Last night the Yankees played the tenth game of their exhibition schedule, which means they've gone through their starting rotation twice and are a third of the way through their pre-season slate. With that, I thought now would be a good time to take a look at how the battles for the final spots on the roster are shaping up.
There are 53 players left in camp, not counting the trio of rehabbing pitchers (Andrew Brackman, Humberto Sanchez, and Glass Pavano). Twenty-one of those players are all but guaranteed to head north with the club, as per my initial camper's post of a month ago:
1B Jason Giambi (L)
2B Robinson Cano (L)
SS Derek Jeter (R)
3B Alex Rodriguez (R)
C Jorge Posada (C)
RF Bobby Abreu (L)
CF Melky Cabrera (S)
LF Johnny Damon (L)
DH Hideki Matsui (L)
R Shelley Duncan (1B/OF)
S Wilson Betemit (IF)
R Jose Molina (C)
R Chien-Ming Wang
L Andy Pettitte
R Mike Mussina
R Phil Hughes
R Ian Kennedy
R Mariano Rivera
R Joba Chamberlain
R Kyle Farnsworth
R LaTroy Hawkins
Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy have been sharing the fifth starter's spot thus far, Kennedy getting the start the first time through the rotation with Chamberlain appearing later in the game, and Chamberlain getting the start last night with Kennedy appearing later in the game. Their turn will come around again on Saturday, when the Yankees have their only split-squad games of the month, thus allowing each pitcher to start one of the two games. After that, the decision to bounce one of them to the bullpen will have to be made. There's no reason for Chamberlain not to be the pitcher moved into relief. All of the other pitchers in the rotation have pitched well in at least one of their two starts thus far (the most recent stinker was from Chien-Ming Wang, who will start against the Blue Jays this afternoon). Kennedy has been better than Chamberlain in both of their games thus far, and, perhaps most importantly, Chamberlain will have a much lower innings limit this season, which all but requires him to spend some time in either the bullpen or the minors.
When I wrote my camper's post, Shelley Duncan's spot on the 25-man roster seemed tenuous. Since then he's torn the cover off the ball. He's slugging 1.063 and leading the Yankees in total bases this spring with 17 while his closest competitors have 11. He could probably go hitless for the rest of camp and still make the team.
As for the fourth and final spot on the bench, my initial characterization of the matter suggested it would come down to what sort of player Girardi wanted to fill that final spot, with the top contenders being corner infielder and solid righty bat Morgan Ensberg, outfielder and righty power bat Jason Lane, or any of a number of weak-hitting utility infielders, with speed/defense center fielder Brett Gardner as a longshot.
I figured Lane's candidacy rested in part on his ability to play all three outfield positions, even if he's not particularly strong at any of them. Lane is second on the team in at-bats and has hit a respectable .278/.350/.611, but he hasn't played any center field, which makes me think he's not being seriously considered for the final bench spot. Indeed, longshot Gardner has hit almost as well (.286/.333/.500). Of course, Lane's power is real, while Gardner's is likely illusory, but if Giarardi wants the last man on his bench to be an outfielder I'd expect to both see Lane at least prove he can stand in center field for a few innings, and to see him have to fight off Gardner.
The clear winner of the utility infielder battle thus far has been Chris Woodward, who has had as many at-bats as Lane and has hit .500/.500/.556. Note, of course, that those numbers include no walks and just one extra base hit (a double). Note also that while Lane's spring stats are a fair indication of his abilities (minor league career: .296/.367/.520), Woodward's are purely a small-sample fluke from a hitter who's been hit-lucky (minor league career: .264/.340/.378).
Bernie Castro, who can only play second base, and Juan Miranda, who was just optioned to minor league camp as I was writing this, are non-factors. As for the rest, here's a distribution of where the utility infield contenders have played thus far:
Chris Woodward: 2B-3, SS-3, 3B-1, LF-1
Nick Green: 2B-2, 3B-4
Cody Ransom: 3B-5, SS-1, 1B-1
Alberto Gonzalez: SS-6, 2B-1
Former Yankee Nick Green is 1 for 9 and hasn't played any shorstop, so I think he's out of the running. Alberto Gonzalez is clearly being treated as a shortstop only in preparation for his playing that position in triple-A. One could say the same about Ransom at third base. Ransom also hasn't hit (2 for 13) and hasn't played second base.
That would seem to leave the job to Woodward if not for one other player:
Wilson Betemit: 3B-3, SS-2, 2B-2, 1B-1
Betemit had the team made coming into camp, but has nonetheless acquitted himself well at all four infield positions, while Woodward has a pair of errors on his ledger. Betemit hasn't looked great at the plate this spring (he has two homers, but also seven Ks and is hitting an unbalanced .222/.300/.611), but is guaranteed to out-hit Woodward by a considerable margin over a full season. Betemit is not competing with Woodward, but he should render him unnecessary.
