Monday, April 6, 2009

Aviv's View: Position Players

There is very little to disagree with Dave about in his assessment of the position players. These teams are very close, though I think it is even closer than Dave.

But before we get into my assessment, an A-Rod update. The New York Post, citing hitting coach Kevin Long, reported Rodriguez's rehab is going well and the All-Star third baseman could return by the end the month.

Now on to business.

Catcher: Jason Varitek vs. Jorge Posada
As we enter the season, it's about Posada's bat and Varitek's glove. Posada's strength was always his offense, but his defense had always been above average. However, last season's shoulder surgery makes him a question behind the plate. Varitek remains as good as ever behind the plate, but his bat speed is gone.

Decision: Push -- Even if Posada's arm is healthy and he starts throwing out runners, he does not call as good a game as Varitek and has trouble blocking the plate. But if Posada hits like he did in 2007 (.338 BA, 20 HRs, 90 RBI, .426 OBP), he'd get a slight edge.



First Base: Kevin Youkilis vs. Mark Teixeira
These two are so close, you just can't give either an edge. Both are excellent fielders with both having won Gold Gloves: Teixeira in 2005 and '06; Youkilis in '07 (the Rays' Carlos Pena won last year). Teixeira hit .308 with 33 HRs and 121 RBI. Youk went .312 with 29 HRs and 115 RBI.

Decision: Push



Second Base: Dustin Pedroia vs. Robinson Cano
Dustin Pedroia is what's right about baseball. He's pesky. He's gritty. He's dirty. He's a helluva player and he's a winner. He fields the position, handles the stick and does whatever it takes to win. Robinson Cano has all the potential in the world to be an elite second baseman, that is, if he wants to. He has the ability to hit .300 with 25 HRs and 90+ RBI. He has the range and arm strength to be a terrific fielder. But with Cano, it's all about attitude. When Larry Bowa was the Yankees third base and infield coach, he would constantly get on Cano to get him to perform. Joe Girardi did not figure this out last season until it was too late.



Decision: Pedroia -- Right now it's no contest, but if Cano, 25, ever grows up and matures, it will get much closer.



Shortstop: Jed Lowrie vs. Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter is the Captain, the heart and soul of the team, a force in lineup and a growing liability in the field. Jeter's strength has never been his range and as he's aged, it has gotten worse. Still, when he gets to a ball, he's sure-handed and makes the play. At the plate he remains productive, despite two consecutive seasons in which his BA, OBP and RBI production have dropped. Jed Lowrie is a stud prospect, who can field the position. The question is how much he will hit. Last season he hit a respectable .258, but will have to improve on that to be a viable major league shortstop



Decision: Jeter -- Sorry Dave, can't agree with you on this. Can't put Lowrie on equal footing with Jeter after just two months in the majors for one major reason: Jeter still has a knack for getting the big hit or making the big play. It's an intangible and the reason why Jeter's had a special career.



Third Base: Mike Lowell vs. Alex Rodriguez
Rodriguez is so easy to hate. He's arrogant. He's oblivious. He's self-absorbed. He's certainly not the brightest star in the baseball universe. And despite his admission of PED use, he's still the best player in the game today. His bat in the Yankees' lineup is what pitchers fear and the team will get a big boost when he returns, despite his troubles in the clutch and off the field. There is nothing bad to say about Mike Lowell. He's been a terrific player, but he just can't matchup offensively with what A-Rod can do.



Decision: A-Rod.



Left Field: Jason Bay vs. Johnny Damon
Jason Bay arrived in Boston and was simply solid. No one person was going to be able to replace Manny Ramirez and Bay was smart enough to know not to try. What he is, is productive. He's had one down year in his five full seasons in the majors and there's no reason to think he won't continue to hit .280-.300 with 25-35 homers and around 100 RBI, while playing a very good left. Johnny Damon is on the downside. This could be his final year. He can't throw and but he still has the speed to cover Yankee Stadium's large left field. Damon has admitted he struggled with the death of Cory Lidle following the 2006 season, coming into camp out of shape and questioning his desire to play. It took him until midseason that year to get back into shape. He came into camp in 2008 in shape and ready to play and it showed, hitting .303 with 17 HRs, 95 R and 27 SB. He should be able to duplicate that.



Decision: Bay -- He's younger, in his prime and more productive at this point their respective careers.

