[Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox/US Presswire]
Mere hours after signing Jeff Francoeur, the Kansas City Royals are apparently “nearing an agreement” with Melky Cabrera.
Now: as I wrote here less than a month ago, I like Melky, and I wish him a long and happy life and a prosperous career. That said, until I see him in a Royals uniform, I’m going to assume this is just an all-too-believable joke that got out of hand.
Is it 8 o’clock yet? Long and coherent doesn’t seem to be happening today, so instead, here’s some scattered thoughts from a scattered mind.
*You guys been watching the NLCS? Some excellent games, and I’ve gone from rooting for the Giants because they aren’t the Phillies to genuinely liking them. Lincecum, Kung Fu Panda, Buster Posey, even Brian Wilson who is douchey but at least in an entertaining way. The entire series makes me wish the Yankees would ditch their uptight facial hair regulations already, though. Everything is more fun with beards!
*There’s plenty of time to think about this later and it’s not a surprise anyway, but according to Jon Heyman, the Yanks plan to bring back Joe Girardi. I’m okay with this. Girardi has definitely made his share of mistakes this postseason, but so has every manager. I don’t think there’s been anything fireable. He won the World Series last year and made the ALCS this year (…as of this writing), and although the ghost of George Streinbrenner would disagree, to me, you don’t fire a guy coming off that kind of success unless he does something really crazy/egregious/criminal. Despite what I might end up yelling at the TV during the 8th inning tonight, I think Joe’s been solid.
I wish he’d eat something though. Dude looks gaunt.
*Via LoHud, Robbie Cano hopes Melky Cabrera can rejoin the Yanks next year. I… don’t hope that, but I still have warm feelings for the Melkman and I hope he lands on his feet. He was fun to watch for a while, had some big plays and big hits for the Yanks over the years (remember that catch on a would-be Manny Ramirez homer just over the left field wall? I do, and I bet Manny does), and I think he could still help some team, at least from the bench.
*It’s easy to overlook in the heat of a white-knuckle eighth-inning playoff relief appearance, but Kerry Wood’s got a pretty great story. Tragic, redemptive, all that stuff.
*It is genuinely kinda depressing how many fans left Yankee Stadium early in Games 3 and 4. I mean, in the ninth of a blowout, I get it. But while it’s still close? In the ALCS? I don’t generally go the fan-police route: I stay til the better end because I’m an obsessive and hate the idea of missing anything — but it’s supposed to be fun, and if you need to leave for work or school or sleep or whatever, you do what you have to do. But the streams of people fleeing before the end warlier this week were pretty embarassing. It’s easy enough for most of the country to hate Yankee fans, no need to load the gun for them.
*Nick Swisher, according to ESPN NY: “If one more guy asks me about Cliff Lee, I’m gonna punch him right in the (bleeping) mouth.” Heh.
Here’s hoping the baseball goes well enough tonight to get us baseball tomorrow night, and cause for Swisher to spaz out some more.
Chien-Ming Wang looked like his old self over the first couple of innings Thursday afternoon. His sinker was clocking in at 94 miles per hour on the YES gun and showing good drop, and after striking out two men in his perfect first inning, his second frame went groundout, groundout, strikeout.
Things started to flatten out in the third, however, when Chris Davis led off with a ground rule double. The Rangers eeked out two runs in that frame, then added two more in the fourth when Davis again doubled, this time with two on and none out. In the fifth, Nelson Cruz crushed a pitch up in the zone into the visiting bullpen, driving Wang from the game 11 pitches shy of his intended limit of 80. Wang’s final line was 4 2/3 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 1 BB, 5 K, but that more than halved his season ERA (to 14.46), and 13 of his 14 outs came by strikeout or groundout. Those first two innings were worth building on, and he’ll take his next turn in Boston on Tuesday.
As for the Yankees, Johnny Damon led off the bottom of the first with a home run off Brandon McCarthy, but the Yanks couldn’t get much going for the next few innings while the Rangers were running up the tally on Wang.
After failing to plate a leadoff double by Mark Teixeira in the fourth, the Yankees entered the bottom of the fifth down 5-1 with Francisco Cervelli and Ramiro Peña due up. Surprisingly both rookie singled after which McCarthy walked Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher to give the Yankees their second run. Teixeira then hit a cue shot down the third base line that skipped under Michael Young’s glove and rattled around in foul territory near where the stands bend, giving all three runners time to score and tie the game on what looks like a ringing bases-clearing double in the box score. With Teixeira on second and still none out in the inning, Alex Rodriguez silenced the boo birds that had begun to chirp by singling Tex home with the go-ahead run.
