Results tagged ‘ Chien-Ming Wang ’

Phillies-Yanks should be interesting …

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 …

philles300_052109.jpgWANG 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 NoŽl 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.

Brew
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.

Scouting Porcello and explaining Joba

porcello_250_042909.jpgCHIEN-MING WANG’S DAY OFF
(A PHIL HUGHES FILM)

Having seen the real Phil Hughes for the first time since that wonderful, fatal start in Texas, the Yankees face another important test as next generation starters Joba Chamberlain and Rick Porcello (born in Morristown, N.J.) face off in Detroit. The former first-round pick has had mixed results in three starts; he’s been competent, not dominating. As in the Minors, his strikeout rate has been light (the Tigers restricted his repertoire in the sticks, but that shouldn’t be a problem now).

However, he has a bit of the old Chien-Ming Wang kicker: his fastball sinks, resulting in a high grounder/fly ball ratio. The trouble has been that when Porcello — who, we should note, is so young he can’t legally buy a drink — is that when he misses his mistake leaves the ballpark. He’s given up five home runs in just 18 innings. Over 20 percent of his flies allowed have left the park, a crazy high ratio. Note that these are the only extra-base hits he’s allowed and that he’s been stingy with the walks, so when he doesn’t elevate, it’s just like trying to build an inning against Wang Classic — it takes three singles to score a run, four to score two, and that’s difficult for any team to do before they make three outs.

The Hutt also has something to prove tonight, as some mediocre starts combined with poor work by the relief corps has renewed calls for Chamberlain’s bullpen parole to be revoked. The basis for the argument revolves around reduced velocity, but that’s not really at issue. In 12 starts last season, Chamberlain struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings. In his career as a reliever, he’s struck out 11.9 per nine innings. This doesn’t seem like a significant tradeoff given that in the latter case the Yankees were getting two innings of Chamberlain and in the former they were getting five, six, or even seven. The team gains multiple innings, gives up one or two strikeouts because Chamberlain is trying to save his stuff, as Christy Mathewson said, for the pinch. Fair enough.

This year, Chamberlain has made three starts and has struck out 6.2 batters per nine innings. The league average is 6.7. The change in role from relieving to starting does NOT account for this difference, especially given Chamberlain’s starting strikeout rate of last season, or, for that matter, his strikeout rate as a starting pitcher in the Minor Leagues. Chamberlain could be hoarding his stuff like an obsessive-compulsive squirrel going through a fit of paranoia about winter in Nome, and it still wouldn’t account for what is practically a 50 percent drop-off in K rate. In short: if things don’t change for Chamberlain tonight against the Tigers, the Yankees may be forced to confront another pitching problem.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Just a little experiment in format today…

? White Sox 2, Mariners 1: It’s got to hurt when Chris Jakubauskas throws a comple game and you still lose. Meanwhile, only the fact that it’s the first game of a doubleheader excuses Jerry Owens (.091).

? Seattle 9, White Sox 1: And in Game 2 the Sox confront the reality that they’ve been playing baseball for eight hours and have scored only three runs. On the other side of the field, Endy Chavez is down to .305, which means he’s gone 4-for-27 over his last seven games. No one could have expected that. Note also Felix Hernandez, 4-0, 2.38 ERA. — and still just a few weeks past his 23rd birthday.

? Braves 2, Cardinals 1: When you consider the Braves’ batting order, you realize that they’re missing a big hitter, and it’s not just that catcher Brian McCann is on the disabled list. They were in on Garrett Anderson when they should have been in on Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez, and in the latter Ted Turner days, when they were both rich and rational, they would have been. Instead they settle for pot luck in a pot luck division — that is, maybe they’ll win and maybe they won’t, but it could have been a sure thing. On the Cards side, Yadier Molina got me wondering, through an indirect route, what the record for fewest runs scored/most plate appearances combo was. It turns out there are many candidates who were worse than his 485/37 last year, for example 1972 Angels shortstop Leo Cardenas, who batted second, sixth, and seventh and scored just 25 runs. He came to the plate 602 times. With .223/.272/.283 rates not much is going to happen. Molina was much better than that. I remain baffled that Del Rice batted Cardenas third 17 times that year, but my faith in the laws of physics is reassured by the Angels’ going 5-11 in those games. In all others, they were 70-69, which says something.

? Rangers 5, Athletics 4: It wasn’t Mexican Swine Flu, but seemingly every Athletic to get into this game got hurt. It’s not surprising when Nomar Garciaparra twists an ankle and heads for the DL, and the loss is only a blow to notional depth given that even when Eric Chavez is playing, he’s not playing (and he’s not playing now). Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when most valuable Athletic Mark Ellis heads for the DL is well, but that’s where he’s off to as well after straining his calf… The decisive run in the game came when Jason Giambi let a grounder go through his legs. In 100 years of Giambi in pinstripes, I can remember many misplays, and I’m sure plenty of them contributed to losses, but it’s harder to recall a game where the connection between Giambi’s iron glove and a loss was so obvious… The A’s are hitting .233/.310/.314 overall, which makes the Hitless Wonder White Sox of 1906 look like Murderer’s Row.

