February 14, 2007
Finding a Spot
The Bernie Williams saga continues today, with Joe Torre attempting to get hold of Williams, and the veteran's Tampa locker being usurped. The question of whether or not Williams has any role on the 2007 Yankees remains unanswered.
This is not an easy situation to analyze, especially for anyone with an attachment to the Yankees of the 1990s. The championship teams that will likely go down in history as the "Derek Jeter" Yankees were much more Williams' squads-the center fielder was the best player on those teams in most years. Williams was arguably the best center fielder in baseball during the period of time in which his and Ken Griffey Jr.'s careers overlapped. He's a marginal Hall of Fame candidate based on the stats, with a host of non-statistical markers in his favor.
Of course, Williams isn't remotely that player any longer. His range in center field disappeared a long time ago, and his bat hasn't been a productive one since 2002, when he hit .333/.415/.493. He sustained decent OBPs in 2003 and 2004, but his overall work since then has made it clear that he can't be a productive regular any longer. The combination of a lack of range in center and a lack of pop at the plate has rendered Williams a bench player at best.
The thing is, Williams may be exactly the kind of bench player the Yankees need. Right now, the team has left-handed batters starting in all three outfield spots, along with a left-handed-batting first baseman (Doug Mientkiewicz) and DH (Jason Giambi). For his career, Williams has always been a much more productive batter from the right side, showing considerably more power, and even in his decline phase has been threat from that side of the plate:
AVG OBP SLG 2003 .278 .411 .421 2004 .265 .384 .464 2005 .231 .305 .286 2006 .323 .387 .549 (figures from ESPN.com)
Other than '05, which was the worst year of his career across the board, Williams has been a very good hitter from the right side. Williams' problem is less his own skill set or his appropriateness for the roster, and more the curious way in which the Yankees have set themselves up. Joe Torre once again plans to go with 12 pitchers, and needs to carry a backup catcher, a backup infielder, and Rule 5 pick Josh Phelps. That last choice isn't a bad one; with so many left-handed batters, the Yankees will need to have some righty pop, and Phelps can still hit for power. I liked the pick at the time, and I like it now. I certainly like Phelps more than I do Andy Phillips, given that Phillips doesn't seem to be a true infielder any longer.
Melky Cabrera is the obvious choice for a fourth outfielder. The 22-year-old played very well last year and has a broad skill set that makes him a good pick to be a fourth outfielder. A switch-hitter, Cabrera didn't display a significant platoon split last season, and he has the legs to serve as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement for any of the thirtysomethings roaming the Bronx pasture.
On the other hand, the Yankees' starting outfielders are all wired, in most years, to play virtually every day. Cabrera could end up wasting his age-22 season-remember, he's still developing-getting six at-bats a week and performing as Bobby Abreu's legs. Cabrera is clearly a major-league-caliber starting outfielder, and there's a pretty good argument that turning him into a fourth outfielder on this team is doing him a disservice. That role could be filled about as capably by Williams-perhaps more capably if you weight the platoon advantages more highly than the young legs Cabrera provides-while allowing Cabrera to play every day for Colum…wow, this is weird…Scranton.
It seems strange to suggest that Bernie Williams deserves a roster spot over Melky Cabrera. Cabrera is the better player with the higher upside and the broader skill set. However, it may be best for everyone involved if Williams gets that roster spot because of his ability to mash left-handers on a team that's going to lose productivity against them at six lineup spots.
Of course, the best solution would have both of them on the roster and just 11 pitchers going north with them. For a manager like Torre, who rides his best relievers into the ground and ignores the rest, carrying seven guys in the bullpen is a complete waste of space. If Bernie Williams has a reasonable case to be on the roster ahead of Melky Cabrera, he has a terrific one to be on there ahead of T.J. Beam or Brian Bruney or whatever extra pitcher Torre is determined to keep around.
There are non-baseball factors here. I have written my share of unkind things about Willliams, particularly about his declining range afield, but he's a special player to me. He inherited the mantle of "quiet, classy Yankee" from Don Mattingly, overcoming early-career frustrations over playing time-playing time he richly deserved-to carve out a career as a cornerstone of a dynasty. He was a very easy player to root for, and he gave Yankee fans a laundry list of memories.
I would rarely argue that factors such as this should carry weight in making baseball decisions. In fact, I've frequently written that teams spend far too much time worrying about them. However, in the case of Williams, there are excellent baseball reasons to grant him a roster spot, and excellent non-baseball ones as well. The 12th pitcher on the Yankee staff will not play as often, nor as well, nor will he fulfill as critical a role, as Bernie Williams will. That making the right decision for the roster would have other positive effects is a nice bonus.