The only complaint you might make about A.J. Burnett’s last four starts is that he started his hot streak five days after he lasted less than three innings against the Red Sox. Other than that little complaint, he’s 3-1 with 28.1 innings pitched, 16 hits, 12 walks, 33 strikeouts, and an ERA of 0.95. With the exception of the aforementioned start at Fenway on June 9, all of his starts going back to May 27 have been of the quality variety, six innings or more, three earned runs or less. The one loss came courtesy of the offense and an ill-timed, game-ending Robinson Cano groundball double play (some themes just keep reinforcing themselves, even if I don’t want to go there). Burnett basically can’t get any better except to conquer the Red Sox, but he won’t get another shot at them until August. For now, he’ll make one more start before the All-Star break, presumably Wednesday night at Minnesota.
I don’t know if a guy who is 7-4 with a 3.83 ERA will merit a look for the All-Star game pitching staff, but Burnett would be nicely set up to pitch that game, as his next start after the Twins’ appearance would fall during the break. For what it’s worth, he’s fifth in the AL in strikeouts, and if he wins on Wednesday he’d be in the top three in wins.
THE KEY TO HUGHES
… And maybe Joba Chamberlain as well. There was a lot of discussion of Jimmy Key on today’s YES broadcast of the Yankees game, a natural given that Key split most of his career between the two teams doing battle. Key, it was acknowledged, had a great career, one that would have been even better had it not been cut short by arm problems. This is inarguably true. Key was a four-time All-Star, had three top-five Cy Young award finishes, led his league in ERA, strikeouts and wins, had terrific control, and generally posted ERAs that were well ahead of the league average. He pitched on six postseason teams, two of which won the World Series. Key won’t be going to the Hall of Fame, but he had a very successful, memorable career.
The one aspect of Key’s career that wasn’t discussed was how he started it. The answer is, “in the bullpen.” A third-round pick in the 1982 draft, Key was a starter all the way through a brief Minor League career that saw him make the Blue Jays out of Spring Training in 1984. Manager Bobby Cox and general manager Pat Gillick never saw fit to give him a start that year. Instead, he made 63 appearances out of the bullpen. He was up and down in terms of results, as rookies often are, but he finished the season strong, putting up a 2.93 ERA in the last two months, and in 1985 he made the move to the starting rotation. Not coincidentally, the Blue Jays improved their record by 10 games and won the AL East.
Key is just one of dozens of successful starting pitchers who broke in this way. For this reason it’s always a little humorous when commentators and fans act nervous about pitching Phil Hughes out of the bullpen, or, for that matter, promoting Chamberlain out of it. Every pitcher is different, so there’s no ironclad rule that says, “Jimmy Key did it, so it must be okay,” but you can point to more stories like Key’s than you can the other kind, the one where a pitcher was somehow destroyed by the diversion into relief work.
Cue up the hype machine, because the 19-year-old mutant slugger in the making homered in his fourth straight game on Thursday. He’s now batting .325/.395/.571 with five home runs in 21 games at Double-A Trenton. He’s also thrown in nine walks, which is actually a better rate than he had down in the Florida State League. Combine his numbers for the two levels and you get a teenager who is batting .346/.403/.580 in 69 games. Here’s the best thing about the numbers: Trenton is a tough place to hit. Jesus Montero is hitting “only” .314/.368/.457 with one home run there. On the road, the Boy Wonder is batting .333/.417/.667 with four home runs in 42 at-bats. In other words, the numbers are artificially depressed.
This is getting ahead of things, but let’s dream: With a strong conclusion to the season at Trenton, Montero will be in a good position to get a long look from the Major League staff in spring training next year. He would then be a hot streak and an injury away from a call to Scranton. His position is still a problem — Montero threw out just 13 percent of basestealers at Tampa. He’s done a bit better at Trenton, with a 28 percent caught stealing rate, but it’s early days yet. Despite this, if Montero’s bat is ready, the Yankees could use him at the designated hitter spot with occasional spot starts at catcher against those teams that are less inclined to run.
With Hideki Matsui likely to leave town after the season, they’ll have the opening on the roster and a chance to save some money by using a young player in the spot. This is something that teams are generally reluctant to do, as there seems to be the thought that if you let a young guy DH you’re hurting his chances of someday developing into Ozzie Smith. That seems like an unnecessary worry in Montero’s case.
