of command. Both will have to step it up starting this week as Alfredo Aceves has been outstanding allowing just one run on a solo homer and two other hits against no walks and five strikeouts in his ten innings of work, getting up to four full innings in his third start on Saturday. As far as the other two “candidates,” Chad Gaudin struggled in his second and third starts, saying he was fatigued in the last on Saturday, something Girardi wrote off as the typical dead-arm stage of spring training. Sergio Mitre has been solid, striking out seven against just two walks in nine innings, but did give up three runs in his third and most recent appearance.
Out in the bullpen, Chan Ho Park, Damaso Marte, and Mariano Rivera all have yet to pitch in actual game action (the same is true of Andy Pettitte, though Pettitte threw two simulated games in place of his regular turns, the second because the actual game was rained out). All three should get into games this week, with Rivera and Marte scheduled to pitch on Tuesday. Jason Hirsh has been dominant, striking out five in 3 2/3 hitless, walk-less innings (he did hit a batter). Mark Melancon has been close, also striking out five against no walks in 3 2/3 scoreless innings, albeit while allowing three hits. Lefty Boone Logan has been good enough to stay in contention without being as dominant as those two, posting a 3.18 ERA in 5 2/3 innings over four appearances. Among those less likely to see major league action in the first half of this season, Ryan Pope and Amaury Sanit have impressed (combined 4 2/3 scoreless, walkless innings with 4 Ks), albeit largely in late-inning work against minor league hitters.
On the flip side, Jonathan Albaladejo has been awful. In just two innings worth of work spread over four appearances, he has allowed 11 runs, 10 earned, on 15 hits and a walk (good for a 45.00 ERA), not counting the inherited runners he has allowed to score who have inflated CC Sabathia’s ERA.
Right now, I don’t see much reason to revise my prediction for the 25-man roster, but Peña, largely due to the strength of Russo’s challenge, Gaudin, and especially Thames, who is a non-roster player, will need to step it up to keep their spots. Also, if Hughes or Chamberlain doesn’t start to put it together, one could start to see some logic to optioning one of them to Scranton for reeducation in favor of someone like Melancon or Hirsh, the latter of whom could take Jamie Hoffmann’s place on the 40-man roster. Of course, all of that could change by the time the Yankees’ next off day comes around a week from tomorrow.