By Jon Lane
T-minus seven days until the start of the Yankees’ 2009 regular season in Baltimore on April 6. However, the team breaks camp on Wednesday and will be in the Bronx Thursday for a workout at their plush new digs. Me and my YESNetwork.com colleagues will be there to document the latest news and initial impressions of the new Yankee Stadium. The next night, the palace receives the first of two dry runs when the Yankees play the Chicago Cubs in an exhibition affair (YES HD, 7 p.m.)
First, the Yankees play another Spring Training game today in Dunedin, Fla., against the Blue Jays. This is their lineup:
Derek Jeter SS
Johnny Damon LF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Hideki Matsui DH
Nick Swisher RF
Robinson Cano 2B
Cody Ransom 3B
Jose Molina C
Brett Gardner CF
Pitching: Andy Pettitte, Damaso Marte, Brian Bruney, Jose Veras , Edwar Ramirez.
Gardner made news this past weekend when he was formally named the Yankees’ starting center fielder. Joe Girardi made it clear that this will not be a platoon situation between Gardner and Melky Cabrera. Gardner will be playing every day until further notice, thus his chance to follow in the steps of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Mickey Rivers and Bernie Williams – at least until Austin Jackson is proclaimed Major League ready.
Gardner’s been a great story. He’s a spunky 5-10 package who was a walk-on at the College of Charleston. His big-league debut was inauspicious: .153 (9-for-59) in 17 games last season before he was demoted. And while he owns a paltry .228 average (29-for-127) in 42 games, he batted .294 (20-for-68) from August 15 until the end of the 2008 season.
This spring, Gardner hit .385 (20-for-52), with two doubles, two triples, three home runs, six RBIs, with a .448 OBP and was 5-for-7 in stolen base attempts. By way of comparison, Cabrera’s line through Sunday was .340 (18-for-53), 3 doubles, 1 triple, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 2-for-3 in SB attempts, .417 OBP, but his regression (.249 in 2008, including an August demotion) was virtually impossible to ignore.
Gardner provides elements not seen around the Yankees in recent years and his lefty bat adds balance to the lineup, but don’t count out Cabrera. He’ll make the team as a valuable reserve outfielder who can spell Johnny Damon, Xavier Nady or even Gardner (who could shift to one of the corners) late in games with an arm that can be the difference between winning and losing. He’s also only 24, so whether it’s with the Yankees or elsewhere as midseason trade bait, Cabrera still has a chance to prove that last season was an aberration.
Girardi said he’s thinking of eschewing a long reliever in favor of Jonathan Albaladejo. Why? Nothing against Albaladejo, who’s had a fine spring, but even elite starters get shelled early and there’s that innings limit on Joba Chamberlain. The rest of the bullpen will be feeling the heat, literally and figuratively, once the weather warms up. Brett Tomko, Dan Giese or Alfredo Aceves are better suited to eating innings and keeping the Yankees in the game should they face an early deficit.
Don’t look now, but Ramiro Pena has a realistic shot of making the team as the utility infielder who helps hold the fort until Alex Rodriguez returns. Pena’s glove has been world class since Day 1, but his bat showed tremendous improvement this spring. His chief competition, veteran Angel Berroa, is batting .358, compared to Pena’s .321, but you cannot underestimate the value of a slick glove, especially at shortstop. And giving a homegrown prospect a taste of the Majors bodes will for his future, too.
Bill Madden cites Pena’s progress and Derek Jeter’s declining range to his left. Also, I covered Pena and fellow prospect Jesus Montero at last summer’s Futures Game, when Pena showed off his defensive skills and discussed overcoming a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
According to Peter Abraham, Girardi said no decisions on these roster spots have been made yet and this could carry into the Cubs series.