OPENING WITH AN IMPORTANT PARENTING QUESTION
If you’re driving your third grader to school, and you and she are cruising down the road singing “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” are you being a bad parent? It’s good to instill independent thinking and a healthy disrespect for authority, right? Next time, we’ll probably work on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters, and You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. I wonder if there’s a cover by those Australian guys with the colored uniforms …
WANG IS BACK/THE PHILLIES ARE HERE
… And given that he’s going to be hanging in the ‘pen in a long relief role, you’d hope the Yankees won’t actually need him. With the way the Phillies hit and A.J. Burnett’s propensity for high pitch counts, they very well might … This is actually a fascinating series, the champs against the Yankees. That part is obvious. Within it, though, you have some wonderful matchups, particularly Cole Hamels against CC Sabathia on Sunday, some terrific hitters that the Yankees don’t ordinarily see, such as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. Actually, they used to see Ibanez quite a bit; he’s a career .281/.338/.418 hitter against them in 74 games — which is nothing compared to the way he murderized the Nats last weekend. The Yankees also get to see how their new ballpark’s walls do against the team that’s leading the Senior Circuit in home runs. On Saturday, keep an idle brain cell on Andy Pettitte’s reverse split — lefties hit him quite well, which at the very least Howard, who can often be neutralized by southpaws (although he can still hit their mistakes quite a long way), should be right in the game against him.
Finally, keep in mind that the Phillies have played nine games against the Nationals and three against the Padres. That’s 12 of 39 games against less than quality opponents. This will particularly show up in their pitching, which hasn’t been pretty to begin with, looking fairly vulnerable to Yankees’ bats.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Phillies 12, Reds 5: Trying to identify the best hitter in the Phillies lineup is like trying to pick the best Cole Porter song — there are too many choices, and it really depends on which version you’re catching on a given night. My pick is Raul Ibanez, but Jimmy Rollins went 4-for-6 last night and you might pick him, or prefer “You’re the Top.” You could be wrong, though, because the correct answer is also Chase Utley (3-for-4 with a double and a home run) and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” You might not be surprised by this, but in preparing this comment, I burned 20 minutes watching Ethel Merman clips on YouTube, including three and a half minutes of biography narrated in Japanese. My world of free association is strange, but mostly I enjoy it. On the Reds’ side of the ledger, the good news for the day is that Joey Votto isn’t going the way of the vertiginous Nick Esasky. That’s so much more than a consolation prize.
Tigers 4, Rangers 3: It looks more and more like the Rays moved on Edwin Jackson just when he was finally ready to blossom, but that was a move born of financial, not baseball, considerations. The Rangers took six walks and still lost — no doubt they’ve learned their lesson and will never do it again. I’m curious about who told Jim Leyland that Clete Thomas is his No. 3 hitter. Then again, given injuries and Magglio Ordonez’s personal leave, I’m not sure who his No. 3 hitter should be either. Al Kaline? On an unrelated note, it occurs to me (still distracted by YouTube) that if Noël Coward had only sung “Mad Dogs and Baseball Players” we would have had a great explanation of the need for night games.
Twins 20, White Sox 1: I can’t even use a football joke, because how did the Sox score one point in a football game? Two points I could have worked with. In anything but a response to yesterday’s rant on the Twins’ No. 2 spot in the batting order, Ron Gardenhire moved Joe Mauer up there and got 3-for-4 with six RBIs, including a grand slam. See what happens when you use your brain for something other than making up dirty pictures?
Indians 8, Royals 3: It’s not that Carl Pavano outpitched Zack Greinke, it’s that the Royals aren’t serious. How else to explain consecutive losses out of the bullpen by Horacio Ramirez and Sidney Ponson? You’d be better off throwing darts at your Minor League rosters — right down to the rookie leagues — and calling up whoever you land on than foisting these retreads on the fans and your players, who are presumably making a serious effort to, y’know, bring some glory back to your once top-of-the-line franchise.
Rays 6, Athletics 5: Fun to see Adam Kennedy put a little spark into the A’s lineup, and a bit sad and desperate, too … Ben Zobrist is now 4-for-11 with three home runs as a pinch-hitter. Also, scratch another ballpark concept for the Rays. This one was sunk due to location issues rather than financing; the latter battle hasn’t even been fought as of yet. In that sense, the delay is good for the Rays. They can hope that flush times return before they nail down a new spot. And good luck with that.
Rockies 9, Braves 0: Aaron Cook is the Wang of the West, and if he pitched elsewhere more would know it (4.14 career ERA in 457 career innings). Beyond the whole not-scoring thing, it was a disastrous night for the Braves, as promising pitching prospect Kris Medlen appeared to go mental in the fourth inning. The bullpen heaped it on after that, with Todd Helton slamming a slam off of Medlen’s immediate relief, but the real worry is not that failure but that of a kid suddenly forgetting how to pitch.
