It's Spring Again: Yankee Campers Pt. 1, the Hitters

Jesus Montero will be among the most closely scrutinized players in Yankee camp this spring. (AP)

As far as sports holidays go, if the Super Bowl is Christmas (commercialized and nationalized to the extent that many of those who celebrate it do so without any acknowledgement of the day's meaning), and Opening Day is Thanksgiving (a properly national holiday that surprisingly retains a sort of understated warmth and significance), then Pitchers and Catchers is Groundhog's Day, a day we all know is meaningless, but whose promise of spring in the latter days of a long, cold winter, proves irresistible nonetheless. Though today is the first official, voluntary reporting date for pitchers, catchers, and injured players, many players were already in camp last week, including a fair sampling of perfectly healthy infielders and outfielders, and though it won't be long before the Yankees have all of their campers in uniform in Tampa, the Yankees won't play an intrasquad exhibition game for another 12 days, and Opening Day won't arrive for more than a month after that.

Still, today is Pitchers and Catchers, so Spring Training is officially underway. That means it's time for my annual look (eighth-annual, to be exact) at the players the Yankees have in camp with an eye toward who is likely to head north with the team, and who might rejoin the team during the season.

First the players who have their jobs sewn up coming into camp. These guys don't need much introduction, though if you want one you can check out Jay's pieces on newcomers Russell Martin and Andruw Jones, Steve's piece on Rafael Soriano, my piece on Pedro Feliciano, or read what I had to say about the returning Yankees' 2010 regular season performances in my extensive, four-part preview of the ALDS against the Twins via these links: lineup, defense, rotation, bullpen. We'll spend all season discussing these players, so I don't feel much need to do so here given that we have 48 other players to deal with below. Nonetheless, these are the key members of the 2011 Yankees:

Starting Nine:

1B - Mark Teixeira
2B - Robinson Cano
SS - Derek Jeter
3B - Alex Rodriguez
C - Russell Martin
RF - Nick Swisher
CF - Curtis Granderson
LF - Brett Gardner
DH - Jorge Posada

Bench:

OF - Andruw Jones (R)

Rotation:

L - CC Sabathia
R - Phil Hughes
R - A.J. Burnett

Bullpen:

R - Mariano Rivera
R - Rafael Soriano
L - Pedro Feliciano
R - Joba Chamberlain
R - David Robertson
L - Boone Logan

That's 19 men, which leaves six spots on the Opening Day roster up for grabs. Those spots will go to a pair of starting pitchers, a backup catcher, a utility infielder, and most likely a fourth bench player and a seventh reliever, the latter most likely a long man. As I mentioned above, there are 48 men in camp hoping, with varying degrees of realism, to land one of those six spots. I'll take them by position, hitters today, pitchers tomorrow, starting with the infielders.

INFIELDERS

40-man roster:

IF - Ramiro Peña (S)

The Yankees' primary utility infielder the last two seasons, Peña seems to have reached his ceiling at the age of 25. He's the Yankees' best defensive infielder, capable of playing all three skill positions at a high level, but a non-entity at the plate. As a rookie in 2009, Peña hit an empty .287 thanks to some luck on balls in play. Last year, his luck ran out, and he hit an empty .227. Peña was a career .255/.315/.320 hitter in the minors, and his combined line after 288 major league at-bats isn't far below that. The Yankees don't expect Peña to mature into a starting player, so they have no qualms about making the kid ride pine in the majors, and as a fielder and baserunner (he has stolen 11 bases in 13 tries), he's an asset. That keeps him from falling below replacement level, but his bat keeps him from climbing above it.

IF - Eduardo Nuñez (R)

The Yankees continue to prop up Eduardo Nuñez as a potential successor to Derek Jeter at shortstop, but I just don't see it. To me, Nuñez is not that far removed from Peña. Both are shortstops who can play all three skill positions. Peña has the better glove. Nuñez has the better bat and is a better basestealer, but it's not as though it takes much to rank above Peña at the plate. Like Peña, Nuñez's production is mostly empty batting average, the difference being that he's managed to maintain a higher average since reaching the high-minors. Since reaching Double-A in 2009, Nuñez has hit .305/.344/.406 across 1087 plate appearances in Double-A, Triple-A, and he majors. Most of that comes from a big year at Double-A, however. Take that away and he's hit .288/.338/.379 in 559 PA above Double-A. Combine that with solid fielding and speed on the bases and you have a valuable player, but I don't see a starting major league shortstop in those numbers, even if Nuñez won't turn 24 until June. However, if the Yankees are willing to give up on the idea of developing Nuñez as a potential everyday player, he'd be an easy upgrade on Peña on the bench.

