Heading into 2009, we were treated to multiple “battles” at Spring Training. The above pictured Ramiro Pena won a mini-battle, a skirmish if you will, to become the bench infielder/utility man when the Yankees broke camp. The two major battles were in the outfield. In center field, Brett Gardner won the starting center field job over Melky Cabrera, though he eventually lost that job after underperforming early in the season.
In right field, Nick Swisher lost out to Xavier Nady, but when Nady went down with an injury, Swisher filled in more than admirably and had a fantastic year, belting 29 home runs and posting a career high 129 OPS+.
This season, there are a few battles we should keep an eye on. Two of them, though one of them is pretty small, are on the pitching side and one of them is on the bench, and it involves Ramiro Pena once again.
Let’s start off by looking at the small-potatoes battle in the bullpen. Disclaimer: I’m assuming the loser of the fifth starter battle is placed in SWB as the sixth starter, therefore the set-up spot is open. While it is likely that they will be rather “interchangeable”–that is, either option would be fine–it’s still possible that one of Damaso Marte or David Robertson will be the primary set-up man, regardless of where the batter stands. If either pitcher can show the ability to balance his splits, he could be used more frequently. However, I’d still expect Marte to face lefties the vast majority of the time and that this “battle” will not yield much of consequence. Both are fine set-up options and I’d be more than comfortable with either one of them pitching in front of Mariano Rivera.
The Yankees’ rotation spots one through four are set: Sabathia, Burnett, Vazquez, Pettitte. The fifth spot is still, apparently, up for grabs. The two contenders are youngsters Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Both of them have had incredible success in the bullpen, but developing them as starters is the Yankees’ plan (as it should be) so one of them will definitely have to start full time this year.
As starters, both have been nothing if not inconsistent. Regardless, they’ve both shown incredible flashes of brilliance in the rotation. If I had to predict how this battle would go right now, I’d say that it’s almost a sure thing that Joba Chamberlain will get the nod as the fifth starter. While Hughes got over 100 innings last year, Chamberlain made 30 starts and pitched a full season innings wise. Frankly stated, he’s much more prepared to start in the Majors than Hughes is. I like them both, a lot, but the truth is that unless there’s an injury, only one of them can start full time for all of 2010. The two of them still need to put some work in before they reach their potential as top-of-the-rotation-starters, but, as I said only one of them can put that work in full time. The real question is whether or not the Yankees will use the loser of the battle as the sixth starter at AAA or as a set-up option in the bullpen. For my thoughts on that, see this post.
The last battle is essentially a skirmish as well. The winner of this “fight” is not likely to have a major impact on the Yankees and if he is counted on to do so, the 2010 season is probably in a great, great deal of trouble. The only other open spot I can see–as of right now–is the utility infielder position. Last year, Ramiro Pena won the job over Angel Berroa and he performed pretty well. He OPS’d .699 and played solid defense at short and third. All in all, he did a good job as the utility guy. Why, then, would his spot be in jeopardy? Mostly because his .699 OPS is the outlier in his career. His minor league OPS is .635 and while his .287 BA in ’09 at the ML level was nice, it was largely due to a .340 BABIP. Despite his great defense, Pena’s lack of a bat could be his downfall in 2010. His in-organization combination will likely be Kevin Russo, who offers similar position flexibility, but a slightly better bat. While Russo hasn’t flashed much power in the minors, .403 SLG, his .360 OBP is nice and shows good maturity at the plate. At the plate, it’s not likely that Russo represents much of an upgrade over Pena, and Pena is the better fielder; he also has experience on his side, and I’d expect Pena to win. Despite that, I’m sure we’ll see Kevin Russo at some point in 2010.
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