Nationals 5, Pirates 4: In this reenactment of the 1925 World Series, a rookie named Stammen plays the part of Walter Johnson, except not nearly as good, and Nick Johnson steps in for Joe Judge — and that’s as appropriate a comp as you’ll find, as Judge even tended to miss 30 games a year on various injuries. All it took for the Nats to enjoy their reversal of fortune was a taste of Gorzelanny, as the Pirates got nostalgic for the kind of losses they suffered in that distant time known as last year.
Diamondbacks 4, Marlins 3: A nice start for Max Scherzer, who hasn’t won as many games as he’s deserved. Chad Qualls saved his 10th game, striking out the side. Qualls has a chance to make the All-Star team, which would be appropriate given that though he has rarely occupied the glamour role in a bullpen, he’s one of the most consistent relievers in baseball. The Marlins got a great start out of Andrew Miller, and Dan Uggla hit another home run, but Mark Reynolds took the bullpen deep and that was that. Twelve home runs now for Reynolds, and he’s actually hitting them more often on the road. Go figure.
Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 1: Wake up, Dorothy! Wake up! As John Lennon sang, the dream is over — he don’t believe in Jays, just him, Yoko and him. Patchwork pitching and an overachieving offense can only keep on for so long before the other guys, with their real pitchers and home run hitters, start to chip away. In other words, the Jays are the Potemkin village of baseball. It says something that Jon Lester hasn’t been able to pitch at all lately, but he had no problem keeping the Jays off the board. Meanwhile, Peter Gammons reports that the Red Sox might be talking with the Nats about the aforementioned Nick “The Joe Judge” Johnson as a way of bumping David Ortiz out of the lineup. That would be bad news for the Yankees indeed.
ers 4, Astros 3: Lance Berkman and Cecil Cooper got tossed arguing a close play at the plate. It’s good to see some animation out of Houston that goes beyond one frame-per minute Hanna-Barbera-style motion hieroglyphics.
Cardinals 3, Cubs 1: Important divisional game, both teams showed up, with the difference coming down to Albert Pujols. The Cubs just don’t have the fire power right now, not with Aramis Ramirez out, Derek Lee looking old, and Milton Bradley apparently taking the year off. On the other hand, Yadier Molina batted cleanup for the Cards last night, so we really are down to the great man theory of history here. In baseball, one player cannot carry a team to a pennant over the course of a season. One game is a different matter. Even then, we haven’t discussed Adam Wainwright, who held the line for 8 2/3 strong frames.
Padres 3, Giants 2: If things persist, the 2009 Giants may well go down in history as the worst offensive team of the modern era, worse even than these Padres, whose ballpark holds down their hitting (though even without it they would still be miserable). We’re talking worse than some expansion teams. They don’t have to make it worse, though, by maintaining Brian Wilson as their closer, a job he’s clearly not up for … The Padres fail at another attempt to move Jake Peavy, succeed in throwing away Jody Gerut, which isn’t the same thing as far as payroll is concerned. You’d wonder if Adrian Gonzalez would be the next out the door, but his contract is actually rather modest by the standards of baseball (not so modest by the standards of, say, your salary or mine, but you knew that).
Angels 3, Mariners 0: The limp to the finish in the AL West is going to be one of the more fascinating things to watch over the rest of the year. The Rangers are strong but limited, the Angels are limited but are generally smart about the way they do things, and they’re getting healthier. As in the AL East, whoever upgrades fastest bestest is going to win this thing. Does Arte Moreno have the dough to take on the poison pill in Peavy’s contract? It’s not clear that he has the prospects, but after the White Sox debacle, prospects may no longer be the main concern.
CC SABATHIA — LEFT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: N/A
2009 GOAL: More of the magic he showed with the Milwaukee Brewers. Failing that, the stuff and results he gave the Indians in 2006-2007 (31-18, 3.22 ERA) would probably be fine.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Milwaukee-level wonderfulness seems unlikely, but something in his mature Indians catalogue seems doable. The only question is if throwing over 500 innings the last two years will bother Sabathia in any way. With most pitchers we could be pretty sure the answer would be yes, or at least “very likely yes,” but he’s such a unique physical specimen that we’ll just have to wait and see.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: That innings pitched total. Sabathia threw 253 regular-season innings last year. No Yankee came close to matching that total during the Torre years — Andy Pettitte pitched 240.1 innings in 1997. The last Yankee to exceed Sabathia’s total was Ron Guidry, who threw 259 in 1985. Guidry never quite got over it, but he was a very different physical type from Sabathia. Pettitte too was a lot less effective in 1998-1999 than he was in the rest of his prime, but again, Pettitte is a very different pitcher.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Sabathia struck out 251 batters last year. The Yankees franchise record is 248 (Guidry, 1978). The last Yankee to whiff more than 200 batters in a season was Randy Johnson in 2005 (211). The Yankees have had just 14 such seasons in their entire history.