? Angels 7, Orioles 5: Dave Trembley was ejected for arguing a balk in this one, and his fury was something to behold, and unsurprising given just how quickly his team is falling away after the Yankees gave them some false hope in the opening series… Batting .196/.226.294 on April 21, Howie Kendrick has turned it on, going 8-for-19 with three doubles and two home runs in his last five games (.421/.450/.895). He’s taken but one walk on the season, though, and until he has the same awakening that Robbie Cano has apparently had, he’s only going to be as good as his batting average.

? Indians 9, Red Sox 8: The winning streak had to end sometime, just as the Indians are due to win one or two. It only hurts because the Sox made three errors in the game, resulting in three unearned runs, and they got kicked with Brad Penny on the mound and they have better options whenever they want to use one. Dear Cleveland: Kelly Shoppach has regressed, as ever he was doomed to do, you’re back to catching Victor Martinez again, and Matt LaPorta is tearing it up in the Minors. Heck, Ben Francisco isn’t hitting either. Why Ryan Garko? Love, Steve.

? Phillies 7, Nationals 1: I was asked if it was too soon to start playing “Nats Math,” where you start figuring out scenarios where they might lose 110-120 games. I don’t think it is, if only because it’s difficult to see where they’re going to find ways to improve. There’s only so much talent trading a damaged Elijah Dukes or a benched Josh Willingham or an impotent Austin Kearns is going to bring you. 

Phil Franchise feeling the heat

hughes_250.jpgNO PRESSURE, KID
Only Phil Hughes can save the Yankees’ season, or so it seems on the eve of his first start of 2009. It’s a dramatically unfair place for a 23-year-old to be, but somehow, some way, the Yankees need to get this season started. It’s ironic that the Yankees bent over backwards to make Hughes unnecessary this past offseason. They didn’t want to depend on him. Now, until they see consistency from their other starters, not to mention anything at all useful from Chien-Ming Wang, they’ll feel lucky to have him to depend on.

The irony here is that pitching wasn’t necessarily the problem last year. With patience, the Yankees might have continued to mature their youngish staff and gotten by. The offense was the sector that looked to be problematic going into this season. As it turns out, the correct answer is, C: All of the above. As has been the case since the decline of the last dynasty, inattention to depth has beggared the big club and could continue to do so all season long.

That’s the injury front. More interesting is the club’s weird inability to hit with runners in scoring position. As you’ve no doubt heard, the team is hitting .223/.320/.346 in such situations. Robinson Cano, who has been so good overall, has batted .192 with runners on, and he has had more runners on in front of him than any other Yankee. He’s hitting .419 with the bases empty. Johnny Damon has hit .200, Hideki Matsui .125. Damon has come up with 11 runners on third, tied for most on the Yankees, and still has just seven RBIs on the season. The two center fielders have been execrable, with Brett Gardner hitting .143 in 14 at-bats and Melky Cabrera hitting .083 in 12 at-bats. It would help if the club could stay out of double plays. They’ve grounded into 18 in 154 possible opportunities, a slightly above-average rate. Below average would obviously be better. The worst culprit on the Yankees has been Melky Caberera, who has hit into three GDPs in eight possible situations, or 38 percent. The league average is 10 percent. The best is Mark Teixeira, who hasn’t hit into a single twin-killing in 22 opportunities.

This situation is almost certainly transient, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Playing with the most basic run estimators suggests that the Yankees have failed to score about 10 runs that they might have scored had their hitting with runners on been more representative.

HERE LIES AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER

Steven Jackson sent back to the Minors to make room for Phil Hughes. Eight games and nary a touch. Way to show confidence in the kid, Joe.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

?    It was very odd seeing Barry Bonds calmly chatting in the booth during last night’s Dodgers-Giants game. Having recently read “Game of Shadows,” I was conditioned to believe that he was more likely to kill someone than have a normal conversation.

?    Dexter Fowler looked like he was going to be a valuable player for the Rockies even before he stole five bases off of the Padres on Monday night. Ironically, though he had 101 steals in 334 Minor League games, it didn’t look like baserunning was an area in which he might distinguish himself. Over the last two seasons, he stole 40 bases but was caught 19 times, an unimpressive rate. The last time a Yankee stole five bases in a game? It’s never happened. The Yankees have had a player steal four bases in a game 18 times, most recently Tony Womack in 2005.

?    Scary Fly-Ball Guy Jeff Karstens gave away three baseballs to the Brewers on Monday in just five innings. That’s the problem with being a Scary Fly-Ball Guy: eventually they either have to take you out of the game or risk a national ball shortage.

