Saturday, March 20, 2004

Disabled Lee, Oz Born Again 

I would like to be the first to congratulate Tony Clark for making the Yankees opening day roster. Clark now has the spot wrapped up because Travis Lee will start the season on the 15-day disabled list as a result of inflammation in his left shoulder. Lee, who hasn't played in a game since last Saturday, had an MRI yesterday that detected the inflammation and will be shut down for a month (two weeks of treatment followed by two weeks of rehab). According to AP, Lee originally suffered the shoulder injury in a collision at home plate while playing for the Phillies in July 2002. Sez Travis: "Anytime I lift my arm above parallel, there's a pinching sensation. I think [by] throwing from the outfield, I aggravated it.'' It is now very possible that once Lee returns from the DL, he will not be allowed to play the outfield because of the risk of his reinjuring the shoulder.

If you ask me, taking the outfield out of Lee's bag of tricks makes him pretty useless compared to Tony Clark, whom I'd favor even if Lee could play the outfield. Throw in a nearly two-year-old shoulder injury that is very easily aggravated, and I think the Yankees should trade Lee once he's healthy if Tony Clark hits even a little during the first few weeks in April.

In other news, Donovan Osborne has yet to start to suck. He gave up just one run on four hits and a walk while striking out two Indians in four innings yesterday, picking up his third win against no losses this spring. His spring line is now: 3-0, 2.92 ERA, 12.1 IP, 13 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 7 K.

This happened in one of the Yankees two split-squad games played yesterday. Here are the combined line-ups etc.

10 - 13 - 1 Yankees
1 - 7 - 1 Indians

9 - 18 - 2 Tigers
8 - 15 - 0 Yankees

1B: Giambi, Deardorff; Clark
2B: Bush; Wilson
SS: Cairo; Jeter, Escalona, Tejada
3B: Almonte; Lamb
C: Flaherty, Fasano; Posada, Girardi
RF: Vento; Sheffield, Rodriguez
CF: Crosby; Lofton, Kevin Reese
LF: Matsui, M. Jones (?); Bragg
DH: Sierra; Navarro

Obviously, the Yankees were able to use players from their minor league camp (Deardorff, Tejada, Rodriguez, Navarro, Reese and the mysterious M. Jones) in these split-squad games. Almonte made the lone error of the day. Jorge Posada finally returned from what must have been a nasty stomach flu and went 1 for 3.

In the away game (managed by Joe Torre with Mel Sottlemyre on hand to observe Osborne), Bubba Crosby and Miguel Cairo each had two doubles in five at-bats. John Flaherty went 2 for 3 with four RBI and a run scored. Ruben Sierra went 2 for 3 with two runs scored. In the home game (managed by Willie Randolph), Mike Lamb, Darren Bragg, John Rodriguez and Felix Escalona all homered. All were the first of the spring by each player. Three were solo shots, with Escalona's two-run job in the ninth to bring the Yanks within a run of the Tigers. Bragg added two more hits and another run scored. Rodriguez added another hit to go 2 for 2. Kenny Lofton went 2 for 3 with an RBI double, and a run scored. Tony Clark went 2 for 5 with a double and missed a game-winning homer in the ninth by just a few feet.

As for the pitchers, I already told you about Osborne. Alex Graman, Gabe White and Tom Gordon combined to allow no runs and no walks over the remaining five innings of the Indians game. Graman, in what seems like his first effective outing this spring, struck out two and allowed two hits in three innings. White struck out the side in order in the eighth. Gordon struck out two and allowed one hit in the ninth.

In the Tigers game, Mike Mussina, who threw four no-hit innings his last time out, got lit the hell up for seven runs on eleven hits in just two innings. He walked none and struck out three. Scott Proctor allowed one run on four hits and no walks in three innings striking out four. Paul Quantrill allowed one run on two hits and no walks in two innings striking out one. Felix Heredia pitched a perfect eighth, striking out two. Mariano allowed a hit and a walk in a scoreless, K-less ninth.