Unfortunately, that lead only lasted a few minutes, as Ian Kinsler homered off Alfredo Aceves (and the left field foul pole) in the top of the sixth to tie the game at 6-6. Aceves, Phil Coke, David Robertson, and Texas’s Jason Jennings combined to keep the score there until the bottom of the eighth, when Ron Washington brought in lefty C.J. Wilson. Wilson had been throwing high-90s cheese in his scoreless 1 2/3 innings Wednesday night, but didn’t have the same snap on his pitches less than 24 hours later. Wilson walked Robinson Cano on four pitches to start the eighth, then after getting Hideki Matsui to fly out, floated a changeup to Melky Cabrera.
Melky deposited the pitch in the left field box seats for yet another big late-inning hit, and Mariano Rivera nailed down the 8-6 win in the ninth. The Yankees are now tied with the Red Sox, who also won on Thursday, atop the AL East with the best record in the American League. They’ll be in Boston next week, with Wang opening the series.
There are those who believe that spring training performance is too misleading to be useful in determining who should win spots on an Opening Day roster. I would tend to agree with that theory, at least in the case of established veteran players, but the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons can be helpful in sorting out the best and worst among younger players.
The 2009 Yankees provide a classic case in point. Last Sunday, Joe Girardi announced that Brett Gardner had won the center field battle, with Melky Cabrera relegated to backup duties. Gardner hit a leadoff home run in the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game—and continued to hit all spring, even showing surprising power. Cabrera, after a slow start, rebounded to lift his average near the .350 range, which is terrific, but still short of Gardner’s exhibition season level.
In my mind, Girardi has made a perfectly reasonable and rational decision in choosing Gardner. Both players have their strengths, Gardner his speed and range, and Cabrera his throwing arm, but neither has a huge edge in talent over the other. Both are younger players still trying to establish their levels of value in the major leaguers. Neither player hit well in 2008, leaving question marks about their staying power as regular center fielders. If Girardi can’t use spring training as a major factor in this decision, then what else can he rely on? A call to Joe Torre? Tarot cards?
I believe that the pressure of spring training performance can also tell us something about a player. If a player knows he has to hit well in the spring in order to win a job, and then he goes out and does exactly that, it may be an indication that he can handle the pressure that comes with the major leagues. Similarly, I believe that competition should bring out the best in good players. And based on the way that both Gardner and Cabrera have responded to this spring’s competition (and the way that Austin Jackson, slated for Triple-A, also hit in Grapefruit League play), the Yankees may find center field to be in far more capable hands than they originally planned…
No one seems to know for sure whether Bob Sheppard is fully retired, or might make a cameo appearance at the new Yankee Stadium this year, but what I do know is this: This incredible man has introduced Yankee players for nearly 60 years, dating back to the 1951 season. So we thought we’d compile an “all-Bob Sheppard team,” consisting of some of the best and most unusual Yankee names in history. (The more syllables, the better.) Some of the monikers are lyrical, others are clunky, but all have been delivered with a grace and precision unlike any other public address announcer in baseball history.
Catcher: Thurman Munson (the only big leaguer with the given name of Thurman)
First Base: Duke Carmel (true identity: Leon James Carmel)
Second Base: Robinson Cano (the only current Yankee to make the squad)
Shortstop: Paul Zuvella (Rizzuto loved this name)
Third Base: Celerino Sanchez (makes me think of celery stalks)
Outfield: Ross Moschitto (hit like a mosquito, too)
Outfield: Roger Repoz (if only he had played so lyrically)
Outfield: Claudell Washington (the first and only Claudell, and a personal favorite)
Pinch-Hitter: Oscar Azocar (not much of a hitter, but what a name!)
SP: Ed Figueroa (Mr. Sheppard would never call him “Figgy”)
SP: John Montefusco (did Bob ever call him “The Count?”)
SP: Eli Grba (still not sure what happened to all of the vowels)
SP: Hideki Irabu (never referred to as “The Toad”)
RP: Hipolito Pena (an obscure left-hander, but a memorable moniker)
RP: Cecilio Guante (translates to “Cecilio Glove”)
RP: Ron Klimkowski (went from pitching to selling Cadillacs)
RP: Dooley Womack (one of the stars of Ball Four)
Opponent: Jose Valdivielso (Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins)…
One of the most underrated managers in the history of the expansion era died this week. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living ex-manager, passed away on Monday at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial record with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. Without a measure of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison with that of contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, Gil Hodges, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.
