"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Nick Johnson

The Unexpected And The Expected

The first five innings of Friday night’s series-opening tilt between the Yankees and Red Sox were crisp and closely contested. Josh Beckett came out blazing, spotting 96 mile-per-hour heaters and dropping hammer curves. He struck out the side in the first, two of three batters in the second, and struck out Derek Jeter for a second time to strand a Francisco Cervelli single in the third. Phil Hughes kept pace, retiring the first seven men he faced, then following a walk to Beckett’s personal catcher Jason Varitek with two strikeouts to strand him.

The Yankees finally broke through in the fourth when, with one out, Mark Teixeira battled back from 0-2 to work a walk and Alex Rodriguez followed with a single that moved Teixeira to second. Beckett rallied to strike out Robinson Cano on four pitches, then made Nick Swisher look silly on a check swing on a cutter inside before spotting a 96 mph heater on the outside corner for strike two.

At that, Swisher spun on his heel and took a walk out of the batters box, seemingly to gather himself. Swisher has a deserved reputation as a flake because he’s a motormouth and a goofball, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a smart ballplayer. In the bottom of the inning, he made a great play in right, sliding in front of a would-be double to cut it off and hold J.D. Drew to a single. On this occasion it was obvious that Swisher was determined to win the mental battle with Beckett as well as the physical one.

After stepping back in, Swisher took a fastball well high, then took a curve in the dirt and stepped out again. Bat under his right arm, lips drawn tight, eyes peeking out toward Beckett, Swisher had a look on his face like he had figured something out, as if he thought he knew something Beckett didn’t. He then stepped back in the box and hit a curve up in the zone over the wall in straight-away center to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead. After the game, Swisher said he was lucky to run into one. He’s humble, too.

The Sox got one back in the bottom of the fourth on Drew’s single (the first Boston hit in the game), another by Kevin Youkilis, and sac fly by David Ortiz, but when Boston threatened again in the fifth with two out singles by Darnell McDonald and Marco Scutaro that put runners on the corners, Hughes got Dustin Pedroia to fly out to center to strand them.

Then came the top of the sixth. Alex Rodriguez led off with a low line-drive through the shortstop hole that was hit so hard it rolled all the way to the wall for a double. Beckett then threw a 1-0 cutter down and into Robinson Cano and hit the Yankee second baseman on the top of the right knee. The impact was loud and frightening as Cano let out an audible shout. After a visit from the trainer, Cano took his base, but two pitches later he took himself out of the game (he’s day-to-day and likely won’t play Saturday).

Beckett’s 1-1 pitch to Swisher was a fastball, but Varitek, expecting a curve, lowered his glove and the ball hit off his left arm and rolled toward the Yankee dugout, moving the runners (Rodriguez and pinch-runner Ramiro Peña) up. After the Red Sox’s trainer visited Varitek (who later came out with a bruised left forearm), Beckett struck out Swisher, but then curiously intentionally walked Brett Gardner to face Francisco Cervelli with the bases loaded and one out.

Here’s where things got weird. In his previous at-bat, Cervelli had called time while Beckett was taking a long set to freeze Gardner at first. Beckett responded by coming up and in to Cervelli and making him jump out of the way. In this at-bat, Cervelli battled the count full, then called time on Beckett again. Again Beckett’s next pitch was up and in, but this time it was ball four and forced in a run. The first time it was clearly intentional, but Beckett wouldn’t throw at a guy to force in a run in a two-run game . . . would he?



So I hear Nick Johnson dinged hisself up today. No surprise there, I’m sorry to say.

Think the Yanks can get 450 at bats from him this year?

Yankee Panky: Hope Springs Eternal (when your roster is stacked)

Alex Belth said it perfectly. Spring seems eons away here in New York. Especially since we haven’t seen grass here in two weeks — longer if you live in Pennsylvania and further south in the mid-Atlantic region.

But pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training brings vitality to the discussions had in the local media marketplace and here in the blogosphere over the past three months. The Yankees have an unofficial count — if you pay attention to talk radio and are on top of the beat — of three questions:

1) Who will be the fifth starter?