CHIEN-MING WANG — RIGHT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: Stay healthy, keep up the good work.
DID HE GET THERE? No. Injuries wiped out half his season.
2009 GOAL: Stay healthy, get back to where he was in 2006-2007 (38-13, 3.67 ERA).
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Ask me again after he makes his next start.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Wang has a career strikeout rate of 4.0 per nine innings. The only pitchers to throw over 1,000 career innings since 1990 with a strikeout rate of 4.5 or lower: Carlos Silva, Kirk Reuter, Ricky Bones, Bob Tewksbury, Brian Anderson, Zane Smith, Mike Moore, and Steve Sparks. Tewksbury and Smith are the keepers, though neither is truly comparable to Wang.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: This isn’t the first time Wang has struggled with his mechanics. In fact, you could argue that he’s been struggling right along, even as he’s been succeeding. Maybe a better term for it would be “evolving.” In addition to the degradation in his ground out/fly out ratio mentioned in this space earlier today, his strikeout rate has been gradually rising, though not so far as to make him a strikeout pitcher, while his walk rate has also been climbing.
A.J. BURNETT — RIGHT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: N/A
2009 GOAL: Show consistency and durability, two qualities that have eluded him in most seasons.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: It seems unlikely that Burnett will achieve either in his 30s, but you never know with pitchers. He has swing and miss stuff, and outside of 2003 has been on the field more often than not, so he’s a better bet than Carl Pavano, but you still wouldn’t call him a truly reliable pitcher.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Batting average on balls in play. It was .318 against Burnett last year, and should come down some this season. Even a slight drop would greatly improve his numbers.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Strikeouts per nine innings. Last year, Burnett led the American League with 9.39 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. The last Yankee to lead the AL in that category? Dave Righetti in 1982, with 8.02. It was the second consecutive year he led the league. In 1984, the Yankees put him in the bullpen, a move still open to second-guessing.
ANDY PETTITTE — LEFT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: Pitch, not talk. Only speak the name “Clemens” in reference to the life and work of Mark Twain; pursuant to this, memorize passages from “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” and this passage from “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson:” “One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.” Oh yeah: pitch well without injury, shrugging off last season’s September slide.
DID HE GET THERE? He got through the not speaking about Roger Clemens part alright. The pitching part was complicated by some rough second half pitching.
2009 GOAL: If he can carve about half a run off of his ERA and get back to his 2006-2007 form (29-22, 4.13 ERA) no one will complain.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: It seems reasonable. The Yankees played poor defense behind Pettitte at times last year, something suggested in his .338 batting average allowed on balls in play. His strikeout rate was very healthy, and his control was good. Pettitte may fancy himself a pitcher on the verge of retirement, but the numbers say otherwise.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: The Yankees career wins list. With just 12 wins this year, Pettitte can pass Lefty Gomez for third place on the franchise list (Hall of Famer Gomez won 189 games for the Yankees). Leader Whitey Ford (236) remains a long way off, as does number two Red Ruffing (231).
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: The Louisiana career wins list. Pettitte has the second-most career wins of any pitcher born in the bayou state, trailing Hall of Famer Ted Lyons 260-216.
JOBA CHAMBERLAIN — RIGHT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: I don’t seem to have written one, but had I done so it probably would have been something along the lines of, “Find way out of the bullpen; avoid being eaten by killer insects.”
DID HE GET THERE? Yes on both counts, though there were some health problems along the way.