In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles and St. Louis, and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.
Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants. In 1977, Franks led Chicago to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave Kingman and using an innovative approach with fireman Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving his relief ace for late-game leads.
For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven games remaining in the season. The following season, the Cubs finished 64-98, nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.
The last week of March signals the beginning of the regular season like light at the end of a tunnel. In Florida, beat writers and their backups, many of whom have been stationed there since the beginning of February, are gathering the final roster notes and putting the finishing touches on their season preview specials for next Sunday’s paper, while the columnists, most of whom are based in New York, continue to track the off-field news and craft profiles of the key players involved in those scenarios.
It’s an exciting and stressful time for all the moving parts of a baseball operation, from the team itself to the media outlets covering the team, but if you work in sports and if baseball is the sport in which you’ve chosen to specialize, it’s the best stress you can have outside of being involved in the postseason.
STORY OF THE WEEK
Much has been made of Joe Girardi’s decision to flip Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon in the batting order. Much was written about this topic in the winter and spring leading up to the 2006 season, Damon’s first in pinstripes. At the Baseball Writers Association of America dinner in December of 2005, I remember asking SI’s Tom Verducci, who is a proponent of Sabermetric analysis, what he thought about putting Jeter in the leadoff spot. He agreed that the combination of Jeter’s ability to get on base more consistently (he was coming off a year with a .389 OBP to Damon’s .366), and Gary Sheffield batting third—which would have kept the righty-lefty-righty element in play that Joe Torre favored—made Jeter the better choice for the leadoff spot. But that spring, when the writers asked Torre about his plan, the Yankee manager was undeterred about keeping Damon as the leadoff hitter. Torre, in his way, usually deflected the discussion by saying, “You only have to worry about the leadoff batter for the first inning. Then the rest of the lineup takes care of itself.” It was as if the decision was predetermined from the moment Damon signed with the Yankees.
What we know as baseball fans is that the numbers rarely lie. Jeter’s lowest seasonal on-base percentage pre-Damon was .352 in 2004. Head to head, Damon, whose career has spanned the same exact time frame of Jeter’s, had a higher OBP than Jeter only once prior to his arrival in New York (in 2004: Damon .380 to Jeter’s .352.). The trend has held true since 2006, as Jeter has bested Damon in OBP twice: .417 to .359 in ’06, and .388 to .351 in ’07.
Adding further credibility to Jeter as a leadoff batter is the number of times that Jeter has grounded into double plays versus Damon. Over the course of their respective careers, Damon has grounded into 120 fewer double plays than Jeter (75 to 95), an average of nine fewer GIDPs per season.
Here’s a thought, though: If Girardi is adamant about Jeter in the leadoff spot now, did he think about this at all in 2006 when he was Torre’s consiglieri on the bench? If so, and if he had Torre’s ear, why didn’t he suggest it? By the numbers, and the fact that Damon is entering his Age 35 season and Jeter will turn 35 on June 26, this decision appears to be three years late.
OTHER THINGS WE LEARNED
Until next week . . .
I don’t recall Aaron Boone’s Yankee days as warmly as I should. Perhaps it’s because Boone’s home run in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, as exhilarating a moment as any this decade, did not ultimately lead to a world championship. Or maybe it’s because Boone’s Yankee career ended so quickly, undone by a pickup basketball game and a wrecked knee that eventually led to the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez.
Six years after Boone’s brief pinstriped tenure, I find myself thinking of him more fondly. Shortly after hearing that Boone would need open heart surgery to repair an aortic valve—a procedure that took place earlier this week—I also began to think about a pretty good pitcher named John Hiller.
The Tigers’ relief ace for much of the 1970s, Hiller is the only other major leaguer that I can recall who endured severe heart problems during his playing days. In January of 1971, the 27-year-old Hiller suffered a major heart attack at his off-season home. The effects of the attack sidelined him for all of the 1971 season and most of 1972. His career given up as a lost cause by most casual observers, Hiller proceeded to stage one of the most remarkable comebacks in baseball history. In 1973, the talented and determined left-hander set a then-major league record with 38 saves and finished fourth in the American League’s MVP balloting. Hiller never quite reached such a dominant level again, but remained an effective closer for most of the decade. He did not retire until 1980, some nine years after he was struck by the heart attack that had seemingly ended his career on the spot.
