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Observations From Cooperstown: Rhodes, The Catching, and Nova

Posted By Bruce Markusen On August 6, 2011 @ 10:46 am In Baseball,Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen,Staff | Comments Disabled

[1]While the Yankees ponder their sudden abundance of starting pitchers, they continue to look at left-handed relief pitching options. Boone Logan has been a season-long adventure (at least prior to his clutch bases-loaded strikeout of Adrian Gonzalez on Friday night) prompting the Yankees to sign J.C. Romero to a minor league contract. Romero has pitched reasonably well at Scranton, but not well enough to earn a promotion–at least not yet.

So now there’s talk that the Yankees may look at 41-year-old Arthur Lee Rhodes, who was recently designated for assignment by the Rangers. After three spectacular seasons in the National League, the ageless Rhodes (who seems to have been around since the hula hoop), has struggled in a set-up role in Texas. But his numbers against left-handed hitters are good; he has held lefties to a .216 batting average in 2011.

Then again, the Yankees might stay in-house and turn to one of their cherished minor league prospects. Manny Banuelos, who struck out eight in his Triple-A debut this week, could be called upon to take Logan’s place as the lefty specialist. Banuelos is clearly not ready to start in the major leagues, but pitching as a spot reliever is a far simpler task. Banuelos would also have the advantage of working against major league hitters who have not seen him face-to-face, except for a possible spring training appearance.

Right now, I’d be willing to look at either Banuelos, Rhodes, or Romero, either as the lone lefty specialist or as a supplement to Logan. Unlike Logan, they have the kinds of deliveries that are deceptive for left-handed hitters to pick up. Rhodes and Romero also have much longer track records of success than Logan. It’s something to think about…

***

It didn’t receive much attention amidst all of the Ubaldo Jimenez and Wandy Rodriguez rumors, but the Yankees actually came close to making a lesser deal that would have changed the configuration of the 25-man roster. According to a New York Post report, the Yankees almost traded backup catcher Francisco Cervelli to the Pirates for minor league pitcher Brad Lincoln. (Lincoln, 26, pitched well in his lone start for the Pirates, but was sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis because of the dreaded numbers game.) The Yankees would then have called up Jesus Montero from Scranton/Wilkes Barre to serve as the No. 2 receiver.

That the Yankees even discussed trading Cervelli shows that management is not blind to his general incompetence. There are clearly those in the organization who want him gone and simultaneously want Montero in the major leagues. Given such sentiment, I would not be surprised if Cervelli is traded or waived before the end of August, clearing the way for the Yankees to have a backup catcher who can actually do something.

The status of the No. 2 catcher, whoever it turns out to be, should have little impact on the playing time of the first-string receiver, Russell Martin. Though Martin’s hitting has cooled off since May, he has been a revelation behind the plate. He blocks everything in sight, throws out runners with regularity, and has good working relationships with all of the pitchers, whether it’s a veteran like CC Sabathia or a novice like Ivan Nova. He’s the best defensive catcher the Yankees have had since the late 1980s, when Joel Skinner wore the pinstripes. For those who never saw him play, Skinner was a brilliant defensive catcher who had it all: agility, arm strength, and the smarts required of a catcher. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hit for either average or power, and spent most of his career as a part-time player.

In contrast to Skinner, Martin has some power, draws walks, and can steal a base. He’s not a strong offensive player, but he is a helper, and a man whose playing time is more than justified by his defensive skills. The more that Martin plays down the stretch, the better off the Yankees will be…

***

On Thursday, Martin caught Nova’s gem at Cellular Field: a stint of seven and two-thirds innings, one run allowed, and ten strikeouts. Not only was it Nova’s best start of the season, but it continues a stretch that has seen him post a 2.92 ERA over his last eight starts. The Yankees would be INSANE–in a “Crazy Eddie” kind of way–to send the young right-hander back to Triple-A. At the very least, Nova has earned the right to pitch in relief; at the most, he should be kept in the rotation while A.J. Burnett is put in temporary hiding in the bullpen.

Plain and simple, Nova deserves to be on the major league pitching staff. With his sinking fastball, overhand curve, and improving control, Nova has all the requisites to be a very good No. 3 starter. He is clearly one of the 12 best pitchers the Yankees have right now, if not one of the six best pitchers. By keeping Nova right where he is, the Yankees would be sending a positive message to all players in their system: that performance, and not contract status or reputation, will ultimately determine who stays and who goes. That is the way that good organizations run things.

With Nova joining Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia, the Yankees have a capable starting rotation that offers a nice mix of youth and age. By putting Burnett in the bullpen, the Yankees finally send him the message that his performance needs to get better. They also maintain a fallback in case Hughes reverts back to his early season lack of form.

Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen, largely because Joe Girardi doesn’t like to offend his veteran players. But putting Burnett in the bullpen and keeping Nova in the rotation would be the correct thing to do.


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