November 2011

Yankees Re-Sign Garcia, Now Burnett Must Go

ESPNNewYork.com is reporting that the New York Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract with right-hander Freddy Garcia.

This was not a surprise to me because I posted a story on Nov. 21 headlined: “Yankees Could Retain Garcia If Deals Fall Through.”

Though some Yankee fans might be skeptical of the signing because Garcia does not throw 95-mile-per-hour bullets at opposing hitters and he is 35 years old on a team loaded with players who have crept way past their 30th birthdays, the signing still makes a lot of sense.

The first reason is the deal is just a one-year deal paying between $4 million and $5 million. This is about what the Yankees signed free-agent catcher Russell Martin for last winter. The Yankees also have to be cognizant of the fact the starting staff they have behind CC Sabathia is a pretty shaky group consisting of rookie Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes coming off right shoulder trouble and the command and control challenged A.J. Burnett.

Garcia gives the Yankees a fifth starter who was 12-8 with a 3.82 ERA in 26 games in his first season in which he was paid $1.5 million. Garcia is an insurance policy for the starting staff and it gives general manager Brian Cashman the ability to either “go big” after free agents like left-hander C.J. Wilson and Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish or “go small” to sign left-hander Mark Buerhle and right-hander Edwin Jackson.

The signing of Garcia also takes the pressure off the Yankees from having to promote a collection of six young starting pitchers they have advancing through the minor leagues: lefty Manny Banuelos and right-handers Dellin Betances, David Phelps, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren and D.J. Michell. If Cashman was unable to sign any free-agent starters this winter, the Yankees would likely have to choose from among these young pitchers to fill out the staff. They now can be patient with them.

Garcia may not be sexiest name the Yankees could have signed but it is a practical one. There are decidely worse free-agent pitching options out there and Garcia did manage to throw a lot of quality starts keeping the Yankees in most all of all his appearances.

But, make no mistake about it, the pressure is on for Cashman to sign at least one quality free-agent pitcher. The reason is obvious: In order to compete in the American League East and advance in the playoffs the Yankees need to have a solid core of at least three quality starters. The Yankees appear to have just one in Sabathia. Nova or Hughes could be another but Burnett has been a disaster the past two seasons.

I find it rather troubling that the Yankees seem to be committed to Burnett simply because he has two years remaining on his contract paying him $16.5 million per season. Cashman said there is no reason to put Burnett in the bullpen and he cited Burnett’s ability to pitch 200 innings. Cashman trotted out this stat as if it was a virtue or badge of honor.

However, a number of other major-league pitchers threw 200 innings last season including: Jeremy Guthrie of the Orioles (7-14, 4.33 ERA), Brett Myers of the Astros (7-14, 4.46 ERA), Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins (10-12, 4.67 ERA) and Ryan Dempster of the Cubs (10-14, 4.80 ERA). It does not mean the Yankees would be better off with Burnett than any one of these others. In fact, Burnett’s ERA was 5.15 over 190 1/3 innings.

The real reason the Yankees seem to be sticking with “Bad A.J.” is that they know that any trade the make to ship him out would mean the Yankees would still be on the hook for most, if not all, of Burnett’s salary and they likely would not receive much in return from the other team.

I know if I was a general manger of another team I would not exactly be beating my fists on Cashman’s door to acquire a pitcher who is just as likely to walk seven batters, hit three, give up four home runs and toss a pitch into the dugout as he is to throw a no-hitter while walking nine batters as Burnett did earlier in his career.

So the Yankees might be facing the fact that they can’t rid themselves of Burnett or obtain a top-dollar free agent because of how much they are paying him. But Cashman must realize that Burnett is like a albatross tied around the Yankees necks right now. If the team is committed to winning they need to rid themselves of anyone standing in the way of that.

That means Cashman must have the permission of Hal and Hank Steinbrenner to “dump” Burnett and as much of his salary as they can to whatever team is willing to try to take on Burnett. Then they need to have the guts to “go big” and spare no dollars in trying to sign Wilson or Darvish.

Burnett is a huge anchor that is about to sink the Yankees’ hopes for the next two years as long as he is around. So bite the bullet and rid yourselves of him before he takes the ship deeper into the murky waters.

I was stunned to read Yankees MLB correspondent Bryan Hoch’s mailbag on Nov. 22 stating the Yankees had just “lukewarm” interest in Wilson and Darvish. This is a travesty.

If the team requires a starting staff worthy of going deep into the playoffs and possibly winning a World Series, they better not have “lukewarm” interest in the two pitchers that could help them the most in reaching that goal. If Burnett and his bloated contract and his substandard pitching are standing in the way, you got to cut him out like a cancer NOW!

Get rid of Burnett and sign Wilson or Darvish or the team will surely have sealed its fate before the first pitch of spring training is even thrown.

That would be very sad.

 

Banuelos Tops List Of Six Young Yankee Starters

With the advent of the free-agent signing season coming, the New York Yankees obviously are in the market for some starting pitching help. We have already detailed the Yankees’ likely interest in the Rangers’ C.J. Wilson, Japanese star Yu Darvish and longtime White Sox ace Mark Buerhle. But what if the best laid plans of general manager Brian Cashman do not work out as planned and the Yankees sign none of those players? What if they are unable to make a trade for a starter? Let’s see if there is a creditable Plan C if free agents and trades are unavailable. This is a two-part report. The first part already dealt with the Yankees options at the major-league level. Part two will deal with their minor-league options.

PART 2: MINOR-LEAGUE OPTIONS

Yankee history is littered with young pitchers they developed only to use as in trades for more experienced hitters or pitchers. For years the veteran pitchers the Yankees acquired fizzled and the young pitchers they let go later on helped other teams.

The list includes Jose Rijo, Doug Drabek, Al Leiter, Ted Lilly and look at the record Ian Kennedy posted with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

But general manager Brian Cashman would eventually like to end that history. The problem is with the Yankees always aiming their sights on winning the World Series it is hard to allow young pitchers develop at the major-league level as other teams might. Patience is a virtue that the Yankees have never shown with very many pitchers they have developed. That possibly could change soon.

The Yankees boast a collection of six pitchers who can potentially contribute as starters with the Yankees in 2012. They include: right-hander Hector Noesi, right-hander Adam Warren, right-hander D.J. Mitchell, right-hander David Phelps, right-hander Dellin Betances and left-hander Manny Banuelos.

Let’s look at each one and see if any of them have the potential to help the Yankees in 2012:

HECTOR NOESI

Noesi, 24, pitched most of the season in bullpen for the Yankees, logging 56 1/3 innings in 28 relief stints and two late-season spot starts. He was 2-2 with a 4.47 ERA. At Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he was 1-1 with a 3.28 ERA in five starts.

Despite the fact he was needed to fill a spot in the bullpen in 2011, he is still considered a starter by the Yankees. He also comes into spring training with a leg up on the other five because he has the most major-league experience and manager Joe Girardi was comfortable using him out of the bullpen down the stretch.

Noesi’s main calling card is his exceptional control. But he did walk 3.5 batters per nine innings with the Yankees last season. He also gave up six home runs, which would translate to 24 in a 200-inning season. But Noesi was nevertheless effective enough as a middle-inning reliever to stay with the club.

Noesi was slow to reach the majors because he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2007. But he rose like a meteor in the Yankees’ eyes because of his exceptional minor-league walk rate of 1.6 and an exceptional 2009 season with Double-A Trenton and Scranton. Last season, Noesi was considered a “second-tier” pitching prospect behind Betances, Banuelos and Andrew Brackman (who has since been released). Noesi has a nice 91-94 mph fastball and a decent curve and change-up. But his long-term pitching prospects with the Yankees are clouded because so many other pitchers in the organization have what is perceived to be better stuff.

So Noesi must enter spring training throwing strikes and proving he can get outs without having what would be considered strikeout stuff. If he exhibits any sign of wildness or a propensity to give up gopher balls in the spring, he is likely to be ticketed for Scranton again. But if injuries should crop up in the bullpen, Noesi could be offered a return engagement since he did not embarrass himself there in 2011.

D.J. MITCHELL

Mitchell is also 24 and he put a pretty good season together at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011. He was 13-9 with a 3.18 ERA and was the ace of the staff.

The 6-foot, 175-pound right-hander also struck out 112 batters and walked 63 in 161 1/3 innings. He is part of a trio of right-handers (along with Warren and Phelps) who were selected in the draft as college players. Mitchell attended Clemson and was selected in the 10th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.

Mitchell has an excellent two-seam fastball, which translated into an impressive 62% ground-ball rate in the minors. He also has a smooth and controlled delivery. Scouts believe his two-seam fastball is enough of a weapon to get him and keep him in the major leagues. Mitchell can not only induce ground balls with his sinker, he can strike out batters with also.