IF - Reegie Corona (S)

Venezuelan second baseman Reegie Corona is six months older than Nuñez, and an inferior hitter and fielder. His 2010 season ended when he broke his right humerus bone in a collision on July 31, and thus his primary goal in camp will be returning from that injury, not trying to challenge Nuñez and Peña for a roster spot.

3B - Brandon Laird (R)

The brother of catcher Gerald, who is now with the Cardinals, Brandon Laird is a power-hitting third baseman whose primary asset is his bat. Laird doesn't walk very often, but he doesn't strike out in excess either, and he raked in his Double-A debut last year at pitching-friendly Trenton, hitting .291/.355/.523 with 23 homers in 107 games before cooling off after a late-season promotion to Triple-A. That his play at the hot corner could push him across the diamond to first base is of little concern given that he's blocked for most of the next decade at both positions, but if he can adjust to Triple-A pitching this year at age 23, he could force his way onto the major league roster as a righty bench bat, or perhaps more compellingly, could prove to be a valuable trade chip when the Yankees go shopping for rotation help mid-season.

UT - Kevin Russo (R)

Coming into camp last year, Russo was a contact-hitting second baseman who could play a little third, steal a few bags, hit for solid averages, and draw enough walks to keep those averages from being completely empty. He impressed the team in camp, but his lack of experience at shortstop undermined his pursuit of the backup infielder job. Still, he made an impression that led to him making his major league debut on May 8 and spending two months with the team, primarily as a reserve outfielder and third baseman. Unfortunately, he didn't hit a lick in his limited opportunities, and had his worst minor league season when back at Triple-A. Now 26, he seems like a long shot to get another chance, in part because of his underwhelming play in the field, and in part because his best seasons saw him benefit from considerable luck on balls in play.

Non-roster Invitees:

IF - Ronnie Belliard (R)

If Nuñez had legitimate home run power, his plate production might resemble that of veteran second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who hit .282/.336/.433 from 2004 to 2009 for the Indians, Cardinals, Nationals, and Dodgers, reaching double-digits in home runs every year. That extra pop makes Belliard a legitimate contender for a bench spot, though he would have to come in combination with either Nuñez or Peña as Belliard can play three infield positions, but shortstop is not one of them. Belliard will have plenty to prove in camp, however, as he hit a miserable .216/.295/.327 for the Dodgers last year, turns 36 in April, and has something of a mixed defensive reputation even at his primary position to go with a poor reputation regarding his attitude and conditioning.

3B/1B - Eric Chavez (L)

Remember when Chavez was a budding star with power at the plate and tremendous range and hands at the hot corner? Well forget about all that. Chavez is now 33, but his body is far older after multiple back and shoulder surgeries, an additional operation on his elbow, and a pair of bulging disks in his neck which ended his 2010 season in May. He hasn't produced at a star-level since 2004 and over the past three seasons has hit .222/.265/.330 in just 64 games. Most alarmingly, he played just five innings in the field last year, all at first base. I can't blame the Yankees for taking a no-risk flier on Chavez, but I don't think there's any upside left. If he does make the team, I wouldn't be surprised to see him repeat Morgan Ensberg's performance from 2008, when that former All-Star third baseman failed to hit and was released in early June.

More on Belliard and Chavez

1B - Jorge Vazquez (R)

Vazquez, who just won the Caribbean Series MVP award, has a ton of power (.583 career minor league slugging percentage), but he won't draw many walks, can't run, doesn't offer much in the field, has never played 100 games in a professional season, and with his 29th birthday coming up on the Ides of March, is too old to be a prospect. Putting that power on the bench is tempting, but if Laird responds well to a return to Triple-A, Vazquez will effectively be blocked by a younger player who is already on the 40-man roster.