Unlike Hiller, Boone’s aortic problem did not fit the description of an “emergency” condition, but it did have to be treated through an open-heart procedure, which always carries serious concerns. Because of that, Boone’s 2009 season is over before it begins. Doctors believe that he can eventually return to the playing field, but Boone does not have the benefit of age on his side, as Hiller did. Hiller was in his late twenties when struck by the heart attack; Boone just turned 36, and has already become a journeyman who has to grapple for his job on a year-to-year basis. According to the earliest timetable, Boone would be able to resume playing in 2010, by which time he will be 37 and hoping that a one-year layoff hasn’t completely eroded his skills.
Does that mean Boone’s career is over? Well, I wouldn’t give up on him just yet, considering that he has always kept himself in good shape and has a reputation as a rock-solid worker. And if he can find some inspiration from John Hiller—who has already done what many thought was impossible—perhaps his chances of a comeback will get that much better . . .
I’m not holding my breath for the Yankees to make any trades before Opening Day—spring training deals have become a lost art—but at least one player’s name has been swirling through the trade winds. Melky Cabrera has drawn interest from the White Sox, a scenario that speaks volumes about Chicago’s center field quagmire. Brian Anderson, Jerry Owens, and Dewayne Wise all have questionable resumes and have failed to advance their causes through slapdash spring performances. The White Sox like Cabrera’s defense and throwing skills, but I have to wonder how much they would offer for a player who was an offensive nonentity for most of 2008. If the ChiSox were willing to fork over a young catcher or a third baseman—anything but another pitching prospect!—the Yankees might have to take the bait. The power and bat speed displayed by Austin Jackson this spring, along with Brett Gardner’s rejuvenated swing, have the Yankees thinking better about their center field depth, thereby making Cabrera more expendable. By trading Cabrera, who is out of options, the Yankees could also open up a roster spot for another infielder or a third catcher . . .
The passing of former Yankee Johnny Blanchard brings to mind some personal memories from the early 1980s. As the Yankees struggled to find a permanent catching solution after Thurman Munson’s death, I once thought to myself: Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like Johnny Blanchard right about now? Though often a third-string catcher on those multi-layered Yankee teams that featured Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, Blanchard would have been a perfect fit as Rick Cerone’s platoon mate in the early eighties. The Yankees eventually found a Blanchard-type player in Ron Hassey, but “Babe” had his limitations with the glove and enjoyed an even shorter peak to his career than Blanchard.
As Cliff Corcoran pointed earlier this week, the Yankees could sure use someone like Blanchard today as a hedge against Jorge Posada’s shoulder and Jose Molina’s bat. Unfortunately, catching depth throughout the game is about as weak as I’ve ever seen it. It’s not just the Yankees who struggle to find backups; the problem persists throughout both leagues. A Johnny Blanchard in today’s game (at least based on his three-year peak from 1961 to 1963) would carry a lavish value—and would probably start for a number of teams, including those in Anaheim, Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle, Toronto, Florida, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Washington.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.
With the Grapefruit League schedule kicking off on Wednesday, I wanted to take these last two day of inaction to take a look at the key position battles being waged in Yankee camp. I’ll start today with the most significant: the center-field battle between Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.
First the tale of the tape:
|Melky Cabrera||Brett Gardner|
|Age (DOB)||24 (8/11/84)||25 (8/24/85)|
|Height – Wt||5’11” – 200||5’10” – 180|
|ML career (PA)||.268/.329/.374 (1,608)||.228/.283/.299 (141)|
|mL career (PA)||.296/.347/.420 (1,621)||.291/.389/.385 (1,738)|
Cabrera is theoretically the incumbent, but Gardner started in center in 12 of the Yankees’ last 15 games of 2008 after Cabrera effectively lost the center field job in early August. Cabrera made just five starts in center after August 3 and was even demoted to Triple-A for three weeks and recalled only after rosters expanded in September. In that sense, Gardner is the incumbent, but really, despite the large discrepancy in their major league service time, neither player entered camp with the upper hand in this battle.
