February 2012

Pineda, Banuelos Drawing Raves From Yankees

Most of the early buzz around the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, has revolved around two young starting pitchers, Michael Pineda and Manny Banuelos.

That is just fine with Yankee genetral manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi because a lot of the team’s future is riding on those two young arms.

Pineda, 23, came to camp 10 pounds overweight and burdened by the pressure that Yankee fans expect him to be great because he was traded from the Seattle Mariners for one of the best young power-hitting prospects the Yankees have ever developed in Jesus Montero.

However, once the Yankees saw what Pineda had in his bullpen sessions they have been gushing with praise. With good reason, too.

The first thing you notice about Pineda is that he has the same intimidating height as staff ace CC Sabathia. But he also backs it up with an electric fastball and a biting slider.

On Monday, minor-league outfielders Colin Curtis and Melky Mesa stood in the batter’s box to face Pineda and Sabathia at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Each pitcher threw about 25 pitches and there was not much in the way of solid contact by either Curtis or Mesa.

“He’s a monster,” Curtis said about Pineda. “He’s big up [on the mound.]“

Veteran catcher Gustavo Molina also praised Pineda’s stuff. “Really good stuff. That’s the first time I have caught [Pineda]. It looks like he has power in everything he throws. It looked good for me. They know what they are doing. That is why they made the move.”

During his session on Monday, Pineda mixed in a handful of change-ups. Pitching coach Larry Rothshild and Girardi want Pineda to use spring training to work on throwing the change-up so he can add it to his arsenal during the season. Pineda threw only his fastball and slider in his rookie season in which he was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA wit the Mariners.

“It is important to him, and it is important that he works on it in spring training,” Girardi said.

Meanwhile, Banuelos caught the eye of guest pitching instructor and fellow left-hander Andy Pettitte on Monday.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen him throw. He looks great, man,” Pettitte said. “The ball just explodes coming out of his hand.”

Banuelos, 20, was a combined 6-7 with a 3.75 ERA in 27 starts at Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season. However, Banuelos walked 71 batters in 129 2/3 innings and he realizes that it was way too many.

So Banuelos is trying to command his fastball in the strike zone and keep the pitch more consistent.

For his part, Petitte was thoroughly impressed by what he saw.

“You never know what anybody’s going to do until they get to the big-league level and they go out there and they are kind of battle-tested,” Pettitte said. “You can talk about people all you want, but he looks great. His stuff looks great.”

Because the Yankees have six starters competing for the five-man rotation, Banuelos will be sent back to Triple-A Scranton along with fellow starters Dellin Betances, David Phelps, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell to work on his craft without the pressure of the big lights in the Bronx.

But Pettitte does a future for Banuelos and the Yankees could call him up at some point if he is needed this season. But a more realistic ETA is probably 2013.

BOMBER BANTER

Girardi announced how his rotation will line up for the beginning of the Grapefruit League season and Warren will get the starting nod for Friday’s exhibition game against the University of South Florida at Steinbrenner Field. First pitch will be at 1:05 p.m. Ivan Nova will open the official Grapefruit League season on Saturday at 1:05 p.m. against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field in Clearwater, FL. That game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network. Veteran Freddy Garcia will have the honor of opening the home schedule on Sunday against the Phillies at 1:05 p.m. Pineda will make his spring debut on Monday against the Phillies in Clearwater, also at 1:05 p.m. CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes will each pitch in a March 6 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bradenton, FL. Hiroki Kuroda will make his Yankee debut on March 7 at home against the Tampa Bay Ray at 1:05 p.m.  . . .  Robinson Cano has been excused from camp in order to attend the funeral in the Dominican Republic for his grandmother, who passed away on Sunday.  . . .  The Yankees announced that outfielder Chris Dickerson has cleared waivers and has been outrighted to the Triple-A Scranton roster. Dickerson, 29, will remain in camp because he is out of minor-league options. The move clears roster space for Eric Chavez, who signed a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Yankees to return as corner infield reserve in 2012. In another move, the Yankees placed former Mariners closer David Aardsma on the 60-day disabled list. Aardsma, 30, saved 69 games for the Mariners in 2009 and 2010 but did not pitch last season after undergoing Tommy Jone surgery on his right elbow on July 22.

 

10 Things Yankees Need To Watch This Spring

When the Grapefruit League season begins in earnest for the New York Yankees on Saturday afternoon I have 10 things I will be looking at very closely. If these things look good than I will feel very good about the Yankees’ chances of returning to the World Series and perhaps their 28th world championship.  If I don’t see them than the Yankees’ 2012 season may be a repeat of 2011. What I am looking for includes:

  1. HITTING WITH RUNNERS IN SCORING POSITION.  I understand that in spring training we will see a lot of young players and minor leaguers in the lineup. But I will be focused on the players who start and those who will make the team as reserves. I want to see those players hit with runners in scoring position consistently. This was a weakness of the offense in 2011 and who could forget the innings of futility as the Yankees trailed the Detroit Tigers by a run in that disappointing Game 5 of the playoffs? Good habits are built upon in spring training and I want to see the Yankee hitters driving in runs consistently this spring.
  2. MARK TEIXEIRA’S BATTING AVERAGE AGAINST RIGHT-HANDERS.  Last season, Teixeira hit .223 off right-handers. 223! That is one reason he hit just .248 overall after hitting just .256 in 2010. Teixeira came to the Yankees as an hitter who could hit to the opposite field. Much like Jason Giambi before him, he has become pull happy and it has left him vulnerable to breaking pitches. Teixiera has been working with hitting coach Kevin Long to improve his left-handed approach and he also has talked about bunting to discourage the radical shift teams employ on him. But the bottom line is that he has to improve hitting left-handed for the Yankees’ offense to click.
  3. BRETT GARDNER’S AVERAGE AGAINST LEFT-HANDERS.  Gardner hit .233 against left-handers in 2011 and it became quite a liability for the offense in 2011. Andruw Jones could force his way into a platoon in left-field if Gardner does not improve his hitting against lefties this season. For all of Gardner’s speed, it is still surprising that he has not developed into an adept bunter. I want to see marked improvement there also. Gardner can be a real weapon if he is able to showcase his speed. He can’t do that if he is habitually walking back to the dugout with his bat in his hand.
  4. THE VELOCITY ON PHIL HUGHES’ FASTBALL.  When Phil Hughes was healthy he was a productive pitcher for the Yankees. In 2009, his shift to the bullpen to set up Mariano Rivera was a key to the Yankees’ world championship season. In 2011, he won a spot in the rotation, made the American League All-Star team and finished the season 18-8 with 4.19 ERA. Last season, weakness in his right shoulder put him on the disabled list and a late season back injury cut short a pretty impressive comeback. He enters this spring as a candidate for the No. 5 spot, as he was in 2010. He is still only 25 and he has plenty of time to establish himself as the quality pitcher he was thought to be when he was a No. 1 draft choice in 2004. Initial reports indicate Hughes is throwing well and without any pain. If he is back anywhere close to his 2010 form the Yankees will have a No. 5 starter who won 18 games. How many teams can say that?
  5. THE HEALTH OF RUSSELL MARTIN.  The Jorge Posada era ended in 2010 and the Russell Martin era begin in 2011. Martin came into camp last season rehabbing his left knee after surgery. Though he was able to hit the ground running in April (hitting .292 with six home runs and 19 RBIs) he did not hit over .213 in any month until August. That is because a toe injury followed by back injury slowed him down considerably. With Posada retired and Jesus Montero traded to the Mariners, Martin is the team’s best offensive weapon at the position. He has to stay healthy for the Yankees to be able to make a run at a championship. His excellent defense is just a bonus.
  6. THE REAL DEREK JETER NEEDS TO SHOW UP.  In 2010, Jeter hit a miserable – for him – .270. He worked with Long on a new approach that featured no stride. But Jeter wasn’t comfortable with the change and he was hitting .242 on May 1. But after a calf injury shelved him in July, Jeter reworked his swing and he hit .334 the rest of the way. The Jeter who hit .334 must be the one that shows up this season. Jeter is the table-setter at the top of the lineup and when he is getting on base, the team scores a lot of runs. When he doesn’t, the team struggles.
  7. CC SABATHIA NEEDS TO MAINTAIN HIS WEIGHT.  CC might love Cap’n Crunch cereal but he is going to have to lay off the stuff as the season progresses. Though Sabathia disagrees, it is a fact that as he gained weight down the stretch his ERA went up. Sabathia was on track to win 20 games easily but he had to settle for 19 again. He also was ineffective the playoffs against the Tigers. If you see CC’s girth expanding, you can bet the Yankees’ postseason chances are shrinking. He has vowed to maintain his training regimen until the end of the season and let’s hope he does it. Sabathia is still the ace and the pitcher teams fear most.
  8. THE RETURN OF JOBA CHAMBERLAIN.  Because of the strength of the Yankees’ bullpen and the presence of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, Joba is almost a forgotten man this spring. Chamberlain is rehabbing after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in July and he is not expected to be able to return to the team until this July. The Yankees can afford to bring him back slowly and they will. If he comes back strong the Yankees might have easily the best bullpen in baseball. Chamberlain is only 26 and he still can be a productive pitcher with the Yankees. His return might be a real shot in the arm during a potential pennant chase.
  9. THE FIELDING OF EDUARDO NUNEZ.  Nunez won the backup infielder job last spring with good reason He is an excellent hitter, with line-drive power and he can run like the wind. When he received regular playing time when Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were injured he shined at the plate. However, the increased playing time also exposed his weakness in the field. Nunez committed a team-high 21 errors and most of them were due to his poor footwork. Nunez needs to show the Yankees he has turned the corner is learning how to play in the field. At age 24 he could be Jeter’s eventual replacement at short. He just has to prove he can do it.
  10. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING – ALEX RODRIGUEZ MUST REMAIN HEALTHY ALL SEASON.  Injuries have dogged Rodriguez for the past four seasons. Last spring, he reported to camp lighter, looked quick in the field and he was hammering the ball all through the exhibition season. A lot of good it did. Rodriguez hurt his knee in June, tried to play through it, admitted he couldn’t and then had to undergo knee surgery. After missing six weeks, A-Rod returned and he promptly sprained his left thumb in the first game he played. That injury pretty much knocked out his ability to hit the rest of the season. Rodriguez must avoid all those serious aches and pains in 2012 for the Yankees to have even a prayer of advancing to the World Series. A-Rod is the hitter pitchers fear most when he is locked in. The Yankees need him desperately this season. He is they key to it all.