3B - Bradley Suttle (S)

Taken out of the University of Texas in the fourth-round of the 2007 draft, Suttle appeared in just three professional games that year due to the signability issues that dropped him to the fourth round in the first place. He then played through hip and shoulder injuries in 2008. A pair of surgeries on his right shoulder eliminated his 2009 season completely, and it took him a while to get back up to speed at High-A Tampa last year. He hit .248/.308/.333 in the season's first three months, but then broke out with a .299/.375/.496 performance, including nine of his ten home runs on the season, over his final 244 at-bats. The catch is that, having come out of college, then lost an entire season due to injury, he's already 25 and will just now be making the big leap to Double-A. Suttle was a very highly-regarded prospect coming out of college. He's a switch-hitter, Baseball America labelled him the best pure hitter coming out of college into the '07 draft, and he's a strong defender at third, but he's running out of development time and needs to have a big season this year to get back on track. If he does, he could be another excellent trade chip.

UT - Doug Bernier (R)

A product of the Rockies' system, Bernier was in camp with the Yankees two years ago. He failed to make an impression that spring, then hit .181/.305/.238 in 273 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton. Last year, he hit .240/.301/.325 for the Pirates' Triple-A squad. He's now 30 and back in camp with the Yankees principally for his play in the field. Primarily a shortstop, Bernier has played every defensive position except center field and catcher (he has even made a pair of relief appearances, facing six batters and retiring four of them). That has some value, but not enough to make Bernier anything more than a Triple-A utility man.

Outlook: The competition for the primary utility infield spot will be between Peña and Nuñez as they are the only viable candidates who can play shortstop at the major league level. Belliard and Chavez will get long looks for the fourth bench spot, with Belliard having the more realistic chance of recapturing his old form. I expect Laird and Vazquez to have to earn their way up from Triple-A during the season. Everyone else is organizational fodder, though Suttle will be interesting to watch.

OUTFIELDERS

40-man roster:

CF - Justin Maxwell (R)

Newly acquired from the Nationals, Justin Maxwell does just about everything well on a baseball field except hit for average and stay healthy. He's big (6-foot-5, 225, which is an inch shy of being Dave Winfield), athletic, a good defensive center fielder with a strong arm, a solid basestealer, has some pop in his bat (he hit 27 home runs in 114 games in 2007), and posesses excellent plate discipline. The Nationals thought 2010 was going to be his breakout year in the majors, but he pancaked, hitting .114/.305/.288 in 131 at-bats before blowing out his elbow making a diving catch in the outfield and requiring October Tommy John surgery. Maxwell is reportedly already back to 100 percent (the surgery was on his non-throwing arm), but as a college product whose progress has been slowed by injuries, he's already 27, and still hasn't really hit in the major leagues in three opportunities (his .247/.343/.449 line in 102 plate appearances in 2009 was encouraging, but unimpressive out of context). He's clearly the Yankees' best candidate for a fifth-outfielder job, but they would likely be better served by taking an extra infielder.

CF - Greg Golson (R)

To get from Maxwell to Golson you have to take away five inches of height and 30 pounds of weight, make him two year's younger (removing most of his major league exposure as a result), and completely demolish any semblance of plate discipline. What you're left with is still a toolsy, athletic center fielder with speed, pop, good defense and a strong throwing arm, but that plate discipline is a biggy. As I wrote when the Yankees acquired him, "Maxwell has averaged 8.9 plate appearance per unintentional walk in the minors and has walked unintentionally once every 7.2 plate appearances in the majors. To put those numbers in context, a walk every 8 PA would result in 75 free passes over 600 plate appearances." Golson, meanwhile, walked unintentionally once every 18.6 plate appearances last year, a pace that would translate to just 32 walks over 600 plate appearances. Golson has also struck out more than once per game in three of his last four seasons. Strikeouts in and of themselves are not an issue, provided they're balanced by solid production, but Golson's strikeouts combined with his utter lack of walks are indicative of a batter who is lost at the plate and getting by on raw ability and guessing.

RF - Colin Curtis (L)

Colin Curtis unexpectedly made his major league debut last year. Though he primarily served as a lefty-swinging bench outfielder, he had one fantastic moment. That came on July 21 when Brett Gardner was ejected in the middle of an at-bat for arguing a called strike. Curtis took over down 0-2, worked the count full, then cracked a three-run home run that iced a win against the Angels. It was a thrilling moment that earned the rookie a curtain call, but it was really the only highlight of his two-plus months with the major league team (unless you want to count his groundout RBI in the team's comeback against Jonathan Broxton and the Dodgers in late June). When in Triple-A, he held his own, but didn't doing anything particularly notable, hitting a modest .289/.358/.452 with just five homers. That that line represented a major step forward for the now-26-year-old Curtis should tell you all you need to know about his prospects: he has none. He's not a center fielder, he's not fast, he doesn't hit for power, he's not particularly young anymore. The only advantage he has is that he's a left-handed hitter with a 40-man roster spot among a group of bench outfielder candidates that is exclusively right-handed.

