Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Are We Done Yet?

It’s been a while since I’ve written a column exclusively about the Yankees. Sure, there were bits and pieces here and there, as well as some minor league analysis. But I haven’t really done anything with the team since the Johnny Damon signing.

The reason is simple: there’s nothing to talk about. For all intents and purposes, the team is going to head into Spring Training as is, with a few minor tweaks here and there. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be roster issues come mid-March.

Depth is the main issue facing the 2006 Yankees, a problem they’ve been all too familiar with in the recent past. The starting lineup is among the best, if not the best in the league. The pitching staff, while a bit brittle, looks at least above average, possibly dominant, and the back up the bullpen looks solid as ever. The bench and front of the bullpen, however, seem to still be in a state of arrears. That’s not to say it isn’t improved over last year’s abomination, but there are still noticeable holes.

Miguel Cairo is an upgrade over the Rey Sanchez/Felix Escalona/Mark Bellhorn reserve unit, but only if his numbers are closer to 2004 than 2005. In 327 at bats for the Mets last year, Cairo posted averages of .251/.296/.324. I know the term “anemic” is tossed about in sports writing with abundance, but when compared with his 2004 averages of .292/.346/.417 (in 33 more at bats), 2005 was truly anemic for Miggy.

The saving grace here is that Yankees backup infielders typically don’t get much playing time. Last year’s utility men combined for 74 at bats (92 if you count Russ Johnson), which helps cover up the bench blemishes. But Jeter and A-Rod could benefit from a few more days off, so Cairo may get a few more chances than his predecessors to earn a few wins.

What is scarier than the infield (lack of) depth is the situation out on the grass. As with the guys on the dirt, the starters are solid if not stellar, with Matsui, Sheff, and weenie-arm Damon eating up most of the playing time. But they’re also not ripe young bucks anymore, and will require the occasional sit day. Bubba Crosby looks to be the guy spelling Matsui and Damon, though with Torre at the helm I’d be surprised if Bernie didn’t make his share of starts in center field.

This is an obvious problem, since we’ve all witnessed Bernie’s complete lack of range in the past few years. I don’t know how bad it will get this year, but I can tell you one thing for certain: it ain’t getting any better. If Joe insists on starting him in the outfield, we had all better pray it’s when Wang is on the hill, or another pitcher who tends to give up ground balls. The last thing any fan wants to see is Bernie sprinting down a fly in the left center field gap.

A hole still exists in right field, and that gap may be more pressing. It has been long speculated that Gary Sheffield is going to be playing DH more this year, as he should be. He doesn’t have the worst outfield range in the league, but I don’t trust him shagging flies in deep right center. Add that factor to his age, and it’s an easy formula for DH. The problem is that the Yankees have exactly no one who has an arm adequate enough to man right field.

There are only two current free agents who could handle such a task: Bobby Higginson and Richard Hidalgo. Personally, I would scratch Hidalgo’s name right off the list. He had a season for the ages back in 2000 (.314/.391/.636) when he was 25, but regressed into mediocrity until showing signs of life again in 2003 (.309/.385/.572) before once again regressing. The case could be made that, judging by his cycles (a great year followed by two mediocre or bad ones) that he’s due in 2006, but that’s quite a flimsy argument. Maybe Barry Zuckerkorn would get by on that one, but few others could buy into it.

Hidalgo has proven himself as a worthless turd during his short tenure with the Mets and last season with the Rangers, so taking a flier on him would be an unworthy risk. Higginson, on the other hand, could be a low-risk high-reward kind of player. He’s mulling retirement at the age of 35, and as such could probably be had for a minor-league contract, a la Al Leiter. With the glut of young outfielders currently roaming the grass in Detroit, they no longer have a use for him.

The case for Higginson is easy to make. He’s an experienced vet who has been widely heralded as “playing the game the right way,” which translates into a guy who works hard, and normally means a good clubhouse guy. He won’t be seeing oodles of time in the outfield, so even if his numbers are Womack-esque, he won’t be doing too much harm (and I would find it hard to believe he’d want to play anymore if he couldn’t out-perform Tony Freakin’ Womack).

His most redeeming attribute is that he won’t go out and kill you. His strikeout totals are usually low to go along with a formidable strikeout to walk ratio. And even in his decline years, he’s been able to keep his OPS+ near 100 (which is the league average). Factor in his year off, and he could be well rested enough for one last hurrah.

Unfortunately, it looks like Cashman is done with the team as it is. I make the plea right here, though, that he get a bit busier and look into Higginson or other similar players to import. The Yankees past problems have stemmed from a lack of depth, and the way everything stands right now, they could be facing the same dilemmas in 2006.