?    Emilio Bonifacio: now batting .266/.301/.342. Welcome to Replacement Level Theatre.

?    You’d think that former Nats GM Jim Bowden being of such low repute would buy Manny Acta some time in Washington. The mess there isn’t his fault.

?    I find that Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” is kind of depressing for a bouncy pop standard. I like when that happens, when concert-goers are swaying and singing, “La la la life is brutal and unfair!”

?    I know Matt Wieters has barely played, but with Gregg Zaun 6-for-50 and the franchise flailing at the box office (just 10K at Camden last night) can they wait much longer to bring him up?

MORE FROM ME
Today at Baseball Prospectus, in an article open to non-subscribers, I discuss the anxiety problems of 1930s catcher Babe Phelps and compare them to those of someone I’m very close to… Me. 

Right the Wang, go with Hughes

wang_250_042409.jpgWILL YOU, WON’T YOU, WILL YOU, WON’T YOU JOIN THE DANCE?
That’s the question being asked about Chien-Ming Wang today, as the Yankees ponder what to do with their unpleasantly elevated groundballer. Despite yesterday’s extended Spring Training action, which featured an uncharacteristic 11 strikeouts, the Yankees’ brass were not impressed by Wang’s work against the Phillies’ most minor Minor Leaguers. Reports from the front suggest that Wang’s velocity was down and his sinker was still not operating at its proper depth. Every human capable of typing is now intimating that Phil Hughes (3-0, 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings, three walks, 19 strikeouts) will take his scheduled Tuesday start against the Tigers.

This is as it should be. You can throw out Wang’s strikeouts against toddlers and tyros in the Minor League depths — however screwy Wang’s main offering is right now, a Major League-quality slider and changeup is tough for a kid to beat. The Yankees weren’t looking for an artistic success here, they were looking for sinking heat, and they didn’t get it, at least not to their satisfaction. The Yankees are talking about building up Wang’s arm strength, but one wonders what they can truly do about it if Spring Training wasn’t a good enough opportunity for Wang to recoup. Further, if Wang’s arm doesn’t snap back, can Wang find a way to be successful at a lower velocity?

As I pointed out in a previous entry, despite the groundball fillip in Wang’s very vanilla game, history is working against him. It is very unusual for a pitcher with such a low strikeout rate to survive for any length of time — everything has to work perfectly for the balls they allow in play not to kill them. The only pitchers to throw over 1,000 career innings since 1990 with a strikeout rate of 4.5 or lower: Carlos Silva, Kirk Rueter, Ricky Bones, Bob Tewksbury, Brian Anderson, Zane Smith, Mike Moore and Steve Sparks. Pitchers with a lower strikeout rate relative to league in 500 or more innings, 1990 to present: Aaron Cook, Jimmy Anderson, Rueter, John Doherty, Silva and Horacio Ramirez.

Entering this season, Wang had the lowest ERA of any of these pitchers by more than half a run, though if he pitched at sea level, Cook would probably be right there with him. Ironically, Cook has also been battered this season — not to the extent that Wang has, but a 10.22 ERA still qualifies as a battering — for the same reason: his previously healthy groundball/fly ball ratio has crashed, presumably because he too is elevating his pitches.

The great advantage that Wang had was that, in allowing only about six percent of hits against him to go for extra bases, it was very difficult for the opposition to build a rally. He took doubles, triples, and home runs out of the game, meaning that in order to score even one run in a frame, the opposition had to hit three to four balls through Derek Jeter before Wang got three outs. With Wang having lost or misplaced this skill, the opposition has the potential for explosive innings restored. We should emphasize “lost” before “misplaced,” because this season’s breakdown may only be the culmination of a breakdown that was forming right from the beginning. Wang’s line drive rates have been rising and his groundball rates falling consistently since 2005.

Hughes is a strikeout pitcher. He took his lumps last year and he may take them again, but that is the way of young pitchers. John Danks was 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA as a 22-year-old in 2007. Last year he went 12-9 with a 3.32 ERA. Jon Lester’s ERA in his first 27 appearances was 4.68 … Jim Palmer’s ERA in his first two seasons was 3.54, which sounds great, except that the league ERA was lower than that.