Center Field: Jacoby Ellsbury vs. Brett Gardner
One of the Yankees biggest offseason questions was what to do in center. Gardner will get a chance. He's terrific fielder, who can cover ground and has a strong arm. He solidifies the outfield defense and will be able to run down ballsdfc in the gaps. His defense is Gold Glove caliber. Offensively he looked weak last year, but played better late in the year to raise his average to .228. His track record in the minors has been to start slowly at a level, but be able to adjust to hit .300 and he's adjusted his stance this season with Long's help. Butler's a punching-Judy singles hitter with a terrific eye. If he develops, he can be a .300 hitter with a .400 OPS, who scores 100 runs and is a terror on the base paths. A speedier version of another Brett ... Brett Butler. Ellsbury is a five-tool guy with the potential to be at least a perennial All-Star, if not something special. In his first full year in the majors last season he hit .280 with 50 steals. Not bad, but this will be a big season for him. He'll need to take the next step.

Decision: Ellsbury -- his upside is much, much higher than Gardner's, but if he does not continue to develop and Gardner's track record hold true, this could become much closer.

Right Field: J.D. Drew vs. Xavier Nady
Drew has all the tools. Solid defense, decent speed, good bat and a run producer. But you have to be on the field to be able to use those skills, and Drew simply is never healthy. He's played as many as 140 games only three times in his 10 full seasons in the majors (2004--146; 2006--145 and 2007--140). That's a lot of time to miss. Xavier Nady is a solid player. His good with the glove, but not great. Has a good arm, but not a cannon. He'll hit .270-.300, 20-25 homers with 80-100 RBI. Not spectacular, but certainly more than serviceable. A poor man's Paul O'Neill.

Decision: Nady -- If you're not on the field, you can't produce and Nady will likely play at least 140 games. Drew can't say the same.

DH: David Ortiz vs. Hideki Matsui
Two big question marks for both teams with both returning from injury. The Sox are hoping Ortiz's wrist has healed and he can become a monster in the lineup again. However, Ramirez's departure raises another question for Papi, who was the biggest beneficiary of Manny's presence. Joe Torre refused to pitch around Ortiz because Manny was looming behind him, and Ortiz made the Yanks pay. Last season, Girardi tried pitching around Ortiz and faced Manny, and Manny made the Yanks pay. That protection is gone and it will be interesting to see how Ortiz adjusts. Matsui, until his last two seasons of knee problems, was a prolific and consistent run producer. He drove in 100 run every year, hit in the clutch, hit around .300 with 20-30 homers, and had a good eye.

Decision: Push -- Both are just big question marks right now. If Ortiz is healthy and makes the adjustments, he's the better hitter, but so far this spring, he has not shown that hitting form, whereas Matsui seems to have discovered his hitting stroke in the final week.

The Bench
In recent seasons, this had become a big liability for the Yanks. This year it seems to be a strength. Jose Molina is more than adequate as a backup catcher. He's a prototypical backup. Great defense, calls a terrific game, has a strong arm (the best among Posada, Varitek and himself after throwing out 33 base stealers last season), but a weak bat. Melky Cabrera is finally in the role he's best suited for as a fourth outfielder. Nick Swisher is a solid, professional bat off the bench who can play multiple positions. He also could be a valuable chip at the trade deadline. Cody Ransom will fill-in for A-Rod to start the season and when Rodriguez returns, Ransom is expected to move to the utility infield role currently being held by Ramiro Pena, who opened the Yankees' eyes this spring. He could force the Jeter to DH issue next year, but for now he's just getting a taste of the majors before heading back to Triple A for more seasoning.

The Sox may have their catcher of the future in George Kottaras and have a nice looking power bat in Cris Carter. Rocco Baldelli has the tools, but health will always be an issue with him. If the Sox can spot him, he'll be very effective. Julio Lugo is a pro.

Decision: Push -- both teams have what then need in reserve.

Final Decision: Push
I have the Sox taking three categories, the Yankees three and the teams splitting four. The reality is both lineups are potent and dangerous. I expect both teams to make the playoffs with the Rays falling short at 92 wins. The Rays' bullpen and lack of a healthy/dominant closer are their biggest question marks and I expect it will take them some time to sort that out. Enough time to cost them a playoff spot.

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