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Observations From Cooperstown: Nova, Chavez, and Marion

Posted By Bruce Markusen On March 18, 2011 @ 4:46 pm In Baseball,Bruce Markusen,Games We Play,Obituaries,Observations From Cooperstown,Spring Training,Yankees | Comments Disabled

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There is only one conclusion to draw from Ivan Nova’s performance on Wednesday night in Tampa: he is going to make the Opening Day roster, and most likely as the No. 4 starter. In bouncing back from his lone poor performance this spring, Nova pitched brilliantly by forging six hitless innings against the Orioles. He threw strikes, kept his fastball down, and even mixed in a slider, the latest addition to his repertoire. Nova recorded 11 of his 14 outs on ground balls, which is exactly the kind of ratio the Yankees would like to see this summer.

With Nova slotted in the fourth spot, that leaves only the No. 5 starter to be decided. The two right-handed veterans, Freddie Garcia and Bartolo Colon, will continue to fight for that honor, with the loser possibly heading to the bullpen, especially if the Yankees take the careful route and place Joba Chamberlain on the disabled list to start the season. (I don’t think Chamberlain’s oblique injury is all that serious, but the Yankees tend to be overly cautious when it comes to these things.) The Yankees could also open up a relief spot by releasing or trading Sergio Mitre, a possibility that has actually been rumored this spring despite Joe Girardi’s affinity for the former Marlin.

The other outside possibility for the bullpen is Romulo Sanchez, the ex-Pirate who is out of options. Sanchez has been wild this spring, but he has a live fastball that has impressed opposing scouts, and would almost certainly be claimed on waivers by someone. At 26, Sanchez is a lot younger than both Colon and Garcia, and more accustomed to pitching out of the pen.

Whatever happens with the 12-man staff, the Yankees at least appear to have some decent pitching options, more so than they appeared to have at the start of spring training…

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The revelation of the Yankee spring has been the play of Eric Chavez. Given up as a lost cause by the A’s and most other teams, Chavez signed a minor league free agent deal with the Yankees during the winter. The move hardly registered a note in the Big Apple, barely mentioned as an afterthought in the New York city dailies.

As of this writing, Chavez has practically guaranteed himself a spot on the roster, barring a late-spring injury. By shortening his swing, Chavez has taken some pressure off his ailing shoulders. He’s also shown power, enough to make scouts wonder if he might get some DH time if Jorge Posada slumps at the start of the season. Chavez has also taken a crash course in learning first base, giving the Yankees the kind of versatility they want from a backup infielder. Perhaps most importantly, he’s fully recovered from the plague of shoulder, back, and neck injuries that laid waste to his career over the past half-decade.

Yet, with Chavez must come some caution. The reality is this: he’s played a grand total of 64 games over the last three seasons, so he will have to prove he can stay healthy. If he can, the Yankees will boast their most powerful bench in years. With Chavez, Andruw Jones, and potentially Jesus Montero assuming the backup catching role, the Yankees could have three legitimate power hitters available in reserve. When’s the last time the Yankees had that? You might have to go back to the latter stages of 2000, when Joe Torre could call on Glenallen Hill, Jose Canseco, and Shane Spencer in a pinch…

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Prior to the arrival of Ozzie Smith in St. Louis, Marty Marion was considered the greatest fielding shortstop in the history of the Cardinals’ franchise. Marion, who died earlier this week at the age of 93, was one of those players who will always incur debate between old schoolers who saw him play and the younger Sabermetric crowd. The old schoolers will defend his 1944 MVP Award and even call for his election to the Hall of Fame, while the Sabermetric analysts will say Marion never should have won the award because of his mediocre offensive numbers, and laugh off any suggestions of Cooperstown.

I suspect Marion is one of those players you had to see play in order to appreciate his value. Growing up listening to Art Rust Jr. on WABC Radio in the late seventies and early eighties, I heard numerous witnesses attest to Marion’s defensive brilliance, from his broad range to his ability to go deep in the hole to his shotgun throwing arm. I listened to Rust and so many of his callers absolutely rave about Marion that I eventually took them at their word. After all, I figure they couldn’t all be wrong.

I never saw Marion play, but I think Steve Treder of The Hardball Times is probably right when he imagines Marion as an early day version of the former Oriole stalwart, Mark Belanger. With his long, lean frame (which is just how Belanger was built), the six-foot, two-inch Marion was nicknamed “Slats” and “The Octopus.” Fans who watched him say he seemed to glide along the infield, gobbling up ground with the ease of a high-powered lawnmower. I did see Belanger play, and that’s pretty much how I remember “The Blade” played the position, with the same kind of smoothness and fluidity attributed to Marion. From a defensive standpoint, Belanger was one of the five best shortstops I’ve ever seen play, ranking somewhere behind the “Wizard of Oz” and mixed in the middle with a group that includes Adam Everett, Omar Vizquel, Davey Concepcion, and Eddie Brinkman.

That’s not to say that either Belanger or Marion deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Neither man hit enough to truly deserve that honor. But strictly from a standpoint of fielding, these guys were masters of their position, both efficient in their skill and aesthetically pleasing to watch. And there’s nothing wrong with finding value in that.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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