Hughes will reward patience, be it for the Yankees or some other team in the event that patience is in short supply. Should he be able to avoid a permanently stuff-altering injury, his ability to get batters to swing and miss means that someday the length of Wang’s entire career will fit within the span of his, and that will be true if Wang can fix himself now or not. It will also give the Yankees a pitcher better adapted for postseason action. In evolutionary terms, Wang’s overspecialization limits his horizons. If Tuesday does turn out to belong to Hughes, it could, finally, represent the dawning of a new age.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Joe Torre may have another special team on his hands in Los Angeles (though it might not be too difficult looking special in this year’s NL West), and if they succeed, he’ll have the last argument in his already-signed, sealed, delivered Hall of Fame bid: that he couldn’t work with young pitchers (Chad Billingsley, for starters, is putting the lie to that). I’m still not convinced he wouldn’t get suckered in by Juan Pierre if Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier weren’t all hitting like it was 1930. Still, that’s my inference, not his action, so all credit to him. Also all credit to him for going to Jonathan Broxton for a 1.2 inning save in a close game (2-0) at Houston last night.

? Good for the Angels, beating the Tigers despite requiring a spot-start from extreme journeyman Matt Palmer, 30, after Darren Oliver hit the disabled list.

? In spite of myself, I am starting to believe that Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz — .320/.407/.622 in 46 games between this year and last — is for real.

? I think we owe it to Adam Eaton to point out his rare good starts. Last night he pitched 7.1 innings against the White Sox, allowing two runs, walking none, and striking out nine. The O’s should trade him while he’s hot. 

Return of the Giambino

giambi_250_042109.jpgTonight we get to see Jason Giambi’s return to the Bronx. I’ve seen some hostile comment in the press about Giambi, but beyond general disapproval of Giambi’s juicing, this anger is misplaced.

No, the Yankees didn’t win any championships during Giambi’s stay, but the team had many faults that had nothing to do with its first baseman-DH. As for the man himself, Giambi’s limitations were known to the Yankees when they picked him up, and it was apparent back in December, 2001 that the seven-year length of the contract was likely to bite the Yankees. As I wrote at the time, a player who isn’t terribly mobile at 30 — and the Empire State Building has moved more in the last 50 years than Giambi has in his whole career — is going to be a statue at 35.

Put the juice aside, because if anything is clear from the past few years it’s that no one inside baseball was ignorant of what players were doing to maintain their amazing physiques. I’m not saying that the Yankees necessarily had specific information that Giambi was juicing, but that they had to know it was a realistic possibility that anyone they acquired was doing some chemical dabbling. It wouldn’t have been practical for the Yankees to rule out acquiring all players suspected of having fun with pharmaceuticals, because the culture had been so thoroughly corrupted.

Thus: for their seven years of dough the Yankees expended, they got five very good years and two injury years. Injuries happen, and as I said, the cause is immaterial, or simply a predicable consequence of what was happening in baseball at the time. Giambi hit .260/.404/.521 with 209 home runs (tenth on the club list). He hit over 40 home runs twice, and over 30 three times, hit .300 once, and had more than 100 walks four times. Yankees who outhit Giambi in a career of more than 2,500 plate appearances, relative to league (as measured by OPS): Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, A-Rod, Charlie Keller and Reggie Jackson. That’s it, for the whole history of the franchise. That’s a successful signing. Did he field well? No, but he shouldn’t have been expected to. Did he run the bases? Nope, but he never could. Did he age? Yes, as do we all. Was he Reggie Jackson in the postseason? No, but he hit fairly well.

Though he was friendly the few times I talked with him, Giambi isn’t one of my favorite players. The steroid culture hurt baseball, and basically all for vanity’s sake, and his relative lack of production when DHing forced the Yankees into some disadvantageous defenses. Yet, to say that Giambi robbed the Yankees is a stretch. He was no longer an MVP-level player after 2002, and maybe he was never a guy to teach a class on professional ethics, but he was one of the most productive hitters the club ever had. That’s what the Yankees paid for and that’s what they got.

YANKEES RAINOUT THEATRE
No game yesterday means no home runs to increase our wonder and paranoia about the new ballpark. In the last day we’ve seen several articles attempting to account for what may be a small-sample fluke. AccuWeather.com talked about changed wind flow. Occasional YES-guest Tyler Kepner of the New York Times reported on Greg Rybarczyk’s finding that the contour of the right field wall means that the right-center field wall in Stadium II is effectively nine feet shorter than the one in Yankee Stadium Classic. Either explanation works to explain the new park’s dynamics, although the wind best explains what I felt I was seeing last Friday, balls finding a second gear as they reached their apogee. An intriguing thought: what if it’s both?

Meanwhile, the combination of rainout and off-day on Thursday means the Yankees get a no-brainer opportunity to bag on Chien-Ming Wang’s next start. Fangraphs.com lists the average velocity of Wang’s fastball is at 90.5 mph, down from an average speed of 91.8 mph a year ago and 92.7 mph in 2007. I don’t know if that one mph decrease is significant in terms of the batter experience, but just on a superficial basis, the mild drop would seem to give credence to the Yankees’ argument that the problem is mechanical, not physical. You would expect that if a pitcher isn’t throwing the ball with ease, his velocity is going to be negatively affected, and you would expect that if he figures out the problems he’s having with his release, he might find that missing mile again.

