It wasn’t meant to be a hard-hitting question, but it certainly put things in perspective. After another hitless game last night, Raul Ibanez was asked when he’d ever been surrounded by so many reporters after a spring training game.
“First time,” he said, smiling. “First time ever, so congratulations to me.”
In several corners of the Yankees fan base, Ibanez was not a very popular signing in the first place. He was essentially replacing Jesus Montero — who was supposed to replace Jorge Posada — and he was chosen ahead of Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, popular former Yankees who also fit the left-handed DH mold. Ibanez’s overall numbers weren’t very good last year, and although his splits vs. right-handers were better than any of the alternatives, those numbers weren’t overwhelming either. He’s 39 years old, and although he’s cheap and proven with a tremendous clubhouse reputation, he’s just not the kind of addition that sparks a ton of excitement. And his slow start certainly isn’t helping.
Ibanez is clearly not happy with his numbers, but he’s not moping through the clubhouse either. He’s learned to focus on something other than spring training results. Truth be told, so have the Yankees.
Two years ago, the Yankees signed Thames to be a platoon designated hitter and occasional corner outfielder. He’d never hit higher than .256 in any big league season, but he also had a career .496 slugging percentage against lefties. The Yankees thought they could maximize his impact with specific at-bats.
Spring training: Thames was on a minor league deal, and made the team despite hitting just .135 in spring training. He struck out 21 times and didn’t homer until the final week.
Regular season: Wound up playing more than the Yankees expected and hitting better than they could have hoped. Thames even produced against right-handers finishing with a career-high .288 average and 12 home runs.
Far removed from his superstar days in Atlanta, Jones hit .204/.312/.411 in the three seasons before he signed with the Yankees to be a platoon DH and corner outfielder. The Yankees liked him because he’d slugged .558 against lefties in 2010.
Spring training: In his first stint with the Yankees, Jones hit just .182/.265/.318 in spring training. He had one home run and 10 RBI, and that opened the gate to a slow start once the season began.
Regular season: By the end of the season, Jones had been everything the Yankees hoped. He got most of his at-bats against lefties and hit .286/.384/.540 against them. Turns out he was playing on a sore knee, and after getting that repaired this offseason, the Yankees re-signed Jones to play the same role this season.
With Jesus Montero traded and Jones signed to hit against lefties, the Yankees went looking for a one-year player who could hit right-handers. They settled on Ibanez ahead of familiar left-handed hitters Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, making their choice based on Ibanez’s .440 slugging percentage against righties last season, as well as his ability to play the corners occasionally.
Spring training: It’s been an ugly first impression for Ibanez who’s working with slightly adjusted mechanics and hasn’t been able to consistently hit the ball with any kind of authority. A deep fly ball to left field was one of a handful of hard-hit balls for Ibanez this spring.
Regular season: To be determined…
None of this is definitive. Just because Thames and Jones bounced back from rough spring trainings doesn’t mean Ibanez is going to do the same, but Thames and Jones were in similar situations. They were easy to write off in the spring only to produce in the regular season. At this point, I don’t think anyone can say whether Ibanez will actually hit come April and May, but I’m not sure an ugly spring training is proof that he won’t.
I’m sure patience is hard to have this time of year, but Ibanez isn’t going anywhere. He’s going to be given a chance to hit in the regular season. The Yankees just have to hope his timing issues sort themselves out, and he shows the kind of power the team is expecting against righties.
“I think his attitude has been really good, and he’s went about his work the right way,” Joe Girardi said. “I don’t care who you are, it’s not easy to struggle. We don’t wake up saying, I hope I struggle today. We don’t do it. I’ll probably have some conversation with him if it continues just to tell him to relax and do your thing, just be who you are.”
Associated Press photo