Coming into spring training, the New York Yankees had four key position battles that were set to play out in Tampa, Fla.
Of course, with Curtis Granderson suffering a broken arm during Sunday’s Grapefruit League home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays, that opens up a fourth competition to be Granderson’s replacement—at least temporarily—until the 31-year-old slugger is able to return.
The Yankees were looking at a major fight to determine Russell Martin’s replacement behind the plate, a battle to earn the right-handed at-bats at designated hitter, a decision on who will be the key utility infielder—an important role on a team with a bunch of 30-somethings patrolling the infield—and a push to see who will fill the fifth spot in the starting rotation.
With Granderson’s injury, left field can be added to the list.
Here’s how those positional battles will shake out.
Nova’s performance fell off the table in the second half of 2012, as he was just 2-5 with a 7.05 ERA and 1.63 WHIP in 11 starts after the All-Star break. He spent time on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation in late August through early September and was left off the postseason roster.
Last year’s train wreck followed a 16-4 season in his first full year in the big leagues in 2011, when he posted a 3.70 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. About the only improvement Nova showed in 2012 was in the strikeout department, where he went from 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 2011 to an 8.1 mark last year.
That was completely offset, of course, by a large increase in his home runs per nine inning rate, from 0.7 in 2011 to 1.5 a year ago.
Phelps made 11 starts and 22 relief appearances as a rookie in 2012. Overall, Phelps was 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 99.2 innings. As a starter, he was 2-2 with a 3.77 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.
The numbers indicate he was more effective as a reliever. However, they also dictate that he was much better than Nova as a starter in 2012.
This battle comes down to the comfort level of manager Joe Girardi, and as he has shown multiple times during his tenure in the Bronx, his default position is to fall back upon what he knows.
Girardi is not a risk-taker.
So barring a phenomenal difference between the two in spring training ...
There is little to get excited about in the battle for this spot. There are a pair of veterans who have had long, if not particularly distinguished, careers and some minor-league players who have been more suspect than prospects to this point.
Diaz missed much of 2012 with a wrist problem. He was limited to just 51 games and 118 plate appearances with the Atlanta Braves, during which he hit .222/.280/.333 with two home runs and 13 RBI.
But for his career, Diaz has devoured left-handed pitching. In 1,026 career plate appearances against lefties, Diaz has hit .324/.364/.498 with 31 home runs and 119 RBI. For his career, he has hit .291/.339/.431 with 45 homers and 225 RBI in 2,033 plate appearances.
Rivera spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 12-year veteran hit .244/.286/.375 with nine home runs and 47 RBI in 339 plate appearances. He is a lifetime .274/.323/.443 hitter with 132 homers and 539 RBI in 3,787 plate appearances over his 12-year career.
This is also Rivera’s second tour with the Yankees; he made his major-league debut in pinstripes in 2001 and played in parts of three seasons (2001-03) with New York.
Mustelier is a Cuban defector who signed with the Yankees in 2011. He split 2012 between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he hit .303/.359/.455 with 10 home runs and 49 RBI in 385 plate appearances. That came after going .353/.412/.598 with five homers and 20 RBI in 114 plate appearances for Trenton.
But at age 28, he’s a bit long in the tooth to be considered a prospect.
Neal, 25, made his major-league debut last September for the Cleveland Indians, where he hit .217/.250/.261 in a nine-game cup of coffee, with two RBI in 24 plate appearances. Neal was released by the Indians on Jan. 12 and signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees six days later.
For Double-A Akron in 2012, Neal hit .314/.400/.467 with 12 homers and 51 RBI in 470 plate appearances.
The 23-year-old Almonte spent all of 2012 in Trenton, where he hit .277/.322/.487 in 451 plate appearances but showed some pop with 21 homers and 70 RBI. Of course, he also showed a lack of discipline at the plate with 103 strikeouts and just 25 walks. He also stole 15 bases.
Almonte homered in his spring-training debut against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.
Mesa, 26, made his big-league debut last Sept. 22 and was 1-for-2 with an RBI in three late-season games. He started the year at Trenton, earning a promotion after hitting .277/.344/.464 with 14 homers and 46 RBI in 88 games. At Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Mesa hit just .230/.271/.524 with nine homers, 21 RBI and 43 whiffs in 133 plate appearances.