In other news, Bernie is continuing to work in the batting cage and in the field, reporting no pain in the cage, but quick fatigue during fielding drills. He expects to play in a game mid-next week. Steve Hearsay has been increasing the frequency of his bullpen sessions from every three days to every other day. He's hoping to throw batting practice in the next two or three weeks, which would then lead to a full-fledged rehab assignment. He is not expected to join the club until June.

One last, non-baseball note: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new Charlie Kauffman film, is, in my opinion, his best film yet. Incredible movie making. Go see it. Now.

posted by Cliff at 10:51 AM

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Invisible First Baseman 

I gotta say, I never did understand the Travis Lee thing, and now that we're two weeks into spring training, I still don't. Travis Lee was a hit as a 23-year-old rookie with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting to Todd Helton and winner Kerry Wood. Of course, he was just barely over league average (.269/.346/.429, 22 HR), but he was a fresh-faced rookie. His future was bright. Or so it seemed.

Lee was significantly below league average during the next two seasons and was traded to the Phillies in the Curt Schilling deal at the 2000 trading deadline. In his two full seasons in Philadelphia, Lee crawled back up to league average, but as a first baseman he was still well below replacement level. He was a joke. He was the Neifi Perez of first basemen. Even the 21st-century version of Tino Martinez would have been an upgrade. Lee signed with the Devil Rays for the 2003 season and proceeded to have the best year of his career at age 28. Mind you his career year looked like this: .275/.348/.459, 19 HR.

In desperate need of a back-up first baseman, the Yankees signed Lee to a one-year deal this offseason and to my complete surprise, everyone seemed to think this was a brilliant move. One of the main reasons was that Lee is supposedly a spectacular defensive first baseman. True, Lee did have a phenomenal Rate of 112 in 2003, but he's just as often been average as good, and fercryinoutloud, people, this is first base! If you're going to give St. Joe hell for choosing his back-up catchers based on defense, what good reason could you possibly have to praise Cashman for picking up a back-up first sacker because he's a wizard with the leather? Never mind the fact that I'm still skeptical about just how good he is defensively.

I bring all of this up because of this lead from today's Daily News:
TAMPA - Travis Lee has what Joe Torre called a "barking left shoulder" and won't play the outfield for several days. But the Yankees appear worried that Lee may face more serious idle time.

There are two things that strike me about those two sentences. The first is obviously concern over Lee's shoulder, which the Yankees believe may be a preexisting condition. The second is the statement that "Lee won't play the outfield for several days." Looking over my game reports, Lee has played more games in the outfield this spring than he has at first (though he's essentially split his time between 1B and OF). The good news is that Lee is a viable outfielder. The confusing part is that if Lee was acquired for his defense at first, why isn't he getting more of a look there? The disconcerting part is that Lee hasn't seen any game action of any kind since Saturday. What was that about "more serious idle time?"

I know spring training stats are beyond meaningless (tiny sample size, batters and pitchers often facing minor league talent, not to mention the seasonal fits and starts of getting timing and feel back after the offseason), but despite all of that, numerous position battles are decided every year based on spring training performance. I took a look at the Yankees battling outfielders and corner infielders yesterday and Tony Clark has proved Lee's equal or better thus far this spring. Clark has also proven his ability to play the outfield (though Lee has been particularly good roaming the pastures). With Lee's shoulder acting up, I like to think that Clark now has the inside track to the back-up job at first base (though in reality, I doubt it). I've been accused of veteran-itis before in connection with Clark, but I will continue to stand by my support of his candidacy. Clark is just three years older than Lee and between 1997 and 2001 put up five consistent seasons (despite some time missed due to injury in 2000) with an average line of .282/.366/.506. All three of those numbers are higher than Lee's career highs (all of them from 2003), the slugging percentage significantly so. Speaking of which, making a bit of a comeback from his lost 2002 season in Boston with the Mets last year, Clark slugged .472, thirteen points higher than Lee's career high.

Having said all of that, Lee's shoulder problem supposedly only effects his ability to throw, and Torre has said that Travis will be available to play first base on Friday.

In other injury news, Jorge DePaula has been struggling with what Torre called a "cranky back," but according to the Post he's "over his back problems." Wonderful. Clears that one up.

