With less than a week left before opening day, the battle to make the Yankee roster is intensifying. Most of the heat is on who will back up Bernie Williams in center, as that's generally assumed to be the only open spot on the Yankees 25-man roster. Of course it's not really that simple.
I'll get to that in a moment, but first, here's an update on the cuts the Yankees have made in the past ten days.
On the 19th the Yankees reassigned Chien-ming Wang, Colter Bean, Jorge DePaula, Sam Marsonek, Mike Vento, Caonabo Cosme, Noah Hall and Omir Santos to minor league camp. The first four--all pitchers, all of whom should make significant contributions in Columbus--are names to remember. The last four, all position players, can be comfortably ignored (Hall and Santos combined to go 0 for 12 this spring). The key name on the list is Chien-ming Wang, who entered camp as the Yankees' most likely sixth starter (barring Tanyon Sturtze, who seems to be settling into the pen nicely . . . do I smell someone cooking crow?). In 3 games, two of which were starts, this spring, Wang posted this handsome line: 9 IP, 6 H, 3 BB, 6 K. Expect to see him again.
Then last Tuesday, Homer Bush, who struggled for playing time at Columbus last year and had just 2 hits in just 8 at-bats this spring, asked for, and was given, his unconditional release.
Yesterday, after the Yankees 7-3 win over Andy Pettitte and the Astros, Robinson Cano and David Parrish, both of whom hit far better than I expected this spring, were reassigned to minor leage camp. Both are expected to start for the Clippers this year. That's exactly what Cano should be doing. Parrish should be forced to hit his way out of Trenton if not Tampa.
Most significantly for the Yankees' 25-man roster plans, they released Doug Glanville on Friday. Glanville hit just .213 in 47 at-bats this spring. Thus the back-up centerfielder job has come down to Bubba Crosby and Damian Rolls. This makes sense on some level, as Glanville was clearly the least useful of the three expected to compete for the job. However, there really shouldn't be much competition here. In addition to my pre-spring explanation of why Crosby is a better choice (simply: he can hit a little, Rolls can't hit at all), here are their spring stats:
No contest? Well, to listen to Mr. & Mrs. Blowhard on the radio today, Rolls has the team made and Crosby is resigning himself to starting the season at Columbus. I'm hoping they're as wrong as they should be. The only advantage Rolls offers is the ability to serve as a back-up infielder (he can play third, second and first as well as all three outfield positions). That's handy because the Yankees are tying their own hands by planning to take 12 pitchers.
Taking a quick look at that situation, seven (the five starters, Rivera and Gordon) are no-brainers. Sturtze has been phenominal this spring (0.75 ERA, 12 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 10 K), pushing that number to eight. Then you have four multi-million-dollar major league vets who have pitched less well:
Quantrill can use injury as an excuse, having thrown three scoreless innings since returning from a "strained rib cage." Karsay can claim rust, as all reports have him steadily improving this spring after nearly two years of inactivity. He made his first multiple-inning outing one week ago, giving up one run on a hit and a walk in two frames against the Indians. Since then he's pitched two scoreless innings in two appearances. Stanton, meanwhile, has the best overall line of the four men listed above and combines a 2.5 K/BB ratio this spring with Joe Torre's affection from glory days gone by. That makes Felix Rodriguez the twelfth pitcher.
But they can't get rid of Rodriguez, because he's the ostensbile right-handed LOOGY, plus he finished last year with an impressive two months in Philadelphia (3.00 ERA and 12K/9 in 21 innings). Still, I tend to wonder if he might become early trade bait due to his un-Yankee-like walk rates and this:
0.00 ERA, 7 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K
That's Buddy Groom's line this spring. If Rodriguez is supposed to be the LOOGY, why not flip him for a useful part and use a real LOOGY? Or better yet, why not package Rodriguez and Groom for an even realer LOOGY? (Buddy Groom warning signs: C.J. Nitkowski's spring line with the Twins: 0.79 ERA, 11 1/3 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 4 K - Felix Heredia and Gabe White have respectable spring numbers as well with the Mets and Braves respectively)
Of course, the real problem is that none of these scenarios get the team back down to 11 pitchers. One thing that might would be giving Karsay an extended spring training, but reports have him right on schedule and throwing in the low 90s with movement, so that would probably do more harm than good.
So "stuck" with 12 pitchers, the Yankees are limited to four men on the bench. Twelve pitchers is an inordinate amount, but I'll admit, as I said in the AL East preview roundtable over at Baseball Analysts, the bullpen is more important than the bench. Pitchers need rest and need to be replaced in-game when they do badly. Everyday players play every day. That is except catchers and the elderly and infirm, by which I primarily mean Bernie Williams.
And here we are back at the back-up centerfielder spot. Having Damian Rolls who can play lots of other positions is not as important as having a player who can rest Bernie with regularity as if he was a catcher. The Yankees need to take Bubba Crosby back north, and they need to start him once, if not twice a week, preferably during the starts of flyball pitchers such as Mike Mussina and Jaret Wright. That'll keep Bernie fresher and keep Crosby's bat from getting freezer burn like it did last year when he was apparently called up to be an extra bat boy.
What's more, as the season gets going the Yankees should be able to figure out how much of a strain their rotation will put on their pen, and just which men Joe Torre feels he can "trust." That and/or a likely injury to one of their seven relievers should allow them to return to eleven pitchers and add an extra infielder to the bench.
Exactly whom that infielder should be as well as exactly whom the back-up infielder on the opening day roster should be, I'll examine in my next post.