2009 GOAL: Put up a big season in the rotation, forever quieting those who would like to see him thrown in chains and dragged back to the eighth inning.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Strong, health permitting. Perhaps we don’t even need to say that — “health permitting” is true of all pitchers.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: One-hundred quality starts. The quality start, a game in which the starting pitcher throws at least six innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs, is a measure of how often a pitcher does what he’s supposed to do, “give his team a chance to win.” One reason the Angels have been so resilient in this century is the depth of their starting rotations: in most years, they have received more than 90, and up to 99 (2005) quality starts from their rotation. When the Yankees reached the World Series in 2003, they received 96 quality starts. In 1998, they received 92. Last year, they had only 78 quality starts. No American League team has had the depth and consistency to receive 100 quality starts since the Angels in 1989. This also reflects the growing reliance of relief pitching over that time. Going five-deep in the rotation should allow the Yankees to compile enough quality starts to contend for the league lead, if not the elusive 100.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: A team doesn’t need five starters in the postseason — it only needs five to get there. Should the Yankees make the playoffs, it’s possible that Chamberlain could be back in his old role, depending on how the rest of the rotation looks at the time.
This winter, the Yankees redesigned their pitching staff. While Spring Training statistics and results are generally unreliable and not worth becoming overly excited about, it is at the least a good omen that, through 30 contests, Yankees pitchers have the lowest ERA in the business at 3.41.
Again, exhibitions, with their half-games for regulars and weird weather conditions (the wet and wind in Florida, the dry, heated environment in Arizona) don’t give us a very reliable picture, particularly in a year in which the WBC diluted Spring Training games by sucking off scores of Major League regulars. Further, some of these very effective innings have been pitched by the likes of Brett Tomko and Kei Igawa, who are unlikely to persist in their excellence were they even to make the team, while others were hurled by Phil Hughes and fellow prospects ticketed to the Minors. Even with these caveats, the bulk of the Major League staff has performed well.
There remains much that we do not know and cannot know, such as the long-term viability of pitchers who are traditional health cases, such as A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, or those that are recovering from injury, like Mariano Rivera (although if all healing pitchers looked as good as Rivera has this spring, most of them would be lining up to go under the knife). Still, so far so good. The offense has been good too, though the numbers aren’t as impressive as those of some Cactus League teams that basically play on the surface of the moon.
NOW THAT BRETT GARDNER HAS WON THE CENTER FIELD JOB…
…I’m wondering if he will ever hit another home run. There is something to the idea that he got a running start on the center field competition by lashing out at cold pitchers early in the spring campaign. Even if true, nothing is taken away from the consistency he’s shown, if consistency can be said to apply to 23 games and 55 at-bats. What is most striking, though, about the now-finished center-field competition is what decided it. In the end, Melky Cabrera played almost as well as Gardner did. To date, each has had 55 at-bats. Gardner has hit .364/.426/.636. Cabrera had hit .345/.419/.491. Each has drawn six walks. Gardner’s offensive edge comes down to one more hit, one more triple, and two more home runs. The differences aren’t significant, especially if Gardner’s power surge was truly an artifact of early spring. What’s left are a few things you can see in the statistics, such as Gardner’s speed, showing up in that extra triple and three more stolen bases, and his superior defensive capabilities. Once you throw in Cabrera’s poor 2008 and Gardner’s strong finish to the same, which disposed Joe Girardi towards him, it becomes clear that Cabrera would have had to out-hit Gardner by a significant margin to make this a real competition.
Gardner’s hold on the job is about as secure as Priam’s hold on Troy; there are enemies at the gate as long as Cabrera remains on the team. In the pressurized world of the Yankees, all it would probably take to throw the doors open to Cabrera is a 2-for-20 in the first games. It’s doubtful that Gardner will be shown the same tolerant patience that the Yankees lavished on, say, Kyle Farnsworth, or Cabrera himself.
Unless Cabrera’s nice spring represents some unexpected development in his abilities, I don’t expect him to get too many chances as a Major League regular from here on in, barring injuries. Every team has players like Cabrera, not particularly special talents who become regulars for a year or two out of need or inertia. Sometimes they play well for a time and fool you into thinking they could be more than the sum of their abilities suggests, but ultimately something better comes along and they are replaced. If they move on to other organizations, where that same need does not exist, they have a difficult time breaking into the lineup. Ultimately they become bench players or journeymen Minor Leaguers.
This is, on the whole, the fate of players whose offensive contributions are built around batting average, and when I say batting average I mean .290 and not .330. To be productive, the .290 guy has to hit .290 or better. The problem is, there are always years in which, due to luck, he will hit .260, and then the fellow is below average. That’s Melky, except that in 2007, when he hit .273, he was below average. Last year he hit .249, and he was a weeping wound. He’s still young enough to rebound and even find some consistency, but the odds are against it. Such a development would require him to find both the physical tools and the internal drive to exploit them. That’s asking a lot of a player, to grow his body and his mind.