 

Yankees Begin Spring As Favorites In AL East

With the New York Yankees exactly one week away from their Grapefruit League opener in Clearwater, FL, against the Philadelphia Phillies, there is a relaxed and upbeat mood filtering throughout their spring training complex in Tampa, FL.

There are 67 players in camp and yet most every role on the 25-man roster has been resolved, barring injury, of course.

There is one starting pitching spot up for grabs between 25-year-old right-hander Phil Hughes and 35-year-old right-hander Freddy Garcia. Hughes is coming off an injury-plagued 2011 season in which he was 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA. Garcia, meanwhile, rescued what looked to be a thin rotation by going 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA.

If the Yankees’ management and coaching staff had their druthers, Hughes would be 100% healthy and pitching like he did in 2010 when he was 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA. If Hughes did that he would make the rotation even stronger because not many teams could boast having a No. 5 starter who won 18 games.

If Garcia loses the battle for that final starting spot, he would be shifted to the bullpen as a long relief man and spot starter. Garcia also is good insurance should any of the starters come down with an injury. Depth in the rotation will be a key in 2012.

There will be a battle this spring for a job as a second left-hander in the bullpen to pair with Boone Logan.

The two main candidates are 30-year-old veteran Clay Rapada, who was signed this week when former Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima failed his physical and was released, and 23-year-old Cesar Cabral, who the Yankees received from the Kansas City Royals after the Royals selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Red Sox.

Rapada was 2-0 with a 6.06 ERA in 32 games with the Baltimore Orioles last season. However, he held left-handed batters to a .104 batting average.

Cabral was 1-0 with a 1.62 ERA with Class A Salem and 2-4 with a 3.52 ERA with Double-A Portland. More impressive was the fact that he struck out 70 batters in 55 innings.

The Yankees also invited Juan Cedeno and Michael O’Connor to camp as non-roster players. Cedeno, 28, was 3-1 with 6.49 ERA with Rio Grande Valley in the North American Baseball League in 2011. O’Connor, 31, was 0-1 with a 2.70 ERA in nine games with the Mets last season and 5-5 with a 5.22 ERA with the Mets’ Triple-A team in Buffalo.

If none of the four left-handers are impressive enough to remain on the roster, manager Joe Girardi said he would just select another right-hander and keep Logan as the only left-hander in the bullpen.

The backup catcher role behind starter Russell Martin is also an open competition between veteran Francisco Cervelli and rookie Austin Romine.

Cervelli, 25, hit .266 with four home runs and 22 RBIs in 43 games with the Yankees last season. However, Cervelli began the 2011 season on the disabled list with a broken bone in his left foot and his season was ended in early September when he suffered a concussion in a collision at home plate with the Orioles’ Nick Markakis.

Cervelli has been cleared to resume baseball activities but he will have to prove he can stay healthy to remain the backup catcher.

Romine, 23, is already a very polished defensive catcher but he has to prove he can hit at the major-league level. Romine hit .286 with six home runs and 47 RBIs in 85 games for Double-A Trenton. He hit .15o in 20 at-bats with the Yankees when he was called up to replace Cervelli as the backup catcher last September.

The prevailing wisdom in camp is that the job is Cervelli’s to lose. The Yankee brain trust would prefer that Romine get an additional year of seasoning at the Triple-A level and he would still be available if Martin or Cervelli had to be placed on the disabled list.

Theoretically, there also is a competition for one backup infield spot. The holdover, Eduardo Nunez, would seem to have a huge edge in retaining it. Nunez, 24, hit .265 with five home runs, 30 RBis and 22 stolen bases. Nunez particularly shined when he replaced shortstop Derek Jeter and third baseman Alex Rodriguez when they were on the disabled list.

However, Nunez plays the field like he is Edward Scissorhands. His 21 errors in 122 1/3 innings in the field is horrific. Nunez will have to show marked improvement this spring.

Former backup Ramiro Pena, 26, lost his job to Nunez last spring and is back to try to reclaim it. He is pretty much the polar opposite of Nunez. Pena is an exceptional player in the field but his offense is severely lacking. Pena hit .100 in 40 at-bats with the Yankees last season.

The Yankees also invited 31-year-old utility infielder and outfielder Bill Hall to camp as a non-roster invitee. Hall hit a combined .211 with two home runs and 14 RBIs in separate stints with Houston and San Francisco last season. Hall is valuable in that he can play all spots on the diamond except first base and catcher.

But Hall and Pena are both longshots to make the roster. Pena likely will be sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and could be called up in case of an injury to an infielder.