The big news, of course, is that Bernie Williams took batting practice yesterday for the first time since his appendectomy. Bernie took 30 swings from each side of the plate, then ran sprints and shagged flies. He should make his spring debut as DH some time early next week. Torre has said that he now does not expect to DL Bernie and will thus play the two games in Tokyo with 24 men. That means that Tony Clark, Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor (and perhaps even Homer Bush--Torre's favorite pinch runner, who's 1 for 3 in stolen base attempts this spring . . . don't get me started--and Darren Bragg--0 for 2 in steals . . . ditto) will have to battle it out for the final two spots on the roster.

In the interest of equal time, as I've linked to Shawn Bernard's various pro-Bubba Crosby posts over the past few weeks, I feel I should bring your attention to Fabian McNally's counterpoint. Fabian's finally writing with some regularity, which I'm pleased to see as I think he's worth reading.

Oh, and since we're talking about roster spots and such, I promised a look at the spring numbers of the Yankees' futility infielders in my last post, so here you go::

Enrique Wilson102813310532/0.464.643
Miguel Cairo10248000322/0.333.333
Homer Bush10165100211/2.313.375
Felix Escalona7114000100/0.364.364
Erick Almonte881000100/0.125.125

Wilson leads the Yanks in hits, total bases and average and is tied for first in doubles (Jorge) and steals (Cairo). I hate to say it, but he's earned the second base job. The only question left is which Enrique Wilson will the Yankees have starting at second this year, the 1997-2000 version (ages 23-26) who hit .283/.327/.392, or the 2001-2003 version (ages 27-29) who hit .209/.249/.308? It should be noted that both versions of Enrique were below .500 in stolen base percentage. This is the man who has been Torre's primary pinch runner over the past two and a half seasons.

Oh, by the way, the Yankees played a game on YES last night, defeating the Reds to pull their spring record even after fourteen games:

3 - 7 - 0 Reds
7 - 9 - 0 Yanks

Starting Line-up:

Kenny Lofton - CF
Derek Jeter - SS
Alex Rodriguez - 3B
Jason Giambi - 1B
Gary Sheffield - RF
Hideki Matsui - LF
Ruben Sierra - DH
John Flaherty - C
Enrique Wilson - 2B

Subs: Bubba Crosby (CF), Miguel Cairo (SS), Erick Almonte (3B), Tony Clark (1B), Darren Bragg (RF), Mike Vento (LF), Joe Girardi (C)

Lotsa good stuff at the plate for the Yanks. Flaherty went 2 for 3 with a pair of doubles, scoring twice. Lofton, who has been struggling this spring but was recently reported to have had a good session with hitting coach Don Mattingly, went 2 for 4 with a double and a triple, scoring once and driving in a run. Giambi creamed a home run off of Cincy starter Paul Wilson. Matsui added one off of former Denny Neagle trade-bait Brian Reith in the eighth. Alex Rodriguez went 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI.

I watched pieces of the game on YES and only saw A-Rod make one play at third, but he looked much more comfortable in the field than when I last got a good look at him a week and a half ago against Boston. A-Rod was also nearly thrown out at third base in a play that I missed. According to the announcers (and Derek Jeter's impression as the two returned to their positions for the next inning), Alex could have been running a bit harder. In the game against Toronto back on the sixth, Rodriguez hit a ball of the top of the wall in center for a triple, but barely made it to third because he watched the ball out of the box and then didn't seem to be running that fast once he turned it on. One wonders if Alex is taking it easy so as not to injure himself in games that don't matter, or if there's a bit of a dog in him that we don't know about.

Things also went well for the Yankees on the mound. Jose Contreras started, giving up just one run and two walks in four innings while striking out eight. He actually didn't look that comfortable to me, and his splitter didn't look that sharp. He even hit Ken Griffey Jr. in the calf with a pitch that seemed to get away from him in the first. But you can't argue with the results. Well, not that much anyway. Heredia, Quantrill and Gordon walked none allowing just one hit (Heredia) in three innings. Gordon struck out the side in the ninth. The only hick-up was Ramon Ramirez's giving up 3 runs on five hits in two innings. The irony being that Ramirez did look sharp to me (this is why I'm not a scout . . . well, one of the reasons). He was working quickly and had good action on his slider (sinker?). What did I notice was that he was a little wild around the zone and instead of walking guys (he walked none in his two innings, striking out two), he'd groove pitches over the middle, thus the five hits.