Mitchell is still working on his secondary pitches and his curve has developed into a plus pitch, too. His four-seam fastball sits in the 91-93 mph range and he is even developing a cutter to use on left-handed batters. His change-up needs a lot of work.

Mitchell’s stuff is good enough to help the Yankees at some point but it is unclear whether that will come as a starter or as a reliever. Mitchell enters spring training as a longshot to make the Yankees’ starting rotation but he might be an excellent choice for a in-season call-up to fill in as a starter or reliever. He could actually benefit from another season at Triple-A to fully develop his secondary pitches.

There is a lot to like about Mitchell. It is just up to him to step up his game when he is given chances to pitch in spring training.

ADAM WARREN

Unlike Mitchell, Warren has been on a fast-track to the major leagues despite the fact he is also 24.

Warren is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander the Yankees selected in the fourth round of the 2009 draft out of the University of North Carolina. Like Mitchell he spent all of the 2011 season at Scranton.

His record was nothing special at 6-8 but his ERA was 3.60 and he fanned 111 batters and walked 53 in 152 1/3 innings. Like Mitchell, Warren is a command and control pitcher who will not blow hitters away. He pitches in the 88-92 mph range and pounds the strike zone and changes speed on his pitches well.

He gets a lot of ground balls off his two-seam fastball and change-up but he needs work on some of his other secondary pitches like his curve and slider. Warren has pitched in high=pressure games at North Carolina and he has a competitive streak in him. The question becomes how high is Warren’s ceiling?

At this stage, Warren might make a nice No. 4 starter someday but he lacks the weapons to be considered anything more. He will get an honest look in spring training and you can’t help but root for a guy who flew under the radar for the past two seasons before his rise to Scranton last season.

The Yankees are hopeful he will be able to contribute down the road but Warren looks like a lock to spend the season back with Scranton.

DAVID PHELPS

If you ask Cashman about Phelps, his first reaction is a wide smile. Phelps, also 24, is one of those pitchers who has a habit of exceeding expectations.

Last season, Phelps began pitching at Double-A Trenton and was promoted quickly to Scranton. His combined numbers were a modest 7-7 with an eye-popping 2.99 ERA. Even more impressive was his 95 K’s and just 27 walks in 114 1/3 innings.

Phelps was selected by the Yankees in the 14th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of Notre Dame. Phelps was written off by a lot of scouts after his junior season at Notre Dame did not measure up to his spectacular sophomore season in which he was 8-5 with a 1.88 ERA in 15 starts.

Phelps promptly became the ace of his rookie Staten Island team in 2008 and he has succeeded at every level he has pitched since. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander just exudes confidence on the mound and he attacks hitters despite not possessing an above-average fastball.

Phelps throws in the low 90s but has impeccable control, as the 27 walks he issued in 2011 indicate. What sets Phelps apart from Warren and Mitchell is his slider, which translated into a 7.51 K rate at Class-A Tampa. His pitches to contact and that also keeps his pitch count down.

His deceptive delivery actually makes his average fastball seem livelier than it actually is and Phelps is an absolute bulldog on the mound, brimming with confidence to throw any of his pitches in any count.

There are a lot of pitchers like Phelps in the minor leagues. Some make it to the majors and some don’t. The Yankees actually might motivate Phelps by betting that he won’t because Phelps is determined to prove doubters wrong and be successful in the major leagues. Don’t bet against him.

This spring training the Yankees hope to see that Phelps has improved his curve and change-up. The rest of the arsenal is there and Phelps already has the makeup any pitching coach would love all his pitchers to have. Phelps is the most likely of the three college right-handers who could be of help in 2012.

Of course, that could come as a starter or a reliever, given what the Yankees may need. Phelps has a chance, like Ivan Nova, to develop into a nice starter for the Yankees at some point. It is just a matter of time. But he will be a middle of the rotation guy, at best. But isn’t it there where the Yankees need the help?

DELLIN BETANCES

He is Brooklyn boy, though at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, he is very large boy at age 23.

Betances was selected by the Yankees in the eight round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft despite the fact the velocity on his pitches dropped in his senior season at Grand Street Campus High School.

But the tall righty overcame that and some forearm tightness in his first minor-league season to pitch very well with Charleston in the South Atlantic League in 2008. Betances was 9-4 with a 3.87 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 115 1/3 innings. That caught the Yankees’ attention and he advanced to Class-A Tampa in 2009.

But Betances was shut down with elbow pain and ended up having elbow reinforcement surgery. But he overcame that and became one of the prize pitchers in the Yankees’ farm system with a 8-1 record and an eye-popping 1.77 ERA in 14 starts for Tampa. He struck out 88 batters in 71 innings.

I guess the elbow was fixed.

It was no surprise that a lot of Yankees wanted Betances to succeed in spring training in 2011. He and Banuelos had their every move documented for fans interested in seeing the two most prized pitching prospects in the organization. But it was a foregone conclusion that Betances would be sent to Double-A Trenton to work on his command and his secondary pitches.

Betances features gas. He can dial it up to 98 mph on his fastball but he throws in the mid-90s mostly. His height allows him to force a downward plane on his pitches so the Yankees want him to work on a two-seam fastball. He also features a power knuckle curve that could be a solid swing-and-miss pitch for him. He has pretty good command of the curve.

Betances’ weakness is his large frame. Much like CC Sabathia at a young age, Betances finds that it is hard to keep his balance in his delivery. When he flies open he is apt to miss with his pitches, fall behind in counts and either he gets hit or walks batters. Finding a consistent release point is a struggle for him.

Last season, Betances was a combined 4-9 with a 3.70 ERA between Trenton and Scranton. He struck out 142 in 126 1/3 innings. But he also walked 70.

Betances is a pitcher worth being patient with because he is a potential front-of-the-rotation pitcher. If he stays healthy and progresses in finding a way to repeat his delivery consistently he could one of the best pitchers the Yankees have developed in their minor-league system. He is that good.

He will get a long look in spring training but realistically it would be very surprising if Cashman would allow Betances to make the 2012 major-league roster. Betances really needs to put in a season at Triple-A honing his craft. If he was pitching for a team like Kansas City he could learn at the major-league level. But not with the Yankees.

Cashman believes in being cautious especially given Betances’ past elbow problems. Betances could be called up late in the 2012 season when the rosters expand. But set your clock on him for 2013. That is when he should get a shot to make the rotation.

MANNY BANUELOS

At age 20, Banuelos is already a legend in smart Yankee circles.

The reason is that Banuelos’ promise is limitless and there is so much to like about the 5-foot-11, 155-pound left-hander.

Signed as a non-drafted free agent in March 2008 out of Vergelito, Mexico, Banuelos impressed the Yankee scout who signed him just when he was warming up with his brother before showing the scout what he could really do. The scout marveled at the ease in which the ball came out of Banuelos’ hand.

He advised the Yankees he needed to sign him quickly and the rest is history.

Banuelos features a fastball, a change-up and a curve. But the pitch that draws the most raves is actually the change-up because so few young pitchers ever truly master the pitch. Banuelos has a quality change-up that makes his fastball even more deadly. Betances has better velocity on his fastball. But because of Banuelos’ change-up his 92 mph fastball looks like it 100 mph compared to it.

Banuelos, unlike Betances, has a nice, free-and-easy motion that makes it easy for him repeat his delivery over and over again. That also means he can maintain control and Banuelos – at a tender age – has learned how to add and subtract his pitches. That makes him special and it also places him as the No. 1 pitching prospect in the Yankees’ farm system.

Last spring training, Banuelos was pressed into starting against the Red Sox in a spring training start in Tampa. The most impressive pitch Banuelos threw was a 3-2 change-up that absolutely stunned Jason Varitek. Varitek watched it glide over the plate, shook his head and walked back into the dugout stunned.

The legend of Banuelos was born.

There was some hope the Yankees might promote Banuelos to pitch out of the bullpen for the stretch drive, given their need for a second lefty. But Banuelos was just 6-7 with a 3.75 ERA and he struck out 125 and walked 71 in 129 2/3 innings between stints at Trenton and Scranton. The Yankees felt his control needed more refining before they could bring him up.

So Banuelos will get his chance to pitch a lot in spring training in 2012 but he is likely going to be ticketed for Scranton. (If you have some money to bet you might want to put it on Scranton winning the International League with its projected starters).

But do not bet against Banuelos making it up to the majors at some point in 2012 – as a starter or reliever. Make no mistake, Banuelos has a chance to be a very special pitcher for the Yankees and that is the reason Yankee fans absolutely buzz about him as much as they do about Jesus Montero.