The starting lineup is set and Girardi will likely set the batting order as follows:

  1. Derek Jeter SS
  2. Curtis Granderson CF
  3. Robinson Cano 2B
  4. Alex Rodriguez 3B
  5. Mark Teixeira 1B
  6. Raul Ibanez/Andruw Jones DH
  7. Nick Swisher RF
  8. Russell Martin C
  9. Brett Gardner LF

The starting rotation is mostly set and reads as follows:

  1. CC Sabathia
  2. Ivan Nova
  3. Michael Pineda
  4. Hiroki Kuroda
  5. Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia

One oddity for the Yankees is that if Nunez and Cervelli make the team the Yankees would have the same bench as last season with the following:

  1. Francisco Cervelli
  2. Eduardo Nunez
  3. Eric Chavez
  4. Raul Ibanez or Andruw Jones

The bullpen will consist of the following:

  1. Mariano Rivera (closer)
  2. David Robertson (setup)
  3. Rafael Soriano (setup)
  4. Boone Logan (lefty)
  5. Cesar Cabral or Clay Rapada (second lefty)
  6. Corey Wade (middle innings)
  7. Freddy Garcia or Phil Hughes (long relief and spot starts)

You can sum up this roster by saying the starting rotation has been improved from the 2011 rotation and the starting lineup with the addition of Ibanez replacing the retired Jorge Posada looks formidable if they can remain healthy. The bullpen, the strength of the 2011 club, looks to just as string in 2012 and the bench is pretty deep and talented.

This team led the American League with the 97 wins in 2011 despite the fact the team suffered through key injuries to Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano. They also won despite having a patchwork rotation filled by free-agent right-handers Garcia and Bartolo Colon.

I would not dare predict a 28th world championship because the Los Angeles Angels with Albert Pujols and the Detroit Tigers with Prince Fielder could lie in wait in the playoffs. But this easily is the class of the American League East and I do not think there is any doubt about it.

The division is the Yankees to lose.

 

2012 Looks Like More Trouble For ‘Red Flops’

As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.

PART 4 – BOSTON RED SOX

A fellow Yankee fan once called the Red Sox the Red Flops because of their penchant for running out to big leads in the American League East and fading badly in the second half. After the famous “Collapse of 2011″ the term seems apropos.

On Sept. 3, they were 84-54, a half game behind the Yankees and nine games up on the Tampa Bay Rays. They finished the season with a dreadful 6-18 record and missed the playoffs by a game. In Boston that is not an oops, it is an eruption and it cost manager Terry Francona his job and general manager Theo Epstein fled to the Chicago Cubs.

Looking to 2012 the Red Flops hired ego-driven Bobby Valentine as manager. Ben Cherington, an Epstein assistant, took over as GM. They even dismissed first-year pitching coach Curt Young in favor of Bob McClure to keep their starting pitchers from getting bagged in the clubhouse on Samuel Adams.

Of course, that is odd because McClure pitched most of his career with the beer capital of the world in Milwaukee.

There is no doubt the starting pitching let the Red Sox down in 2011. They scored runs and the bullpen was good until it got overtaxed. But has this team addressed the areas of weakness enough to win the division in 2012?

Well, it does not look good.

STARTERS

The Red Sox were unable to acquire any starter of significance this winter because they had to re-sign free agent David Ortiz and the team was already perilously close to the salary mark that would incur the luxury tax.

So they return to the field with two of the pitchers who aided in the collapse (Josh Beckett and Jon Lester), one pitcher who was hurt most of the 2011 season (Clay Buchholz) and two big question marks behind them. That seems hardly like a recipe for success.

Beckett, 31, returns as the team ace after a season in which he was 13-7 with a 2.89 ERA. But an ankle injury late in the season forced him to fade like a typical Red Flop in September. He posted a 5.48 ERA in September. He also was in the center of the beer issue that drew the ire of teammates and the front office.

If Beckett wants to remain the ace he better start showing some leadership by example.

Lester, 28, is starting to look like the Red Sox version of Mike Mussina. He has all the talent and the pitches to be successful but he never takes that big step forward to be an elite pitcher. He was 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA but he also slid in September. He had only two quality starts from Aug. 27 to the season finale and was 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in the final month.

Buchholz, 27, made only 14 starts last season before ending up on the disabled list with what was eventually diagnosed as a stress fracture in his back. He finished with a record of 6-3 and a 3.48 ERA. There is no doubt he was sorely missed last season because Epstein failed to stock the Red Sox with any depth and the team floundered after he was shelved on June 16.

The Red Sox other two starters were veteran right-handers John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

If Lester is like Mussina then Lackey is looking like the Red Sox version of A.J. Burnett. Signed as free agent before the 2010 season, Lackey has done nothing but disappoint Red Sox Nation with bad pitching. He was 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA in 2010 but he got much worse in 2011 with a 12-12 mark and 6.41 ERA.

Red Sox fans have taken to calling him “Lacking.”

But there is good news for RSN, Lackey, 33, will not pitch at all in 2012 because he had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. There is no real guarantee Lackey will be any better in 2013, which will be the final year of his four-year contract. His days in Beantown look to be limited at this point.

Speaking of that, Red Sox fans also would like to see Matsuzaka, 31, gone after three injury-filled seasons in which he was a combined 16-15 with a plus 5.00 ERA in only 44 starts. Last season, he was shelved in June with a 3-3 record and a 5.30 ERA. Like Lackey he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

He possibly could return late in the season but there is no one banking on him coming back pitching like in he did in 2008 when he was 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. He is in the final year of lucrative six-year contract and the Red Sox seem to be counting the days they can part with him.

With Lackey and Dice-K on the shelf, the Red Sox have to come up with two starters and one of them is Daniel Bard, the team’s setup man the past two seasons. Bard, 26, does throw hard and he has two breaking pitches to mix in his arsenal.

But Bard also was the poster boy for the Red Sox collapse. Forced to pitch a lot to cover for weak starting pitching, Bard got hit hard and often in September, finishing the season 2-9 with a 3.33 ERA and five blown saves. Only July 31, Bard had a 1.76 ERA.

Now the question is can he be an effective starter? It has not worked for relievers lately. It did not work for Joba Chamberlain and Brandon Morrow of the Blue Jays has struggled to get past the fifth inning with the Blue Jays. Usually it works better when a starter becomes a reliever as it did with former Red Sox right-hander Dennis Eckersley.

Until Bard proves he can pitch deep into games consistently and does not fade late in the season as the innings pile up, he is big question mark in 2012.

For the fifth spot, the Red Sox issued an open casting call much like the Yankees did in 2011 with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.

They are looking at holdovers Alfredo Aceves and Andrew Miller as possible candidates. Aceves, 29, was 10-2 with a 2.61 ERA but made only four starts. He is better suited as a reliever, as he proved with the Yankees. Miller, a 26-year-old left-hander, was 6-3 but he had a horrible 5.54 ERA in 12 starts.

The Red Sox also signed former Yankee right-hander Ross Ohlendorf and three other right-handers including Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva to compete for the job this spring.

None of these candidates are going to impress the Red Sox faithful. They all have a lot of mileage on them and they all have not had much success in recent years.

This might be one of the weakest Red Sox rotations in many years and the lack of depth in it is the major problem. If Beckett, Lester or Buchholz are hurt, who steps up to replace them?

BULLPEN

The Red Sox allowed Jonathan Papelbon leave for the Philadelphia Phillies rather than pay him what he was worth as a closer for them over the past six seasons. The conventional wisdom was Bard would take over as the closer.

But the Red Sox made him a starter instead and opened up the job. They decided to fill it with 27-year-old right-hander Andrew Bailey, who was acquired in a trade with the Oakland Athletics.

Bailey is coming off two injury-plagued seasons but is pretty darn good when he is healthy. Bailey is 7-10 with a career ERA of 2.07 and 75 saves in 84 chances.

There is no doubt Bailey is an excellent closer. The only question is of the Red Sox can keep him healthy and can Bailey adjust to the very small dimensions of Fenway as opposed to the expansive Coliseum.

The Red Sox also traded with the Houston Astros for yet another former Yankee reliever in Mark Melancon. (Can the signing of Tanyon Sturtze be far behind?). Melancon, 26, was 8-4 with a 2.78 ERA and saved 20 out of 25 games for the lowly Astros last season. Melancon, who was touted years ago as the eventual successor to Mariano Rivera when he was in the Yankees’ minor-league system, will set up Bailey and can close if Bailey should revert to past form and pull up lame.

