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April 29, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Bronx Band of Misfit Toys

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
The list of players and positions below was the Yankees’ starting lineup from game one of four against the Blue Jays, which took place in the Bronx on Thursday night.

Ben Francisco batting second and serving as the designated hitter? Yep. Vernon Wells batting cleanup? Yep. Francisco Cervelli batting fifth? Yep. And this team won the game? Indeed—and not only that game, but the three that followed, too.

The Yankees’ four-game sweep over the Jays was their first in nearly 18 years, when the lineup constructed by manager Buck Showalter was just a bit more formidable on paper than the crew Joe Girardi has been sending onto the field since Opening Day. The 2013 edition of the Yankees was built with 2014—specifically the $189 million luxury-tax cap—in mind, and though Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported last week that the team no longer intends to stay within that budget, general manager Brian Cashman spent most of the winter pinching his pennies, before a rash of injuries forced him to scramble. If the early-season returns are any indication of what’s to come, then Cashman’s 11th-hour patchwork won’t soon be forgotten.

After former Yankees catcher Russell Martin inked a two-year, $17 million deal with the Pirates in late November, Cashman chose not to pursue other free agents, such as A.J. Pierzynski, and instead opted to hand the catcher reins to Cervelli and Chris Stewart. The 27-year-old Cervelli might not be anyone’s idea of an ideal number-five hitter, but through 17 games, he owns a .269/.377/.500 triple-slash line. And it was Cervelli’s fourth-inning home run that provided some extra cushion for Hiroki Kuroda and the bullpen in Thursday’s series opener, which the Yankees eventually won, 5-3. (Cervelli joined the crowded Yankees’ disabled list later in the weekend with a broken hand and was replaced by Austin Romine, who did not make an appearance.)

Lyle Overbay, who signed a minor-league pact with the Yankees on March 26 after getting cut by the Red Sox, drew the start at first base on Friday as part of the motley crew that Girardi has used in place of Mark Teixeira. In the fourth inning, Overbay chipped in an RBI triple and scored on a wild pitch, giving the home team a 4-2 lead that, with some late-inning insurance, it would not relinquish. The three-bagger was Overbay’s first since June 4, 2011, and his share of the weekend heroics wasn’t only just beginning.

In the meantime, two other bargain-bin pickups combined to shoot down the new-look Blue Jays on Saturday, helping CC Sabathia to outduel J.A. Happ. Facing a 3-0 deficit in the bottom of the fourth inning, Travis Hafner—who joined the Yankees on an incentivized, $2 million contract on February 1—cranked a three-run shot, his sixth of the season, to tie the game. Later, in the seventh inning, with the Yankees down, 4-3, Cano kicked off a rally with a one-out double and scored on a single by Wells, who came over in a salary-dump trade by the Angels and now “looks like a new guy.” Wells ultimately came home with the game-winning run on a triple by Hafner—his first since July 24, 2012, and third since 2007—giving the Yankees a 5-4 win.

Hafner finished the weekend with a 1.118 OPS, the fifth-best mark among all major leaguers with at least 70 plate appearances and a far cry from his 784 showing for the Indians last year. The 35-year-old has not endured more than 100 games in a season since 2010 and has done so only once since 2007, but if he can stay off of the disabled list, Yankee Stadium appears to be capable of working the same magic on Hafner that it did on Raul Ibanez last year. As for Wells, well—he’s batting .294/.358/.553, good for a 911 OPS for a hitter who hasn’t come close to the 900 threshold since 2006, when he triple-slashed .303/.357/.542. That, incidentally, was the campaign that prompted the Blue Jays to offer Wells the seven-year, $126 million extension with which the Angels were eventually saddled. 

Back to Overbay. Well, almost—first, a detour to Brennan Boesch, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million hitch with the Yankees less than 48 hours after the Tigers showed him the door. Boesch got New York on the board first on Sunday with a second-inning shot off of R.A. Dickey. The 1-0 lead held until the top of the fourth inning, and the visitors jumped ahead, 2-1, in the top of the sixth. Now, back to Overbay in the bottom of the seventh. After Hafner began the frame with a single, Boesch and Jayson Nix flied out, leaving it up to the 36-year-old Overbay to advance Pronk the remaining 270 feet. Instead, he did one better, sending a 1-1 knuckleball into the right-center field stands to put the Yankees ahead for good.

And thus, the $228 million Yankees broomed the Jays out of the Bronx on the backs of four players to whom they will pay less than $20 million combined in 2013. Subtract Wells, who will receive $11.5 million from the Yankees and $9.5 million from the Angels, and New York’s commitments to Cashman’s springtime additions total less than $10 million. 

Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Teixeira are on the disabled list, and yet the Yankees are 15-9, good for second in the American League East, 2 ½ games behind the first-place Red Sox. The early-season mission was to tread water, but instead, the Yankees are swimming. With the Astros coming to town, they could enjoy another lap.

