Best case, worst case: Second base • 01.24.13
For the Yankees best player, the best-case scenario is so high that he just might price himself out of the Yankees future plans. It’s the position that brings short-term security and long-term uncertainty.
Dollars and sense
At age 30, coming off three straight seasons finishing top six in MVP voting, Robinson Cano’s best-case scenario has something to do with being the best player in the American League. He’s a Gold Glove defender, a Silver Slugger hitter and a legitimate MVP candidate in his prime. Improve with runners in scoring position, move past last year’s struggles against lefties, and Cano could legitimately have the best season of any hitter in the American League.
But if we’re talking about the best-case scenario for the next 12 months, it’s all about what happens in November and December. Cano is a homegrown force; a middle-of-the-order slugger who plays a defensive position more accustomed to No. 8 hitters without much pop. He’s been durable and, until last year, had a pretty good track record in the playoffs. If the Yankees could lock him into a reasonable long-term contract — good luck with that — they could have second base figured out through the end of the decade. Might be impossible given his open-market value, but finding a way to fit Cano into the Yankees financial plans would be ideal.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have Corban Joseph and David Adams repeat last year’s offensive results. Joseph showed surprising power last season, and Adams finally moved beyond a lingering ankle injury to restore his prospect status. In a best-case scenario, those two could become offensive second base options almost immediately (and certainly by next year if Cano prices himself out of the Yankees plans). There’s also Angelo Gumbs to consider. Long touted for his athleticism and potential — a good mix of speed and power, especially for a middle infielder — an injury free season could solidify his status as the Yankees top infield prospect.
Small numbers and a big number
Two signs of trouble from Cano’s 2012 season: .239/.309/.337 vLHP and .207/.333/.379 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Make no mistake, Cano was terrific last season, but his struggles against lefties were surprising, and he was especially bad in RISP situations early in the season. It’s silly to think Cano will suddenly have a terrible year at the plate — he could slump quite a bit and still have an OPS well above .850 — but it’s possible that he could put up terrific overall numbers while still experiencing a handful of situational struggles that keep him from being as productive as those overall numbers suggest.
But, of course, even a down season from Cano won’t keep him from demanding — and getting — a huge contract from someone in the offseason. Cano could take a mild step back this season, and still price himself well outside of the Yankees spending plans. Or, perhaps it’s an even worse scenario to have the Yankees cave to his demands and give an Alex Rodriguez-sized contract that eventually blows up into an Alex Rodriguez-sized disaster.
The willingness to cave to Cano might grow more likely if Joseph and Adams take a step back. Joseph never hit more than six homers in a season before he hit 16 last year. What happens if his power slips in his first full-season attempt at Triple-A? Adams’ strong Double-A season wasn’t quite a full season — limited to 86 games — and he still hasn’t faced a single Triple-A pitch. If those Double-A numbers don’t translate and Joseph takes a step back, the Yankees won’t have a fallback plan at second. Add in another injury for Gumbs, and a sloppy infield adjustment for Rob Refsnyder, and the Yankees could be left without Cano and without an in-house replacement on the horizon.
Associated Press photos
Yankees at the break: Second base • 07.13.11
After making a run at the MVP award last season, Robinson Cano came into this season with sky-high expectations. He’s been very good, but he’s played a tick below last year’s production. If there’s any disappointment in Cano’s performance, it’s only because of the expectation coming into this season.
Through significant chunks of the season’s first half, Cano has reverted to the free-swinging approach that he seemed to keep under control last season. His strikeouts are up slightly, and his walks are down significantly. Otherwise, Cano has been roughly the same player he was last season, on pace for roughly the same power numbers and the same sort of run production. His defense seemed spotty in the first month or so, but that’s been much better lately.
Cano is never going to be a Nick Swisher or Brett Gardner type of hitter. He swings. That’s what he does. He’s acknowledged a need to be more selective, but he doesn’t want to lose the aggressiveness that makes a dynamic hitter. Last year he found a great balance between selective and aggressive. This year, that balance has come and gone. If he finds it again in the second half, don’t rule him out as the Yankees best hitter down the stretch.