SUMMARY

The Yankees are well-stocked with pitchers just on the verge of making the major leagues as starters. You would think the Yankees would be looking to push a few into what is undoubtedly the biggest weakness on the team in 2012. But the Yankees are not a team who promote young pitchers and ask them to take them to a World Series.

The Yankees look for veterans and free agents who can buy them time to develop pitchers to either promote or trade.

At the moment, Mitchell, Noesi and Warren are the most advanced of the young pitchers in experience. However, they also are the pitchers with lower ceilings. One of them could surprise but they likely will either stay in Triple-A or be dealt or released down the line.

But Phelps, Betances and Banuelos are worth watching. They seem to have the ability, they know how to pitch and they are determined to make it to the major leagues. Phelps is loaded with heart, Banuelos is wise beyond his years and Betances looks like a budding right-handed version of Sabathia.

Though 2013 looks like the year they might reach the big stage, don’t be shocked if any one or all three of them pitch in some capacity for the Yankees in 2012.

Like the old saying goes: “You can never have enough pitching.”


Yankees Could Retain Garcia If Deals Fall Through

With the advent of the free-agent signing season coming, the New York Yankees obviously are in the market for some starting pitching help. We have already detailed the Yankees’ likely interest in the Rangers’ C.J. Wilson, Japanese star Yu Darvish and longtime White Sox ace Mark Buerhle. But what if the best laid plans of general manager Brian Cashman do not work out as planned and the Yankees sign none of those players? What if they are unable to make a trade for a starter? Let’s see if there is a creditable Plan C if free agents and trades are unavailable. This is a two-part report. The first part deals with the Yankees options at the major-league level. Part two will deal with their minor-league options.

PART 1: POTENTIAL MAJOR LEAGUE OPTIONS

Last winter, the Yankees struck out on Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte retired and the Yankees decided to make smaller moves to patch their starting rotation holes.

They signed a pair of veteran free agents, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.

Most baseball observers were underwhelmed by those moves. But a strange thing happened as spring training unfolded.

Colon, 38, actually started pitching a lot like he did during his 2005 Cy Young Award-winning season with the Angels. Though he did not initially earn a rotation spot out of spring training, his work in the bullpen was so exceptional that he was placed in the rotation on April 20 in place of an injured Phil Hughes.

Colon not only won his first two starts, he was pitching impeccably. Of his first nine starts, he was 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA and he had thrown seven quality starts.

However, the other end of Colon’s saga played out in that ninth start on June 11 against Cleveland.

The Yankees were not happy when Colon reported to spring training well over his listed weight of 265 pounds. But they overlooked it when Colon threw so well during spring training. They put him in the bullpen largely because of concerns about the fact he had not thrown more than 99 innings in any season since 2005.

Well, Father Time has a way of penalizing overweight players in the middle of their success. That is what happened to Colon when he strained his right hamstring covering first base. Colon won the game but landed on the 15-day disabled list. He ended up missing three weeks.

Colon won his return start against the Mets on July 2 by pitching six shutout innings but then lost his next two outings. He then ran off a stretch of four quality starts in his next five outings to run his record to 8-6 with a 3.31 ERA as of Aug. 11. But, from that point on, Colon would struggle so badly he would not only lose a spot in the playoff rotation; he also was left off the playoff roster altogether.

In his last eight starts, he did not win a single game. He also gave up 28 runs over the last 44 2/3 innings (a 5.84 ERA) and he did not look anything like the Colon who was probably the Yankees’ second-best starter behind CC Sabathia in mid-August. But after 110 innings, Colon’s stuff went south quicker than a Kim Kardashian marriage.

The prospects of the Yankees re-signing the veteran right-hander are very slim. In addition to his age, Colon will never be able to slim down enough to make the Yankees want to take a chance on him again. Colon’s only hope is to catch with another club and pitch out of the bullpen. His days as a starter look to be over.

On the other hand, Garcia did not really pitch exceptionally well in the spring. Of course, the 34-year-old right-hander had a habit of not pitching well in the spring. So Garcia was kept as the team’s No. 5 starter despite a less than stellar spring.

Much like Colon, Garcia started out hot by winning his first two starts by throwing 12 innings of shutout baseball in those two games.

While Colon was doing it with his mid-90s fastball, Garcia could have been clocked on his pitches with a sundial.

Yet, Garcia was effective in putting away hitters with a devastating slow split-finger fastball. It may not have looked as impressive as Sabathia or Mariano Rivera blowing ptches by hitters but it was nevertheless effective. Garcia was able to keep the Yankees in almost every game he pitched.

On Aug. 7, Garcia made his 20th start of the season at Fenway Park, giving up one run in five innings a no-decision victory. At the point, Garcia was 10-7 with a 3.09 ERA. Then a mishap with a knife at home cost him a trip to the disabled list with a deep cut to a finger on his pitching hand.

He came back on Aug 29 to beat the Orioles with his 15th quality start in his first 21 starts of the season. But September proved to a cruel month for the pitcher nicknamed “Chief.”

Of his four starts that month, only his final start – six innings of shutout baseball over the Red Sox at Yankees Stadium – was a good start. He was 1-1 with a 7.36 ERA in September but he did finish the season 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA and he earned the third spot in the Yankees’ postseason rotation against the Tigers.

Unfortunately, Garcia did not pitch well in that start. He gave up three runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings in a loss to Justin Verlander and the Tigers.

If the Yankees are to advance in the playoffs in 2012, it would seem they would have improve their pitching enough that they would not need a Colon or Garcia in their rotation. But if the Yankees fail to land a top-flight free agent or get a decent starter via a trade, you could very well see Garcia re-signed.

Garcia stands out as a very possible Plan C.

But there are many options the Yankees can look to within the organization. After all, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova both are products of the Yankees’ minor-league system and they are being counted upon as two member of the starting rotation next season.

Hughes followed up a 18-8 season in 2010 with an injury-plagued 2011 campaign where he was 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA.

Hughes, 25, arrived at spring training with a strange lack of velocity on his fastball. As the spring unfolded in was obvious that there was something wrong with Hughes. After three ill-fated starts and a 13.94 ERA, Hughes was placed on the disabled list with weakness in his right shoulder.

He returned in July and showed flashes of his old self. Through Aug. 25, he made seven starts and he gave up more than two earned runs in only one of them.

But in back-to-back starts against Oakland and Boston, Hughes surrendered 12 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings. However, few fans remeber that his last two starts against Baltimore and Seatlle were both quality starts before he was placed in the bullpen due to recurring back spasms.

if Hughes is able to regain the form that made him an 18-game winner in 2010, the Yankees will be very lucky. Hughes is still the poster boy for Cashman’s renewed emphasis to develop pitchers in the Yankees’ farm system rather than trading good young prospects away for pitchers well past their prime.

The Cashman strategy also worked in Nova’s case. But it was quite by accident.

Nova’s minor-league numbers showed ability but it hardly screamed out that he was an star pitcher. He had good stuff but he was hardly a Stephen Strasburg who will blow you away with velocity. Nope, Nova is more like Chien-Ming Wang, another Yankees pitching prospect Cashman helped develop into success in the majors.

Nova relied on the groundball outs to get by in the majors. Who would have guessed it would have took him so far in 2011?

Nova pitched so well in spring training he forced manager Joe Girardi to use him in rotation at the expense of Colon.

In his first three starts, Nova was 1-1 and he lost a game in relief the Blue Jays to go 1-2 with a 7.63 ERA. A more impatient team might have given up on Nova and shipped him back to the minors but with Hughes injured they still needed the 24-year-old right-hander.

After winning his next two starts, Nova was blasted on May 12 by the Kansas City Royals, of all teams, for 10 hits and eight runs (four earned) in three innings. He was 3-3 with a 4.70 ERA.

From that point on, Nova only lost one more game the entire season when he gave up two earned runs in six innings on June 3 to the Angels in Anaheim, CA. Nova was 13-1 with a 3.40 after that outing against the Royals. That also included a stint of one month when Nova was sent down in July when Hughes retuned to the rotation.

Yes, the Yankees actually sent a pitcher to the minor leagues who ended up with a 16-4 record and 3.70 ERA and who became the team’s second-best starter behind Sabathia by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Nova actually starred in the playoffs with his amazing start in Game 1 (which actually was a relief appearance) in which he limited the Tigers to just two runs on four hits in 6 1/3 innings. He also started Game 5, but was obviously pitching injured when he gave up two first-inning home runs after a regular season in which he given up just 13 in 165 1/3 innings.