This battle is topsy-turvy in other ways. For example, the less experienced Gardner is the win-now player given his minor league promise of solid on-base numbers (.389 mL career OBP), excellent defense, and spectacular speed on the bases (153 minor league stolen bases at an 83% success rate, 13 for 14 on the bases in the majors). Meanwhile, the appeal of Cabrera, the experienced major leaguer, is his potential. Cabrera has shown flashes of power at the plate, particularly early last season when he slugged .505 with six homers through May 4. Cabrera is unlikely to ever develop into a serious home-run threat, but Gardner is a pure slap hitter, with just nine career home runs as a pro and an isolated slugging in the minors of just .094. Gardner seems unlikely to ever hit for much power, but there remains some hope that Cabrera, who is a year younger, may yet blossom into a complete hitter.
The problem is that Cabrera’s performance on the field has been heading in the opposite direction. Cabrera hit .280/.360/.391 as a rookie left fielder in 2006, displaying solid plate discipline for a 21-year-old as well as some doubles power (26 in 524 PA) and falling just short of a league-average performance overall. In 2007, however, his plate discipline melted away without a corresponding increase in power (.273/.327/.391), and last year, after that hot start, he simply stopped hitting, batting .235/.280/.286 from May 5 through the end of the season, a line worse than Gardner’s seemingly pathetic rookie showing.
Given that Gardner was just breaking into the majors last year, been reliably productive in the minors, and seemed to heat up at the end of last season, hitting .294/.333/.412 in 73 PA his second of two major league stints, there’s every reason to believe that Gardner will significantly improve on his overall major league line if given the chance this season, but given Cabrera’s steady regression, there are far fewer reasons to continue to believe in Melky. It’s not as though Melky does anything else better than Gardner. Melky can steal bases, but he might steal 15, while Gardner could easily steal more than 50 and lead the league if he starts every day, and he’ll do it at a higher success rate than Cabrera’s. Melky has shown flashes of brilliance in the field, but Gardner, thanks in part to his superior speed, is going to turn more balls into outs in center, just as he’s likely to make fewer outs at the plate.
According to Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range, Melky was the best defensive left fielder in baseball in 2006 but has displayed merely average range in center over the last two years. Gardner did not play enough to register on Pinto’s major league-only system, but per Ultimate Zone Rating, Gardner’s defense in center was worth 9.1 runs to Melky’s pedestrian 0.6 last year, a remarkable stat given that Gardner played just 160 2/3 innings in center for the Yankees, while Melky played 973 2/3. Of course, the small sample warnings about Gardner’s major league statistics are particularly acute when it comes to fielding, both because he spent a significant chunk of his first major league stint in left, and because fielding stats are so suspect to start with. It would be cherry-picking to write off Gardner’s poor performance at the plate in the majors as a small sample while emphasizing his absurd advantage over Cabrera in UZR. That said, what I saw watching the games supported the statistics’ assertion that Gardner has the superior range in center. Cabrera still has the better arm, but not by as much as one might think; Gardner recorded four assists in his 22 major league games in center, showing a strong and accurate throwing arm that opposing runners would be ill-advised to test.
So Melky’s case comes down to power and potential, and it seems unlikely that he has shown enough of either to outweigh Gardner’s advantages on the bases, in the field, and in getting on-base. Melky’s 2008 season cracked the lenses of the rose-colored glasses that looked at his first two seasons and saw shades of fellow switch-hitting center fielder Bernie Williams’ early-career struggles. Bernie didn’t really start to come on until his age-25 season, which would give Cabrera another year, but it’s hard now look at the stocky, stumbling Cabrera and see any resemblance to the fawn-like awkwardness of the blossoming Bernie.
Hitting coach Kevin Long seems to believe that he can get Gardner to hit with doubles power by increasing the involvement of Gardner’s lower body in his swing. If Gardner shows any signs of proving Long right this spring, the job should be his. The catch is that, due to Cabrera’s pennant-race demotion last year, Melky is now out of options, meaning the Yankees would have to either keep him on the 25-man roster as a fifth outfielder (a platoon with Gardner wouldn’t work–Melky hit just .213/.279/.299 against lefties last year and has hit just .251/.319/.329 against southpaws in his major league career, while Gardner actually had a reverse split in Triple-A last year), or expose him to waivers in an attempt to outright him to Scranton. The latter would almost surely result in Cabrera being claimed by another team. The Yankees avoided arbitration by signing Cabrera to a $1.4 million contract last month, which would seem to strongly indicate that the Yankees have no intention of divesting themselves of Cabrera, but as a fifth-outfielder, Cabrera would be a drain on the roster and would stand little chance of restarting his development. Then again, perhaps that $1.4 million price tag is just enough to prevent the sort of team that might make a claim on Cabrera from doing so. If Cabrera can’t win the center field job in camp, that may be a chance the Yankees have to take, particularly with Austin Jackson headed for Triple-A already having already unseated Cabrera as the team’s Center Fielder of the Future.