His start having been rained out on Tuesday, Javier Vazquez pitched three innings in a minor league intrasquad game yesterday. Much to everyone's surprise he got roughed up for three runs on five hits and a walk, though he also struck out five. Javier said he was struggling with command, throwing 72 pitches in three innings after getting through four on 46 pitches in his last start. To keep him on schedule Vazquez might start another minor league game on Monday. He also may be left behind when the Yanks travel to Japan, as he's scheduled to start the Yankees first game back in the States in Detroit against the Tigers. That means Kevin Brown will start the other game in Japan (with Mussina being the opening day starter), and will also likely get the start in the Yankees home opener against the White Sox on April 8.

In other news, for the reader who suggested the Yankees pick up Scott Sauerbeck in the hope that he could be a late-season addition to the Yankee pen from the left side, the Post ran this item today:
The agent for lefty pitcher Scott Sauerbeck contacted the Yankees to see if they were interested in a Jon Lieber-type contract for the 2005 season since Sauerbeck will miss this season due to shoulder surgery. According to GM Brian Cashman the club has no interest.

Finally, speaking of lefties, Torre refered to White during yesterday's pregame show as "a notoriously bad spring training pitcher." I should hope so.

posted by Cliff at 10:40 AM

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Thinning the herd 

The Yankees farmed out three more players yesterday, sending Dioner Navarro, Andy Phillips and John Rodriguez to AAA camp (technically NRIs Navarro and Rodriguez were reassigned, while Phillips, a member of the 40-man roster, was optioned). This leaves the Yankees with forty active players in camp (not counting the injured Bernie, Karsay and El Duque, but still counting Jon Lieber), and helps bring their roster situation into focus. That's not to say that any of the three players reassigned yesterday was threatening to crack the Yankees 25-man, though both Phillips and Navarro hit well in their limited playing time--in fact, I would imagine that had Phillips (4 for 8 this spring and the Yankees' 2002 Minor League Player of the Year) not missed all but 17 games of last season with elbow tendonitis, he could have worked his way into the Yankees second base picture, if not entered camp as the favorite. Rather, the Yankees have now reassigned thirteen men, making it easier to see where those still standing might end up.

I took a look at the seven pitchers still jockeying for position in my previous post. So today, let's look at the outfielders and corner infielders not named Alex, Jason, Bernie, Kenny or Gary:

Ruben Sierra7244002441/0.167.417
Travis Lee10276100310/0.222.259
Tony Clark9216002370/0.286.571
Mike Lamb7186100110/0.333.389
Bubba Crosby9228211451/0.364.682
Mike Vento10173100320/0.176.235
Darren Bragg7184000010/1.222.222

Clearly Bubba Crosby has had the best spring of the bunch. As he can run and play all three outfield positions, he seems like the obvious choice to be the last outfielder standing. Lee has not separated himself from Clark, though one can debate the degree to which this is or was ever a legitimate competition. The most impressive thing about Lee's spring has been the ease with which he has played the corner outfield positions. Clark has also played the outfield corners, but I've not seen him do so nor heard anything positive or negative about his sojurns into the outfield. Vento and Bragg should be on the next bus to minor league camp. Lamb could have worked his way into the discussion at first base had he blown away the competition, which he has not. Sierra will be on the 25-man roster regardless of his spring numbers.

Let's assume for the moment that Bernie Williams will be on the DL during the Yankees' trip to Japan. That means the Yankees could break camp with Travis Lee, Tony Clark, Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor, one of whom would then get bumped off the team by Bernie's return. That doesn't even count the possibility of Jon Lieber starting the season on the DL and Donovan Osborne making the team. All of which speaks loudly about the Yankees depth, especially when one considers that Enrique Wilson looks to have the starting second base job wrapped up and Miguel Cairo (who's earned his) and John Flaherty (who hasn't) haven't had to fight for their spots.