Nova left, the Tigers scored only one more run and we all know the Yankees failed to get the big hit the rest of the way and lost. It would have been nice to have seen what would have happened if Nova were healthy that day. But the Yankees can take comfort that Nova will return and he looks like he will be a successful pitcher for many years to come.

He will never be an ace. But he is plenty good enough to win.

But, if the Yankees fail at Plan A (signing a free agent), Plan B (trading for a starter) and Plan C (signing a veteran retread like Garcia). What will they do? Is there a Plan D?

In other words, are there any pitchers the Yankees can count on to come up like Hughes or Nova to fill a void in the rotation in 2012. The answer is, thanks to Cashman and the scouting department, is yes.

We will discuss the options in the second part.

NEXT: MINOR-LEAGUE OPTIONS

 

Yanks’ Targets Include Wilson, Darvish, Buerhle

With the New York Yankees seemingly in the market for some starting pitching help this winter, one cold, hard fact is obvious when looking at the potential free agents available: This is a thin market. There is a good reason for that. Teams have been much more diligent in identifying there talented young pitchers and locking them into long-term deals that cover their arbitration-eligible years. Thus, instead of becoming free agents when they are 27, pitchers are being locked into deals until they are in their 30s. That is why there is not a Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander or Jared Weaver out on the open market. But let’s take a deeper look into what is available and rate the pitchers who should be at the top of the Yankees’ Christmas shopping list.

C.J. WILSON

As I posted earlier, the top target on the Yankees’ list is currently C.J. Wilson of the Texas Rangers.

Wilson is a 31-year-old left-hander who was 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA in 2011. On the positive side, Wilson is a lefty and the Yankees did miss have a second lefty in their rotation when Andy Pettitte chose to retire after the 2010 season. The record and ERA he posted also show that Wilson was an effective pitcher for the American League champions.

Wilson also has pitched only two seasons as a starter. He has a combined record of 31-15. Since he was a relief pitcher for the Rangers for his five previous major-league seasons, Wilson does not have the normal wear and tear on his arm a normal 31-year-old would have. He also was the ace of the Rangers’ staff in 2011.

But there are some negatives.

The most glaring is that Wilson is 1-5 in his nine postseason starts with an ERA of 4.82. He was 0-3 with a 5.79 ERA this past postseason. So maybe Wilson is not quite ready for prime time as his regular season record might indicate. The Yankees would prefer to have a proven postseason winner like a Pettitte rather than a guy who will not deliver when it counts.

Wilson may not be that guy.

However, Wilson remains the top target of a lot of teams such as the Washington Nationals, the Los Angeles Angels and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Not to mention the Rangers would love to keep Wilson in the fold themselves.

But the biggest factor in Wilson’s favor is that his price will not even come close to that paid to Cliff Lee by the Philadelphia Phillies last winter. Lee received a five-year, $120 million contract. Wilson will not receive offers anything close to that because he is not in Lee’s neighborhood as a pitcher.

Wilson likely will get offers of around four years and $80 million. The Yankees can certainly afford that since they did not have to really break the bank to retain ace lefty CC Sabathia. Sabathia did not opt out of his contract, which would have driven his price up. Instead he signed a modest extension, leaving some dollars for general manager Brian Cashman to offer Wilson a nice deal.

It is pretty obvious with Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova lined up behind Sabathia in the Yankees’ rotation, the Yankees will look to add at least one free agent to the mix. There could be a possibility of two.

Wilson stands above the rest of the free-agent class and Cashman will likely stay in the bidding with Wilson’s agent, Bob Garber.

YU DARVISH

Yu Dravish comes with a gigantic question mark because he is not officially a free agent yet.

Darvish, 25, is the best pitcher in Japan and likely would become the best starting pitcher ever to pitch in the major leagues from Japan. He currently is pitching in the playoffs in Japan with the Nippon Ham Fighters. Nippon is in a bad situation with the right-hander.

They do not have the financial ability to keep him and they would benefit greatly by “posting” him. That would allow the team to receive bids just for the right to speak to his agent. That money would allow the Ham Fighters to rebuild their team with a huge infusion of cash.

Daisuke Matsuzaka drew a huge posting fee of $50 million from the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox then signed Matsuzaka for $53 million for a total investment of $103 million (of which only the salary of $53 million counted against the salary cap for the Red Sox).

Darvish is somewhat different than “Dice-K.”

Darvish is 6-foot-5, 190 pounds. He also is of part Middle Eastern descent. But what really sets Darvish apart is his ability to throw fastballs in the upper 90s, in addition to an excellent array of breaking pitches. But Darvish does not nibble with pitches out of the strike zone like Matsuzaka. He attacks hitters.

In his six seasons in Japan, he is 88-33 with five seasons of an ERA under 2.00. He also has pitched against the world’s best hitters as the MVP of the last World Baseball Classic as he led Japan to victory.

The negatives are that Japanese pitchers have not fared well as starters in the States. The most successful was Hideo Nomo, who was 123-109 with a 4.24 ERA in 11 major-league seasons. There also have been the Hideki Irabus and Kei Igawas the Yankees have signed and become dismal failures.

Japanese pitchers also have their own different way of preparing for their starts and they do not often like changing their routine once they reach the States.

The other problem is that if the Yankees do decide they really want Darvish, they better be prepared for a posting fee that could approach $100 million and a contract of five years for upwards of $90 million. That is going to push the Yankees a lot further over the salary cap and managing partners Hank and Hal Steinbrenner have instructed Cashman to either hold it steady or reduce it where he can.

By signing Darvish the Yankees would have to have the Steinbrenners’ blessing to break the bank as they did in signing Mark Teixeira in 2009. This seems unlikely but certainly within the realm of possibilities.

But it is almost sure the Yankees will not sign both Wilson and Darvish. It will be one or the other.

ROY OSWALT

Oswalt is 34 and is coming off a 9-10 mark with a 3.69 ERA with the Phillies last season. He was injured for a month with some recurring back issues.

When he was healthy, he actually pitched quite well. He finished the season well by throwing quality starts in four of his last seven starts. The veteran right-hander is what the Yankees used to love: a reliable older veteran pitcher who has pitched in big playoff games and someone who definitely knows how to pitch.

The Yankees succeeded in signing veteran free agents like Jimmy Key, David Cone and Mike Mussina. However, at the other end of the spectrum they also have signed or traded for mistakes like Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Burnett. So to be a little wary of Oswalt and his balky back might be another cautionary tale.

Insiders seem to believe that the Yankees interest in Oswalt is minimal at best, which would be fine by me. There may be too much mileage on that right arm to risk signing Oswalt at this stage of his career. There are much younger and cheaper options below him.

EDWIN JACKSON

At age 28, Jackson has already modeled six different uniforms and five in the last four seasons. The right-hander seems to burn bright with promise and then fizzle out like a dud roman candle.

Last season, Jackson was a combined 12-9 with a 3.79 ERA between the Chacago White Sox and the world champion St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, Jackson was 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA for the Cards in 12 starts down the stretch.

But he was 1-1 with a 5.80 ERA in his four postseason starts.

Jackson is one of those high-risk, high-reward free agents. He has the stuff and the stamina to dominate any team in baseball for nine innings. But he also can unravel like a cheap suit against the weakest hitting team in the league. Hence, his career ERA of 4.46 and a WHIP of 1.48.

The hope of signing Jackson is that he is young enough to turn his career around and become the star pitcher he was predicted in his younger days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But you have to raise a red flag when a pitching coach like the esteemed Dave Duncan is willing to allow you to leave the Cardinals as a free agent.

Jackson would be much cheaper to sign than all the other pitchers listed above. But he also may be just a younger version of Burnett – some good days and a lot of bad ones. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild is not a young man. Why give him two potential heart attacks with Burnett and Jackson?

I do not see much interest in Jackson from the Yankees. Let him ruin another team’s staff.

MARK BUERHLE

He is 32 but he also is left-handed. So there is a lot to like in Buerhle.

Last season, Buerhle was 13-9 with a 3.59 ERA for the White Sox, the only organization he has ever known. In his 11 full seasons he is 161-119 with a 3.83 ERA.

Buerhle has never been a Josh Beckett, Roger Clemens or Stephen Strasburg pitcher who lights up radar guns. Buerhle just pitches and gets outs. He throws 200 innings every season and he not missed much time with injuries. He has no season in which he made less than 30 starts.

Reliability and effectiveness are two of Buerhle’s best descriptions. He also has been the unquestioned ace of this staff for all of those seasons and he has postseason experience. He was 2-0 with a 3.87 ERA in the championship season of 2005 for the White Sox.