2) Which young gun will be in the bullpen, Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes?

3) What will the batting order look like?

Taking these questions individually, the answer to the first questions will likely answer the second. Sunday afternoon, Sweeny Murti and Ed Coleman had Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland on WFAN and asked him point blank about taking the reins off of Joba, and whether that would give him an edge heading into spring workouts. Eiland said Chamberlain and Hughes are on equal footing in terms of the competition for the fifth starter, along with Chad Gaudin, Sergio Meat-Tray, and Alfredo Aceves.

The most sensible option outside of Chamberlain and Hughes, it seems, based on the numbers, is Gaudin. He didn’t post Aaron Small 2005 numbers by any means, but as Joba insurance, he was serviceable, allowing less than a hit per inning, 7.3 K/9, and a 125 ERA+. Not great, but not bad. Just what you expect from a fifth starter. But when you think of the dropoff from Javier Vazquez to Chad Gaudin, yikes.

Eiland said on Sunday in that WFAN interview that Hughes would be on an innings limit this year, but not with the same level of stringency as Joba Version 2K9. If that’s the case — just speculating here — the ideal situation is to have Joba in the fifth slot and Hughes in the bullpen. This wouldn’t be as difficult a decision if both twentysomethings hadn’t done so much to inspire confidence that either is better suited to be the last piece in the bridge to Mariano Rivera, or even Mo’s heir apparent.

Re: the batting order, there’s a consensus among the pundits on the following spots:

1. Jeter
3. Teixeira
4. A-Rod
5. Posada
6. Cano
8. Swisher
9. Gardner

The issue becomes who bats second: Curtis Granderson or Nick Johnson? And really, it’s a toss-up. Based on Johnson’s on-base percentage (.402 career OBP to Granderson’s .344 career OBP, Johnson has the edge. But despite Granderson’s propensity to strike out, his speed may allow him to see ample time in the two-hole. Granderson has grounded into just 18 double plays in his career, while Johnson grounded into 15 last season alone. Nick Swisher could even slide in, given the number of pitches he sees per at-bat. Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada could flip-flop at 5 and 6.

None of this is news. Given the way the Yankees entered camp last year, when we were discussing the merits of Selena Roberts’ book, Alex Rodriguez’s sincerity, whether CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and AJ Burnett had what it takes to thrive in New York, and overall, what it would take for the Yankees to make the playoffs, let alone win a World Series, maybe that’s a good thing. The only off-field issues left to talk about are the contracts of Girardi, Rivera, and Jeter, and those likely won’t be negotiated until after the season. Rivera may retire. But we have eight months to go before that speculation becomes more rampant.

For now, as Girardi said in his 30-minute powwow Wednesday, “It’s nice to be talking about baseball.”

And while we look out the window and see a wall of white with no threat of a thaw, it certainly is.

“Fra-gee-lei” . . . that must be Italian!

2003 Topps Nick Johnson (Topps All-Star Rookie) [Note: this was Johnson's only regular issue Topps card as a Yankee, his 2004 card showed him in an Expos uniform.]Mere days after Hideki Matsui agreed to join the Angels on a one-year contract worth $6 million, the Yankees have come to terms with Nick Johnson on a one-year deal worth a reported $5.75 million plus incentives to replace Matsui as their designated hitter. The decision to sign Johnson, so it seems to me, was less one the Yankees had made entering the offseason and more one that was made as a result of other decisions made by and about departing free agents Matsui and Johnny Damon.

Though many believe Matsui signed with the Angels because Halos manager Mike Scioscia promised him the opportunity to play left field once or twice a week (though, actually, Scioscia only promised him an opportunity in Spring Training to prove he could still play the field, which he likely can’t), and The Daily NewsMark Fiensand reported late last night that the Yankees opted not to resign Matsui primarily because of the state of his knees, I have another theory.