Speaking of lame, the Red Sox suffered a huge blow to their bullpen before pitchers reported to camp on Sunday because 30-year-old right-hander Bobby Jenks will miss more time when a pulmonary embolism was discovered in his lung. This was discovered after he had two back surgeries after pitching only 19 games last season. He is on the 60-day DL and he will be on a long road back to health.

Aceves also figures in the late innings because he is much more valuable in that spot.

The Red Sox got some use out of 29-year-old right-hander Matt Albers, who was 4-4 with 4.73 ERA in 56 games last season. The lefty specialist was 26-year-old Franklin Morales, who was 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA in 50 appearances. The Red Sox are hoping Rich Hill will come back from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow sometime this season.

The Red Sox think 24-year-old lefty Felix Doubront can take the second left-hander spot in the bullpen. He had no record and 6.10 ERA in 11 appearances last season. Doubront could also get a chance to start and he has some upside.

This bullpen is definitely in a state of flux. New personnel, new roles and there are some pitchers coming off injuries or currently rehabbing injuries. It is not a recipe for success.

Valentine and McClure have a lot of decisions to make in the spring. For the Red Sox to succeed they need an excellent bullpen. For now, it looks just mediocre.

STARTING LINEUP

The Red Sox were largely a four-man offense – a very good four-man offense but a four-man offense nonetheless – in 2011.

First baseman Adrian Gonzalez was as advertised. He hit .338 with 27 home runs and 117 RBIs and played Gold Glove defense. The Red Sox hope Gonzalez, 29, is the fulcrum of the Bosox attack for many years to come.

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 season to re-establish himself in 2011. He hit .307 with 21 homers and 91 RBIs and also won a Gold Glove. Pedroia, 28, remains the spark-plug in the Red Sox engine. His grit and determination makes him the heart and soul of the team.

Designated hitter David Ortiz followed up a bounce-back 2010 season with another solid campaign in 2011. Ortiz, 36, hit .309 with 29 home runs and 96 RBIs. He is not the same feared hitter he was in his steroid days hitting behind Manny Ramirez but he is still good enough to help the offense.

The big surprise was center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who played only 18 games in 2010 and was accused of milking his rib injury by some teammates. Ellsbury, 28, must have been angry because he came back with a vengeance in 2011. He hit .321 with easily a career-high 32 home runs and 105 RBIs from the leadoff spot. He also stole 39 bases.

To most Red Sox observers, Ellsbury was the team’s MVP and would have won the American League MVP if Justin Verlander of the Tigers had not.

The big disappointments in this lineup were Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford.

Youkilis, who will be 33 when the season starts, still has not played any more than 147 games in a season. Last season, the combination of bursitis in his left hip and a sports hernia limited him to 120 games. He hit a disappointing .258 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs and he did not play third base as well he played first base. Youkilis must stay healthy and return to form if the Red Sox are to make a move in 2012.

Left-fielder Crawford, 30, arrived in Beantown with 409 career steals and .293 career batting average. His seven-year, $142 million contract was the signing that limited the Red Sox from adding pitching this winter. He also proved he did not fit in well at Fenway. He hit .255 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs and only 18 stolen bases. He also proved weak in the field despite having won a Gold Glove with the Rays in 2010.

More bad news about Crawford: Late in the winter Crawford realized his left wrist required surgery and he is not likely to be able to play on Opening Day. Crawford will either turn his game around or become one of the biggest albatross signings in baseball history.

The Red Sox have shuffled the deck in right-field and shortstop this season.

The Red Sox released aging outfielder J.D. Drew and they used promising youngster Josh Reddick in the Bailey trade.

The Red Sox did obtain outfielder Ryan Sweeney in the Bailey deal and he is a left-handed hitter like Reddick. However, the 27-year-old has been a huge disappointment in Oakland. He is career .283 hitter but he lacks both power and speed.

Holdover Darnell McDonald, 33, was brought up last season and he hit .236 with six home runs and 24 RBIs in 79 games. He could figure in an early platoon with Sweeney or win the job outright. Ryan Kalish, 23, hit .252 in 53 games and he will get a look also.

The Red Sox also picked up Cody Ross from the Giants. Ross, 31, bats right-handed and he figures to start n left-field until Crawford returns to health. Then he will shift to right in a platoon with either Sweeney or Kalish. Ross hit .240 with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs in 2011.

Shortstop also was shuffled for 2012. Starter Marco Scutaro was shipped to Colorado for right-handed pitcher Clayton Mortensen. Backup infielder Jed Lowrie was used in the Melancon trade with the Astros.

That leaves former Royals infielder Mike Aviles to start at the position. Aviles, 31, is a career .288 hitter but he hit only .255 with seven home runs and 39 RBIs in 91 games with the Royals and Red Sox.

The Jason Varitek era in Boston is officially over. Varitek was not re-signed and Jarrod Saltalamacchia enters his second season as the unquestioned starter for the Red Sox. Saltalamacchia, 26, is coming off a so-so 2011 season. He hit .235 with 16 homers and 56 RBIs. He also struck out 119 times in 358 at-bats so he is not exactly a selective hitter. The Red Sox also wish he would continue to improve his defense and throwing.

BENCH

The Red Sox will likely keep Ross, McDonald and either Sweeney or Kalish as backup outfielders. McDonald is valuable because he play all three spots and he is better in center.

The Red Sox picked up former Twins infielder Nick Punto as a reserve at second, short and third. Punto, 34, hit .278 with one home run and 20 RBIs with the Cardinals last season. Having Punto means the Red Sox can allow 22-year-old shortstop Jose Inglesias another season to develop at Triple-A. Inglesias can field but has not developed much as a hitter.

The team also picked up former Red Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach from the Rays. Shoppach, 31, hit .176 with 11 homers and 22 RBIs with the Rays and he replaces Varitek as the backup catcher. He is solid defensively.

This is a serviceable bench but I would hardly call it talent-laden or special.

ANALYSIS

The Epstein-Francona era is over. The main architects of the only two World Series championships in the last 96 years have fled. They left a financial constraint on the team that prevented them from addressing their crisis in starting pitching, the bullpen and in right-field.

The Crawford and Lackey signings along with the trades for since-departed Victor Matinez and Gonzalez left this very dollar-rich team weak in minor-league prospects and unable to find enough wiggle room to sign what they needed without breaking way past the level where the luxury tax kicks in.

This limits what the Red Sox will actually do this season. This is team that already is beset by injuries (Lackey, Dice-K, Crawford, Jenks) and they are severely lacking in depth before spring training has even started. It is hard to see how they find the money to fix what needs fixing if the ship should begin to flounder.

The Red Sox will only go as far their offense and their top three starters take them this season.

With the Rays a bit flawed it is easy to see both the Red Sox and Rays battling for second place behind the Yankees in 2012. Because of what happened to the Red Sox last season it hard to see how it could happen again. But that is what I am predicting.

I just have a sneaking suspicion that the Rays pitching will be the reason the Red Sox will finish third. The only question is can Valentine get out of town before RSN tries to lynch him. Good luck, with this bunch, Bobby. You are going to need it – along with a lot of Maalox.

Just call them the Red Flops.

 

2012 Rays Will Go As Far As Starters Take Them

As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.

PART 3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS

Last season was supposed to be the time that the Tampa Bay Rays dropped from contention in the American League East. After all, they lost their star outfielder in Carl Crawford, their slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, their league-leading closer in Rafael Soriano and almost all the elements of what was a very good bullpen in 2010.

Yet, the Rays made the playoffs with a miracle finish that overtook a Boston Red Sox team that choked its way to the finish line. The Rays qualified with a 91-71 record but they lost in the first round of the A.L. Division Series against the Texas Rangers.