Which brings us back to the man I endorsed for the final bench spot a month ago, Morgan Ensberg, who has hit .400/.471/.667 while splitting time between first and third base. Ensberg was a little rough in the field in his first game at first-base, but has since played four more times there without incident and has generally looked better around the bag than Shelley Duncan. Ensberg has been a doubles machine thus far this spring, with four of his six hits going for two bags. As I said in my campers post, he's no longer the home-run threat that Lane, Duncan, or Betemit are, but with the last two of those three already on the roster and Betemit proving to be a viable utility infielder, that last spot would be well spent on a professional hitter like Ensberg, who can draw a walk, lace a double, and generally give you good at-bats off the bench (his major league BB/K ratio is a solid .79--by comparison Lane is .48 and Betemit is .40).
Moving into the bullpen, there are three spots left to be determined and 14 pitchers left competing for them. Joe Girardi has indicated a preference to bring a lefty, a long-man, and one other north. That breaks the battles down like this:
Contenders: Jeff Karstens, Darrell Rasner, Kei Igawa, Heath Phillips
Igawa and Phillips are both lefties, with the latter getting a closer look for the lefty spot, but Phillips has been a starter throughout his career (161 starts in 172 career games).
Going into camp, Rasner would have been my choice, but he's been the worst of the bunch thus far, posting a 15.00 ERA in two outings and walking five against no strikeouts in three innings. He'll pitch again today, but could be cut this evening if he doesn't show a radical improvement.
Igawa made a bad first impression by giving up a grand slam to a college kid in the team's warmup against the University of South Florida, but he hasn't allowed a hit in four innings during the regular exhibition schedule, though he did walk the bases loaded in his first inning of work the other day and has only struck out two in those four frames.
Phillips has struck out four in 3 1/3 innings and allowed just two hits (a single and a double) and no runs. Jeff Karstens is considered the leader for this spot right now as he's allowed just one run in five frames and just five hits and one walk against three Ks, but Phillips and Igawa are worth keeping an eye on in this battle. Of course, Phillips will have the most to prove as the other two are already on the 40-man roster.
Contenders: Sean Henn, Billy Traber, Heath Phillips, Kei Igawa
Igawa is only on this list because he throws with his left hand. I don't believe he's being considered for the lefty specialist role in the pen. He was ineffective against lefties last year (.320/.407/.507 in the majors, .319/.356/.420 in triple-A) and if he gets himself sorted out he's far more compelling as a long relief option or a spot-starter.
As we've seen, Phillips has looked great, but there's some concern as lefties hit him pretty well in triple-A last year as well (.319/.377/.488). Sean Henn, who has the advantage of already occupying a 40-man roster spot, has been underwhelming, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits in two innings of work (though, to his credit, he's walked no one). He's also not pitched in five days, though he should appear in this afternoon's game.
Billy Traber, on the other hand, has been spectacular, allowing just one baserunner (on a single) in 3 1/3 innings while striking out five. Traber has the added advantage of having a great track record against lefties (.210/.303/.310 in the majors). His problem has always been getting righties out (.329/.382/.512 career, .380/.431/.528 last year), but he's getting everyone out this spring, was my choice for the position prior to camp, and remains the leading candidate.
This spot is actually the fifth righty spot (behind Mo, Joba, LaTroy, and Farnsworth), though there's opportunity for the pitcher who claims the spot to move up in that hierarchy. Setting aside the lefties and long-men, there are eight righties competing for this spot, seven of whom are already on the 40-man roster. The one NRI still in play is Dan Giese, who allowed a home run to the first batter he faced this spring, but hasn't allowed a baserunner since in two innings, but has struck out just one. The longest shot from among the remaining seven is probably Scott Patterson, the veteran independent leaguer with the silly strikeout rates. Then again, Patterson has been perfect in three innings over four appearances, striking out two and catching eyes with his legitimately wacky delivery in which he appears to come three-quarters then dramatically drops his left shoulder and heaves the ball straight over the top.
Brian Bruney, who like Henn is out of options, Edwar Ramirez, and Jose Veras all seemed like top contenders coming into camp, but none has pitched well. Veras's 9.00 ERA is the best of the bunch. Bruney has walked just one, but allowed four hits in 1 1/3 innings. Ramirez has been similarly hittable. Bruney's option situation aside, Veras has indeed been the best of this bad three, allowing two runs on two hits and no walks while striking out one in two frames.
That leaves three men to joust with Patterson and Giese. Jonathan Albaladejo, acquired for Tyler Clippard over the winter, has allowed just one run and struck out five in 3 2/3 innings, though he's also allowed four hits and walked one. Chris Britton has allowed just one unearned run on one hit in three frames, walked none and struck out one. Ross Ohlendorf was perhaps the most impressive of the bunch until his rough outing the other night in the inning in which Francisco Cervelli was injured. All together, he's allowed a solo homer, a second unearned run, walked none and struck out two in 2 2/3 innings, but also allowed five hits, including that home run and a double.
This one's a long way from over, and we should learn more as opposing hitters play deeper into games to increase the quality of the batters these men are facing. Meanwhile, we'll get our first big lesson on Joe Girardi's decision making when he's forced to choose between Chris Woodward and Morgan Ensberg, a choice which should be obvious.