Last night, I was fortunate enough to speak with Ricky Keeler of Yanks Go Yard to preview the upcoming Rays – Yankees series, which you can listen to here. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the state of the New York Yankees, now and going forward, for us as well.
Dave Hill: The injury to Derek Jeter is a huge concern for the Yankees. Coming off the ankle injury in the postseason, he injured it again, and they are saying that he will be out until the All-Star break. How do the Yankees replace him in the lineup, and replace his leadership on the field?
Ricky Keeler: Jeter’s leadership characteristics are huge. I think one problem that hurt the Yankees last year when Jeter got hurt in the postseason is that they had a quick turnaround and got caught up in the moment of that injury and basically no one came up and stepped into that role. You can’t replace Derek Jeter’s leadership – that’s a given – but I think that having a whole year to prepare, Joe Girardi said “You know what, maybe we won’t have Jeter for the first few games.” I think he’ll try to make his way back, maybe in late August, maybe for the stretch run.
More than the leadership, because the clubhouse seems looser, is replacing him on the field. One of those guys who could look to do that is Eduardo Nunez. He’s probably looked at as the next shortstop for the Yankees, but he’s sort of struggling right now. He’s hitting 7-40, hasn’t gotten on base, and hasn’t stolen any bases, which is what Nunez does best. He’s a guy that’s going to have to get going. They also have Jayson Nix who can play short and third, so they can still move Youkilis around. I think they can withstand the Jeter injury, but on the field, if Nunez doesn’t get it together, there could be some problems.
DH: One of the big keys for the Yankees have been some of those ‘bargain’ guys they picked up, like Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, and the trade for Vernon Wells. How big have those signings and trades been, especially missing key pieces like Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and now Jeter?
RK: Out of those three, the player the Yankees miss the most is Teixeira. It’s nothing against Overbay, who is producing, but his defense the last couple of games has not been great. There was a play on Saturday where Teixeira probably makes the play 99 times out of 100. I think they miss his defense more than his offense, even though he can still be a very capable offensive player. The two surprises, to me, are Wells and Hafner. Hafner has been Raul Ibanez like; he has five home runs already, and had a big home run against David Hernandez on Tuesday. And then there is Vernon Wells – he went to Toronto, was getting booed in one of the more hostile places he is going to play in all year, and he hit a couple of home runs. He has been able to work the count, having as many walks as strikeouts right now. He’s a guy that a lot of people were counting out, but he may figure that he has a couple of years left. He seems very loose on his Twitter account; he has gotten his fresh start, and he’s taking advantage of it.
DH: The offense has been surprisingly potent, especially with those losses. When Teixeira comes back, Overbay goes back tot he bench, but when Granderson returns, the Yankees have a bit of an interesting situation with Ichiro, Brett Gardner and Wells. Who loses the starting nod once Granderson comes back?
RK: I think the Yankees put Granderson in left. They need his power bat in the lineup, although they are getting power from a lot of places. I think they eventually put Granderson in left, with Gardner in center. Ichiro is interesting, he’s only hitting .200, he’s not really working the count as much, he has seven strikeouts. He just doesn’t seem like he was last year. He’s not taking as many pitches, and he’s hitting too many ground balls. His defense is still solid, and he’s still a good right fielder, but if I had to go with Ichior or Wells in right, with Wells hitting the way he is, it’s tough to not take Ichiro out of the lineup. They have other fast guys with Nunez, Francisco Cervelli and Youkilis can hit for average as well. Putting Wells in right, they can still be an all-around good baseball team.
DH: You had mentioned Cervelli. He and Chris Stewart have hit really well to start the season. How much of a surprise has that been thus far in the season?
RK: I’ve been really surprised with how well Cervelli has hit. This is a guy who last year was in AAA until his September callup. For a lot of Yankees fans, he’s the guy they love the most since he has that really cool personality behind the plate, getting pumped up for every big strikeout. But he’s hitting the ball well right now, including a game tying home run off J.J. Putz the other night. He’s getting the job done bith at the plate and behind it. This isn’t to take anything away from Stewart, his defense is what is keeping him as a backup catcher, but I think Cervelli has taken the reins to be the primary catcher. It’s been a big shock at that position, because a lot of fans thought there would be a big dropoff at that spot with Jesus Montero being traded to Seattle and Russell Martin going to Pittsburgh, but Cervelli has outplayed them both right now.
DH: That trade with Montero going to Seattle does not appear to have worked out for either team. Montero has not been as advertised, and Michael Pineda has not pitched at all. Do you see a point in time when Pineda makes an impact for the Yankees?
RK: It’s hard to think that Pineda is going to make an impact for this year. I still think he can be useful one or two years down the road though. I didn’t think they would get much from him last year, since they hadn’t pitched him much in Seattle, and the Yankees have struggled to develop young pitchers, whether it’s Hughes, Chamberlain, or Ian Kennedy. He’s mainly a fastball pitcher, and got hurt trying to develop that secondary pitch. If they’re looking for depth down the road, maybe an option is to send Phelps to Scranton and work on increasing his pitch count. There is also Chien-Ming Wang, who made his AAA debut this weekend. He pitched well in the WBC, and was impressive against a disciplined Japanese lineup. You’ll probably see either of those before seeing Pineda.
DH: Aside from Robertson and Rivera, there have been issues in the bullpen. Who can step up and take that seventh inning role?
RK: Right now, it has to be Joba Chamberlain. I don’t think they have any other options. Boone Logan has been having problems getting lefties out, and the Yankees may need to look to add another lefty to the bullpen, but it has to be Joba. If he can build off that outing Saturday, where he was throwing 98 and working the slider in there, then he’s that guy. He was relying too much on the off speed stuff earlier, and he has to realize that he can overpower hitters. Can he be a guy that can come in and shut down the seventh inning three or four times a week? I think he can do that.
DH: Finally, Rivera said that this is going to be his final year. Do you think the Yankees have his replacement already on the roster, or do you think they go outside the organization for the next closer?
RK: I think it’s going to be David Robertson. I think he’s earned that chance with Girardi, and they tried him there in May last year. It didn’t work, but I think that if you give Robertson the full Spring to know he’s the closer and to get in that mindset, then he should be fine. There has already been a maturation process with Robertson, where he is no longer that guy that puts a couple of runners on base and works out of the jam. I think if he can develop that fastball a little bit more, that makes his breaking ball that much more of an out pitch. He’s trying to learn the cutter from Rivera, and while it’s not going to be the same cutter, if he has that in his arsenal, it gives him another weapon. I think he has the mentality to do it. Robertson had a great 2012 season, and if he can build on that, while he may not be as dominant as Mo, he could be a solid option.
Thanks again to Ricky Keeler for answering these questions for us, and for having me on his program.