What is in store for the Rays in 2012? Do they have another miracle or two left in them?

STARTERS

It is real easy to see what the Rays strategy is for 2012. Run out the best five starters you have and keep them in the game as long as you can to cover up a weak middle of the bullpen and hope the offense can muster enough stolen bases and home runs to eke out a victory.

Right-hander James Shields was the poster boy for this team. In 2010, he was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. Last season, he was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games. The question is will Shields pitch like he did in 2010 or 2011? As the dean of the staff at age 30, his fortunes will set the tone for the rest of the staff.

The ace of this staff was supposed to have been David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010. Price, 26, fell from his perch with a 12-13 mark and a 3.49 ERA. The problem is that Price is basically a one-pitch pitcher: his fastball. His breaking stuff was inconsistent and as a result he was a .500 pitcher. Price needs to harness control of his slider and develop even a decent change-up in order to be successful.

Many people were stunned the Rays dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. But the Rays knew they had rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson ready to jump into the rotation. Heliickson, 24, pitched as the Rays hoped with a 13-10 record and a 2.95 ERA. While Price is still searching for a change-up, Hellickson uses his as a weapon and the Rays hope he gets even better.

The Rays used right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots last season. But both pitchers struggled with command and injuries in 2011.

Davis, 26, was 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts and Niemann was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 23 starts.

One of these two pitchers is likely to lose their starting spot this spring. The Rays believe 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore may be ready for prime time in 2012. Moore made one start during the regular season, a five-inning shutout of the Yankees. Then he threw a gem to defeat the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Moore is a consensus pick to follow Hellickson as A.L. Rookie of the Year.

Though this is the best rotation in the division, there are still concerns. If Shields and Price do not pitch well and Hellickson and Moore do not follow up on their success, the Rays are in big trouble. This is a team that does not have much of Plan B behind its five starters.

BULLPEN

The Rays luck in 2011 even extended to their bullpen in 2011.

They replaced Soriano with former Yankee scapegoat Kyle Farnsworth as their closer and Farnsworth ended up pitching well. (Yankee fans may let out a primal scream now). Yep, Farnsworth, was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA and he saved 25 games out of 31 chances.

Journeyman right-hander Joel Peralta also did a nice job replacing Joaquin Benoit, who left to sign with Detroit. Peralta, 35, was 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA and he added six saves. Veteran right-hander Juan Cruz also helped tighten up the bullpen in the late innings but he was allowed to leave as a free agent.

So the Rays will be building their bullpen around Farnsworth and Peralta in 2012.

The Rays did pick up former closer Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels. Rodney, 34, has good stuff but has been bothered with back problems. He was 3-4 with 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011.

The Rays are hoping left-hander J.P. Howell will get over his arm problems and pitch like he did in 2009 when he was 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, Howell struggled and was 2-3 with 6.16 ERA in 46 games.

The Rays bullpen likely will be rounded out by disappointing left-hander Jake McGee, right-hander Brandon Gomes and the loser of the battle between Davis and Niemann for the final spot in the rotation.

There is no guarantee Farnsworth and Peralta will pitch like they did in 2011. There also is some real soft spots in middle relief and the lack of an effective left-hander may really hurt in a division filled with lefty hitters like Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira.

That means manager Joe Maddon might be forced to leave his starters in the game longer than he might like to cover up the deficiencies and that takes its toll on those starters late in the season. The bullpen is an area of some concern.

STARTING LINEUP

The Rays have always been a running team who like to bunt, take extra bases and force opponents into making errors. The loss of Crawford did not change that in 2011. However, the Rays newest emphasis is on the home run.

The Rays had five players hit 16 or more home runs in 2011 and they re-signed first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent and he hit 28 for the Cubs last season.

The team still revolves around third baseman Evan Longoria, who shook off another season of injuries to hit .244 with 31 home runs and 99 RBIs. The batting average has to be worrisome but Longoria is the team’s only real all-around threat as a hitter and power source.

The Rays also was boosted by a comeback season from Ben Zobrist, who hit .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs. He will likely play a lot at second base and some in right-field as he did last season.

The Rays also rely on the power and speed of centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.

Rookie Desmond Jennings arrived and he played well in 63 games. He hit .259 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs as the team’s leadoff hitter. The Rays have high hopes he will surpass Crawford as an athlete and player.

The Rays also caught a bit of luck when Matt Joyce finally began to live up to the promise he showed with the Detroit Tigers. Joyce started off hot but collapsed badly after the All-Star break. He finished with a .277 batting average with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs as a platoon right-fielder and DH.

Sean Rodriguez figures to be the primary shortstop in 2012 though he hit just .223 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. That is because incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac was worse, hitting .193 with one home run and 15 RBIs.

The Rays also reshuffled their catchers for 2012 and they are looking to start former Yankee backup Jose Molina as a starter after he hit .281 with the Blue Jays. Molina, 36, was signed because the Rays were getting beat at their own game. Teams like the Yankees and Rangers were stealing on them at will.

Molina figures to end that with his defensive abilities and arm. However, an offense that relies on the stolen base will be slowed considerably with Molina on base. That is the big tradeoff.

To show how much more the Rays are valuing power, look no further than the signing of left-hander Luke Scott as the team’s primary DH. Scott averaged 28 home runs from 2008 through 2010 with the Orioles before injuries short-circuited his 2011 season. Scott and Joyce will certainly slow down any running game. But the Rays will hit their share of home runs in 2012.

BENCH

Maddon uses his bench a lot and he will again in 2012.

Brignac will battle career backup Eliot Johnson for the backup middle infield job. Johnson is the better hitter but Brignac is a bit better on defense.

For a while it looked Sam Fuld was going to be the next Pete Rose. Instead, reality set in and he ended up being the next Reggie Willits. But Fuld does provide speed and effort off the bench as an occasional outfield starter and pinch-runner.

Rookie Jose Lobaton will likely back up Molina. Lobaton hit .118 in 34 at-bats last season. The Rays do have a hitting catcher in Robinson Chirinos, however, his inability to throw base-stealers make him a project behind the plate for right now.

This bench is merely adequate. Maddon will use it a lot but there is not much of substance to it.

ANALYSIS

The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers may be most interesting world championship team in history. They beat the Yankees in four straight games to win the World Series despite having one power hitter in Frank Howard, who led the team with 28 home runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the team with 88 RBIs.

How did they win? Well, they had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres combine to win 58 games and they had Maury Wills and Davis’ brother, Willie, combine to steal 65 bases.

So they relied on pitching, defense, line-drive hitters and speed and athleticism to win. This is similar to what the Rays would like to build in 2012.

They will go as far as their rotation will allow them to go. Maddon will have to rely on them a lot.

As far as offense goes, Maddon is actually counting more on the home run than the stolen base because only Jennings, Upton and Zobrist are consistent base stealers. Maddon will use his other players like Longoria and Rodriguez to steal in certain situations.

But this team did need the Red Sox to go through a monumental collapse to make it 2011. I do not think their luck extends to 2012. They will not fall precipitously as they should have last season. But I do not see them winning the division. They look to be a contender for second place with the Red Sox. Nothing more and nothing less.

