David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
CHICAGO - To explain why Brian McCann was on the bench Thursday night against the White Sox, all Joe Girardi needed was two words: Chris Sale.
It was the same reason most of the Yankees' lefthanded hitters took a seat, with the exception of Jacoby Ellsbury, who drew a tough assignment in Sale. Girardi even chose to start the switch-hitting Zoilo Almonte over Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki (that move worked out when Almonte singled with two outs in the sixth to break up Sale's perfect game).
Girardi was playing the numbers, and Sale had not allowed a hit by a lefthanded batter this year (0-for-40). Extreme splits like that call for extreme measures, so this really wasn't much cause for debate. And it's only one night.
But with McCann off to a sluggish start and the Yankees' production suffering in part because of him, we're beginning to wonder if the new $85-million catcher could find himself vulnerable moving forward. More playing time for John Ryan Murphy might not be the worst thing as Girardi tries to spark his underachieving lineup.
Heading into the Sox series, Girardi said he likely would use Murphy against Sale and Saturday's starter, lefthander John Danks. But why stop there? Murphy has shined during his limited chances this season, with a slash line of .406/.424/.531 in 33 plate appearances entering Thursday night. And if Murphy continues to hit in the next couple of days, wouldn't it make sense to expand his role, however incrementally?
The concept was pitched to Girardi, who wasn't ready to bite just yet. He is smart enough to know a loaded question when he hears one. Suggesting that Murphy could pry some at-bats away from McCann was a tricky path Girardi had no interest in exploring at this time. "I'm not necessarily looking to do that, no," he said. "Brian's our catcher."
We're not disputing that. And McCann, less than two months into a five-year deal, has the job security of a Supreme Court Justice right about now. But if McCann continues to stumble and the Yankees have trouble covering for him, maybe Murphy should get a few more swings when Girardi sees a potential matchup advantage.
The Yankees are down a switch hitter with Carlos Beltran on the shelf for an indefinite period while he considers surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow. Girardi doesn't have the lineup versatility he had planned on, so he might need to get creative in manufacturing some offense.
He'd prefer to have McCann do the job he was signed for, but that's not happening at the moment. McCann ranks 24th in slugging percentage (.367) among catchers with a minimum of 100 plate appearances and is 23rd with a WAR of 0.4.
What McCann has done, in spurts, is hit home runs. He's tied for third among that group with six homers in 40 games, but a pair of those were on April 12 vs. Boston. That looked to be a springboard for McCann, who rebounded to hit .333 (11-for-33) with a homer and a .389 on-base percentage in the next nine games. Since then, however, he had hit .192 (14-for-73) and was in jeopardy of turning into the one thing no player in his situation ever wants to be: the new guy not living up to his contract.
We don't expect McCann to be the Bronx version of Jason Bay. He hasn't been that bad. But he could wind up providing Girardi an excuse to give him more than just the occasional breather. Murphy's performance will be among the determining factors, and if he does well, the benefit is twofold -- he not only helps the Yankees win games but increases his trade value.
They just need McCann to start living up to his end of the bargain. In the meantime, there's Murphy, who could be the best thing to come out of a less-than-ideal situation. Not "necessarily" right this minute, as Girardi said. But maybe not too far in the future, either.