This would be a perfect kind of target for the Yankees if they fail to sign or either Wilson or Darvish. He also could be a likely target if the Yankees intend to trade Burnett this winter, which has been circulating as a rumor ever since Cashman made the comment about “if Burnett is back with us next season.”

Buerhle is the antithesis of Burnett, Burnett has “stuff” but Buerhle gets by on guile. Buerhle is as steady as plane on autopilot. Burnett is be as unpredictable as Lindsay Lohan on Rodeo Drive.

It would stand to reason the Yankees might have an interest in another left-hander. If Wilson goes elsewhere, look for Buerhle to get an offer from the Yankees. Lefties fare much better in Yankee Stadium because teams stack righties and we all know the short porch is in right. So Mr. Buerhle certainly bears watching this winter.

He may just find a friendly home in the Bronx in 2012.

HIROKI KURODA

On the surface, Kuroda may appear to be better than Buerhle. After all, he was 13-16 but had a sparkling 3.07 ERA for the Dodgers in 2011.

However, Kuroda will be 37 when the 2012 season starts and he has pitched a lot of innings in Japan before he came to the Dodgers in 2008. He is 41-46 with a 3.45 ERA with the Dodgers.

The biggest drawback with Kuroda, besides his age, is the fact he has not pitched in the American League. So his value, much like Oswalt’s, may be inflated a bit by pitching in a less tougher league where pitchers bat.

His biggest positive for the Yankees is he is left-handed and the Yankees could use another lefty. He also is a low WHIP pitcher, His career WHIP is 1.19, which is excellent in any league.

But it is hard to imagine that the Yankees, who have been burned by National League pitchers like Brown and Vazquez before would not be salivating to add a 37-year-old Japanese pitcher who has not pitched in the American League.

The Yankees would have to be real desperate to show much interest in Kuroda.

TRADE OPTIONS

The biggest trade target the Yankees would seek would be Hernandez of the Mariners.

Why not?

Hernandez is only 25 and he is pitching for one of the weakest offensive teams in the A.L. He was 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA in 2011 and that was considered an off-year for the King.

He won the Cy Young Award in 2010 and is considered one of the best pitchers in baseball. So why wouldn’t the Yankees target him?

Well, Cashman has already weighed in on that subject by saying that he would much rather sign a pitcher as a free agent than trade away top-flight young players like Jesus Montero, Eduardo Nunez, Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, Delin Betances and Manny Banuelos.

The nice thing about signing a Wilson, Darvish or Buerhle is that Cashman still gets to keep the building blocks to the future of the club. Trading for Hernandez or any other pitcher like him would gut the farm system just as the Boston Red Sox have done by trading for Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez the past two seasons.

Cashman would love to have King Felix in the fold. But not at the price the Mariners would want in return.

So do not bet the ranch Hernandez will be in pinstripes in 2012. It is just not likely to happen.

CONCLUSION

The bottom line is the Yankees are definitely targeting Wilson and Darvish. But they likely will sign only one of those two because they can’t afford both. Wilson tops the list because he is left-handed and he does not have the mileage most 31-year-old pitchers have on them.

But if Wilson eludes them or gets too pricey, Darvish will become priority No. 1 because he is not your typical Japanese import starting pitcher. Darvish has plus stuff and he has a competitive streak that makes him attack hitters without fear. The problem is it is hard to guarantee Cashman will even get a chance to negotiate with Arn Tellem, Darvish’s American agent.

The reason is the posting fee is a crapshoot. The Red Sox outbid other teams by more than $20 million in the Matsuzaka sweepstakes. Darvish is drawing interest from a lot of teams with bankrolls who can post $100 million. The Yankees just have to guess how high that fee might be and try to beat it if they want Darvish that badly.

Whatver money is left could possibly go to another pitcher if the Yankees are sure they want to ship Burnett out of town and they are willing to pay most, if not all, of his contract. If they do make that decision, Buerhle looks to be the most attractive target to replace Burnett.

A startung staff of Sabathia, either Darvish or Wilson, Buerhle, Hughes and Nova somehow does not seem so bad, does it?

Yanks Need Fourth OF And Backup At First In 2012

With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.

PART FOUR – THE BENCH

PRIORITY NO. 1: Who will replace Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones?

The Yankees bench is the only place, other than the starting pitchers, where there will be a few changes. The Yankees will retain all their starters in 2012.

The bench will be a different story. starting at designated hitter.

Jesus Montero figures to be the current odds-on favorite to win that job coming off his very nice debut during the Yankees’ stretch run to the division title. Though he is only 21, Montero is showing skills with the bat that are far beyond his years.

Normally the Yankees would prefer to have a left-handed DH to take advantage of right-handed pitching and the short porch in right. But Montero has never been platooned in the minors and his power stroke is to right-center. If Montero does well in spring training it would be hard to keep him off the roster and even harder to not start him at DH.

Of course, there are those in the Yankee organization who believe Montero should develop as a catcher. But Montero’s defense behind the plate is still not as polished as it could be and the Yankees face a lot of teams like the Rays and Angels who will steal at the drop of a hat

But if Russell Martin is the starting catcher placing Montero as his backup would mean he would only start once a week and he could not DH, less the Yankees lose the DH if Martin is injutred. That is why it is more likely the Yankees will keep either Francisco Cervelli or rookie Austin Romine as the backup catcher to Martin.

Though Cervelli still needs to work on his throwing, he is still considered a very good defensive catcher who calls a good game and has the trust of the pitching staff. Likewise, both manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, who know a thing or two about catching believe that Romine, at age 22, is already a major-league catcher defensively.

The battle in the spring may come down to two factors:

(1) Cervelli, 25, will have to prove to the Yankees he is over the concussion that short-circuited his season in September and that he can stay healthy. Cervelli has sustained a broken wrist, various concussions and last season broke a bone in his right foot fouling off a pitch in spring training.

(2) Romine will have to prove he can improve as a hitter at the major-league level. Romine will never be the power threat Montero will become. But the Yankees would like him to at least hold his own much like Cervelli has since he has become the backup catcher.

Keeping either Cervelli or Romine will allow the Yankees to keep Montero as a DH and emergency catcher much like they had last season with Jorge Posada, though Posada was only used once in that capacity. Montero, however, could get some starts behind the plate against teams that do not steal bases. He surely will see some action behind the plate.

The only other holdover from the bench last season will be Eduardo Nunez, 24. Nunez received 309 at-bats last season as the primary infield backup in 2011. He was impressive, especially when he started at shortstop in place of an injured Derek Jeter and third base for an injured Alex Rodriguez.

Nunez hit .265 with five home runs and 30 RBIs. Nunez has the ability to drive the ball into the gaps and he also showed the ability to fly on the bases. In his 83 starts, he stole 22 bases. After that kind of rookie season, it is easy to see why general manager Brian Cashman bristled when the Seattle Mariners sought to add Nunez to a deal to bring Cliff Lee to the Yankees in 2010 that Cashman said no.

However, Nunez comes into camp with a lot of work to do on his defense. Nunez led the Yankees in errors with 20.

Nunez is tall and lean and his footwork on ground balls is atrocious. That leads to a lot of fielding errors. In addition, Nunez tends to throw wildly to first when pressed by fast runners or when he has to range deep for balls. That will take a lot of work this offseason and this spring to correct. The Yankees realize he will never be Ozzie Smith. They just would like him to cut his error rate to a respectable level.

Otherwise, 26-year-old Ramiro Pena will have a shot to reclaim his old job back. Though Pena is a lot steadier in the field, he hit only .100 in 40 at-bats last season and he does not have the line-drive bat or speed that Nunez presents.

Besides Posada, to whom the Yankees will decline to offer a contract, the Yankees also will not bring back reserve outfielder Andruw Jones or reserve infielder Eric Chavez.

Jones was largely a disappointment until midseason, when he got hot and hit .291 with nine home runs and 21 RBIs. Jones, 34, finished the season with a .247 average, 13 home runs and 33 RBIs as the right-handed=hitting DH and backup outfielder.

Chavez, 34, probably would be welcomed back by the Yankees if he wanted to play for the team. But Chavez is looking to possibly signing as a free agent to resume his career as a starting third baseman.

Chavez signed with the Yankees as a backup because of a series of neck and back injuries had him shelved for the better portions of the previous four seasons. Chavez signed with the Yankees in hopes of being able to re-establish himself as a starter who can still help a club.

He failed to stay healthy with the Yankees, though, when he broke a bone in his right foot running the bases in Detroit in early May and he did not return until July. In 160 at-bats, Chavez hit .263 with two home runs and 26 RBIs.

The Yankees would love to have his left-hand bat back as a backup to Rodriguez, who has been slowed by nagging injuries himself for the past four seasons and who is need of more rest these days at age 36. Chavez also spellled Mark Teixeira at first base and provided a veteran left-handed bat off the bench.