Given manager Joe Girardi’s tendency toward veterans, it is likely that Mustelier, Neal, Almonte and Mesa would need to have monster springs to have a chance in this battle.
So that leaves Diaz and Rivera.
Rivera has more power, which may give him the edge in a lineup that lost a lot of it over the winter.
However, Granderson’s injury opens up another spot that either of these players could fill until Granderson comes back—presumably in May.
WINNER: Rivera, with Diaz likely earning the bulk of the playing time in left field
Nunez has the support of management but has frustrated the front office and fans alike with his fielding problems, even earning a demotion to Triple-A last season. Nix was solid in the utility role last season but doesn’t have the offensive upside that Nunez possesses.
Last season, Nunez hit .292/.330/.393 with a homer and 11 RBI in 100 plate appearances, while posting 11 steals in 13 attempts.
Defensively, he was a disaster. He committed four errors in just 16 appearances at shortstop, two more in nine games at third base and one in his lone start at second base. He also made three starts in left field and one brief appearance in right field.
Nix, on the other hand, was a slight improvement in the field. He made two errors in 29 games at third, one in 18 games at shortstop and none in 13 games at second base. He also played 11 games in left field, committing one error.
But at the plate, Nix is no Nunez. He hit .243/.306/.384 in 202 plate appearances with four home runs and 18 RBI. The batting average was a career-high for the lifetime .214/.285/.371 hitter.
Velazquez, 32, is a career minor-leaguer who has just 32 major-league games under his belt. Last year, he played in 19 games for the Miami Marlins. He hit .232/.246/.250 in 57 plate appearances, driving in two runs.
He spent most of the year at Triple-A New Orleans, where he hit .312/.391/.384 in 461 plate appearances. He had four homers and 42 RBI while playing mostly shortstop, with 15 games at second base thrown in.
He signed with the Yankees on a minor-league deal in December.
Maruszak, 26, has been with the Yankee organization since the team selected him in the 17th round out of South Florida in 2008. Last year at Trenton, Maruszak hit .276/.330/.457 with 16 homers and 59 RBI in 458 plate appearances. The power was a surprise, as Maruszak had hit 16 homers in 1,224 career minor-league plate appearances prior to 2012.
He played all four infield positions at Trenton last season—70 games at shortstop with 15 errors, 38 games at third base with six errors, four games at second base with an error and seven games at first base with a clean fielding slate.
While it might make sense to keep both Nunez and Nix, the roster flexibility may not be there to allow it. If it comes down to just one of them ...
WINNER: Nunez, if only because the front office hates to be wrong about prospects
With Russell Martin gone, this job comes down to incumbent backup Chris Stewart and one time sort-of-prospect Francisco Cervelli—provided Cervelli doesn’t face any problems for being linked to Biogenesis, the Miami-based anti-aging clinic that is the epicenter of baseball’s latest performance-enhancing drug mess.
Cervelli admitted to consulting with Anthony Bosch of Biogenesis earlier this month, according to the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger.
Stewart earned the backup job last year after coming over in an April 4 trade from the San Francisco Giants.
He is considered the stronger of the two candidates defensively, although offensively he is, politely, not good. He hit .241/.292/.319 in 157 plate appearances last season with one homer and 13 RBI and is a lifetime .217/.281/.302 hitter in six seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, Giants and Yankees.
Cervelli is considered the better hitter, although he spent 2012 banished to Triple-A.
However, in two seasons as Jorge Posada’s backup in 2010-11, he hit .269/.348/.354 with four home runs and 60 RBI in 454 plate appearances. Cervelli drew raves for his defensive work in the spring-training opener against the Atlanta Braves, according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com.
Manager Joe Girardi has said defense is his priority for the position, telling Hoch in that same piece, “I made it clear to them in a meeting [Friday]. Defense is No. 1 here. We need to play good defense.”
That having been said, if Cervelli can get the job done behind the dish, his better offense should push him over the top.
Austin Romine and non-roster invitee Bobby Wilson are considered long shots for the position, and top catching prospect Gary Sanchez would need to have a Johnny Bench-type spring training to be considered for the job at age 20 with no prior experience above High-A ball.
WINNER: Cervelli by a nose over Stewart