As it stacks up right now, I imagine the Yankees 25-man roster will look like this when they open the season in Tokyo:

1B: Jason Giambi, Travis Lee, Tony Clark
2B: Enrique Wilson, Miguel Cairo
SS: Derek Jeter
3B: Alex Rodriguez
C: Jorge Posada, John Flaherty
OF: Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Kenny Lofton, Ruben Sierra, Bubba Crosby

SP: Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras, Donovan Osborne
RP: Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, Gabe White, Felix Heredia, Scott Proctor

DL: Steve Karsay and Orlando Hernandez (60-day), Jon Lieber and Bernie Williams (15-day)

Obviously a meltdown by Proctor or Osborne could shift things in favor of someone like Jorge DePaula, Ramon Ramirez or even Jim Mann, should any of the latter three step up over the remaining nine games. Other than that, the biggest wild card here is the likelyhood of Torre bringing along an extra infielder such as Homer Bush or even Felix Escalona. We'll take a look at the Yankees futility infielders tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Yankees beat the Phillies yesterday with the arm and bat of Kevin Brown.

12 - 19 - 0 Yankees
3 - 10 - 1 Phillies

Starting Line-up:

Bubba Crosby - CF
Derek Jeter - SS
Alex Rodriguez - 3B
Jason Giambi - 1B
Gary Sheffield - RF
Ruben Sierra - LF
Miguel Cairo - 2B
John Flaherty - C
Kevin Brown - P

Subs: Dioner Navarro (PH), Felix Escalona (SS), Erick Almonte (3B), Mike Vento (RF), Homer Bush and John Rodriguez (LF), Andy Phillips (2B), Sal Fasano (C), Tony Clark (1B).

Kevin Brown went 2 for 2 with a solo home-run off of Billy Wagner. Let me repeat that. Kevin Brown went 2 for 2 with a solo home-run off of Billy Wagner. Gotta love that. Gary Sheffield went 2 for 3 with a two-run homer, his first of the spring, and a 2-RBI double. What thumb? Bubba Crosby, getting the start in center, went 2 for 5 with a double and a run scored. Homer Bush, subbing in left field, went 2 for 2 with a run scored. Both shortstops, Jeter and Felix Escalona, went 2 for 3 with a runs scored, one of Jeter's hits was a double.

As far as his day job goes, Brown pitched four scoreless innings, allowing four hits, one walk and striking out three. Word is he gave A-Rod a good test at third and that Rodriguez rose to the challenge. Having seen him cower at the hot corner earlier this spring, I'd have to see it to believe it. Alex Graman gave up just two hits in his two innings of work, though one was a solo homer to fellow lefty Chase Utley. Gabe White padded his team-worst pitching stats by allowing two runs on four hits in the seventh. Scott Proctor and Tom Gordon combined for two perfect innings to end the game, the only K between them being recorded by Proctor in the eighth.

Today's Cage Match with the Devil Rays has been rained out. King George will have to wait until Sunday to give way too much meaning to a spring training game.

posted by Cliff at 12:39 PM

Monday, March 15, 2004

Don't get excited! 

First the bad news. Jon Lieber tweaked his groin again warming up for his start on Saturday. He didn't tell anyone until after the game and was actually pleading to pitch more than his allotted two innings because his arm feels great. Unfortunately, his groin will shut him down for two solid weeks, which takes him out of the Yankees' remaining spring schedule (don't look now but there are just ten games left in Florida, including the one that's already underway today).

As a result of this news, the rumor mill has cranked back up. Kris Benson? Jarrod Washburn? Odalis Perez? Not so fast. To begin with, Lieber's groin is no worse than it was before. It just needs more rest than he gave it. And although he may not get to pitch again in the next ten games in Florida, the Yankees won't need their fifth starter until April 11, four full weeks from yesterday. Lieber will keep his arm in shape, it's only his legs that are getting shut down, and could very well make that April 11 start.

In the meantime, Donovan Osborne will take Lieber's remaining spring starting assignments. Osborne has looked good thus far, allowing just three runs on nine hits and a walk while striking out five in 8.1 innings pitched. I wouldn't expect him to maintain that level of production over a full season, but if he needs to make one or two early spot starts for a recuperating Lieber, I think the Yanks can deal.

