Around the Horn: DH/Bench
Yankees will have plenty of options from which to choose
The following is the last in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. For the past seven Wednesdays, we've previewed a different position. Today: Designated hitter and bench.
NEW YORK -- For fantasy baseball owners, certain unanswered questions can be a minor annoyance at best; completely crippling at their worst. But for the Yankees, their bench quandary is far milder than any of that.
Even with a crunch for at-bats being forecast, having too many legitimate candidates to serve as the Opening Day designated hitter still leaves the Yankees more in a position of strength than anything else.
By process of elimination, if Johnny Damon fulfills general manager Brian Cashman's spoken wishes and is hitting leadoff and playing left field on March 31, that will leave either Jason Giambi or Hideki Matsui to wield only a bat in what could become a platoon for New York's DH spot.
On paper, there is no clear answer, but for the purposes of Grapefruit League play, there doesn't necessarily need to be. Both coming off injuries last year, Giambi and Matsui will report to Tampa, Fla., obviously hoping for not only bounce-back performances, but also the opportunities to create them.
The Yankees are on the hook for one more season of Giambi's services, coming with a price tag of $21 million, and some believe that will be too much to allow the 37-year-old slugger to ride the bench. One of Joe Girardi's first dilemmas as manager will assuredly be figuring out how to find at-bats for Giambi.
Coming off an interrupted season, Giambi batted .236 with 14 home runs and 39 RBIs in 83 games, missing two months after tearing his left plantar fascia in unorthodox fashion -- jogging out a May 29 home run at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Upon his sooner-than-expected return, Giambi was largely a spare part, since Matsui had moved to the DH role and Damon had assumed regular duty in left field. That could well be the way the Yankees enter 2008.
Slowed by a right knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery, Matsui still pieced together a typically consistent campaign, batting .285 with 25 home runs, 103 RBIs and 100 runs scored in 143 games -- most of them preceding late-evening periods where he strapped ice bags to his aching knees to remain in the lineup.
While Damon's athleticism moved Matsui out of a defensive role, the 33-year-old Japanese icon seemed to take well to life as a designated hitter, logging far more games (32 starts) in that role than ever before. He may not be able to track down the same balls he once did, but Matsui's efficient swing still permits him to control the strike zone with regularity.
"In terms of the rhythm of being in the game, it's a little bit different," Matsui said in August. "It's much easier being in the outfield and being in the field all the time."
Girardi may find a solution if he decides to sacrifice defense at first base, where Giambi is among a cast of contenders to see innings. Making just 16 starts in the field last year, Giambi will compete with Wilson Betemit, Shelley Duncan, Morgan Ensberg, Juan Miranda and Jason Lane during Spring Training to open eyes at that position.
New York Yankees
The revolving door nature of the Yankees' first-base situation continues as a trend into the rest of their bench. New York vastly improved one of its weaker reserve corps in recent memory by trading for both Betemit and backup catcher Jose Molina in separate deals last summer, and both players will reprise their roles for '08.
The switch-hitting Betemit, 26, came over from the Dodgers for reliever Scott Proctor and made it into only 37 games for New York, though he did show the versatility to make starts at each infield position.
Probably too bulky to play shortstop, Betemit nevertheless filled in decently, batting .226 with four homers -- including one in his first pinstriped plate appearance, drawing a curtain call -- and 24 RBIs in 84 at-bats as a Yankee.
Molina, 32, was such a welcome upgrade that the Yankees rewarded him with a two-year, $4 million contract. Assigned the task of allowing Jorge Posada occasional breathers in the midst of a career year, Molina batted .318 with one homer and nine RBIs in 29 games (16 starts) with the Yankees.
"I'm really happy they were thinking about having me back to back up Jorgie," Molina said in December. "We can win the World Series with Jorgie, Mariano [Rivera] and Alex [Rodriguez]. I think we have a very good chance."
The infrequent nature with which the Yankees utilize their utility infielders makes the assignment a double-edged sword. Former Yankee Miguel Cairo enjoyed wearing pinstripes so much that he didn't mind intermittent play, but the task seems suited to a veteran player rather than a developing talent who might be better served to soak up Triple-A at-bats and experience.
For that reason, infield prospect Alberto Gonzalez may be ticketed for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, despite being on the 40-man roster. The slick-fielding Gonzalez was with the Yankees in September and stroked one hit in 12 at-bats, but after hitting .247 in 106 games at Triple-A, his skills could still be ripe for seasoning.
That would open up a reserve role on New York's bench for any number of non-roster candidates. Utilityman Chris Woodward has seen big league duty with the Blue Jays, Mets and Braves, while Nick Green -- in the Minors for most of '07 -- enjoyed brief notoriety with the '06 Yankees by providing an unexpected power surge.
Other candidates who will receive a look in Spring Training include infielder Cody Ransom, who has seen 140 big league at-bats with the Giants and Astros; infielder Eric Duncan, trying to shake off several disappointing Minor League seasons; infielder Bernie Castro, who last saw big league duty in '06 with the Nationals; and speedy Brett Gardner, who could push for a fifth outfielder's job, especially in the event of injuries.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.