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The Hunt

George King reports in today’s New York Post that the Yankees have scouts prowling after Houston’s Lance Berkman in case that club (which is somehow 6-2 in June after a 9-20 May) decides that it’s not going to make up its current 10-game deficit in the standings. Berkman is an excellent hitter, albeit one having a subpar season, but he’s 34 and the Astros don’t have much in the way of prospects with which to rebuild; trading him, trading almost anyone off the Major League roster would be the smartest thing they could do.

Berkman is a career .298/.410/.551 hitter with 319 career home runs. A switch-hitter, he’s far better as a left-hander, hitting a fantastic .309/.424/.594 against righties. As a right-hander, he’s hit but .264/.367/.418—the patience is still there, but the power goes away. The club acquiring Berkman would have to pick up the remainder of this year’s $14.5 million salary, plus give him a $2 million buyout for next year or be stuck with a $15 million bill for his 2011 services.

This discussion may prove to be academic as Berkman has a veto over any trade. He was born in Texas, went to high school in Texas, went to college in Texas, and plays in Texas—there seems to be a pattern there, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he votes to stay in Texas should a trade be put to him.

King also reports that the Mariners are expecting the Yankees to bid on Cliff Lee. Maybe they will, but barring injury, it’s hard to see a place for him unless they’re going to find a taker for Javier Vazquez, and Vazquez has pitched well of late.

Here is the reason why Brett Gardner is a terrifically fun player and why he’s also a terrifying player. He’s hitting .314 on 61 hits. Thirteen of those hits are of the infield variety, grounders that he beat out with his speed. Take those out of the equation and his batting average drops to .247. Speed is the player’s most ephemeral tool. A player usually doesn’t lose his batting eye (indeed, the patient often get more patient over time as bat speed slows) and power may ebb but generally doesn’t vanish overnight. Speed is a constantly decaying asset, vulnerable to the slightest injury. If a Gardner loses half a step to a bad knee, can he spare it? If he loses a whole step to age, can he compensate?

Gardner is not young in baseball terms. Having your first year as a regular at 26 qualifies as a late start. He is likely peaking as a player now. Assuming health, he should be a safe bet for the next few years, his blend of skills making his combination of on-base percentage and defense quite valuable (on offense alone, he is one of the top 40 hitters in baseball at this moment). Beyond that, he may have to find a way to hit the ball to the outfield more consistently if he’s going to maintain his value.

I campaigned for him to be part of the bullpen during Spring Training, but that was based on the promise contained in past performances, his versatility, and his relative youth. I didn’t anticipate his taking a 4.50 career ERA and nearly doubling it this season. At issue has been a strange inability to keep the ball in the park; eight home runs in 25.1 innings is a rate so high that it should earn you a nickname, like "Mr. Gifty" or "The Human Catapult" or "Cape Canaveral."

Tuesday night Gaudin nearly tossed away a nearly unbreakable lead, and perhaps would have if the Orioles’ Adam Jones was not so completely lost at the plate that he’s willing to swing at any pitch that enters his quadrant of the galaxy (Adam Jones: Commander, Human Asteroid Defense Initiative). Whatever ailed him with the A’s has only been worse with the Yankees despite an ERA that is somehow a run lower—his hit rate has stayed about the same, but the home run rate is up and his walk rate has more than doubled.

The good news is that if the Yankees decide that they can do better for trash-time relief, and they can because any Triple-A pitcher should be able to do better than an 8.53 ERA just by showing up, they can probably pass Gaudin through waivers; if he got to the Yankees on waivers in the first place, it means that other clubs weren’t clamoring for his services, and he hasn’t become any more attractive since then. It’s possible that Gaudin is fixable, but the Major League staff doesn’t seem to have the answers.