Twenty days until the opener. Between now and then, the Yankees will play 17 exhibition games and trim their current roster from 53 to 25. There’s a lot to do — significant decisions to make, key players to get healthy and player moves to evaluate. This is the state of several key decisions still looming with less than three weeks to go.
Yesterday, Joe Girardi basically acknowledged that Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are going to be on the roster. That’s not remotely a surprise, but I suppose it’s good to have some sort of confirmation that the Yankees are leaning that direction. Cervelli’s throwing this spring seems to have made him the mid-spring favorite to win regular playing time, though it wouldn’t be shocking if the Yankees divided the playing time nearly down the middle: One player catching three starters, the other catching two starters.
First base replacement
Brian Cashman has acknowledging talking to Derrek Lee and Scott Rolen, and he publicly asked Chipper Jones to come out of retirement to play for the Yankees. Clearly the team is going to keep looking for someone to fill one of the corners as a short-term replacement for injured Mark Teixeira. As for the in-house options, Juan Rivera has hit this spring, and he would seem to be the in-house favorite as a first base replacement. The most viable alternative might be Ronnier Mustelier, who’s lived up to his offensive reputation and has been getting most of his recent playing time at third base. Mustelier could step in at third and leave Kevin Youkilis to shift to first. If the Yankees favor a defensive option, Jayson Nix could also be a third base alternative.
Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki are going to fill two outfield spots, but the Curtis Granderson replacement is very much up in the air. Melky Mesa is the best defensive option, but his spring batting average is down to .194 (largely because he leads the team in strikeouts). Zoilo Almonte could be a platoon option, but he’s never played above Double-A. Almonte’s a switch hitter who’s better from the left side, meaning he could pair with a right-hander — possibly Rivera if he’s not needed at first – to fill a corner spot. Like Mesa, though, Almonte’s offensive production has dipped considerably. Beyond those two, the Yankees have a set of five right-handed corner outfielders who could be a Granderson replacement or slip into the platoon role they were originally brought to camp to compete for.
The Yankees need a Granderson replacement, but they also need a right-handed bench player. Rivera, Matt Diaz and newly acquired Ben Francisco are the experienced options. Rivera has been good, but he might be needed at first base. Francisco was having a strong spring before opting out of Indians camp to join the Yankees. Diaz has been the worst of that bunch, hitting just .190. The young wild card is Mustelier, who’s still getting some reps in the outfield corners while also being considered at third base. The off-the-radar option is Thomas Neal, who’s quietly hitting .333/.391/.524 with two stolen bases and a home run.
Based on how often he’s played this spring, Eduardo Nunez seems to have a spot. The Yankees have floated the idea of putting Derek Jeter at DH against lefties, and that should leave regular playing time for Nunez. His defense is always going to be suspect, but he’s seemed a little more reliable this spring. That said, he’s played only shortstop, which means the Yankees are going to need at least one other reserve infielder. Corban Joseph has struggled offensively and defensively, and Dan Johnson has not looked good at third, which could open the door to Nix playing a super utility role. Of course, that might depend on what the Yankees ultimately do about replacing Mark Teixeira.
David Phelps has pitched very well this spring, but Ivan Nova has also looked sharp, and Nova seems to have the advantage if this competition is tied at the end of spring training. For now, the safe assumption seems to be that Nova will have a rotation spot. The bigger question, it turns out, is the health of Phil Hughes’ back. If Hughes can be ready to break camp with the team, then Phelps could be crowded into a long relief role, but if Hughes suffers a setback, there could be room in the big league rotation for both Nova and Phelps.
Back of the bullpen
Newly acquired Shawn Kelley has pitched very well this spring, but winning a spot in the rotation might depend on the health of the relievers around him. Boone Logan and Clay Rapada are both dealing with nagging injuries (elbow for Logan, shoulder for Rapada). For now, there’s seems to be a good chance that both could be ready for Opening Day, and if that’s the case, a bullpen of Mariano Rivera, Dave Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, David Aardsma, Logan, Rapada and Phelps still seems like the safest bet. That said, Phelps filling a rotation spot or a reliever being hurt could open the door for Kelley or Cody Eppley or Josh Spence or Adam Warren to play a role early in the season.
In typical Girardi style, the Yankees manager has been vague about his lineup plans. That said, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Gardner has consistently hit leadoff this spring while Ichiro has not. Girardi has said he’s likely to bat Robinson Cano third — even with Teixeira and Granderson heading to the DL — which means there’s only room for two of Gardner, Ichiro and Derek Jeter at the top of the order. Based on spring training lineups, Gardner seems to be the front runner for the leadoff spot, but it’s hard to know whether that’s a done deal. I doubt there’s much concern about thrusting Ichiro into that job at the last minute.
Associated Press photos