THE UTILITY JOB (A BRIEF NOTE)
This corner is all for anyone but Angel Berroa, who is the anti-hitter, and if it’s a young guy so much the better. In case you haven’t checked out the 23-year-old Ramiro Pena, he’s a career .258/.316/.319 hitter in 334 Minor League games through the Double-A level. If Girardi is prepared to use Pena as the purest of defensive replacements, putting a bat in his hands only in blowouts, that’s not a problem. However, if injuries force Girardi to turn to the bench for any length of time, the Yankees will have to look elsewhere–Jose Molina is a better hitter at this moment. That said, Pena is a strong defensive player, reputed to have great range. It would be fascinating if Girardi had the guts–the sheer, General Patton chutzpah–to shake a NY institution to its foundations and utilize a late-inning defensive replacement for Derek Jeter.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
The White Sox waived Jerry Owens, which apparently makes Dewayne Wise their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. Tough to score too many runs when your leadoff man has a .290 OBP, which is what the Sox just signed on for… The Tigers picked up the speedy Josh Anderson from the Braves, which takes Anderson from shooting for Braves starting center fielder, a position for which he was under-qualified, to reserve outfielder on the Tigers and probable regular defensive replacement for Carlos Guillen in left. That’s something he can do… Really curious to see how Jason Motte does as Cardinals closer. He’s a converted catcher who can dial up his fastball, and his Minor L eague strikeout numbers were amazing, with 110 Ks last year in just 67 innings… Rays owner Stuart Sternberg talked about holding the line on payroll in an <A HREF=”http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/rays/article987949.ece”>article</A> this weekend. If the Rays’ budget isn’t going to rise along with its players’ salaries, than this particular threat to the Yankees is going to be short-lived, like Connie Mack’s 1929-1931 A’s.
I said a good deal of what I wanted to about the return of Andy Pettitte in yesterday’s installment, and you said what you had to say in the comments. Then, in Brian Cashman’s phoner after the deal was announced, he echoed some of your comments about depth and how at some point the Yankees might still need to call upon one of their younger pitchers.
Still, Phil Hughes (pictured) and pals have clearly been relegated to Plan B, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Yankees are well fixed for Minor League pitchers, so depth was unlikely to be an issue. More pressing is the need to give those pitchers Major League experience so that when Chien-Ming Wang gets hurt again, or Pettitte’s always troublesome arm acts up, or A.J. Burnett experiences whatever happens to Burnett, they are ready to step in with more consistency than they showed in 2008. It is not overly optimistic to think that last year was the growing pains year for Hughes and Ian Kennedy, while 2009 could be the year they begin to deliver. Yet, that possibility seems to have been aborted.
Yet, there is no reason to be glum. On paper, the Yankees have put together a team that is going to be very tough to beat. If everyone does what they’re supposed to do, the rotation will be the deepest in the game, the bullpen will be solid, and the lineup… Well, the lineup may still have some problems, even if Jorge Posada is healthy. Robinson Cano needs to snap back, Derek Jeter needs to find the Fountain of Range — I mean Youth, and the outfield could be a complete wipeout.
That leads me to the question of the day, and one which I will probably center my Hot Stove show comments around this Thursday: on the phoner, Mr. Cashman was asked if he was now ready to retire for the winter. “I wouldn’t expect anything further at this stage, or anything significant,” he said.
Here are my questions: Should the Yankees be done? Has Cashman done enough? How would you evaluate the job that he and the Yankees did in preparing the team to contend this year? I’m not sure what the structure of this week’s show will be, but if it all possible I will read selected answers and respond on the air.
I’m holding my comments on the Joe Torre/Tom Verducci book until I’ve actually read it, but it’s worth briefly revisiting Alex Rodriguez’s supposedly un-clutch performances. I can’t defend the guy’s personality or his teammates’ perception of it. That’s a different matter from what he does on the field. The fact is, except perhaps in very limited cases of piling on, all the runs generated by a player count. We make judgments as to a hit’s value using information that we could not possibly know at the time, which is to say the game’s outcome. It is true that if an A-Rod hits a home run with his team down 5-0 in the seventh, it’s likely that the home run won’t have any impact beyond the back of his baseball card.
However, game conditions change, and scores affect player behavior and managerial decision-making. A three-run shot with a 3-0 lead moves a game from in doubt to safe. That single tally in the face of a big deficit may bring a closer into the game who otherwise would have rested, or serve as the foundation block of a rally. You can’t really know until it’s all over. Naturally, it would be preferable if A-Rod chipped in a few more two-run shots when the team was down 1-0, but it is incorrect for anyone to imply that his stage fright in some of the big spots means that the rest of his contribution is without value.
