Observations From Cooperstown--The First Base Rumor Mill
by Bruce Markusen
It almost makes you pine for the days of Danny Cater. That’s how badly the Yankees’ first base position has degraded during the first half of the 2007 season. Planned poorly from the beginning, ever since Brian Cashman signed Doug Mientkiewicz during a dark winter day, first base remains a quagmire that is now dragging down the efficiency of what was supposed to be a powerhouse offense.
When the Yankees decided to take a fielding-first approach to first base, the strategy was somewhat defensible given the rest of the lineup. After all, how many times have we heard that the Yankees have the best lineup, one through eight, in all of major league baseball? Well, that’s partly the problem. The Yankees no longer have such a lineup. With Jason Giambi on the disabled list and Johnny Damon saddled with a slew of performance-altering injuries, the Yankee lineup is no longer as vaunted as it once was. The Yankees are now carrying three offensive weak spots—the underachieving Melky Cabrera in center field, the depreciated Damon at DH, and whoever happens to be playing first base on a given day.
There isn’t much the Yankees can do about Cabrera or Damon, unless they’re willing to place the latter on the disabled list in the hopes that his body can recover some its vim and vigor. First base is a different story, however. The Yankees should have used the injury to Mientkiewicz as a positive, replacing him with a competent bat in Josh Phelps or Shelly Duncan. Instead, they designated Phelps for assignment, left Duncan buried at Triple-A, and have now decided to collect utility infielders and masquerade them as first basemen. Miguel Cairo and Andy Phillips hit like middle infielders, not corner infielders who are supposed to provide power and punch. The Yankees have also badly fooled themselves as to the defensive value of both players. They act as if Cairo and Phillips are borderline Gold Glovers, and that’s a case of overrating them severely. Prior to the recent stretch in which he replaced Mientkiewicz, Cairo has always looked tentative at first base, a position where he lacks experience. Phillips, for all of his supposed defensive charm, made eight errors as a part-time player last year. That’s a testament to his shaky hands. He’s no Don Mattingly, or J.T. Snow, which he would have to be to make up for his chronic inability to handle a major league breaking ball. (Frankly, the fondness for Phillips is confounding. At 30 years of age, he’s actually three years older than Shelly Duncan, who has been the best hitter at Scranton/Wilkes Barre with an OPS of .946 but is somehow a non-prospect compared to Phillips.)
Plain and simple, the Yankees need to find a real first baseman, someone who can hit with a modicum of power while playing the position appreciably better than Giambi. Brian Cashman needs to act quickly before the recent offensive slump results in the Yankees losing all of the ground they picked up during their recent nine-game winning streak.
There are several candidates on the trade front, ranging from a star in his late twenties to a journeyman in his early thirties. I’ve chosen not to include Todd Helton, who has given mixed signals as to his interest in playing for the Yankees, a major factor given his no-trade clause. My guess is that Helton doesn’t like New York; if that’s the case, forget about him.
: The stud. He’s the headline name on the trade rumor front, an All-Star caliber player who is only 27 years of age. He will also cost the most in a trade, which is probably the main reason the Yankees should look elsewhere. Now forget any talk of the Yankees trading Phil Hughes for Teixeira; they wouldn’t give up Hughes straight-up for Tex, much less as part of a larger package for the Rangers’ first baseman. Still, the Yankees would have to surrender a parcel of at least three players, with any package probably including Melky Cabrera. A package of Cabrera and two pitching prospects—let’s say Ross Ohlendorf and Chase Wright—might be enough to entice the Rangers. But can the Yankees even give up Cabrera at this point? With Damon ailing and no one at Triple-A capable of playing center field every day, the Yankees may have to hold on to the player known as "Leche."
: The second choice. While not the refined all-around player that Teixeira is, Dunn brings plenty of home runs and walks to the table, making him a younger and cheaper version of Jason Giambi. Cincinnati’s general dissatisfaction with Dunn, specifically his failure to reduce his strikeout rates, makes him available at a potentially reasonable price of two pitchers. The Reds badly need bullpen help, which likely translates into Chris Britton becoming part of any package for Dunn. (Britton continues to waste away at Scranton/Wilkes Barre, despite having enough talent to close for teams like the Reds, Phillies, and Pirates.) A package of Britton and either Ohlendorf or Tyler Clippard might interest the Reds, at least enough to keep the teams talking. A note of caution on Dunn: the "Big Donkey" will look awfully bad at times because of his strikeouts and dismal defensive play, which could make him a target of boo-birds at the Stadium, especially if he struggles early. He’s also not known as a particularly hard worker, which could make somewhat undesirable in a clubhouse that prides itself on work ethic and businesslike attitude.
: The bargain basement. The 31-year-old Hillenbrand can be had more cheaply than any of the available trade alternatives. In fact, if the Yankees just wait, they can probably sign Hillenbrand as a free agent, after he’s been given his unconditional release. The Angels can’t wait to part ways with Hillenbrand; they’d give him away for a low-level minor leaguer or cash, if that much. While Hillenbrand has struggled in Southern California, he’ll likely hit better in the second half, and is a far better major league hitter than either Cairo or Phillips. He would also give the team some depth, capable of filling in for Alex Rodriguez at third, the outfield corners, or in a pinch, as an emergency catcher. There’s plenty of down side, too. He’s not a good defensive first baseman, has selfish tendencies, and possesses an over-inflated opinion of his worth as a ballplayer. If Hillenbrand could ever accept being a backup, he’d be one of the best bench players in the league. Unfortunately, he regards himself as an All-Star. He somehow did make it to two All-Star games, but didn’t deserve either selection.
: The best choice. An above-average defender, Pena has the kind of left-handed power that would partly compensate for the loss of Giambi. At 29 years of age, he’s a Jim Spencer/Oscar Gamble type player who could platoon with either Phillips or Cairo, thereby reducing their at-bats and making them available to spell at other positions. While no one expects Pena to keep up his current home run pace—he’s at 17 through 58 games—he has always shown good power against right-handed pitching. Just as importantly, the Devil Rays appear to be reasonable in trade demands for Pena. According to a source, the Rays would take left-hander Sean Henn for Pena straight-up. (Man, do the Devil Rays need pitching.) If that’s true, the Yankees should make the deal in a Manhattan minute.
Of course, the Yankees could have had Pena for free last year, when he was actually part of the organization, playing for Triple-A Columbus. For some reason, the Yankees didn’t envision Pena as an upgrade over either Phillips or Cairo and never promoted him, which is an indictment of the organization’s ability to evaluate talent from time to time. Sometimes, you wonder just what Cashman and Joe Torre are thinking when it comes to deciding who should play Triple-A and who should play in New York.
Bruce Markusen is the author of eight books, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's and The Team That Changed Baseball: The 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates. He also contributes frequently to MLB.com.