So now the Yankees will be looking to add a right-handed hitting outfielder and a lefty hitter who can play some first base and maybe some outfield and third.

The reason they need a right-handed hitting outfielder is because Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson are left-handed hitters and Nick Swisher is a switch-hitter who will hit primarily as lefty with the predominantly right-handed starters in baseball. It would be nice to have a right-handed hitter to spell either Gardner, Granderson and Swisher.

In addition, Gardner hit a paltry .233 against left-handers last season. It would be nice to have a free-agent outfielder like Reed Johnson, who as a right-handed hitter who batted .309 overall and .305 against left-handers in 2011. Johnson is hustling overachiever who also plays solid defense in all three outfield spots. The only thing he can’t do like Gardner is run. He has only 39 career steals.

That is the kind of cheap role player the Yankees will be looking for. The Yankees do have a lot of young outfielders in the minors such as Chris Dickerson, Greg Golson, Justin Maxwell, Colin Curtis and Melky Mesa. But Dickerson and Curtis hit left-handed and Golson and Mawelll have been disappointments as right-handed hitters. Mesa, 24, may need a year of seasoning before he is ready.

The Yankees also will be in the market for a left-handed hitting infielder who can play first, some third and perhaps the outfield. In other words, they are looking for an “Eric Hinske type.” Hinske, 34, has made a career as backup at third, first and the outfield and he has played on a lot of teams that have made the playoffs.

Last season, he hit .238 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs in 236 at-bats with the Braves. Hinske, however, is not a free agent.

The Yankees might take a look at Russell Branyan, 36, who has hit two of the longest home runs in Yankee Stadium history. Branyan hit .197 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in 127 at-bats for the Diamondbacks and the Angels last season. Branyan can play first, third and the outfield, however, he would be a real liability in the outfield.

But Branyan can still hit for power. He has 194 career home runs and most of them have been as a bench player.

He also could help the Yankees as a lefty DH against some tough right-handers.

The Yankees do have Brandon Laird to play both first and third base. However, Laird is a right-handed hitter and the Yankees are already loaded with right-handed hitters on the bench. Laird seems more likely to be ticketed back to Triple-A or a trade to another organization with A-Rod blocking his path to the majors.

But, in any case, the Yankees are not going out of their way to sign expensive free agent hitters this winter. If Yankee fans envision a lineup of Albert Pujols batting fourth, Prince Fielder batting fifth, Rodriguez hitting sixth, Carlos Beltran hitting seventh and Nick Swisher batting eighth and Teixeira batting ninth, you can keep on dreaming. It is not going to happen.

This team is going to allocate its free-agent dollars to acquiring starting pitching, period.

The rest of the moves Cashman will make are small ones like adding two bench players like he did in signing Jones and Chavez last winter.

This concludes the series on potential off-season moves. I will have an update to the starting pitching search in my next post. Stay tuned!


Yankees Keeping Status Quo With 2012 Lineup

With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.

NEXT:  PART 3 – STARTING LINEUP

PRIORITY NO. 2 – Will the Yankees keep the same starters in 2012?

The simple answer to the question is yes.

What is odd about the answer is that it totally ignores the fact that the Yankees suffered a lot of defeats, including their devastating loss in Game 5 to the Tigers, due to an inconsistent offense rather than the starting pitching.

If you are wondering why the offense was inconsistent the answer is easily discernible when you look at what the Yankee starters’ established norms in their previous three seasons and what they produced in 2011. Most of their overall numbers were down and that is the reason the Yankees did not hit well with runners in scoring position. It actually lost them games all season. Ultimately, it was what eliminated them from the playoffs.

Here are the 2011 starters’ established norms and the number of seasons they have put up those numbers. For comparison, look at their 2011 numbers:

DEREK JETER – 102 Runs, 13 Home Runs, 67 RBIs, .301 Average (3-year average)  2011 Stats: 84 Runs, 6 Home Runs, 61 RBIs, .297 Average

CURTIS GRANDERSON – 108 Runs, 25 Home Runs, 70 RBIs, .277 Average (3-year average) 2011 Stats: 136 Runs, 41 Home Runs, 119 RBIs, .262 Average

MARK TEIXEIRA – 106 Runs, 35 Home Runs, 117 RBIs, .285 Average (3-year average) 2011 Stats: 90 Runs, 39 Home Runs, 111 RBIs, .248 Average

ALEX RODRIGUEZ – He has not played more than 138 games since 2007. We will discuss him later in this post.

ROBINSON CANO – 103 Runs, 27 Home Runs, 97 RBIs, .320 Average (2-year average) 2011 Stats: 104 Runs, 28 Home Runs, 118 RBIs, .302 Average

NICK SWISHER – 88 Runs, 29 Home Runs, 86 RBIs, .270 Average (2-year average) 2011 Stats: 81 Runs, 23 Home Runs, 85 RBIs, .260 Average

DH – This spot was rotated between mostly Andruw Jones and Jorge Posada. We will discuss this later in this post.

RUSSELL MARTIN – 87 Runs, 16 Home Runs, 78 RBIs, .286 Average (2-year average) 2011 Stats: 57 Runs, 18 Home Runs, 65 RBIs, .237 Average

BRETT GARDNER – 97 Runs, 5 Home Runs, 47 RBIs, .277 Average (1-year total) 2011 Stats: 87 Runs, 7 Home Runs, 36 RBIs, .259 Average

If you look at the established norms and compare them to the 2011 statistics and assign a minus for each number lower and a plus for each number higher you get a good idea about how effective the Yankees’ offense was in 2011. There were 19 minuses on this list as opposed to nine pluses. Six of the nine pluses came from Granderson and Cano and you can make the case they were the only two Yankees starters who had anything special to say about their seasons.

Can a team win a World Series with an offense where so many elements had down seasons? I don’t think so.

Yet general manager Brian Cashman is telling reporters that he is not looking to add any “big-ticket” free agents like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. The reason is two-fold.

One, is the Yankees already are committed to a lot of dollars to Rodriguez, Jeter, Teixeira and Cano (through a contract option) and they already absorbed the contracts of Swisher and Granderson. They already were pretty much committed to re-signing Martin with a nice bump in his $4 million salary from 2011.

So where would Pujols or Fielder play? Not first base. Not likely as expensive DHs. Maybe left field but I don’t think Pujols or Fielder would sign to embarrass themselves out there.

The second reason is that the Yankees are still over the established salary limit in which they have to pay the luxury tax and Cashman has been told to reduce it or keep it level without hurting the club he puts on the field. Cashman has actually done this over the past few years. Adding Pujols or Fielder would put a huge hole in that plan and the Yankees are just not going to do it.

So the Yankees, instead, will look to 2012 to get improved production from their starting lineup.

Jeter’s second-half re-emergence was encouraging. There is no reason Granderson, barring injury, can’t continue his new-found ability to hit lefties and hit for greater power. Cano is simply the best hitter the Yankees have and looks as if he will bat in the No. 3 spot from the beginning of 2012, which is where he belonged for a long time.

Swisher looked like he never played baseball before the way he hit in April and May, but his 2011 numbers were very close his norms. That is why the Yankees picked up his option and Yankee fans can forget the Yankees looking to sign Carlos Beltran to replace him. That is not likely.

Martin’s numbers were off but he was hurt a great deal of the season and he ended up with more than 100 at-bats less than what he did when he played in 155 games and 151 games with the Dodgers in 2007 and 2008. The Yankees have to like the power and production he provides in addition to his defensive skills. So there is no buyer’s remorse with Martin.

The places where the Yankees have to look carefully at are Teixeira, Rodriguez, the DH spot and Gardner.

Teixeira and his .248 batting average have to be a major concern. In addition, he hit only .223 against right-handers. That is troublesome because of the fact there so few left-handed starters throughout baseball.

Batting coach Kevin Long will be tasked with trying to make some “Granderson-style” adjustments to Tex’s lefty stroke to improve his production in 2012. If it succeeds, the Yankees will have a productive bat in the No. 5 spot capable of 30 or more homers and 100 or more RBIs. But they also would be happier if Teixeira raised his batting average to his career average of .281 or better.

Considering that Teixeira is signed through the 2016 season the Yankees need to make sure he is back to the All-Star level player he had established himself to be.

That also will go for Rodriguez.

The Yankees have not received a full season of play from A-Rod since 2007. A series of injuries have limited Rodriguez the past four years with 2011 being his worst so far. He played in only 99 games dues to a series of injuries including a hip injury, a knee injury that required surgery and a sprained thumb.