IDLE MUSINGS FOR A
SLOW NEWS DAY
The A.J. Burnett signing continues to be controversial. My
Neyer summed it up as “Too many dollars, too many years.” If reports
that the Yankees are still in on Mark Teixeira prove to be something more than
the usual hot air to bid up the real buyers, I’ll be willing to chalk the whole
thing up to the team placing a bet on the roulette wheel with money which,
after all, they are free to gamble with as they wish. If, on the other hand,
this expense is used to justify the fielding of a degraded offense, it will be
much harder to swallow.
In regards to that offense, Neyer notes, “Yankee Stadium is
(or rather, was) a pitcher’s park. Considering only road games, the Yankees
finished third in the American League in OPS last year. Maybe that doesn’t
qualify as ‘excellent,’ but it’s certainly somewhere between ‘good’ and ‘excellent.’
Granted, everybody’s a year older and we might expect a slight decline next
year. So yes, the Yankees should try to improve their offense … and I’m not at
all convinced they can’t still afford to do exactly that. Has Brian Cashman
suggested that he’s finished spending money? If he has, I missed it.” Taking
the last thing first, Cashman didn’t say he was done, but almost every writer
on the beat seems to have come to the conclusion that the Yankees are out on
the major position players. Sure, they could be wrong, things could change, but
one assumes (perhaps incorrectly) that their conclusions are actually sourced.
Yeah, I know. I’m naïve. As for last year’s offense, with Jason Giambi and
Bobby Abreu deleted, it’s not next year’s offense, and comparisons don’t really
One other thought about the various Yankees moves thus far
this winter, one that seems to have occurred to many others around the hot
stove: if the Yankees stop now, have they done enough to pass the Rays and the
Red Sox? It’s a difficult question to answer because those teams aren’t done
either, but we’ll try in tomorrow’s Pinstriped Bible.
I love Jamie Moyer’s new two-year contract with the
Phillies, if only because I’d like to see him follow through on his expressed
wish (threat?) to pitch through age 50. As long as Moyer is still pitching, I
am not old. I am less sanguine on the champs’ signing of Chan-Ho
Park, a pitcher who has been around
for 15 years and has never pitched well outside of Los Angeles. His Dodgers career ERA is 3.77
in 275 games. In 103 games with three other teams, it’s 5.63. Career ERA at
Dodger Stadium, 2.96. Everywhere else: 5.16. As for new general manager Ruben
Amaro, Jr.’s decision to buy Raul Ibanez for three years and $30 million, it is
daft. As well as Ibanez has hit in his second stint as a Mariner
(.291/.354/.477), that’s in good-not-great territory, he’s a defensive
liability, and they’ve just bought themselves ages 37 through 39, not usually a
player’s best years. Adam Dunn is a defensive liability too, but he’s more
productive and, at 29, will remain that way for longer. Hell, they could have
gone in on Teixeira and then traded the fun but limited Ryan Howard. You can
see where the Phils might not want to replace a high-strikeout hitter like Pat
Burrell with another high strikeout hitter, but just because the ideal
candidate isn’t available isn’t an excuse to sign a bad one.
JUST A REMINDER ABOUT
I’m reading ’em, so keep ’em coming. I’ll be bringing some
of them up on the air later this week.
MORE FROM ME
After a slow week of being imprisoned on the BP annual (not
that I’ve been paroled), I’m back at work at Wholesome Reading, including the first two
parts of a planned multi-part series on Public Works. Baseball or government,
infrastructure strategy excites me. As always, Warning! Politics!
According to rumors widely circulating at this hour, the Yankees have bagged their big man, reaching a preliminary agreement with CC Sabathia on a seven-year, $160 million contract. If the story is true, the Yankees have acquired the heaviest pitcher in team history, or at least the heaviest since Jumbo Brown last titled the Yankee Stadium mound back in 1936, through his age-35 season.
There is no doubt the Yankees are a better team now than they were yesterday; Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in the business and becomes the left-handed ace the Yankees have been missing for some years. While the Yankees should not expect to receive anything close to the 1.65 ERA-run that Sabathia gave the Brewers this fall, some form of what Sabathia did for the Indians over the last five seasons — durability, excellent control, a strong strikeout rate, and an ERA somewhere in the mid-3.00s — should be in the cards.
