Well, it’s been a painful week and a half, hasn’t it? If you stopped counting, it was seven losses in nine games, including four straight to the Mets. They were only shut out once, but scored just one run four times. One-third of the way through the season, it’s pretty clear the offense has been the problem. The Yankees are the second best team in the American League at preventing runs, allowing 3.89 runs per game. Not much to complain about there.
Offensively, they’re 11th in runs scored per game, with 4.04. If you’re hoping that they’re doing other things well, and just having trouble getting runs across, that’s not the case. They’re 11th in batting average, 12th in OBP, 10th in SLG, and 12th in OPS+. They’re also 15th (i.e. last) in doubles. The only things they’ve done at an above-average rate are hit triples (5th) and home runs (6th). While Robinson Cano and Travis Hafner are the only players having what I would really call a "good" season (plus Francisco Cervelli, who broke his hand after only 61 plate appearances), the biggest non-contributors have been playing catcher, shortstop, third base, and the outfield corners.
I thought I’d take a look at each of those positions, from three perspectives: what I think Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi will do; what I’d like to see them do; and a way-outside-the-box idea that could be considered bold, audacious, or desperate.
Catcher: Chris Stewart and Austin Romine have about 70% of the PAs by Yankee catchers (96 for Stewart, 47 for Romine), the rest by Cervelli. The two have combined to hit .227/.266/.313, with 2 doubles, 0 triples, 3 HRs, and 10 RBI.
What I think they’ll do: Stewart and Romine will continue to split time; Romine will go back to AAA when Cervelli returns; everyone hopes Cervelli hits like he did up until he broke his hand.
What I’d like to see them do: Let Romine catch every day for the next month, and see if there’s any indication he could be The Guy next year. Catchers tend to develop more slowly than other players offensively, in part due to the extensive preparation they need to learn all the pitchers on the staff. His sporadic playing time hasn’t helped him. He’s only 24, however, and his best years are ahead of him. In almost 2000 minor league PAs, he hit .280/.334/.414. I would do cartwheels if Yankee catchers could do something close to that for the rest of the season. Stewart is 31, and his .262/.309/.369 line this year isn’t much different from his career .225/.286/.315 line. He also seems to be struggling defensively lately.
Way outside the box: If Romine isn’t playing every day because they don’t think he’s going to develop into a solid regular, promote JR Murphy from Double-A, where he’s hitting .275/.362/.431, and let him play every day. A great idea? Probably not. The last time I can remember them bringing up a position player from Double-A was Melky Cabrera in 2005.
Third Base: After a hot start, Kevin Youkilis is now hitting .247/.329/.384 on the season. Jayson Nix has played more third base than anyone else, and is hitting .245/.313/.299. David Adams is hitting .242/.266/.387 in his first 64 major league PAs.
What I think they’ll do: Let Adams and Youkilis split time until Alex Rodriguez returns, then send Adams back to Triple-A while Youkilis spells Rodriguez at third, Mark Teixeira at first, and Hafner at DH.
What I’d like to see them do: Let Adams take the lion’s share of the playing time at third until Rodriguez returns, then let him give Rodriguez the regular rest he’ll need, and even give Robinson Cano a couple half-days off (as an aside, do you realize that Cano has averaged 160 games per year over the last six years? All but 18 of them have been at second base. If the Yankees sign him to a long-term deal, I’d prefer they do everything they can to minimize the odds of him falling off a cliff halfway through it). Youkilis is a one-year (or half-year) stopgap until Rodriguez returns, but Adams may have a role to play on the team for the next few years. He’s done nothing but hit at every stop in the minors: .316/.407/.490 at Triple-A this year; .307/.387/.468 in 125 games at Double-A; .296/.380/.450 for his minor league career. Why not see if he can play?
Way outside the box: It is the Yankees we’re talking about, so allowing a young player like Adams to play every day probably fits here.
Shortstop: In 27 games before being injured, Eduardo Nunez hit .200/.290/.275. Jayson Nix has started 22 games there. Alberto Gonzalez had a three game cameo and went 3 for 9; Reid Brignac has played six games, and is 3 for 21 with 11 strikeouts.