He hit only 16 home runs, drove in 62 runs and batted .276. By the time the playoffs began, the Yankees had no idea what Rodrigue would do because he missed most of September with recurring thumb issues. He ended up hitting a weak .111 and struck out six times in 18 at-bats.

Getting the 36-year-old third baseman healthy and productive again are pretty much essential for the Yankees in 2012. But this series of injuries in a player this age is of some concern. Could this be just a coincidence? Could this be a natural aging process? Or could this be a result of A-Rod’s taking of performance-enhancing drugs?

The Yankees, who are committed to A-Rod through the 2017 season, better hope it is not the latter.

The fact is that the Yankees are going to have to rest Rodriguez and play him at DH in some games in order to keep him ready for the playoffs. That can work for the Yankees because Rodriguez can average 30-35 home runs, drive in more than 100 runs and hit around .275 playing in 140 games. But they can pretty much kiss the playoffs goodbye if the injuries continue to keep Rodriguez on the shelf for long periods of time.

Rodriguez will be watched closely and carefully in spring training.

The Yankees also need to make an effort to find out just what they have in Gardner.

There is no doubt he is fast and he did contribute 49 stolen bases last season. He also probably was robbed of a Gold Glove by Alex Gordon of the Royals. He played a quality left-field.

But there are still holes in his game. Gardner can be productive hitting .277 as he did in 2010. But he hit a disappointing .259 in 2011. There were also many times he would fall into prolonged slumps even though he did cut his strikeout total. The real issue was left-handers ate him for lunch. He hit only .233 against them last season.

The Yankees need to look at finding a right-handed hitter who do the things Gardner can do. A good example is Reed Johnson, who is free agent that played for the Cubs last season.

Johnson can play all spots in the outfield and hit .309 with five home runs with 28 RBIs and hit .309 in 248 at-bats. He hit lefties at a .305 clip and he can play a very good outfield. His only drawback is that he is not an accomplished base-stealer. He has only 39 in his career.

But would manager Joe Girardi rather have a Johnson likely to get on base against a lefty or a Gardner who likely won’t even reach to steal? Look for the Yankees to make a move to get a righty-swinging outfielder this winter to platoon with Gardner.

The final spot is the DH. With Jones and Posada gone as free agents and likely not to be re-signed, the Yankees look to be in the market for a new DH. However, the caveat is that they will likely use the spot at times to rest older regulars like Rodriguez, Jeter, Teixeira, Swisher and Granderson.

But do not be surprised if the Yankees end up using Jesus Monetro as their primary DH in 2011.

The reason is that Montero truly impressed the Yankees with his 61 at-bat audition in September. He hit .328 with 4 home runs and 12 RBIs and made the postseason roster at age 21.

Montero is a catcher but the Yankees are not sure about his defensive work behind the plate.

With Martin scheduled to start and Francisco Cervelli to back Martin up the Yankees could keep Montero on the roster as a DH and an emergency catcher and allow defensive wizard Austin Romine catch a full season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Of course, using such a young player as a DH could be a detriment if they do not plan to develop him as a catcher. But Montero promises to be such a great hitter the Yankees might just want to see what he can do next season and worry about where to play him later.

But the bottom line is the Yankees will not be looking for any help with the starting lineup. But they will have a lot of work do to making the starters they do have more productive in 2012.

The Yankees must have a productive lineup in order to have any chance of winning their 28th championship in 2012.

NEXT: PART FOUR – THE BENCH

PRIORITY NO. 1: Who will replace Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones?

 

Montero, Romine Will Battle Cervelli For 2012 Role

With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.

NEXT:  PART 3 – STARTING LINEUP

PRIORITY NO. 1 – Who will the Yankees keep at catcher?

2011 was actually the Year One A.P. for the Yankees behind the plate. A.P. meaning “After Posada.”

The 40-year-old former All-Star and member of the “Key Three” Yankees that won four world titles over five seasons did not start a single game behind the plate and he only caught seven innings as an emergency replacement in a game in September.

The torch was passed smoothly to free agent Russell Martin, who left the Los Angeles Dodgers after a pair of injury-riddled seasons. Signed to a one-year, $4 million contract with an option for a second season, Martin impressed the Yankees in 2011 with his defense behind the plate.

The 28-year-old Ontario native won a Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2007 with the Dodgers but the Yankees did not begin to appeciate how good Martin was until they saw him handle their pitching staff this season. He was adept at blocking pitches in the dirt and, though his 30 percent rate of throwing out base-stealers was below his 40 percent career average, it was still better than the what the Yankees had been getting from Posada the past few seasons.

Martin and his toughness turned out to be a good fit for the Yankees despite the fact some nagging injuries cost Martin what looked to be a promising season as a hitter.

Martin was an All-Star catcher with the Dodgers in 2007 and 2008, averaging 16 home runs and 78 RBIs and batting .286 those two years. However, a serious hip injury in 2009 and a right knee injury in 2010 torpedoed his production and allowed the Dodgers to let him walk away as free agent.

The Yankees hoped after recovering from off-season knee surgery, Martin would regain his stroke at the plate. Early in the season, when Martin was healthy, they were proved correct.

At the end of April, Martin was hitting .293 with six home runs and 19 RBIs. However, Martin fouled a ball off his left big toe in early May and, later that month, he also injured his back lifting weights after a game. Martin likely would have benefitted from a stint on the disabled list to heal both injuries.

But he stayed on the active roster and played a lot of games in which his defense was not affected. His offense, however, took a precipitous nosedive. He hit .200 in May, .185 in June and .213 in July. It was obvious to manager Joe Girardi that the back and toe injuries played a big part. Even so, Martin still was selected to his first American League All-Star team.

Martin did pick up his offensive game somewhat in the second half and finished the season with 18 home runs, 65 RBIs and a .237 batting average. Other than the batting average, the Yankees were pleased with his production and his execellent work behind the plate was a huge bonus.

So it will not be surprising to see Martin back behind the plate for the Yankees in 2012.

That is pretty much a given. Posada completed a four-year contract and he will not be offered a contract to stay with the Yankees. He must find a team willing to allow him to catch again or be forced to retire.

The biggest competition for the Yankees for any position in 2012 will be the fight for the backup catching spot because the Yankees have a wealth of options and talent at the position.

Last season, Francisco Cervelli was Martin’s primary backup. Despite missing the first month of the season with a broken bone in right foot he sustained in spring training, Cervelli acquitted himself pretty well.

Cervelli showed a knack for getting key hits with runners in scoring position and,, surprisingly enough, he was developing a bit of a power stroke with the bat until he suffered the third concussion of his career on a violent collision with the Orioles’ Nick Markakis at home plate in a September contest in Baltimore.

Cervelli missed the rest of the season and was not added to the postseason roster.

He hit .266 with four home runs and 22 RBIs in 43 games. But his defense left a little bit to be desired.

Cervelli, 25, committed six errors compared to Martin’s 10 in much fewer games. He also only threw out four of 28 base-stealers (14%). So entering 2012, Cervelli will have to prove No. 1 that he is healthy and can stay healthy and No. 2 that he can cut down on the errant pickoff throws and throw out more base-runners.

Cervelli’s job will be made tougher by the presence of two young bright catching prospects the Yankees have in 21-year-old Jesus Montero and 22-year-old Austin Romine.

Both were brought up to the big club in September. Montero was recalled mainly to provide a big bat off the bench and to DH. Romine was summoned after Cervelli had to be shelved for the season.

Neither young catcher disappointed the Yankees.

Montero provided both power and average by hitting .328 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in only 61 at-bats. Yankee fans marveled at what could be the Yankees’ best pure power-hitting prospect they have groomed since they brought up a young Mickey Mantle in 1951. Montero’s hitting prowess has been compared by scouts to that of Mike Piazza and Manny Ramirez.

His power stroke is also geared to right-center, which take advantage of the shorter dimensions of Yankee Stadium.

The problem is the Yankees are not sold on Montero as a catcher defensively. His 6-foot-4 frame makes it harder for him to block balls in the dirt and he is not as polished with his throws to second base. But the last two American League Gold Glove winners at catcher have been similarly tall catchers in Joe Mauer of the Twins and Matt Wieters of the Orioles.

The fact is the Yankees either have to give up on Montero ever being a catcher and teach him to play first base or they use him as an emergency catcher and DH as they did with Posada last season. The problem is in order to become a better catcher, Montero has to catch. The Yankees have even limited his time behind the plate in the minors.

So this spring training, it will be crucial for Montero to show he can handle the work behind the plate and do all the little things like calling pitches, nailing base-runners and blocking low pitches.

Romine is just the opposite.

Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena both agree that Romine is ready now to be a full-time catcher defensively. He is a polished receiver, who can call a good game, block pitches and he has a very good arm. However, Romine is still a work in progress with the bat.

He hit .286 with six home runs and 47 RBIs at Double-A Trenton. However, hit hit only .198 in 19 at-bats with the Yankees. If you could combine Romine’s defense and Montero’s bat into one catcher, you would likely have an perennial All-Star at the position. But the game is not played that way.

That means the Yankees will have to make a big decision this spring between Cervelli, Montero and Romine.

There is a very good possibility that the Yankees might opt to keep Cervelli another season as a backup in order to get Romine a season of experience at the Triple-A level at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But that leaves Montero.

Do the Yankees keep Montero as an emergency catcher and DH or do they send him to Triple-A with Romine? How would the two fare splitting the catching duties there? That would be an issue.

Of course, the Yankees might look to the trade market for a starting pitcher and Montero would be a coveted player for any major-league team because of his bat. But Yankee fans might just run general manager Brian Cashman out of town if he does that. Montero has a lot of fans in the Bronx already and they want him to stay in pinstripes.

This is easily the Yankees’ deepest position heading into 2012.

The reason is the Yankees have an even younger catching prospect in Gary Sanchez, who is only 18 and is considered the best defensive catcher in the Yankees’ organization. The front office also expects he will be as good a hitter as Montero minus the awesome power.

Sanchez likely will advance to Double-A and is about two years away from making an impact with the Yankees. But the Yankees, with Romine and Montero in the fold, can afford to wait for him.

PRIORITY NO. 2 – Will the Yankees keep the same starters in 2012?

Yankees In Market For Some Lefty Relief Help

With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.

PART 2 – Relief Pitching

PRIORITY NO. 1 – Finding a second left-hander or two

NOTE: As I predicted, the New York Yankees were able to keep CC Sabathia off the free-agent market by signing him an one-year contract extension that will pay him $122 million over the next five seasons and the Yankees will control an option to bring him back in 2017. This means the Yankees can turn their sights to Priority No. 2 (Fixing A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes) and Priority No. 3 (signing or trading for another starting pitcher). Sabathia’s signing is double bad news for the Texas Rangers. They were looking to add Sabathia to their rotation and now they face the prospect of losing C.J. Wilson to the Yankees. That would be enough to send Rangers manager Ron Washington back on drugs.

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The Yankees, simply stated, had the best bullpen in the major leagues in 2011.

The proof is in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series with the Tigers. The only run given up after Ivan Nova left the game with an injury after the first inning was off of Sabathia. The bullpen itself kept the Tigers within striking distance for a comeback that never came.

Looking at 2012, the Yankees can again point to their bullpen as being the strongest part of this team.

At age 41, Mariano Rivera showed no real signs of aging by saving 44 of 49 games and becoming the major-league leader in all-time saves with 603. For the fourth straight season and the eighth season out of the last nine, Rivera recorded an ERA under 2.00. Rivera is under contract for another season and that is just fine with the Yankees because having the greatest reliever in major-league history in your bullpen is a huge plus.

The Yankees also have managed to shorten games by the use of their setup men.

Nobody did that better than David Robertson last season. With injuries shelving both Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain, Robertson, 26, stepped up his game to go 4-0 with a 1.90 ERA and strike out 100 batters in  66 2/3 innings. He also tied Daniel Bard of the Red Sox for the American League in holds with 34 and he earned a selection to pitch in the 2011 All-Star Game.

Robertson’s best work, though, came in pressure situations – either ones he inherited or those messes he created for himself. Robertson was able to wriggle out of bases-loaded situations with amazing regularity.

The Yankees also will have 32-year-old right-hander Rafael Soriano back for the 2012 season. Soriano has elected not to opt out of his three-year contract and remain with the Yankees for $11 million this coming season and $14 million for 2013.

Soriano, who led the major leagues with 45 saves in 2010, was 2-3 with a 4.12 ERA and two saves in a season plagued by elbow soreness. Soriano pitched exceptionally well after he returned from the disabled list in July. He was 1-2 with a 3.33 ERA and he ended up with 23 holds.

The only question is will Soriano regain his eighth inning role from Robertson in 2012? Either way the Yankees know that most teams will have to obtain the lead by the sixth inning or face the prospect of losing the game because Robertson, Soriano and Rivera are pretty tough to beat when they are all healthy and pitching well.

The Yankees also possibly may have Joba Chamberlain back healthy again.

Chamberlain, 26, missed most of the 2011 season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He was effective in the 27 games he pitched. He was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA and he recorded 12 holds.

Reports indicate Chamberlain is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation and he hopes to be ready to go once spring training begins in February. But with Robertson and Soriano filling the setup roles in the bullpen, the Yankees can afford to be cautious with Chamberlain. They will gladly start the season with Chamberlain on the disabled list and bring him along slowly to make sure he is 100 percent.

The rest of the Yankees’ bullpen in 2011 was pretty good. The Yankees got good work out of right-handers Cory Wade and Luis Ayala.

Wade, 28, was 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA after being acquired off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays in June. Ayala, 33, made the team out of spring training after being signed as free agent and was 2-2 with a 2.09 ERA.

Wade is likely to be retained for 2012 as insurance policy on Chamberlain but Ayala likely will not return.

That leaves the only left-hander the Yankees had in 2011, Boone Logan. Next to A.J. Burnett, the 27-year-old Logan is the pitcher Yankee fans love to the hate the most.

At times, Logan can be brilliant. Other times, Logan can be awful. Overall, Logan was 5-3 with a 3.46 ERA for the Yankees. However, he is terribly miscast as “lefty specialist.” It is sort of like asking Owen Wilson to play the part of Tony Soprano in the “The Sopranos.” It just doesn’t work.

Left-handed hitters hit .260 off of Logan while right-handers hit .262 off him.

That points up the Yankees’ biggest need in 2012: Looking for a reliable and effective lefty specialist.

The Yankees ignored my pleas to go all out to sign free-agent lefty Scott Downs last off-season. Downs ended up signing a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels and he was 6-3 with a 1.34 ERA with 26 holds for the Angels. Instead, the Yankees overpaid Soriano to accept a setup role.

The Yankees did sign left-hander Pedro Feliciano from the New York Mets. But the 35-year-old free agent developed a shoulder soreness in spring training and ended up undergoing rotator cuff surgery without ever throwing a pitch for the Yankees in 2011. He likely won’t pitch in 2012 and his two-year contract with Yankees will end with him very much a question mark as a free agent in 2013.

The Mets abused Feliciano by pitching him in a major-league high of 344 appearances over the four previous seasons, including 92 in 2010. Feliciano paid the price for it and he likely will never be the same pitcher he was.

The Yankees also hoped to have veteran left-hander Damaso Marte back in 2011. But the 36-year-old hero of the 2009 postseason championship run for the Yankees has not be able to recover from left shoulder surgery he underwent in 2010. The Yankees have since declined an option on him and released him.

So the Yankees are in the market for a lefty specialist in 2012 who can either augment or replace Logan.

There are no other left-handers listed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster. There no lefties who would be of much help in the bullpen in the minor leagues. So general manager Brian Cashman must look to acquire several candidates to audition in spring training.

One pitcher the Yankees would love to have is Rafael Perez of the Indians. Perez, 29, was 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA and 12 holds with the Indians in 2011. Perez was replaced as the primary lefty in the bullpen by 28-year-old Tony Sipp.

But Perez can still get out left-handed batters. They batted only .237 against him last season.

The Yankees also might be interested in Eric O’Flaherty, 26, of the Braves and Sean Marshall, 29, of the Cubs. Both of them had excellent 2011 seasons. But they would cost dearly in a trade.

Guillermo Mota, 38, could be a big free-agent target. He was 2-2 with a 3.81 ERA in 52 appearances with the Giants. More impressive was his 77 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. Lefties hit just .234 off him in 2011. His age might be a concern but, given the strength of the Yankees’ bullpen, he might be worth an offer.

Look for the Yankees to bring in at least two left-handed relievers to compete for a spot in the bullpen in spring training.

Of course, the Yankees’ right-handers do have an ability to get out lefties.

Left-handers hit only .240 off Rivera, .156 off Robertson, .250 off Chamberlain, .246 off Wade and .250 off Ayala. They only feasted on Soriano, who was hit for a .302 by left-handers last season. The effectiveness of the right-handers against left-handers is one reason why the bullpen was such a strength in 2011.

Given the depth here, it looks like the bullpen – barring injury – looks to be just as strong in 2012.

NEXT:  PART 3 – STARTING LINEUP

PRIORITY NO. 1 – Who will the Yankees keep at catcher?

 

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