Another data point is the charting of Wang’s release point made possible the PitchFX tool at Brooks Baseball (thanks to Marc Normandin for pulling the information together). It seems that Wang’s release point is about six inches higher than it was a year ago. Six inches doesn’t seem like much in real-world terms, but when you’re dealing with a sinkerball, the extra elevation could be the difference between the batter getting on top of the ball and pounding it into the ground and hitting solidly on a line to the outfield.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

? Justin Masterson didn’t miss a beat as he shifted to the starting rotation for the Red Sox. Meanwhile, shortstop Jed Lowrie is going to go for surgery and could be out for six weeks. One wonders if they’ll live with Nick Green or try to make a move. They have a few interesting minor league shortstops, but none would seem to be ready to jump up to the Majors. Argenis Diaz, the Double-A shortstop, is supposed to have terrific range but probably won’t hit.

? Masterson’s fine pitching knocked the Orioles a game under .500, where they’ll probably stay. That is, they’ll stay under .500, not they’ll finish at 80-82 or something. When the Yankees were in Baltimore, the O’s were talking about a new, winning attitude. I wonder if they’re still saying things like that. Tonight’s rookie starter is Brad Bergeson, a control guy whose upper-level strikeout rates don’t portend much, unless he manifests a Wang-like groundball rate…

? Nice Major League debut for the Nats’ Jordan Zimmerman, who beat a Braves team that has struggled to find its hitting shoes in the early going. The newfangled bullpen held the lead, too. You wonder if any clubs have put in a call on a resurgent Nick Johnson (.381/.458/.429). The Angels, maybe? Kendry Morales is batting only .227/.277/.318, and while he’s going to come around and do better than that, he won’t out-hit a healthy Johnson. A momentarily healthy Johnson. Johnson if he’s healthy, when he’s healthy. Which is sometimes. Occasionally. Alternating Tuesdays. Check your local TV listings for details.

? Ross Ohlendorf had a fine start against the Marlins, holding them to two hits in seven innings. It’s nice to see Olhendorf come around and exploit his sinking stuff, but I think there is going to be more of this kind of thing for the Marlins in the future. In the game they walked once and struck out six times, and their lineup suggests there’s going to be a lot more than that. Meanwhile, the Pirates go a game over .500, once again endangering their 16-year losing streak. Their record in those years: 1104-1419 (.438).

? The Mets signed Wily Mo Pena. If he makes it up to the big club, it will be interesting to see him wandering about in Citi’s big outfield. Imagine the Hebrews in the desert, with more grass and less sand. 

Twenty-five men, 25 goals: The starting rotation

sabathia_250_041409.jpgCC 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. 

Twenty-five men, 25 goals: The Outfield

kazmir_350_041309.jpgNEMESIS
Scott Kazmir has made 12 career appearances against the Yankees spanning 68 innings and has an ERA of 2.51. There are two current Yankees who have hit him well, and only one of them is likely to play against him. Jorge Posada is 9-for-19 (.474) against Kazmir, and Mark Teixeira is a career 5-for-6. It could be a long night, by which I mean it could be a short night for the Yankees… Even if the offense lets down, a rebound start by Chien-Ming Wang would be a pretty fair silver lining.

TWENTY-FIVE MEN, TWENTY-FIVE GOALS INTO ONE
Continuing from the infield…

JOHNNY DAMON — LEFT FIELD
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE:
Get back to hitting .300, get back to hitting with power, or both.
DID HE GET THERE? Yesiree Bob. He had one of the best offensive seasons of his career, if not the best, and the only negative was some injury time.
2009 GOAL: Encore!
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Not strong. Damon has never been consistent and 35 is probably not the time he’ll start.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Damon’s Hall of Fame chances. Bill James’ Favorite Toy estimates that Damon has a 37.8 percent chance to reach 3,000 hits.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: The Yankees haven’t had many steady left fielders in their long history. Roy White was the only one with any staying power, and yet as good as Damon’s 2008 was the Yankees have had many better from their left fielders. Babe Ruth played a third to half his games in left in most seasons due to an aversion to the Yankee Stadium sun field, but he was only the main starter there once, in 1921. He only hit .378/.512/.846 that year. Charlie Keller had four better seasons, and the aforementioned White, an underappreciated player, had five years that were better.