ON THURSDAY – PART 4  BOSTON RED SOX


Yankees Complete Roster With Chavez Signing

Here are some random news items revolving around the New York Yankees spring camp in Tampa, FL, this week:

  • CHAVEZ SIGNS: As expected the Yankees re-signed 34-year-old corner infielder Eric Chavez to a one-year, $900,000 contract with performance incentives. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported the story but the Yankees will not confirm the signing until Chavez passes a physical. Chavez hit .263 with two homers and 26 RBIs in 58 games with the Yankees last season. He missed 2 1/2 months of the season after fracturing a bone in his left foot running the bases in early May. The Yankees see the lefty-hitting Chavez as a Gold Glove quality backup at third base for Alex Rodriguez and he also can sub for Mark Teixeira at first base.
  • RAUL IN: The Yankees made it official by signing free-agent outfielder Raul Ibanez to a one-year, $1.1 million contract with plate-appearance incentives that could increase the deal to $4 million. Ibanez, 39, will be the Yankees’ primary designated hitter against right-hand pitching. Andruw Jones likely will handle the DH role against left-handers. Ibanez, like Jones, will also see some time in the outfield. Ibanez batted .245 with 20 home runs and 84 RBIs last season with the Philadelphia Phillies.
  • SAY IT AIN’T SO, MO: Mariano Rivera is hinting that the 2012 season may be his last. He told reporters he had made up his mind two weeks ago along with his family but he has not informed the Yankees about his decision. Manager Joe Girardi and some Yankee relievers like David Robertson do not want to even contemplate what life on the Yankees would be without their Hall-of-Fame closer. Robertson said that he could “Brett Favre us.” Despite the fact Rivera turned 42 in November he is showing no signs of slowing down. He was 1-2 with a 1.91 ERA and recorded 44 saves in 49 opportunities in 2011. he is in the last season of a two-year contract worth $30 million.
  • JONESING TO PLAY: After having arthroscopic surgery to repair a small meniscus tear in his left knee, Jones said he is hoping to have an expanded role in 2012 beyond being the right-handed DH. Jones, 34, would like to play more in the outfield this season. That is good to know because Brett Gardner hit only .233 against left-handers last season and if that number does not improve this season Jones could end up as a platoon left-fielder.
  • SAYONARA TO NO. 18: Jones also made news by surrendering the No. 18 he wore last season with the Yankees to free-agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. In Japan, that number is generally reserved for the ace pitcher of the team so Jones agreed to relinquish the number to his new teammate.
  • JOBA DEBUT: Joba Chamberlain will throw his first mound bullpen session on Wednesday since having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last July. Though Chamberlain is making excellent progress in his rehab the Yankees do not expect him to be able to pitch until June or July.
  • HURT LOCKER: Right-hand reliever George Kontos became the first Yankees casualty of the spring. He pulled an oblique muscle on Tuesday and he will be sidelined for at least two weeks.
  • LESS CC: Bad news for teams in the American League East: CC Sabathia showed up in camp at his playing weight of 290 pounds, dropping about 15 pounds to get there. Sabathia also vowed to continue a training regimen to keep his weight steady throughout the season. Prior to Aug. 6 last season, Sabathia was 16-5 with a 2.55 ERA. After his Aug. 6 start, Sabathia was 3-3 with a 4.30 ERA. He also was 0-0 with a 6.23 ERA in his three appearances in the 2010 A.L. Division Series against the Detroit Tigers. Some in the Yankee hierarchy believe Sabathia gained a lot of weight down the stretch and it hurt his performance. Sabathia disagrees with that assessment but said he will maintain his training regimen to keep it from being raised as an issue in the future.

 

Blue Jays Pack Punch But Rotation Still Looks Thin

As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.

PART 2 – TORONTO BLUE JAYS

When you think of the Blue Jays these days, just one name comes to mind: Jose Bautista. The Blue Jays basically rode Bautista to an 81-81 record last season, the first season for manager John Farrell.

Though Bautista was able to slug his way to 43 home runs and 103 RBIs and a .302 average despite being pitched around and walked 132 times, the Blue Jays offense could not cover up problems in the Jays’ starting rotation and bullpen.

This season Bautista figures to have a lot more help with the offense but the Jays were unable to bid successfully for Japanese League star right-hander Yu Darvish. As a result, their pitching remains a big question mark heading into 2012. If they get some good pitching from their starters they could actually be much better than they were in 2011.

STARTERS

Left-hander Ricky Romero begins the 2012 season as the unquestioned ace of this team after compiling a 15-11 record and a 2.92 ERA with 178 strikeouts in 225 innings. Romero’s deadly change-up is his best pitch and he keeps hitters off-balance working off his low 90s fastball. At age 27, he has made great strides in just two major-league seasons.

Once again, right-hander Brandon Morrow will be the No. 2 starter, though he actually would be more valuable as a closer. Morrow, 27, throws high-octane gas but has a habit of missing the strike zone and getting bogged down in deep counts. That raises his pitch count and Morrow tends to tire quickly. Hence, he was 11-11 with a 4.72 ERA despite striking out 203 batters in 179 1/3 innings.

The big disappointment was left-hander Brett Cecil, who was 15-7 with a 4.22 ERA in 2010 but was 4-11 with a 4.73 ERA in 20 starts last season. Cecil, 25, regressed so badly he was sent back to the minors for a part of the season. Because the Jays have few options for their rotation, Cecil likely will be given another shot to stick in 2012. If he succeeds, as he did in 2010, the Jays will have a solid top three pitchers.

Right-hander Henderson Alvarez came up in the middle of the season and finished with a 1-3 record and a 3.53 ERA in only 10 starts. Alvarez, only 21, is an excellent control pitcher and he could end up making a huge leap forward if he can secure the No. 4 spot this season.

The Blue Jays are also counting on old friend to be their No. 5 starter in Dustin McGowan, who pitched briefly last season for the first time since the 2008 season. Shoulder problems derailed what looked to be a promising pitcher in 2007 when he was 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA for the Jays. The Jays are counting on him bouncing back this season.

The pressure is on McGowan, too. There is little depth behind him.

In short, this Blue Jays rotation looks to be a bit suspect but it has the potential to exceed expectations.

BULLPEN

The most signifcant moves the Jays made was the signing 36-year-old right-hander Francisco Cordero as a free agent and acquiring 28-year-old right-hander Sergio Santos from the White Sox.

Leaky middle relief and the lack of a consistent closer cost the Jays dearly last season.

Cordero likely was signed to be a setup man for Santos despite the fact Cordero nailed down 36 saves in 43 chances with the Reds last season. Cordero was 5-3 with  2.45 ERA with the Reds but he still will to defer to Santos.

Santos came out of nowhere last season to become the White Sox closer with 30 saves in 36 tries and a 4-5 record with a 3.55 ERA. Should Santos falter for any reason, Cordero could easily slide into that role by virtue of his 327 career saves.

The Blue Jays also bolstered their bullpen by adding seemingly ageless left-hander Darren Oliver (who is 41) to a bullpen that already includes steady right-handers Jason Frasor and Casey Janssen. Former starter Jesse Litsch and long man Carlos Villanueva add depth to what now looks to be a strong group in 2012.

STARTING LINEUP

Bautista will not be shuttling from right-field to third base as he has in the past. The reason is the Jays think they have their third baseman for the forseeable future in Brett Lawrie.

Lawrie came up late in 2011 and showed he was ready for prime time by hitting nine home runs and driving in 25 runs with a .293 batting average in only 150 at bats. Projected over a full season, Lawrie’s numbers would approach Bautista’s. So Lawrie bears watching as a star of the future if he isn’t already.

Adam Lind also helped the Jays by slugging 26 home runs and driving in 87 runs hitting behind Bautiista. Though Lind could stand to hit better than the .251 mark he posted, the Jays have to be encouraged that he hit .243 against left-handers last season.

The Jays gave up on second baseman Aaron Hill and acquired Kelly Johnson from the Diamondbacks in a trade of Hill. However, Johnson and Hill are virtually alike in they are both mid-average power hitters. Johnson hit 21 home runs in 2011 after hitting 26 in 2010. Johnson also can steal bases. He swiped 16 last season.

The Jays also traded for troubled Cardinals outfielder Colby Ramus, who rejected hitting advice from coaches in St. Louis while posting a .225 batting average with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs. Because the Jays have failed in developing prospect Travis Snider into a major-league hitter the team has moved on hoping Ramus fulfills his early promise.