Now the requisite “but:” All of that requires health, and the Yankees are entering unknown territory when it comes to Sabathia. Over the last two years he’s thrown over 500 innings (regular season and playoffs) and faced well over 2,000 batters. Under normal circumstances, when it comes to that kind of workload, a physical breakdown wouldn’t be a question of “if,” but “when.” The two main complications are that “when” remains undefined (Tuesday? July? July of 2010?) and, perhaps more significantly, we have no idea if a pitcher built like the Incredible Hulk is subject to the same rules that affect everyone else.
Meanwhile, there are reportedly offers out to other pitchers, more questionable pitchers — Derek Lowe, a groundballer going on 36 who the Yankees aren’t capable of supporting defensively, and A.J. Burnett, a pitcher who is good sometimes and is hurt often. Mark Teixeira seems a good bet to go to the Red Sox, where he will improve an already very good club for years. The Yankees will go through the winter having gotten exactly what they wanted, but I can’t help but feel, as I have written throughout this offseason, that the real problems of offense and defense are being neglected.
More to come as details emerge.
The word on the wire is that Brian Cashman is off to meet with CC Sabathia and nail him down before the winter meetings. Joel Sherman put it this way.
Cashman needs to look in Sabathia’s eyes and know for sure that if he takes all the Yankee money that the big lefty definitely wants to be a Yankee after all the talk that Sabathia wants the NL or West Coast.
One hopes that goes better than when George Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw a fellow Texas Rangers fan, or something like that. Yeah, they love Pete Incaviglia in the Caucasus, but that doesn’t mean they’re pro-democracy.
Similarly, Sabathia may say he’s comfortable with the idea of a New York address, but the proof is in the performance. What makes that terrible to contemplate is that if he does come to the Yankees and the performance isn’t good, there could be a million reasons — a slump after a career year, the heavy workload of previous seasons, an injury, Jupiter being in the House of Mars — but all of us (you, me, Cashman, Sabathia) will have to wonder if he’s just not that into musicals.
Note: you can sing “Sabathia!” to the tune of “Camelot.” Just thought I would point that out, in case CC needed any added persuasion on the whole show tunes thing.
There is a lot hanging on this meeting. The organization has seemingly put all its eggs in the Sabathia basket. If the deal isn’t made, that egg is going to be on somebody’s face, as Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett seem to be drifting into other team’s orbits — and Mark Teixeira could end up with the Red Sox. That would leave Boston with a Mike Lowell problem given that the old man is through 2010 at $12 million a pop, but would upgrade their offense considerably both now and well beyond 2010. That may explain why Cashman made a stop in Washington to visit with Teixeira on his way to see Sabathia, albeit at Scott Boras’s request. The Yankees can’t afford for Teixeira to feel unloved by the Pinstripers, and it’s good that Boras realized that.
While it seems certain that the Yankees do not have, or choose not to spend, enough money to sign both Teixeira and Sabathia, that doesn’t change the fact that they need both, or to put it the proper way, they need a major bat at first base or right field, and they need a top starting pitcher. Getting one doesn’t eliminate the need for the other. As such, devoting all their financial resources to bribing Sabathia out of his desire to play on the other side of the country may prove to be self-defeating. In fact, the Sabathia scenario may be self-defeating in one of two possible ways: (1) He signs but as a result the Yankees don’t invest appropriately in the rest of their lineup or, (2) he doesn’t sign, but takes so long doing so that the Yankees don’t have the opportunity to resort to plan B.
No one player can put any team over the top, and in their Ahab-like pursuit of Sabathia, one wonders if the Yankees are remembering that. If their financial resources are as circumscribed as everyone else’s in this dire economy, it would make a great deal of sense to spread those resources out. After all, Sabathia’s teams have how many World Series rings? It takes a full cast.
O.J. GOING AWAY FOR AT LEAST NINE YEARS
Couldn’t have happened to a better guy. I am reminded of one of the most inscrutable quotes in baseball history. After Pinky Higgins, the openly bigoted former manager and GM of the Red Sox, died , his former pitcher, the African American Earl Wilson said, “Good things happen to some people.” I’m not sure what he meant, but the words came to mind when I read about O.J’s sentencing.
MORE FROM ME
I’ve been slow on Wholesome Reading again this week as I’ve had to devote considerable time to the BP annual, but now that the weekend is upon us I will be doing my usual catching up. Which is not to say that there’s nothing to look at: we page Franz Josef, a regret for suicides on my birthday, and the plan to reinflate the housing market through cheaper mortgages. Warning! Politics! And bad cake!
Look for more frequent updates in this space as we react to all the news from the winter meetings.