BRETT GARDNER — CENTER FIELD
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE:
N/A
2009 GOAL: Establish himself as a major league regular despite his lack of power.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Spring Training and a changed approach at the end of last season argue yes, but it’s going to be a very close thing. He’s going to have to hit enough that the Yankees can look at the sum total of his contributions at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths, and see something positive even if offense isn’t the strongest leg of that tripod. Until he puts together a sustained stretch of hitting in the Majors, his level of productivity will be in doubt.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: No Yankee has stolen 50 or more bases since Rickey Henderson swiped 93 bags (the franchise high) in 1988. No Yankee has stolen 40 or more bases since Alfonso Soriano pilfered 41 in 2002. The last Yankee to steal 30 or more was Derek Jeter (34) in 2006. Gardner could change all that if he plays enough.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Since 1920, the Yankees have had 23 players post slugging percentages under .300 in a season of 350 or more plate appearances. The most recent was Tony Womack, with a .280 slugging in 351 PA in 2005. The franchise low was Wayne Tolleson, with .241 in 398 PAs in 1987. Perhaps more applicable to Gardner, Willie Randolph was routinely under .350 in the 1980s (he slugged only .351 for his career), but that didn’t prevent him from being a very valuable player due to his ability to hit for a decent average, walk, steal, and play strong defense. Gardner might be able to be that kind of player, but it should be noted that Randolph-style players are not as well tolerated in baseball today as they were in Willie’s time.

XAVIER NADY — RIGHT FIELD
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE:
N/A
2009 GOAL: Nady has always been a weak producer for a corner outfielder, something that has caused him to bounce around a lot. Last year was different. Nady hit .323/.377/.540 through the end of August. He needs to get back there.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: If you’ve been reading, you know I think this is spectacularly unlikely.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Baseball-Reference.com’s similarity scores say the three most similar players to Nady are Pedro Munoz, Shane Spencer, and Herb Perry, all of whom were out of the majors after about 500 games. Nady is at 677 career games now.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Per 162 games played, Nady has averaged 69 runs scored. There’s a reason for that.

NICK SWISHER — ROVER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE:
N/A
2009 GOAL: Reclaim his offensive production after a very rough year in Chicago, and reclaim regular status, too.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: If he continues to play, he’ll continue to out-produce Nady.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: On-base percentage is the key statistic in baseball. Nothing correlates to scoring like OBP. Last year, having the worst season of his career, Swisher’s OBP was .332, and in 2006-2007 his rate was .377.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: The Yankees have a nice tradition of switch-hitting outfielders with power who walk a lot.

MELKY CABRERA — RESERVE OUTFIELDER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE:
Be all that he can be. For the second year in a row, Cabrera swung from very good to very bad, and lows were deeper than the highs. He finished with below-average offensive rates. He needs to make permanent contact with the guy who hit .325/.375/.482 from June through August.
DID HE GET THERE? No. After a hot April, he completely fell apart and eventually (too late) was demoted.
2009 GOAL: Somehow get back into the lineup, and to hit like crazy when he does.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Despite a nice Spring Training season, not great. That said, all it would take is an injury and a hot streak for Cabrera to earn a second life.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Relative to the league average, Cabrera’s 641 OPS of last season represented the second-worst by a Yankees outfielder in the history of the team. The only outfielder with a weaker season relative to the league was Jake Powell in 1937. When he hit .263/.314/.364 in 400 PA, the league hit .290/.365/.432. Powell was also one of the worst characters to ever wear Yankees pinstripes, so Cabrera has that over him too.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Steve Whitaker, Bill Robinson … Sometimes players don’t develop the way you think or hope they will.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? A terrific pitcher’s duel between Johan Santana and Josh Johnson was marred by a dropped fly by Mets left fielder Daniel Murphy, the run scoring on the play being the difference in the game. Murphy can hit a bit, but maybe not enough to make up for his being a transplanted corner infielder lacking the experience and instincts for his position. I don’t mean to condemn the lad based on one play, but the quality of his offense is unlikely to be strong enough that it makes up for a Greg Luzinski-like performance in left. In this instance, Murphy didn’t so much take a route to the ball as make vague plans to meet it halfway. Santana struck out 13 and lost. Meanwhile, Johnson had a one-run complete game, his second good start in a row.

? The New Waners, Andy and Adam LaRoche, are 0-for-14 and 3-for-22, respectively. The latter comes around, we know that, but the former has failed to hit in several tries now, so he’s going to have a shorter rope. He will hit, eventually, though maybe not today for this team.

? Headline on the Nats page at MLB.com: “Tickets still available for home opener.” Y’think? Step right up for your “L
egacy of Jim Bowden” seats. Helpings of crow delivered right to your box by our helpless wait staff … Adam Dunn is batting .333 with a Major League-leading 10 walks. Maybe they could flip him now. Parenthetically, no Yankee has drawn more than four walks, and that Yankee is Robinson Cano. The whole thing is disturbing.

? Thirty-seven pitchers have already made four appearances, and one, Carlos Marmol of the Cubs, has appeared five times. You wonder if these fellows are going to have any kind of stuff left come the All-Star break. Heck, come May.