Rounding out the outfield is left-fielder Eric Thames, who hit .282 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs in just over half a season.

The Jays did seem to strike gold by prying shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Braves. Escobar, 29, hit .290 with 11 home runs and 48 RBIs as a leadoff hitter for most of the 2011 season.

The DH spot likely will go mostly to Edwin Encarnacion, who hit .272 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs in 134 games last season.

This Blue Jay offense is laden with power but Farrell introduced the concept of the stolen base to the formerly station-to-station Jays. However, the team leader, Rajai Davis, stole 34 bases but is now cast in a bench role so I am not sure how much stealing this team will do in 2012.

The Jays also developed a young catcher in J.P. Arencibia, who had 23 home runs and 78 RBIs in a his rookie season. But even with all that production, Arencibia hit  just .219. He needs some work on defense too but the Jays are hopeful because he is only 26.

BENCH

Davis, a speedster who had hit .284 with 50 steals for the A’s in 2010 fell off to hit .238 for the Jays in 2011. So he is locked in a battle with former Phillies outfielder Ben Francisco for a backup spot.

Though Snider has been a disappointment for the third straight season, the left-handed slugger just turned 24 and the Jays remain hopeful he someday will put it together. He may land back in Triple-A for the 2012 season, however.

Mike McCoy will be the primary infield reserve. He lacks range but is solid at second, short and third.

Jays backup catcher and defensive wizard Jose Molina left as a free agent for the rival Rays so the Jays acquired former Angels catcher Jeff Mathis to back up Arencibia.

ANALYSIS

The Jays figure to hit more home runs and still fewer bases in 2012. It is team that you can shut down if you have good stuff. But it also is a team that can destroy a pitcher who continually falls behind in the count and does not have good stuff.

The biggest weakness on the team looks to be in the thin starting rotation. Romero is the only real quality pitcher because Morrow has yet to take the next step in his development into a starter, Cecil is a biq question mark, Alvarez needs to prove he belongs and McGowan is pitching after three mostly inactive seasons rehabbing after major shoulder surgery.

The bullpen should be improved and both Santos and Cordero have experience closing. The Blue Jays have some good relievers besides them in Oliver, Frasor and Janssen.

With some real improvement the Jays could contend for the division this season. But in this division, their starting pitching could prevent them from staying competitive as the season unfolds.

I see the Jays perhaps creeping over the .500 mark but still finishing fourth.

ON WEDNESDAY – PART 3  TAMPA BAY RAYS

 

Orioles Seem To Have Stranglehold On 5th Place

As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.

PART 1 – BALTIMORE ORIOLES

The 2011 season began with a lot of optimism because of the great job Buck Showalter did in turning around the Orioles at the end of the 2010 season.

But 2011 was much like every season for the Orioles since 1999. It fizzled into frustration in a hurry. They finished with a record of 69-93 and they were a distant fifth in the A.L. East, 28 games behind the Yankees.

This coming season promises to pretty similar because the Orioles have not made a lot of changes to their roster. With the exeption of Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott and Derrek Lee, this pretty much the same group that floundered through much of 2011.

STARTERS

One big reason is that the Orioles banked their future hopes on a collection of young starting pitchers like Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman. They progressed through the minors but none of them have established themselves as major-league quality starters. And if you want to compete in this division, you have to have good starting pitching.

The Orioles compounded that issue by trading their best starting pitcher, Guthrie, to the Colorado Rockies for starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. As a result, the Orioles’ “ace” is former Rangers right-hander Tommy Hunter, who was 4-4 with a 4.68 ERA in an injury-shortened season.

The Orioles, led by general manager Dan Duquette, are now shifting their sites overseas and the team signed two pitchers from the Japanese League in Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada.

Chen, 26, is a left-hander from Taiwan who has compiled a 36-30 record and a 2.48 ERA in four seasons with the Chunichi Dragons. He also has pretty good stuff with 500 career strikeouts in 631 1/3 innings.

Wada, 30, is another left-hander and he has overcome two injury-plagued seasons to compile a combined 33-13 record with a 2.29 ERA in the last two seasons with Fukuoda Softbank Hawks. While Chen has better stuff, Wada is considered to have better control.

Both figure prominently in the Orioles plans for 2012 and both likely will be in the rotation this season, depending on how they progress in the spring.

Hammel, 29, was 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA last season with the Rockies. The tall right-hander figures to be slotted as the No. 4 starter.

The Orioles still have high hopes for Matusz, Britton, Arrieta and Tillman. But it appears Britton and Arrieta are going to get most of the attention this spring. The lefty Britton suffered a shoulder injury last season and he finished the season 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA. Arrieta was 10-8 with 5.05 ERA.

BULLPEN

The bullpen was a strength of this team when Koji Uehara was around but he was dealt to the Rangers at the trade deadline last July.

The closer job is up for grabs between incumbent closer Kevin Gregg, who saved 22 games but blew seven chances and was 0-3 with a 4.37 ERA, and Jim Johnson, who saved nine games and was 6-5 with a 2.67 ERA. Lindtsrom, who saved 23 games for the Astros in 2010, can also be shifted into the closer role.

The rest of the bullpen will likely be made up with lefty Darren O’Day and former starters Alfredo Simon, Brad Bergesen and Jason Berken.

STARTING LINEUP

A few years ago, the Orioles seem to invested their future into second baseman Brian Roberts, right-fielder Nick Markakis and center-fielder Adam Jones and have built around those players.

Unfortunately, Roberts has suffered through injury after injury and Markakis and Jones have underperformed expectations.

With the Orioles lack of ability to attract high-priced free-agent talent, the Orioles have to rely on that trio as the core of the team again.

The Orioles may also begin getting what they expected out of catcher Matt Wieters, who hit 22 home runs and won a Gold Glove for his defensive work behind the plate. The former No. 1 pick also is showing some signs of leadership on the team.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy finally shook off injuries that plagued him since he was with the Brewers in 2008 as he hit 30 home runs and drove in 80 runs.

Third baseman Mark Reynolds was pretty much as advertised. He did not hit for average and struck out 196 times but he also hit 37 home runs and drove in 87 runs.

Former Rangers first baseman Chris Davis is pretty much a carbon copy of Reynolds at first base only he does most of his striking out from the left side.

The Orioles will likely platoon veterans Endy Chavez and Nolan Reimold in the outfield and look for the Orioles to make a late bid for a DH.

They could re-sign veteran Vladimir Guerrero or chose from among Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui to replace Scott.

BENCH

Former Yankee Wilson Betemit will be the top reserve on the infield and middle infield reserve Robert Andino will return to provide glovework behind Roberts and Hardy. Former Rangers backstop Taylor Teagarden will be the backup to Wieters.

The Orioles could use the spring to look for some veteran help in the outfield to bolster their bench a bit.

ANALYSIS

With Jones, Wieters, Hardy, Reynolds and Davis the Orioles seem to have plenty of firepower. Plus when Roberts is healthy and Markakis is going good, they can get on base and steal a base or two. But the overall offense may be too geared towards power over putting the ball iin play and advancing runners.

The Orioles, as a team, strike out way too much and it cost them because their pitching is not that strong.

The Orioles are gambling on two Japanese League pitchers and two journeyman American starters (Hunter and Hammel) to give them time to develop their young pitchers like Britton and Arrieta. The jury is still out on Matusz, who looked like a surefire star in the making in 2010.

Without a consistent starting rotation, any effort Showalter makes in the bullpen could prove futile. A good bullpen only limits the damage. The bullpen should be strong but it is obvious they are going to tire quickly if they are constantly coming in the fourth or fifth inning.