Speaking of the Astros, tonight’s series opener will mark just the second time that Andy Pettitte has taken on the team with which he spent three years between his longer stints in New York. Pettitte defeated the Astros in his lone start against them, on June 11, 2010, but none of the starters from that game remain in Houston. Instead, he might face a stiffer-than-expected test from an Astros lineup that ranks eighth in the league with a .339 on-base percentage versus left-handed pitchers. Bo Porter will counter Pettitte with Lucas Harrell in game one of three (7:05 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
In the wake of a disappointing 2012 campaign, during which Eric Hosmer hit just .232/.304/.359, the Royals’ first baseman has shown some signs of improvement this year, walking more often and upping his batting average to .267. But Hosmer is also striking out more than ever (22.3 percent), and an inflated BABIP—.349 coming into Sunday’s game—is partly responsible for the uptick in his average.

Moreover, through 60 plate appearances, Hosmer has amassed only three extra-base hits, all of them doubles. He has seldom even threatened to hit a ball over the fence, as evidenced by the spray chart below, from TexasLeaguers.com:

One reason for Hosmer’s power outage is the dearth of fly balls coming off of his bat. The 23-year-old ranks among the league’s bottom 15 hitters with a 23.3 percent fly-ball rate, and most of those below him are speedsters or leadoff types—such as Everth Cabrera and Ben Revere; Rickie Weeks represents the lone true power threat on the list. That’s why tonight’s matchup with Ubaldo Jimenez, who has been a relatively air-oriented pitcher since the beginning of last year, offers an excellent opportunity for Hosmer to snap his homer-less streak which dates all the way back to last September 11.

Jimenez, also only a couple of years removed from the doorstep of stardom, has scuffled even more than Hosmer. His 10.06 ERA is the worst in the American League among starters who have logged at least four outings, and only Jonathan Sanchez’s 12.71 ERA stands between Jimenez and the bottom of the pit. The 29-year-old righty has been charged with 19 runs on 16 hits and 11 walks over 17 innings, and one-fourth of the fly balls that he has allowed—four of 16—have cleared a fence.

Hosmer has done yardwork off of Jimenez in two of their four encounters since the latter was traded to the Indians during the 2011 season, and is 5-for-8 across all of them with three walks and only one strikeout. Both big flies came on first-pitch hard stuff—this inside-corner fastball on August 26, 2011, and this down-the-chute sinker on April 25, 2012—but Hosmer has also enjoyed success against Jimenez’s off-speed offerings, collecting a single each off of his splitter and slider.

Given Hosmer’s struggles against spin, if Jimenez feels confident in his soft stuff this evening, he might be better served using it than his heater in early counts. Jimenez has thrown first-pitch splitters to 30 percent of the batters that he has faced this year, according to his Brooks Baseball card, and Hosmer’s head-to-head résumé makes him a candidate to see that offering immediately after stepping into the box. Unfortunately, Jimenez hasn’t been able to command his off-speed arsenal in the early going, missing the zone with more than half of his curveballs and changeups, and he will have little choice but to turn to the fastball if he falls behind (8:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Prospect enthusiasts won’t want to miss today’s series opener at Marlins Park, which features a duel between the teams’ top young arms: Matt Harvey for the visiting Mets and Jose Fernandez for the host Marlins. Though Harvey has cruised through his first five starts of the season, Fernandez has found rougher waters since his eight-strikeout debut, which came against the Mets at Citi Field. The 20-year-old righty has fanned only five, four, and two batters, respectively, in his last three outings, and he has been charged with nine runs in as many innings over his last two. Fernandez will try to get back on track this evening; he retired the first 10 Mets he faced in order back on April 7 (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Adam LaRoche is known for being a streaky hitter, with a penchant for torrid stretches and prolonged slumps. The rut he is currently mired in, though, is deep even by his own lofty standards. LaRoche began the year in an 0-for-13 funk, but delivered a two-homer effort in his fifth game to bring a shred of respectability to his numbers. Still, he has crossed the Mendoza line only once in 2013, with a 1-for-3 showing against the Mets on April 21, and his average has since tumbled to .135, amid an 0-for-26 spell with 13 strikeouts that continued with a hat trick on Sunday. Tonight, LaRoche will square off with Braves right-hander Julio Teheran, against whom he is 1-for-2 with a walk. The former Brave owns a .279/.344/.489 career triple-slash line at Turner Field, where the Nationals are set to counter with Stephen Strasburg (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Joe Saunders’ success with the Orioles toward the end of last season prompted the Mariners to hand him a $6.5 million paycheck for 2013, but the lefty hasn’t resembled the pitcher that posted a 3.63 ERA over seven regular-season starts, and then held the Rangers and Yankees to one run apiece in a pair of post-season assignments. The 31-year-old southpaw has seen his strikeout rate plummet to 9.7 percent from 15 percent while his walk rate has climbed to 9.7 percent from 5.2 percent, two worrisome trends that have resulted in 15 runs over 9 2/3 innings in his last two trips to the mound. Tonight, Saunders will try to bounce back against his previous employer, as Buck Showalter’s squad comes to Safeco Field, where—in 13 1/3 innings over two games—Saunders has yet to allow an earned run (10:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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