? The bench-clearing incident in Los Angeles between the Angels and the Red Sox was really on the umpires. The umpires are supposed to enforce a timely delivery to home plate by the pitcher. Josh Beckett didn’t do that. They’re also not supposed to grant time, or at least are not forced to, so that the hitter can make his own point and step out on the pitcher, but they never, ever refuse to do that. Thus when Bobby Abreu asked for and got time at the last possible second, Beckett was enraged. Even if this seems like a legitimate response to Beckett’s tardiness in making a pitch, the umpire should not have compounded his first error with another by granting time.

? Which hot start is more perplexing? The Mariners being 5-2, or the Padres being 5-2?

At least the bullpen pitched well

uehara_250.jpgThat’s about all you can say about Wednesday’s loss to the Orioles. The Yankees put the ball in play against Koji Uehara, and not ground balls but flies. Most days that will pay off, perhaps on a warmer day when the ball will travel more, but it didn’t last night. Offense is going to be a problem for these A-Rod-less Yankees, and may be an issue even when A-Rod comes back, and even if he comes back strong.

Having said that, Wednesday night was not an example of that problem, but of a pitcher in Uehara having good luck on balls in play and being stingy with the walks. Chien-Ming Wang simultaneously buried the Yankees. It is fascinating how a sinker pitcher can fail to sink the ball on some nights, but even the great Tommy John, among the best in history with that pitch, would lose his feel for it sometimes, in the process changing from a borderline Hall of Famer to a batting practice pitcher. In an ideal world, every pitcher would have a sinker — in the home run era it’s the perfect weapon. The reason that so few pitchers do have it is that it’s not an easy pitch to throw.

Wang’s occasional struggles illustrate that. His biggest sin is bad timing in losing his command the game after CC Sabathia executed his own version of same.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Odd finish to Randy Johnson’s Giant debut yesterday. With two out and a runner on second in the top of the fifth inning and the game tied at 1-1, Johnson intentionally walked Brewers catcher Jason Kendall, the No. 8 hitter, to face the pitcher. This is one of those conventional bits of baseball strategy that doesn’t make a ton of sense when you think about it. Yes, Kendall is a .317 career hitter against Johnson, but first, he’s not who he used to be and second, of his 13 career hits, nine are singles and four are doubles. The man hit two home runs last year, three in 2007, one in 2006, none in 2005. The most damage he’s likely to do is one run, and then you still have the pitcher coming up after him. Might as well take the shot at the out. If you succeed, the game is still tied 1-1 and the pitcher will lead off the next inning, which likely makes the top of the sixth a freebie. If you fail, it’s 2-1 and you can still go after the pitcher for the final out of the inning. Don’t know if it was Johnson or Bruce Bochy who over-managed, but Kendall got the automatic four, and then pitcher Yovani Gallardo parked a three-run homer. Say bye-bye to Big Unit win No. 296.

? I was already a bit down on the Angels heading into the season, and nothing confirmed my prejudices like the top of the ninth in Anaheim, Calf., yesterday as the A’s chipped away at closer Brian Fuentes, helped along by some almost-not quite-nearly defense on the part of the Halos. These things happen (even to Mariano Rivera once in awhile), but it was still an exhilarating finish just based on Oakland’s underdog status. There was a key pinch-hit single by Nomar Garciaparra in that rally. I’m glad he didn’t retire; another strong part-time season for a winning team (last year sort of qualified as that) might help his Arky Vaughan-style Hall of Fame case.

? On Day 2 of the season, Kyle Farnsworth rested. Trey Hillman got a shutout jumping from Zack Greinke to Juan Cruz to Joakim Soria. That’s a winning combo, and would have been on Day 1 as well. The Royals can’t afford to throw away too many of those. Next time, we might ask why Mike Aviles is batting ninth and Coco Crisp leadoff. Coco is many things, but he’s not a prime time hitter.

MORE AFTER THE GAME…
… Including the continuation of “25 men/25 goals” and commentary on the tragic death of 22-year-old Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart. 

Pettitte and the perfect team

hughes_250_012709.jpgI 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.

A-ROD/A-FRAUD/A-FROG/WHATEVER
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.

Talent abound in the AL East


matsui250_121708.jpgWHEN LAST WE LEFT OUR HEROES …
… We were in the midst of our subjective position-by-position ranking of the teams in the American League East, with the intention of trying to discern, however unscientifically, how these teams rank in terms of talent. We’re using a simple scoring system: if a team’s player ranks first out of five at a position it receives five points. If it ranks fourth, it receives four points, and on down the line. Having reviewed all the fielding positions (scroll down, pilgrims), the score was Red Sox 31, Yankees 26, Rays 25, Orioles 21, Blue Jays 17 with designated hitter and the pitching staffs yet to go.