CF - Melky Mesa (R)

Mesa looks a bit like Golson with a bit more pop, a bit more patience, and a bit more speed until you realize he's only a year younger and has yet to make the leap to Double-A. Another toolsy, athletic center fielder who has had trouble getting his tools to translate at the plate, Mesa will be interesting to watch in Double-A this year, where the pitching-friendly environment is as unforgiving as the improvement in the pitching.

Non-roster Invitees:

RF - Jordan Parraz (R)

A product of the Royals' system, Parraz is a 26-year-old right fielder with limited power who has put up impressive on-base numbers in the minors thanks largely to the number of times he has been hit by a pitch. He has been plunked 60 times in the last four seasons with a career-high of 19 in his first full season at Triple-A in 2010. Yet another athletic outfielder with a fantastic throwing arm, Parraz is loosely comparable to Maxwell and Golson as a player with some impressive tools that have yet to fully translate on the field. The primary difference being that Parraz can’t play center and doesn't hit for much power. That he was dropped from the 40-man roster when Maxwell was signed and has since cleared waivers tells you all you really need to know about his chances of winning that final bench spot. He'll need a Maxwell injury and a complete collapse of Golson's offensive game to get any consideration.

CF - Austin Krum (L)

Start with Brett Gardner, slow him down to the point that his basestealing is doing more harm than good (less than 20 steals a season at a success rate just below 70 percent), then take away his ability to hit for average (.249 career, .229 at Trenton last year). The result is a 25-year-old who will need a third stab at Double-A and very well might have maxed out there. There's a reason you haven't heard of him.

RF - Daniel Brewer (R)

Brewer is something of an odd duck. A former college infielder moved into the outfield, he has speed, but has been largely relegated to the corners, mainly settling in right field thanks to a strong throwing arm. He hits for respectable averages, draws his share of walks, and steals bases, but his power is limited, which is particularly troubling for a corner man. That makes him a tweener, which is to say, a future fourth outfielder at best. Still, he has an outside shot to open the season in Triple-A at the age of 23, which is impressive for a college product who is not a top prospect, though even there, he could find himself in a reserve role.

Outlook: It looks like Maxwell's job to lose. The talent gap between him and Curtis is too large to worry about what side of the plate they hit from. The catch is that the Yankees are relatively young and spry in the outfield with Brett Gardner able to back up Curtis Granderson in center and Andruw Jones a solid defender and still-dangerous bat as the fourth man. Given the relative creakiness of the left side of the infield, the Yankees would be better off using that fourth bench spot on a back-up third baseman, which means Maxwell's spot could go to Belliard, Chavez, or even Laird, though I'd list Belliard as the pre-camp favorite out of that bunch.

CATCHERS

The competition for the backup catcher spot is going to be particularly compelling this spring given that Brian Cashman has said that top prospects Jesus Montero and Austin Romine will be allowed to battle the incumbent Cervelli for the job and that intended starter Russell Martin remains a question mark coming off a fractured right hip and surgery to repair a torn meniscus in in his right knee, the latter of which Martin admitted is still not back to full strength. Martin has a lot to prove in terms of both his health and production, so the battle this spring will not only be for the backup job, but also for the chance to be the next in line should Martin falter.

40-man Roster:

C - Francisco Cervelli (R)

Cervelli actually caught the majority of the Yankees' innings in 2010 due to injuries to Jorge Posada, but was a disappointment both at the plate and, surprisingly, behind it. Cervelli wasn't expected to be a big run producer, but after hitting a streaky .400 in his first 20 games, he hit just .233/.328/.282 over the remainder of the season. More surprisingly, Cervelli, who threw out 41 percent of attempting basestealers in the minors and 43 percent in 241 innings in 2009, caught just 14 percent of opposing basestealers in 2010. You can blame some of that on A.J. Burnett, who counts holding runners among his many weaknesses. With Burnett on the mound, Cervelli caught just two of 24 basestealers (that's eight percent). However, with other pitchers on the bump, he only caught 7 of 31, which is still a poor 18 percent (compared to a league average of 26 percent). His primary job this spring is to prove to the Yankees that last year's defensive shortcomings were a fluke as his claim on the backup job rests in his work behind the plate. That said, he does hold two advantages over his competition in that he is already on the 40-man roster and the Yankees will have no qualms about letting him get rusty on the bench since they don't project him as a future starter.