Kevin Russo got his season turned around in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Corban Joseph has been his typically productive self in Trenton – he’s been especially good against right-handed pitching and seems to hit every year – and Kelvin Castro has been a pleasant surprise in Tampa. The Yankees disappointment at second base has to be that David Adams took longer than expected to get healthy (he’s finally playing again) and that Anderson Feliz has struggled in Charleston (he seemed primed for a breakout season). The name to watch now is Angelo Gumbs, last year’s second-round pick who’s playing second for Staten Island.
Can Cano pick up the slack for the next month?
When Alex Rodriguez went on the disabled list late last season, Cano had 15 RBI in the 14 games without A-Rod. It wasn’t that he necessarily hit better than he had all season – most of his numbers were actually a little worse – but he was productive enough to pick up some of the slack. The Yankees might need him to find a way to do something similar while Rodriguez is out again for the next month or so.
The Yankees have club options for 2012 and 2013, and right now it looks like a no-brainer to exercise them. Of all the young players on the big league roster and all the talented prospects in the minors, no one is better positioned to be a career-long Yankee than Cano.
Associated Press photo
Yankees organizational depth: Shortstop • 01.12.11
In certain corners of the Yankees fan base, Derek Jeter is perhaps the least beloved icon in baseball. A vocal minority — at least I think it’s a minority — is ready to give up on him after the first rather pedestrian season of his career. The Yankees aren’t so pessimistic, having just locked Jeter into a three-year deal with a fourth-year option, but they are preparing for life without their captain. The Yankees top two picks in last year’s draft were shortstops.
In the big leagues
Hard to believe Jeter is only one year removed from being a legitimate MVP candidate. Concerns about production are inevitable when a player reaches his late 30s, but Jeter seemed to be charging into his twilight years before a sudden step back last season. Defensively, he’s fundamental rather than dynamic, and the Yankees seem willing to accept those limitations. Offensively, it’s hard to say what Jeter is at this point. If he falls somewhere between his ’09 and ’10 levels of production, he’ll remain one of the better offensive shortstops in the game. He showed signs of bouncing back in September, but another step in the wrong direction could be a real problem and would almost certainly force Joe Girardi to drop his captain to the bottom of the lineup.
On the verge
The Yankees know what they have in Ramiro Pena. He’s a terrific defensive player with a little bit of speed, but his bat is limited to say the least. The shortstop who seems to have their attention is Eduardo Nunez, who last year hit .289/.340/.381 with 23 stolen bases in Triple-A, then held his own after a late-season major league call-up. He seems to have made defensive progress last season as well. Beyond Nunez, there’s a large gap before the next wave of significant shortstop potential reaches the upper levels. Jose Pirela, who should open in Double-A, isn’t a no-name, but his ceiling seems closer to a utility infielder than a starting shortstop.
Deep in the organization
It was considered something of a surprise when the Yankees took a shot on Cito Culver as their first-round draft pick last summer. They backed that pick by selecting another teenage shortstop, Angelo Gumbs, in the second round. Three years earlier, the Yankees took a 10th-round shot on a high school shortstop named Carmen Angelini — they knew he was raw, but thought he might improve too much in college for them to ever have a shot at him when he was older — only to see that pick fizzle through bad numbers and a hip injury. Instead, the long-term, in-house future of the shortstop position might rest on the two kids who turned pro just a few months ago.
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: Derek Jeter
Scranton/WB: Ramiro Pena/Eduardo Nunez
Trenton: Jose Pirela
Tampa: Kelvin Castro
Charleston: Carmen Angelini
The big league depth chart at shortstop doesn’t extend much beyond Nunez and Pena. Kevin Russo and Reegie Corona have experience at the position, but both are better suited elsewhere. If Jeter gets hurt, Nunez seems to be the best long-term solution. If Pena wins the utility job, he’ll be the guy to get occasional starts here and there.