The Yankees called up Melky Cabrera before last night’s game, but according to Pete Abe’s article on Melky this morning, that had as much to do with the team’s concern over Bobby Abreu having jammed his wrist sliding into second base on Thursday night as with Cabrera’s performance over his three weeks with triple-A Scranton.
Melky’s traveled a winding path since hitting .280/.360/.391 as a 21-year-old rookie in 2006. He opened last season on the major league bench and struggled, but after taking over in center field on June 1, he hit .325/.375/.482 for three months before slumping in September for the second straight year. When Cabrera opened this season with a .299/.370/.494 April (including five home runs against a previous full-season high of eight), it looked like Melky was emerging as the star player the Yankees had hoped he’d become, but he hit just .226/.274/.293 from May 1 through his, by then, overdue demotion in mid-August.
According to Pete’s article, when Melky was sent down, he was charged with improving his play in three ways: “Be more selective at the plate, try to steal more bases and be more vocal in the outfield.” Two of those goals can be measured objectively, while the third pertains to Melky’s defense, which was the least of his problems at the time of his demotion. With that in mind, here’s a quick look at how Cabrera’s reeducation went over the past three weeks.
From May 1 through his demotion, Cabrera walked 18 times (four of them intentional) in 339 plate appearances, a rate of one unintentional walk every 24.2 trips. In 66 plate appearances with Scranton he walked eight times (none intentionally), a rate of one unintentional walk every 8.25 trips. It’s a small sample, to be sure, but I’m willing to believe that improvement can be maintained. As a rookie in 2006, Melky walked 56 times (three intentional) in 524 plate appearances, a rate of one walk every 9.9 trips. What’s hidden in those numbers, however, is the fact that four of those eight minor league walks game in a single game. Factor those four plate appearances out and he walked once every 15.5 plate appearances over the rest of his time at triple-A. That’s still a marked improvement, but not one that gets him back to that 2006 rate, which is really where he needs to be.
In the majors this year, Cabrera stole 9 bases and was caught twice (an 81 percent success rate) in roughly 129 times on base (not counting times he reached on errors or fielders choices). In the minors, he stole one base in four tries in roughly 27 times on base. Its clear that Melky was forcing things on the bases in Scranton. With the Yankees, he attempted a steal once every 11.7 times on base. In Scranton, he attempted a steal once every 6.8 times on base. Then there’s these comments from Chad Jennings pertaining to Scranton’s games on August 22 and 23:
Melky Cabrera got thrown out trying to steal third base in that decisive ninth inning. At the time, the tying run had already scored and Cabrera was in scoring position with one out. [Manager Dave] Miley said Cabrera was running on his own and was none to happy with his decision to go. . . . I understand that Melky Cabrera wants to prove to the Yankees that he’s willing to play hard — and you can’t deny he’s run out every ball and play good, hustle defense — but he was just caught stealing second. Last night he was caught stealing third in tie game in the bottom of the ninth. Sunday he was thrown out foolishly trying to stretch a single into a double. Cabrera needs to show he’s willing to hustle, but right now the greater concern might be whether or not he’s a bonehead.
With regard to the time he was thrown out stretching, Jennings reported that Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar said Melky told him he was just trying to show hustle. Wynegar responded by explaining the difference between hustle and bad baserunning. Melky’s a fast player, but he’s not a blazer, and he was stealing at a high percentage in the majors this year, which is the most important thing to consider when evaluating a base thief. Again, the minor league sample is extremely small, but the early returns suggest that the Yankees would be best off leaving well enough alone when it comes to Melky’s basestealing and focusing on smart baserunning instead.
Overall, Cabrera hit .333/409/.368 in Scranton, which isn’t a far cry from what his rival Brett Gardner did down there this year (.296/.414/.422). Going back to Jennings conversation with Wynegar, Melky showed up two days before he was required to report to Scranton and, if nothing else, is aware of the fact that he needs to prove himself to the organization. Melky told Pete Abe, “I tried to have a good attitude. I want to do the work,” and Pete reports that Joe Girardi’s heard good things about Melky’s work ethic with Scranton.