Non-roster Invitees:

C - Jesus Montero (R)

Of all of the hitters in camp, Montero will likely be watched most closely. The Yankees told Jorge Posada that he was being moved out from behind the plate to become the team's everyday designated hitter before Martin was signed, in large part in anticipation of the 21-year-old Montero's arrival in the majors, but with Martin set to at the very least start the season behind the dish, Montero will have a bigger fight on his hands to claim the starting catching job. Beyond Martin, Montero's biggest challenge is silencing doubts about his defense. Even Montero's defenders admit he's not a particularly good defensive catcher, but there's a split between those who think he's competent enough to become a Mike Piazza-like offensive catcher and those who think he's simply incapable of manning the position at the major league level. One major concern is Montero's size and ability to get off throws to second base quickly enough to avoid being victimized by opposing basestealers. Montero threw out 23 percent of attempting basestealers in Triple-A last year, but the league average was 27 percent. Still, the Yankees as a team threw out just 15 percent last year and still made it to the League Championship Series. I'm still hopeful that Montero can beat that mark comfortably with the help of bench coach and former Gold Glove catcher Tony Peña. More problematic were his 15 passed balls. Ultimately, if Montero lives up to the hype at the plate, where he has been called the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues, it will more than compensate for what he does behind it. Montero's big battle, it seems, is convincing the Yankee brass that he has more value as the next Yankee catcher, than as the lead prospect in a blockbuster trade for a starting pitcher.

C - Austin Romine (R)

Romine, 22, is theoretically the more defensively sound of the Yankees two upper-level catching prospects, but he and Montero both threw out just 23 percent of opposing basestealers in 2010, Romine as the starting catcher for Double-A Trenton. Then again, Romine only let two passed balls get by him to Montero’s 15. The trick is that Romine’s work at the plate leaves something to be desired. He has collected exactly 122 hits in each of the last three seasons, but has needed more at-bats to get there each year. He did take a step forward with his walk rate last year, but his strikeouts increased in turn and his power took a step backwards. Of course, Trenton is a tough hitting environment, so Romine could get his modest pop back at Scranton, the problem being that there looks to be a logjam behind the plate at Triple-A as Montero is most likely headed back there to start the season. Provided Martin is good to go to start the season, Romine actually has a better chance than Montero of winning the backup job if only because his game is more balanced between offense and defense and he profiles well as an apprentice backup, whereas Montero needs to play regularly to work on his defense and continue to develop his elite potential as a hitter. Of course, if the Yankees actually see Romine as their future starter due to Montero’s defensive deficiencies, they might be hesitant to limit Romine’s playing time as well.

C - Gustavo Molina (R)

Gustavo Molina is not the fourth Molina brother, but he might as well be. He’s a strong defender who can’t hit. He’ll be 29 in ten days and has a career .122/.159/.146 line in just 45 career major league plate appearances, 30 of which came back in 2007. His career minor league line is .235/.295/.348. There’s nothing to see here other than this year’s Chad Moeller and a potential Triple-A backup and tutor for Montero. If the Yankees need Molina at the major league level this year, they’ll be on Plan D, and you can bet Jorge Posada’s jaw will be clenched and smoke will be billowing out of his ears.

C - Jose Gil (S)

The 24-year-old Gil is an organizational hand who skips around to whatever level needs a backup catcher. He hasn’t had 300 plate appearances since 2007 and has never had more than the 369 PAs he had that year. His career batting line is almost a dead match for Molina’s minor league line above, and he’s never played an inning about Double-A after six years in the Yankee system. He’s in camp because the pitchers need catchers to throw to. That is all.

C - Kyle Higashioka (R)

With Montero and Romine ahead of him and Gary Sanchez behind him, Higashioka appears to be on the Jose Gil career path. He’s a strong defender who threw out 33 percent of opposing basestealers in 2010, but didn’t hit a lick in what was his full-season debut at age 20. There’s nothing to see here but another guy to keep the balls from rolling to the backstop as pitchers get their work in this spring.

Outlook: Most likely Cervelli will back up Martin on the Opening Day roster, but Montero could force his way to the majors quickly, particularly if Martin struggles at the plate or with the after-effects of his injuries. Romine should be Cervelli's primary competition for the backup roll but will have to clearly outplay Cervelli in March to take his job.

Pitchers tomorrow . . .


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