In the lower levels, the shortstop situation could change significantly by mid-season. Culver will probably open in extended spring training with a eye toward making his Charleston debut in early June. Until then, an organizational shortstop — Jose Mojica, Emerson Landoni, Angelini — could get the Low-A job. Up in High-A, Castro is the natural fit for the job despite hitting just .224 in Charleston last year. If not him, perhaps Walter Ibarra or Addison Maruszak could return to Tampa, but as an everyday player this time. There is also the chance that Angelini could impress in spring training and get the Tampa job out of camp. Basically, the shortstop position in the lower levels is remarkably flexible heading into spring training. The upper levels will have Luis Nunez, Doug Bernier and Justin Snyder to fill some shortstop time off the bench.
Associated Press photo of Jeter, headshots of Jeter, Nunez and Angelini (milb.com doesn’t have a Culver headshot yet and I don’t want to steal one from another site)
The Yankees first-round pick in 2009 was also a high school position player, and Slade Heathcott was moved cautiously in his first full season. Heathcott opened last year in extended spring training and didn’t join Low-A Charleston until June.
Vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said the Yankees will “most likely” do the same thing this season with both Culver and second-round pick Angelo Gumbs. Both are 18 years old and developing at key defensive positions. Rushing them is not in the plans.
The same sort of caution could be true for fourth-round pick Mason Williams, a 19-year-old center fielder who played five Gulf Coast League games last season. Newman said the Yankees will “see where he is” in spring training before deciding where Williams opens the season.
Newman said there’s “no question” Culver will continue to be developed as a shortstop, but Gumbs will be tested at different positions. He could see some time at second base, and center field is a legitimate option. “We’re still in the evaluation stage,” Newman said.
• Speaking of Heathcott, he hit .258/.359/.352 with 101 strikeouts in 76 games with Charleston last season. It’s entirely possible he’ll return to Charleston for the beginning of the 2011 season. “We’ll see,” Newman said.
• Last year’s third-round draft pick, Rob Segedin, was selected out of Tulane, so he’s older and more advanced than Culver and Gumbs. Segedin will open in Charleston, where he’ll continue to play third base while also getting some reps in right field.
• If David Adams, Corban Joseph and Brad Suttle all open the season in Double-A, they’ll have to mix and match positions, including some reps at DH, to give all three regular at-bats. Newman said there’s a chance one of those three could open at a different level, but it’s a “low” chance.
• Outfielder Cody Johnson, acquired from the Braves this winter, is most likely heading for Double-A instead of Triple-A. He’s been in Double-A for part of the past two seasons, but he has yet to hit above .189 at that level. The guy does have some power, though.
• Don’t rule out lefty Shaeffer Hall for Double-A. He opened last season in Low-A Charleston but pitched his way to High-A Tampa where he had nine wins and a 3.91 ERA in 15 appearances. This is only his second full season, but Hall is already 23 years old, so the Yankees might push him to Trenton to open the season.
• The Yankees have not decided where shortstop Carmen Angelini will open the season — Tampa or Charleston — but this is clearly a season when Angelini needs to finally show something at the plate. “He needs to get it going,” Newman said. Culver and Gumbs are already overshadowing him in the lower levels.
• Pretty much every scouting report you’ll ever read about Graham Stoneburner suggests his ultimate role could be as a reliever rather than a starter. The Yankees, though, will continue to use Stoneburner out of the rotation, and they believe that he could remain a starter if his changeup continues to develop. Stoneburner had a 2.41 ERA between Tampa and Charleston last season, and the Yankees won’t change his role until he pitches himself out of the rotation. “The game is smarter than us,” Newman said.
• I mentioned Anderson Feliz in yesterday’s look at the Yankees second base depth, and Newman sounds excited about the young middle infielder. “He’s a good player,” Newman said. “He’s got hitting ability. He’s got power. He can run.” Feliz is probably going to open in Charleston.
• Fu-Lin Kuo, a third baseman out of Taiwan, could be developing into a legitimate prospect. “He looked like it at times last year,” Newman said. Last season Kuo hit .243 in the Gulf Coast League, but that was his first season in the United States, and Newman said it’s hard to make much of those stats because of the significant cultural adjustment. The Yankees saw some flashes of promise at the plate. Kuo is probably going to open the season back in extended spring training, but he’s a player to keep the name in the back of your mind for now.
Pretty sure Pete took that picture of Heathcott. I just found it in the blog archives.