Monday, March 20, 2006

Kevin Thompson For Fourth/Fifth Outfielder

We all thought the 25-man roster was all but a foregone conclusion. Hampered by a glut of pitching (a phrase that should never be used to describe a staff), the Yankees know they are only carrying 13 position players to go with their 12 hurlers. This inflexibility means the team will have to carefully select the bench players, since an ill-advised choice could mean a few wins down the road.

Back in November and December, there was quite a stir as to the status of center field at Yankee Stadium. Bernie was certainly out of the equation, as his atrocious 2005 cost the team plenty. Scott Boras still had limitless expectations regarding Johnny Damon, and the common thought was that he’d eventually sign with Boston at a discounted price. Jeremy Reed’s name was floated around, with Carl Pavano and cash as compensation. Many thought the deal made sense, but the question marks regarding Pavano’s health and Reed’s true potential all but precluded a swap.

During this time, I came to grips with the current situation, and was resolute to starting Bubba in center. My logic was that he couldn’t be any worse than Bernie in the field, and once installed as a full-time player – with much attention from Don Mattingly – he could be a cheap alternative that wouldn’t kill the team offensively. I was opposed by many, who simply thought (and likely still think) that Bubba will never cut it as a regular.

If I had my way now, however, Bubba wouldn’t even get a chance as a backup.

The spring began without Crosby, as he was forced to sit out with an index finger injury. He could have made an emphatic case for his candidacy, considering that four Yankees – two of whom are outfielders – were absent for the WBC. So with three outfielders out, we got a chance to see some young’uns get serious playing time. A few impressed to a certain degree, but one truly stuck out.

He may not really be a young’un, but his name is Kevin Thompson, and surely you’ve heard of him by now. You may have read a piece on him over at Pending Pinstripes (and if you haven’t, you should). You may have also noticed his spring numbers: 32 at bats in which he has posted averages of .436/.476/.154 (it should be noted that I’m using the ISO stat here instead of SLG, since it is more telling of a player’s true power). I am now officially advocating him to make the squad over Bubba Crosby.

The Thompson issue is complicated, however. For starters, the Yanks are out of options on Bubba, meaning that leaving him off the 25-man roster is equivalent to cutting him. Since we’re talking about a fourth/fifth outfielder here, the impact of either from the outset of the season will be negligible. As such, I expect Crosby to make the roster, and Thompson to be sent down to Columbus by mid-April, after he’s done filling Pavano’s or Small’s spot.

However, that doesn’t mean I have to agree with the decision. Not only is Thompson younger than Crosby, but he’s flashed considerably more talent and certainly has a higher ceiling. Placing him on the Major League club (and under the tutelage of Mattingly) will only benefit him. Surely, he’ll make his way into the lineup once a week, which should be adequate for someone of Thompson’s caliber. And who knows, maybe he’ll become a viable pinch hitting option, something lacking from recent Yankees squads (and something we can’t expect from Crosby).

The only argument I can fathom against Thompson’s bid for the 25th roster spot is the benefit of playing every day in Columbus. But seriously, the guy has played in 560 minor league games, worth 2115 at bats. He has a .366 career minor league OBP, a full .089 points higher than his .277 career batting average. He’s also flashed some power with a .167 ISO rating. So when we look at his minor league numbers combined with spring training, we know the guy can hit. We can also see that he’s a rather efficient base stealer, at 79 percent for his career.

When I consider Thompson’s ceiling, his current hot streak, and his ostensible desire to make the Major League squad, I see a guy who can make a solid contribution in 2006. I understand the arguments against him, but I just thing the yeas outweigh the nays. Plus, when you consider the Yanks may have a trade partner for Crosby, the case for Thompson becomes even more emphatic. On the other hand, why would the Marlins give up anything for a soon-to-be 30-year-old who is hitting .190/.227/.191 for the spring (though it is in a mere 21 at bats)? But by the same logic, why would the Yankees want him?

I fully understand the concept of risk/reward, and as such realize that Bubba’s lack of options will likely solidify his 2006 Opening Day roster spot. The risk is low, since he can be jettisoned once he proves he’s not a capable backup, at which point Thompson can get The Call.

But I’m not Brian Cashman; my vision for the team doesn’t have to follow a line of impeccable logic. I’m a fan. So when it comes to a situation like Bubba’s, I have no problem saying that he’s a bum (even if I purported the contrary a few months earlier) and that Thompson should be on the Opening Day roster. My logic: cut off the problem before it begins, give the new guy the chance he deserves. Cashman’s logic: giving Bubba the roster spot won’t realistically cost more than a win, and he can be released at any point.

I still like my vision.