Barring another Showalter miracle, this team is headed for more frustration in 2012. They simply can’t compete with the big boys (Yankees, Rays, Red Sox) and they merely hold their own against the Blue Jays. If I were a betting man, I would suspect that the Orioles will finish fifth again.

It is a spot for which they are built.

ON TUESDAY – PART 2  TORONTO BLUE JAYS

 

Yankees To Open Spring Slate Soon And I’m Ready

Now that the pitchers and catchers have reported to the Yankees’ spring home in Tampa, FL, the target date is March 3.

After the Yankees begin the spring with an exhibition against the University of South Florida on March 2 at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees will open their official spring training schedule with the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, FL.

My calendar officially begins the next day when the Yankees return the favor against the Phillies and host them for their home opener. I received my spring season tickets this week and I am chomping at the bit to get the 2012 season started. In addition, I want to make sure my coverage of the Yankees this spring is the best you will read anywhere.

I plan to attend 18 Yankee games this spring, including the Yankees’ two road contests against the Braves at Lake Buena Vista, FL, and a road contest against the Astros in Kissimmee, FL. The rest of the games I will either see on ESPN or  MLB-TV or I will hear on MLB Radio.

So it is clear that I will be able to provide Yankee fans – whether you live in Boise, ID, or the Bronx, NY – with the best on-site coverage I can possibly offer. I want to continue, as I have through the offseason, with the most accurate information about the players, the news, the rumors, the aches and pains and the deals going on behind the scenes.

This is what I pledged to do since I started this blog three years ago and I have tried to improve that coverage each season.

I have a B.A. in Communications and an A.A. in Journalism. I have worked for five news organizations over the course of 13 years as a writer, columnist and editor. So I approach my craft with a journalistic intent to cover the story fairly and accurately. But, as a lifelong Yankee fan, I am not afraid to give you my opinion on the news as it unfolds.

This week I am going to be looking at the Yankees’ competition in the American League East. Despite the fact that the Yankees really made very few moves this winter, I did not notice a lot of activity with the Red Sox, Rays, Orioles or Blue Jays. So just how strong is the division this season? Do the Yankees have clear sailing to repeat as division champs?

Stay tuned to this blog for my analysis, which begins with the Orioles on Monday. Red Sox fans will have to wait until Thursday to see how I see them in 2012.

In addition, I will be looking at the Yankees’ keys to victory in 2012. Some players need to prove they stay healthy (Alex Rodriguez). Others need to step up their games to remain viable starters (Brett Gardner). I will also try to answer the hard questions about how the starting rotation stacks up.

I also will look at the spring battles. There are few spots available on the Yankees’ roster but I will let you know who is leading in those battles. I also will give some detailed analysis on the Yankees prospects who trying to make their way up to the big-league roster. If you want the scoop on top Yankee prospects like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez, Brandon Laird and David Phelps, I will try to provide insight on how they are progressing and what they need to do to take the big leap forward.

By the end of spring training I will have enough information to forecast the 2012 pennant chase and how the Yankees should fare in that race. Last season, if you were reading, I told you that I thought the “so-called” solid rotation of the Red Sox was not so solid. I actually thought the Yankees’ quintet – even with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia – was better. I rankled a few Red Sox fans but I do not care when I am right.

Let’s see what 2012 holds and if I can rankle a few more Red Sox fans with my predictions.

Thank you for letting be part of your interest in baseball and I hope you love the game even half as much as I do. Let’s have some fun and “Let’s Go Yankees.”

 

Yankees Open Camp With Few Jobs Up For Grabs

2012 ROSTER ADDITIONS: Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda, Corey Wade, Cesar Cabral or Clay Rapada, Raul Ibanez.

2012 ROSTER SUBTRACTIONS: A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon, Luis Ayala, Joba Chamberlain (starting season in disabled list) , Jorge Posada (retired).

Sunday is the day pitchers and catchers are required to report to the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL. To most teams the spring is a time where young players and veteran free agents can dream about making the roster with a good spring.

But not this year and not in the Yankees’ camp.

If the A.J. Burnett trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates is approved and the Yankees do sign free-agent outfielder Raul Ibanez and corner infielder Eric Chavez, the Yankees would have a roster with very few jobs “up for grabs” and the 25-man roster – barring injury – is a foregone conclusion at this point.

The starting rotation has been bolstered by the trade for 23-year-old right-hander Michael Pineda and the free-agent signing of 37-year-old right-hander Hiroki Kuroda of the Dodgers. That gives the Yankees a rotation of CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Pineda and Kuroda. The No. 5 spot will be a competition between 25-year-old right-hander Phil Hughes and 35-year-old right-hander Freddy Garcia. But it is pretty clear that if Hughes can prove his shoulder issues that plagued him in 2011 are in the past he will be the favorite to win the job.

That would leave Garcia in the bullpen and the Yankees also have bought themselves a season in order to develop promising young starters Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, David Phelps, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell at the Triple-A level.

Garcia will join a strong bullpen that includes the greatest closer in the history of baseball (Mariano Rivera), the American League’s best set-up man in 2011 (David Robertson) and the American League saves leader in 2010 (Rafael Soriano).

Add to that core left-hander Boone Logan, right-hander Corey Wade and a likely a second left-hander in a battle between 23-year-old Rule 5 draftee Cesar Cabral and 30-year-old journeyman Clay Rapada, and you pretty much have the bullpen complete even without rehabbing right-hander Joba Chamberlain.

Chamberlain underwent Tommy John surgery in July and has made remarkable progress since then. However, the Yankees will not push Chamberlain to return early. They do not expect him to be able to pitch for the Yankees until June or July.

The bullpen, even without Chamberlain, was a strength of the team last season and promises to be just as strong or better in 2012.

The Yankees also did not make any changes in their starting position players for 2012. It is the same crew that led the Yankees to the best record in the American League (97-65).

The Yankees picked up the option on Russell Martin and he returns at catcher. The rest of the infield has Mark Teixeira at first, Robinson Cano at second, Derek Jeter at shortstop and Alex Rodriguez at third. The outfield maintains Nick Swisher in right, Curtis Granderson in center and Brett Gardner in left.

The only major change looks to be at designated hitter. Last season the Yankees used Jorge Posada in that role. With Posada retired the job looked to be Jesus Montero’s. However, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman opted to trade Montero and right-handed pitcher Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners for Pineda and 19-year-old right-hander Jose Campos.

The Yankees are now looking to fill that DH spot with former Phillies outfielder Ibanez. Ibanez, 39, likely will platoon with right-handed-hitting outfielder  Andruw Jones, who was retained after he had an excellent second half in 20111.

The rest of the bench could also be same as it was last season.

Francisco Cervelli figures to be the backup catcher again if he can prove that he has recovered from another concussion he suffered last September. Rookie Austin Romine, 22, is ready for the major leagues from a defensive standpoint but he needs to work on becoming a better hitter in order to vault past Cervelli.

He will get a look this spring, but he figures to be heading to Triple-A for a year of seasoning.

The Yankees also will have middle infielder Eduardo Nunez back this season. Nunez, 24, impressed the Yankees with his hitting and his base-stealing ability last season. But Nunez is a nightmare in the field. Despite playing only half the time, Nunez led the team in errors and he has to show some improvement there to stick.

The Yankees still have Ramiro Pena and they have invited veteran utility man Bill Hall to compete with Nunez but it is Nunez’s job to lose.

The Yankees also are likely to re-sign Chavez to back up at first and third base. Chavez, 34, had an impressive spring in 2011 but his season – just like the previous four – was cut short by injury. He fractured a bone in his left foot and missed 2 1/2 months. But the Yankees like having a former Gold Glove winner and lefty swinger at first and third base.

The Yankees still have veteran outfielders Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell and they have invited defensive wizard Dewayne Wise as a non-roster invitee this spring. But none of them figure to make a dent on the roster.

 

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