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.
So basically we just have to resign ourselves to the nine slot being a suckhole on offense.
I'm very interested to see how Cano does this year. Am expecting big things from him but am unsure how he'll respond.
I see the Cano move as a way to protect Granderson from the spotlight. It's easier to hide him at #7, especially if he struggles in the NY glare. If he thrives I expect they'll swap him and Cano pretty quickly. Granderson's power plays better behind A-Rod, especially since he hit 20 HRs on the road last year. Could he top 40 HRs playing half his games at Yankee Stadium 2.0?
Not sure what you meant by two lefties in a row. It seems they're pretty committed to Jorge at #6 and Swisher at #8.
i also think girardi doesn't really like tinkering with the lineup that much (either in spite of or perhaps because of his endless lineup changes his 1st year with all the injuries) - i think this is especially so of the top of the lineup - because po is going to have to be out of the lineup as a catcher and with granderson's struggles against lefties, i think girardi wants a stable presence in the 5 spot after arod - so cano makes sense for that role.
the 5th starter battle is odd with neither hughes or chamberlain showing much yet this spring and aceves sounding pretty strong.
i also thought coiming into this year that aceves would turn back into a pumpkin - so we'll see.
I love Aceves. I think he's the real deal. He seemed to benefit from a lack of expectation last year, coming after Joba in a number of games. But he seemed very poised, intent and crafty out there.
I think Ace is the real deal too. But he is the kind of pitcher who cannot throw a ball by someone. And none of his pitches are really great, but he does a great job of mixing pitches, speeds, and locations. And you can definitely be successful in MLB with that guile and those pitches.
When guys hit him hard it is because they get aggressive early in the count and/or start to guess right on his pitch selection. He could become Maddux-like if he overcomes those two problems by realizing when the hitting strategy changes and avoiding falling into a routine with his pitch selection.
I really hope he gets the fifth spot, because I think that's where he's best suited. And likewise Joba is best-suited for the bullpen. Maybe Hughes can be the long man or get things together in Scranton for a while this year.
"When guys hit him hard it is because they get aggressive early in the count and/or start to guess right on his pitch selection. He could become Maddux-like if he overcomes those two problems by realizing when the hitting strategy changes and avoiding falling into a routine with his pitch selection."
This caused me to run to B-R.com (again) :-)
Aceves stats on first pitch of AB (CAREER): .321/.321/.547
Aceves stats after 0-1 count (career): .215/.275/.491
AL pitchers 2009, first pitch of AB: .340/.346/.563
AL pitchers 2009, after 0-1 count: .237/.279/.362
Things that make you say hmmm ....
Cool. So what are you concluding from this?
Looks like he doesn't differ much from the typical pattern, so that contradicts my hypothesis. On the other hand, guys do hit much better off him on the first pitch. So perhaps hmmm... is the correct conclusion.
Not sure how you would test the second part about predictability in selection & location with B-R, but I hope you try!
Thanks for the summation, Cliff.
Cano - man - untapped potential up the yazoo or what? Amazing ability to put the bat on the ball. If he can learn just a bit more selectivity about what he swings at - he will be a force.
Gardner. I ain't seeing it. He just doesn't look like a starter for a major league ball club. Johnny Damon might have had an uglier swing (barely), but at least JD made consistent contact - hard contact at that. Gardner? Not so much. Is Gardner really a better option than someone like Thames or Winn? Best case is he's a one year stop gap until they get another outfielder next season or maybe at the trading deadline.
Joba/Phil. I'm rooting for Phil. Not that I dislike Joba, but there's something about Phil that I like a lot. Maybe I'm suffering "Joba fatigue" from all the hand wringing over him the past couple years, I dunno. Or maybe it's just that I'm a Phil guy. Either way this goes - I hope both those guys have breakthrough years and we can start talking about how good they are, not how much unrealized potential they have.
Man - how many games did he save last year by throwing 2, 3, or 4 innings of shutout ball out of the pen, allowing the bats a chance for a come from behind win. He was an unsung hero. He won 10 games out of the pen, but I seem to recall he had a strong influence in many more - games that might have been losses without his contributions.
He was magic in the long guy role - an insurance policy for crappy starts. He turned a lot of crappy starts into wins, it seemed.
I kinda liked him exactly where he was. (shrug of the shoulders)
 I agree that it might be a benefit of the decision, but not the overriding logic. In having Cano in the fifth hole, you're almost force-feeding him at-bats with runners in scoring position; hoping that Long's teachings will carry over from ST and get him going throughout the year if he has early success. Robbie-flavored Cano will almost certainly get a lot of hits if he maintains at the least the ability he had last year. Hope that it translates in this scenario.
Maybe Ace is at least slightly ahead of the curve among A.L.pitchers, which is better than being < average.
 It is really hard to argue with keeping him where he was last year because, as you say, he did a fantastic job. Imagine if he could do that for 6+ every fifth day?
Aceves (career) after 0-1 count: .164/.215/.275
AL pitchers 2009, after 0-1 count: .237/.279/.362
I have to say, this business about turning Johnson into a home run hitter worries me. I mean, sure, great if we're just talking about tweaking his balance to harness more power but I don't have a lot of confidence that encouraging hitters to hit with more power can be done without significant detriment to consistent line drive hitting. I'd really hate for Johnson, who evidently has a very, very nice off field stroke, to start getting pull-happy.
We'll see what happens, but I just wanted to lodge my (predictable) complaint at the outset.
 Well, he laced an opposite-field double over the LF's head the other day, so he seems to have both strokes working. Also, the homers have been from the RF gap to center, he's not pulling it down the line.
 Yes, I saw that double, it was a thing of beauty! I'll be really happy if he can stay focused on solid contact, my concern is just that if he starts to feel he's "expected" to hit more home runs that could lead to disaster.
But actually, this will all be moot, considering who we're talking about. We're talking home runs when we should be talking health. If he can give us 125 games, home runs or no, we'll call it a success.
Remember what happened to Knoblauch when he got it into his head that he could hit dingers?
 Yeah, he hit Keith Olberman's mom in the head! Ding!
Wait . . .
Agreed on the games, that's the most important stat for Nick Johnson. Anything in triple digits would impress me.
Venting time? I really used to love Rob Neyer but have now given up..hislatest blog post just made me wanna wretch..The Red Sox are a "fine organization" for letting No-mahhh sign a one-day deal then retire? Umm..doesn't every team do this for their start players? Really, at some point can Rob just come out and admit he's not an impartial journalist anymore? Got my back here, thelarmis?? (Yes, I take this shit wayyyyy too seriously!)
We have NJ batting 2nd, followed by Teix and ARod. I don't think the message is to hit HRs. Nick has played in YS before and it didn't screw up his swing. My guess is he will just accidentally hit a few HRs to RF.
 The only thing you need to know about Neyer is that he hates the Yankees with a passion.
 Hah ah ahh ah aha a !!! He did, that's right!
 I know, but did you read the thing the other day about what Long was saying? Working on Nick's weight transfer or keeping his back foot planted or something? Long seemed very optimistic that with some adjustment, Nick could really be a home run threat. It sounded a lot like a serious plan to me, which is the source of my discomfort.
 God forbid Long does his job and makes a good hitter better. I understand your concern, but Johnson is tearing up spring training, so whatever he's doing is working.
 Heh heh hehheh. Point taken.