What I think they’ll do: Continue to make whatever marginal upgrades they can, mixing and matching Brignac and Nix until Nunez is healthy, then using primarily Nunez until Jeter is ready, all while hoping Jeter is actually ready (instead of hobbling out there before he’s ready just because no one can continue to watch his replacements).
What I’d like to see them do: I really think that what I expect them to do is the best course of action.
Way outside the box: I really can’t come up with anything here. Addison Maruszak and Gil Valaquez have been playing shortstop at Triple-A, and it’s been Ali Castillo and Walter Ibarra at Double-A. The closest thing they have to an actual prospect at shortstop is . . . Cito Culver, maybe? He’s hitting .214/.320/.324 at Low-A.
Corner Outfield: The much-maligned Vernon Wells was great in April, batting .300/.366/.544 in his first 24 games. As late as May 15, through 38 games, he was still hitting .301/.357/.538, with 10 HRs and 23 RBI. Since then, he’s hit .123/.138/.175 in his last 58 PAs, and .209/.237/.345 in his last 114 PAs. Unfortunately, that’s what we can most likely expect going forward. The reason he’s much-maligned is because over the previous two seasons, he hit .222/.258/.409, and is now 34 years old. Ichiro Suzuki is 39 years old, has started 46 of 57 games, and has hit .261/.298/.344 with 2 HRs and 9 RBIs. That looks like the player everyone thought was pretty much done last year when he hit .261/.288/.353 in 95 games with Seattle. It really doesn’t get much more similar than that. The previous season wasn’t much better: .272/.310/.335 while playing 161 games. I feel confident saying that the .322/.340/.454 line he put up in 67 games with the Yankees last year, along with 5 HRs, 27 RBI, and 14 stolen bases was a dead cat bounce.
What I think they’ll do: Continue to run Ichiro and Wells out there almost every day until Curtis Granderson is healthy (again). Once Granderson is back, Wells and Ichiro will transition into some sort of platoon.
What I’d like to see them do: Dump Wells, now. Yes, he’s under contract for this year and next, and yes, they’ll have to eat the money, but it’s a sunk cost at this point. Bring up either Ronnier Mustelier or Thomas Neal for regular playing time. Mustelier made a case for making the opening day roster in spring training, but hurt his knee and missed the first month of the season. After a slow start, he’s now hitting .297/.328/.438 at Triple-A, after hitting .303/.359/.455 in 385 PAs there last year, and .320/.369/.487 in 790 minor league PAs over three seasons. Yes, he’s 28 years old, but he had to defect from Cuba in a boat before he could get his career started, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The 25-year-old Neal was signed as a free agent in the offseason, and is hitting .331/.422/.444 at Scranton. In 2787 minor league PAs, he’s hit .300/.379/.463, including .304/.372/.410 at Triple-A.
When Granderson is back, dump Ichiro too. Again, yes, I understand that he has another year on his contract and that they’ll have to eat the money, but again, it’s a sunk cost. If the Yankees plan on recouping some of that money through his pursuit of 3000 hits, they’ll need to sign him to a second two-year contract. He’s still 347 hits away, and totaled 362 over the previous two seasons, and I think we can fairly reasonably assume he’s going to continue to decline in terms of performance and playing time. You want the Yankees to get younger, more athletic, more flexible, etc.? This will do it. The reason I would dump Wells first is because he, Mustelier and Neal are all right handed. I think it's likely Wells would have played his last major league game at that point, and possible that Ichiro would have. I can't see many teams lining up to sign either one.
Way outside the box: I think what I’d like to see them do qualifies.
I’ve always favored prospects, even non-future superstar types like Romine, Adams, Neal, and Mustelier over veteran retreads, especially the types who’ve been fairly awful for over two full seasons. I look at it this way: are Ichiro, Wells, Youkilis, or Stewart going to be contributors to the next pennant-winning Yankee team? I have a hard time imagining that. Could Romine, Adams, Neal, or Mustelier be contributors to that team? Absolutely, even if it’s as backups and role players. I don't think this would constitute giving up on the season, either. I think the younger players are a pretty good bet to hit better than the veterans they'd be replacing, although that's never a sure thing. However, at some point you need to find out if they can play, and I think the next few weeks are the right time.