Based on a piece by Matsui’s agent Arn Tellem that appeared on the Huffington Post on Wednesday, I believe Matsui took the Angels’ offer without giving the Yankees a chance to match or beat it because he was afraid the Yankees, who had been focusing on negotiating with Johnny Damon, might either not make an offer (true if you believe Fiensand’s unnamed source), or might take enough time doing so that the Angels would rescind their offer. Here are the key passages from Tellem:

Hideki’s overriding concerns have always been winning and playing for a quality organization. Over his 17 seasons in pro ball, his only two teams have been the Yankees and the Yomiuri Giants. Each is the premier franchise in its respective league. Beyond the Yanks, his preferences were the Angels and the Boston Red Sox, two dominating franchises with superb players, coaches and management. But with David Ortiz entrenched as Boston’s everyday designated hitter, the Red Sox were never a real option.


Hideki chose to accept Angel’s offer rather than wait for Yankees to decide whether they wanted to bring him back. Failure to act quickly might have caused L.A. to withdraw its offer and forced Hideki to sign with a weaker team, thus forfeiting a shot at another World Series. Conflicted, Hideki stayed up all Sunday night mulling his final move in this limited game of musical free-agent chairs. He didn’t want to be left standing.

Now, I realize that almost everything an agent says in public is spin, but I see no reason for Tellem to basically admit to being the first to blink in a game of contract chicken other than having actually done so.

The catch here is that, while the Yankees might have preferred to bring back Johnny Damon as their designated hitter (he’s clearly no longer qualified to play the field, either), Damon has been firm in his desire for a contract that comfortably exceeds Bobby Abreu’s two-year, $19 million re-up with the Angels in both years and annual salary. The Yankees have wisely balked at Damon’s demands, which suddenly left them searching for option C.

Enter Nick Johnson, the once and future Yankee. As an underpowered on-base machine, Johnson is a good fit as a replacement for Damon in the number-two hole in the Yankee lineup, and as an oft-injured, defensively challenged first baseman who hit just eight homers last year in 574 plate appearances, he was willing to take a one-year deal with a base salary even lower than Matsui’s.

That’s all well and good, but there are a lot of reasons to be underwhelmed if not outright dissatisfied with the Johnson signing. First and foremost among them is his fragility. Yes, Johnson’s on-base percentage of .426 was surpassed only by MVPs Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols among qualifying batters in 2009, but it’s getting into the batters’ box in the first place that has been the challenge for Johnson. The 133 games he played in this past season were the second most of his major league career and he played just 38 games over the previous two seasons combined.

Here’s a quick look at Johnson’s injury history:

  • 1998: separated shoulder (out six weeks)
  • 2000: unknown left hand/wrist injury (missed entire season)
  • 2002: bone bruse in left wrist (missed three weeks)
  • 2003: fractured right hand (missed two months)
  • 2004: back (missed first two months); broken cheekbone (missed last six weeks)
  • 2005: bone bruse in right heel (missed a month)
  • 2006-7: broken right femur (suffered late September ’06, it wiped out his entire ’07 season)
  • 2008: torn ligaments and tendons in wrist (ended season in mid-May)
  • 2009: strained right hamstring (missed two weeks)

Johnson has had his share of fluke injuries, chief among them the foul ball that bounced back up and broke his cheekbone in 2004 and the broken leg he suffered in a collision with right fielder Austin Kearns in 2006, but the frequency and severity of his injuries is no fluke. Johnson is truly fragile and when he breaks he takes longer to heal than most players (to cite two recent examples, he was expected to return from his soft-tissue injury in 2008, but didn’t, and that broken leg, which kept him out of action for more than a calendar year, also took far longer to heal properly than was anticipated).

So, yes, Johnson’s on-base skills (.402 career OBP) would look mighty fine in the two hole, helping to set the table for Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, but there’s a good chance the Yankees will need someone else to fill that spot for a significant portion of the coming season, and if that person is Curtis Granderson (who would otherwise likely hit fifth behind Rodriguez), they’ll need someone else to take Granderson’s spot lower in the order.


feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver