One of the clichés you hear in the weeks preceding the opening of spring training camps is that "competition brings out the best in players."
Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman both have said that during the last month. In fact, here is what Girardi said just yesterday:
“I expect guys to pitch at a very high level. Will statistics play 100 percent of the decision? No. We’ll look at guys, how they’re throwing the baseball, and what we feel as an organization and coaching staff is the best for everyone involved. It is a healthy competition for the fifth starting spot, and I love that. I think that brings out the best in people.”
That competition phrase usually deals with two younger players vying for a starting position (think Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera last year), two or more pitchers looking for the No. 5 starting pitcher job (Joba vs. Phil vs. Gaudin/Aceves/Mitre this year), and those guys looking to become the final phone call in the bull pen or the last man off the bench.
But should an important role, such as No. 5 starter, be determined by a month of games played against mostly nonmajor leaguers?
What if a player is working on a new pitch or a hitter is working on going the opposite way on most pitches? What if the pitcher wants to try throwing his curve ball in more 1-0 and 2-0 counts? Should those players be penalized because their numbers weren't good, but they have adjusted their game to be better?
Regarding the No. 5 starter race, I can never understand why teams have guys compete for jobs in which the pitcher is destined for mop-up duty or as the last position player, but that guy is never getting off the bench. They should always give those jobs to younger players—especially when those players are highly regarded prospects in their system.
Most times, people reason that teams do not want a younger player in these roles because they would "rather have the young player get regular playing time at Triple-A" instead of sitting on the bench or the bull pen.
That is garbage and wasteful thinking. What if the young player has dominated the Triple-A level? What is there for him to still prove down on the farm? That he can get out former major league rejects trying to keep the dream alive plus not-yet-ready- for-prime-time kids?
It is more beneficial for a young player to get the feel of the big leagues, gain respect from the umpires, and learn how to get big league hitters out in the majors. Getting overmatched hitters out in the minors is not going to help them at the next level. Pitching or hitting against Triple-A players is not going to get a player to become a better major leaguer.
Those types of guys who have dominated the minor leagues should not have to go back to the bushes; they need a full opportunity to adjust to major league players. Young pitchers need that chance to get out a major league lineup. It does no good to send them back down for "more seasoning."
The one player on the Yankees who fits this bill is Mark Melancon, my 2010 Yankee candidate for a breakout season .
Melancon was part of that unbelievably great Yankee/Damon Oppenheimer/Brian Cashman 2006 pitching draft, which I have written and spoken about on radio many times before. It will turn out to be the best one-year pitching draft for one team of all time—and it could rival the 1968 Los Angeles Dodgers draft* as best overall of all time.
* That is a bit of a misnomer, as the drafts back then were done in different stages. While the Dodgers got Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Buckner, Joe Ferguson, Doyle Alexander, and Bobby Valentine (Don't laugh. Valentine and was a two-time minor league MVP and a major leaguer at age 19. He was a future stud before he broke his leg and was never the same), they were all obtained at various stages during the season. It is considered by many the best team draft during one season.
The current bull pen scenario has Melancon part of the pack, along with guys like Edwar Ramirez, Jonathan Albaladejo, Romulo Sanchez, and lefties Royce Ring and Boone Logan. They are all fighting for that coveted last spot—or two—in the pen.
I did not include Chad Gaudin or Sergio Mitre in that group because they should not be bull pen guys. They should be in "competition" for the last starter spot—and if they do not win that job, they should be waived (hoping they clear) so they can be sent to Triple-A to start down there. That would leave them ready to be brought up to start a few games in case of an injury to one of the five Yankee starters.
The Yankees should give Melancon a bull pen job , as he was drafted to succeed Mariano Rivera and become the eventual Yankee closer. He has that bulldog mentality of wanting the ball at all times, especially when the game is on the line.
He is not afraid of the hitter in the batter's box. Wasn't it great last season to see Melancon buzz Kevin Youkilis and plunk Dustin Pedroia? Who do those hitters think they are, anyway?
While dominating the minors, Melancon has put up a 12-2 W/L, 2.54 ERA, 0.964 WHIP and 8.7 K/9 at all levels. His K/BB ratio of 4.31 is also mind-boggling. His numbers during two seasons at Triple-A are just as impressive—and sometimes better. At Scranton during the last two seasons, he threw to a 0.863 WHIP, 9.4 K/9 and 5.07 K/BB.
Melancon's best aspect is his pinpoint control of the fastball and his nasty curve ball. That is why it is surprising that he walked 10 batters during his 16 major league innings last year. That number will drop the more he sees major league hitters and the more that umpires see him.
Make no mistake that umpires do grant very little strike zone gratitude to newbie pitchers. The more that umpires see Melancon's demeanor and repertoire, the better he will be for the Yankees in getting close pitches called in his favor.
That is why it is imperative that Melancon be given a job even before spring training starts. To allow guys like Edwar, Albaladejo, and the rest to compete with the Yankees future is downright idiotic. Melancon is part of the future, teaming up with Robertson to form a dynamic late-inning duo during the next couple seasons.
And because both of those 2006 draftees have success against lefty hitters as well as righty hitters, they eliminate a need for a second lefty in the bull pen. So bye-bye Boone, arrivederci Royce; here come the kids. Melancon has shown throughout his minor league career that he can go multiple innings at a time, too.
One of my favorite stories is the one told by former New York Met and 1979 NL MVP Keith Hernandez. Tex has mentioned on numerous occasions that he was a nervous wreck playing first base for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1970s.
Even as the incumbent starting first baseman entering the 1979 season, he was always worried that a mistake at bat or in the field would cause the manager or the front office to send him back down to the minor leagues. Hernandez always played the game with a little fear, looking over his shoulder and not fully concentrating on his game.
According to Hernandez, that all changed when the Cardinals manager, Ken Boyer, told him no matter how he performed that spring or during the early part of the season, he would still be the starting first baseman the entire year. That vote of support allowed Hernandez to played his best season in 1979 and winning the MVP.
Melancon is in that same situation. Girardi needs to give Melancon that bull pen spot and tell him he is a big part of the Yankee 2010 season, and that he will be part of the late- inning bull pen foundation during the next five to 10-plus seasons.
It will be better for Melancon and the Yankees.