Designated Hitter:
1. Red Sox: David Ortiz
2. Yankees: Hideki Matsui
3. Orioles: Aubrey Huff
4. Blue Jays: Travis Snider
5. Rays: Free parking

As with many of these entries, there is a great deal of conjecture here. Will Ortiz be completely healthy? He wasn’t half bad when he was hurting. Will Hideki Matsui’s knee problems be a thing of the past? Will Huff revert to his previously mild levels of production for a DH? How will 21-year-old Snider hit over a full season? Who is the Rays’ DH? The correct signing could jump the Rays up to second place or third place on this list. For now, THE SCORE: Red Sox 36, Yankees 30, Rays 26, Orioles 24, Jays 19.

No. 1 Starter:
1. Yankees: CC Sabathia
2. Blue Jays: Roy Halladay
3. Red Sox: Jon Lester
4. Rays: James Shields
5. Orioles: Jeremy Guthrie

You want to take Halladay over Sabathia, I won’t argue with you. THE SCORE: Red Sox 39, Yankees 35, Rays 28, Orioles 25, Jays 23.

No. 2 Starter:
1. Rays: Scott Kazmir
2. Yankees: Joba Chamberlain
3. Red Sox: Josh Beckett
4. Blue Jays: Dustin McGowan?
5. Orioles: Garrett Olson?

These numbered starter designations are somewhat arbitrary, so if you want to debate who should be sorted where that’s fine. Kazmir rates over Chamberlain on the basis of greater experience; Chamberlain rates over Beckett because of the latter’s health problems this season. Speaking of health problems, it’s not quite clear when McGowan will be back from surgery to repair a frayed labrum. Between injuries (Shaun Marcum is likely out for the season) and the free-agent defection of A.J. Burnett, the Jays have really had a hole blown in their starting rotation. As for the Orioles, their rotation is scary anonymous — and likely scary bad.
THE SCORE: Red Sox 42, Yankees 39, Rays 33, Orioles 26, Blue Jays 25.

No. 3 Starter:
1. Red Sox: Daisuke Matsuzaka
2. Yankees: Burnett
3. Rays: Matt Garza
4. Blue Jays: Jesse Litsch
5. Orioles: Chris Waters

The wild card here is Burnett’s health, Matsuzaka’s ability to dance between walks for another year, and if Garza can take the wonderful things he did to the Red Sox in the ALCS into the regular season.
THE SCORE: Red Sox 47, Yankees 43, Rays 36, Blue Jays 27, Orioles 26.

No. 4 Starter:
1. Yankees: Chien-Ming Wang
2. Rays: Andy Sonnanstine
3. Blue Jays: David Purcey
4. Red Sox: Tim Wakefield
5. Orioles: Radhames Liz

I’m going on feel here. It’s all guesswork at this point, except that Wang should trump the lot if he stays healthy — although David Price could be listed here, and perhaps he blows everyone else away. Liz could turn out to be the best Orioles pitcher, or the worst. He certainly has the potential to be good, but the Orioles aren’t very good at tapping potential. Sending an unrefined pitcher to the O’s is like hiring a porpoise to sniff out truffles.
THE SCORE: Red Sox 49, Yankees 48, Rays 40, Blue Jays 30, Orioles 27.

No. 5 Starter:
1. Yankees: Right now it’s probably Phil Hughes, but they could sign anyone.
2. Rays: Price, barring a Spring Training breakdown.
3. Red Sox: Clay Buchholz likely gets first dibs.
4. Blue Jays: I don’t think they know, either.
5. Orioles: Just what do you want from me, already?

Three pitchers with great potential, two unknowns. I think they call that a full house. The top three could shake out in any order, particularly if Hughes is secretly Derek Lowe or Lefty Grove, Price proves to be Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann or someone like that … Or if Buchholz turns back into Charlie Zink.
THE SCORE: Yankees 53, Red Sox 52, Rays 44, Jays 32, Orioles 28.

Closer:
1. Yankees: Mariano Rivera
2. Red Sox: Jonathan Papelbon
3. Blue Jays: B.J. Ryan
4. Rays: Troy Percival
5. Orioles: George Sherrill

No shame in being third in this group. I’m not going to score middle relief because it’s far too volatile, but if I had to rank them right now, I would pick the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays in some order ahead of the Red Sox and Orioles. That makes our FINAL SCORE: Yankees 58, Red Sox 56, Rays 46, Jays 35, Orioles 29.

So, there you have it. One version of the talent spread among the teams of the AL East. By switching just a few assumptions, you could easily flip the Red Sox over the Yankees, or bring the Rays a lot closer. There are so many moves yet to happen the whole thing could change … except the Orioles being last. That’s set in stone.

TV TIME AGAIN
I’ll again be chatting from the cyber-closet with Bob and the gang on the YES Hot Stove show, 6:30 p.m. EST on Thursday. Once again, I’ll be looking for your input, so feel free to comment here or in our pre-show thread, which we’ll open up tomorrow. I hope you will tune in.