Back on the field, the Yankees beat the Pirates yesterday in Tampa:

3 - 8 - 1 Pirates
5 - 12 - 0 Yankees

Starting Line-up:

Kenny Lofton - CF
Derek Jeter - SS
Alex Rodriguez - 3B
Jason Giambi - 1B
Gary Sheffield - RF
Hideki Matsui - LF
Ruben Sierra - DH
Joe Girardi - C
Enrique Wilson - 2B

Jorge Posada didn't play in either of the Yankees games this weekend, I assume due to his sore throwing shoulder. Hopefully things are not worse with that shoulder than initially reported. (Update: Jorge caught a stomach flu from his kids and was sent home to recuperate. He should return tomorrow.)

Subs: Bubba Crosby (CF), Felix Escalona (SS), Erick Almonte (3B), Dioner Navarro (C), Mike Vento (RF), John Rodriguez (LF), Homer Bush (2B).

The official reserve outfielder of The Greatest Game, Bubba Crosby, hit a three-run dinger. Enrique Wilson went 2 for 3, maintaining his Major League-Leading .500 average and giving me fits. Wilson has a hit in every game he's played this spring. Ruben Sierra went 2 for 4.

On the mound, starter Mike Mussina looked great in his four innings, striking out two and allowing just one baserunner on a lead-off walk to Tike Redman. Osborne followed with his worst outing of the spring: 2 runs, 6 hits, 1 walk, 1 K in 3 IP. Paul Quantrill had his first hick-up in some time allowing a run on two hits in the eighth. Mariano worked a hitless ninth, walking one with no Ks.

In other news, the Yankees reassigned Bret Prinz to AAA camp on Saturday. There are now just three relievers and four starters left in camp who are not assured a spot on the 25-man roster. The relievers are Scott Proctor, Sam Marsonek and Jim Mann. The starters are Osborne, Jorge DePaula, Alex Graman and Ramon Ramirez. Here are their spring training lines thus far:

Ramirez55424 10-17.20
Graman49 7200 0-015.75
Proctor6.21053 1110-06.75
Marsonek321 (0 ER)3100-00.00

Proctor leads the Yankees in strikeouts, Osborne leads in wins and innings pitched, DePaula leads in hits and losses, and Graman has the worst ERA of the players still in camp with the big league club.

posted by Cliff at 1:37 PM

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Spring Training: Will Excitement Never Stop? 

I literally slept through the Yankees 5-6 loss to the Braves yesterday. I saw them bat around in the first and woke up a good eight innings later when they were deep in sub territory. I don't think I missed much.

Final line:

5 - 10 - 2 Yankees
6 - 9 - 0 Braves

Starting line-up:

Darren Bragg - CF
Enrique Wilson - 2B
Tony Clark - 1B
Gary Sheffield - RF
Hideki Matsui - LF
Miguel Cairo - SS
Mike Lamb - 3B
John Flaherty - C
John Lieber - P

Cairo went 2 for 3 with an RBI, a stolen base and two runs scored.

Subs: Sal Fasano (C), Dioner Navarro (PH), Jeff Deardorff (who I though had been reassigned, but here he is in the box score - 1B), Felix Escalona (SS), John Rodriguez (LF), Erick Almonte (PH), Homer Bush (2B).

Escalona and Wilson made the two Yankee errors.

Batting around in the first on the road against Mike Hampton, the Yankees sent Jon Lieber to the plate--where he made the final out of the inning--before they sent him to the mound. Once on the hill he allowed two runs on three hits and no walks, striking out two in two innings pitched. Actually, he pitched a 1-2-3 first and gave up both runs and all three hits in the second. Gabe White and Felix Heredia combined to allow just one hit (White) and one walk (Heredia) in three innings (two for White), striking out one each. The big loser of the game was Jorge DePaula, who got rocked for four runs on five hits and three walks in three innings. He struck-out just one and gave up a three-run home run to J.D. Drew in the fifth. Drew how has five homers this spring, having homered in all but one of his games. John Smoltz got through the sixth on just seven pitches. The Yankees scored four of their runs in that first inning against Hampton.

Really, I don't think I missed much.

posted by Cliff at 11:07 AM

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