Sunday, April 01, 2007

Spring Training, 2007 in Review

Spring Training Record: 14-13-3

A winning record, barely. Usually, George Steinbrenner would be acting as if squeaking out a .500 record in the Grapefruit League was either a rousing success or a barely-tolerable embarrassment. Alas for the Boss, the Steinbrenner family has far bigger fish to fry. Let's look at the awards:

Spring MVP: Since the big things are people fighting for jobs or showing they're coming back from injuries, the Yanks' Grapefruit League MVP should be a player who had something at stake--in this case, Josh Phelps. Phelps, playing for the righthanded side of a first base platoon with Doug Mientkiewicz, hit three homers and ten RBI, each a tie for the team lead. This in a limited number of plate appearances. Other big offensive performances by people tuning up for the season? Robinson Cano suffered a number of indignities that happens when you're a junior member of a veteran team--long bus rides, no early exits from the games, even when the other starters were already on the golf course...and he made the argument for some preferential treatment by smacking the ball up, getting a team-leading 24 hits, nine of them doubles. Alex Rodriguez's three homers suggest that maybe unburdening his soul to the media is good for his swing.

On the pitching side of the ledger, Darrel Rasner won a job by getting through 12 innings uninjured. The 1.50 ERA was far less significant than the fact that unlike Chien Ming Wang or Jeff Karstens he could still throw off a full mound at the end of the month. Brian Bruney locked down a spot in the pen with 13 strikeouts and two walks in six innings. Andy Pettitte didn't allow a run this Spring, although that comes with a bunch of time lost to back spasms.

Dregs of the Spring: Ron Villone still hasn't come back from the bout of ineffectiveness he suffered at the tail end of 2006. With a roster spot on the line, he got raked to the tune of 13 baserunners and two homers in four and two-thirds innings. Andy Phillips had to leave camp at the start of Grapefruit action to care for his ailing mother. Thank heavens, she got better, but he never recovered losing out to Phelps, dropping through waivers, and now heading back to AAA. Chris Britton, after having a very solid middle relief season for the Orioles last year, lost out on a roster spot, getting railed to the tune of an 11.11 ERA in eight appearances.

As for guys that made the team? The good news for Doug Mientkiewicz is that three of his five hits this Spring were doubles. The bad news? He hit .132 with .211 slugging. Ladies and gentlemen, here's your starting first baseman! I hope Phelps starts out the season hot against Kazmir, and that quickly the Yanks turn first base into an offense/defense platoon between Phelps and Minky. Melky Cabrera didn't do much to win the fourth outfielder's spot. Irony is, if Bernie Williams had accepted Torre's offer to come down to Spring Training on a minor league deal, there's a chance he could have taken the whippersnapper.

Story of the Spring: A-Rod me no A-Rods--this is baseball, not Days of Our Lives. Let's talk pitchers, instead. It's been a month full of upsets. Rock-solid Tiger Wang got injured, Carl Pavano hasn't [Ed. note: ...yet] and so it's Can't Play Carl that gets the Opening Day assignment in a bigger upset than the first Liston-Clay fight. Jeff Karstens pitched his guts out to make the team, only to come up lame when the fifth spot in the rotation opened up for him, and Darrell Rasner backed into a roster slot. Sean Henn broke camp with the club under similar circumstances, not quite dazzling anyone with his stuff, but making it by being lefthanded at a time when Villone faltered. While these guys made the staff, Colter Bean had another nice Spring Training, and again discovered that he cannot buy, beg, borrow, or steal a spot on this team.

At this point, it looks like the key man in this pitching staff is going to be newcomer Kei Igawa. In his native Japan, Igawa was nicknamed "Iron Nerves." At times this Spring, it took iron nerves to watch Dr. Kei pitch. Igawa struck out more than a man an inning, but walked almost as many (19/12 K/BB ratio in 17 innings). Can this Yankee pitching staff hold together in Wang's absence? Will Mussina and Pettitte show their age? Will Phil Hughes be ready to take things to the next level, if/when he's called on this season?

For better or for worse, the Spring records are all erased. In a month, no one will recall how well or badly anyone hit in the Grapefruit League. Here's wishing everyone in the Yankees organization (yes, even Can't Play Carl) a great 2007 season. Have a wonderful Opening Day!

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