Right now, I expect Melky to start the 2009 season back in Scranton and have to earn his way back up. He’ll still be just 24 next season (he’s almost exactly a year younger than Gardner) so there’s plenty of room for hope and for him to still come away with a long, productive major league career, and the demotion appears to have served as a sufficient wake-up call. The only question now is if the Yankees can focus his renewed determination into the necessary skill set for him to succeed as a major league starter.
Let’s get right into it. The Yankees just made three roster moves. The first was obvious: Dan Giese, who left Wednesday’s game with shoulder tendonitis, has been placed on the DL and replaced with Chris Britton, who will reprise his role as roster filler until the Yankees are forced to call up a fifth starter, likely Phil Hughes, next weekend.
The second was somewhat overdue. Melky Cabrera, who has hit .226/.274/.293 since May 1, was optioned to triple-A and replaced by Brett Gardner. In fairness to the Yankees, they tried to motivate this exchange in early July by calling up Gardner and giving him 16 starts in an 18-game stretch (enabled by Johnny Damon’s shoulder injury), but Gardner made Melky look like Mickey Mantle by hitting .153/.227/.169. As I reported in my Farm Report this morning, Gardner got back in the grove after his late-July demotion, hitting .339/.429/.390* in his return engagement in Scranton. He also returns to the Bronx coming off a 3 for 4 day (with a triple) and on a seven-game hitting streak. After his July performance, it’s difficult to say Gardner couldn’t be worse than Melky, and there’s legitimate concern that his total lack of power will allow major league pitchers to challenge him and thus negate his ability to draw walks, which is a huge part of his game, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and this doesn’t even qualify as the latter.
Gardner will start in center tonight and bat eighth ahead of Andy Pettitte’s new personal catcher, Jose Molina. It remains to be seen if Joe Girardi will platoon the lefty-hitting Gardner with the right-handed Justin Christian, though one suspects he will. The way I see it, if they’re going to give Gardner a second chance, they might as well let him play full time, though certainly Gardner’s performance will play a large part in determining how much playing time he loses to Christian. As for Melky, he’ll be back when rosters expand in two weeks.
The third and final transaction saw the Yankees call up Cody Ransom, whom I also discussed in my Farm Report, and release Richie Sexson. I have to say, I’m confused about this one. Sexson was hitting .250/.371/.393 as a Yankee, which isn’t season-changing, but if nothing else, gave the Yankees a solid on-base performance from a bench player. Against lefties, Sexson hit .273/.393/.455 as a Yankee, which meant he was doing what the Yankees picked him up to do. Ransom, as I said in my Farm Report, is essentially a right-handed Wilson Betemit, but five years older and with a fraction of the big league experience. Originally a shortstop, Ransom can play all four infield positions and spot in the outfield. He transitioned to third base in 2006, but in the wake of the Alberto Gonzalez trade was moved back to short in Scranton a couple of weeks ago. He’s got some pop in his bat (22 homers in 116 games for Scranton this year, 49 in 257 games over his last two minor league seasons), but his plate discipline is ordinary at best and he strikes out a lot and hits for a low average.
Other than position flexibility, I’m not sure what Ransom offers that would be enough for the Yankees to pass on having Sexson on the bench earning the major league minimum. Derek Jeter’s in the lineup tonight at shortstop, so it doesn’t seem as though his bruised instep is enough of a problem to motivate a roster move that costs the team a productive player. The only thing I can think of is that having the extra infielder on hand will allow Joe Girardi to apply some pressure to Robinson Cano, whose play over the past two weeks has become downright problematic as he’s made numerous mental mistakes on the bases and in the field, enough so that his effort and concentration have been called into question (Cano’s also hitting .210/.279/.323 since the end of the Yankees’ eight-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break). Still, I’m not sure it was necessary to release Sexson in order to give either Betemit or Ransom some starts at second base. Besides which, Cano’s in the lineup tonight in his usual spot.
Still, it seems to me that these last two moves are designed primarily to make the C + C Music Factory sweat, while giving Girardi some viable alternatives in the meantime. Sexson’s departure doesn’t represent a huge loss, particularly with Jason Giambi having heated back up (.288/.447/.515 since the day before the All-Star break, .364/.533/.773 on the just-completed road trip), but Cody Ransom, a career .236/.331/.364 hitter in 140 major league bats at age 31, is still a downgrade, no matter what positions he can play.
*the stats in my Farm Report don’t include Thursday’s games; these do