Results tagged ‘ Daisuke Matsuzaka ’

Tanaka Signing Thrusts Yankees Into Contention

The key to winning baseball has always been pitching and the New York Yankees solidified their 2014 starting rotation by agreeing to terms with Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka on Thursday.

After a disastrous season in which the Yankees failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons, their stated “goal” of remaining under the $189 million payroll limit and the loss of Robinson Cano to free agency, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner fought back by loosening the pursestrings for general manager Brian Cashman.

The result was a dizzying array of signings that included All-Star catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, the additions of key pieces like infielders Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson and left-handed reliever Matt Thornton and the re-signing of right-handed starter Hiroki Kuroda.

But none of those signings would have mattered much at all unless the Yankees landed Tanaka.

Tanaka, 25, came off a season with Rakuten Golden Eagles with a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA in leading his team to the Japanese championship. In his seven seasons he was 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA, striking out 1,238 batters in 1,315 innings.

The right-hander possesses a 94-mile-per-hour fastball along with a world-class splitter and a slider. More importantly, Tanaka is not a nibbler in the tradition of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Last season he struck out 183 batters while walking 32 in 212 innings.

Those eye-popping stats led the Yankees front office to offer a seven-year contract worth $155 million plus the $20 million posting fee that will have to be paid to the Golden Eagles. The signing also proved pundits wrong for predicting that the Los Angeles Dodgers had the inside track in signing Tanaka because his wife, a singing star of some note, preferred to be on the West Coast and craved the glitter of Hollywood.

Tanaka will receive $22 million in each of the first six seasons and $23 million in 2020. The deal also allows the contract to be terminated after four seasons to permit Tanaka to seek free agency. He also has a full no-trade clause.

He also was allotted a $35,000 moving allowance and annual payments of $100,000 per season for housing for the New York metropolitan area or Tampa, FL. The Yankees threw in $85,000 in annual salary for an interpreter and four annual first-class flights from the United States to Japan.

Doubters will question this largesse heaped upon a pitcher who has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues. But the Yankees’ front office and scouts were convinced that Tanaka has the potential to be even better than countryman Yu Darvish, 27, who is 29-18 with a 3.34 ERA in his first two seasons as the ace of the Texas Rangers.

Tanaka will slide into the No. 2 spot behind CC Sabathia and join fellow Japanese right-hander Kuroda and 27-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova in a revamped Yankee rotation in 2014.

The Yankees believed they needed to upgrade the rotation this season after the retirement of left-hander Andy Pettitte and the loss of right-hander Phil Hughes to the Minnesota Twins.

There also are questions swirling around Sabathia, 33, after his disappointing 2013 campaign in which he slipped to 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA. The ace left-hander had to adjust with a huge drop in velocity on his fastball and his record shows there are more adjustments necessary.

But Sabathia vows that he will show up this spring ready to prove he is still the same pitcher who was 74-29 in his previous four seasons in pinstripes.

That would be a good thing because Sabathia never found his groove after posting a 4-2 record with a 3.35 ERA in April. His ERAs in succeeding months were 4.14, 5.11, 6.60 and 5.94. Yankee fans can take some comfort in the fact Sabathia was 2-2 with a 3.90 ERA in September.

That could indicate he will indeed adjust as Pettitte and Mike Mussina did when they lost velocity.

The odd thing is that after four seasons of being accused of not paying attention to his weight as the season progressed, many of those same “so-called experts” thought Sabathia lost velocity last season because he was too thin. Well, who really knows? But it is ironic those “experts” would mention it.

The Yankees will settle for Sabathia arriving in Tampa in shape and they believe he has enough weapons to remain effective as a starting pitcher because he never really has been a pitcher totally dependent on his fastball to get by.

He will remain atop the rotation in 2014 with the help of the infusion of a young Tanaka behind him.

Strangely, the Yankees’ No. 3 starter was their best pitcher in 2013 despite making only 20 starts.

Nova began the season pitching horribly in spring training and in his first four starts of 2013 before succumbing to a inflammation in right triceps. After spending time on the disabled list, a rehab stint in the minors and pitching briefly out of the bullpen, Nova returned to the rotation on June 23.

From that point on, Nova was absolutely brilliant. He was 7-4 with a 2.59 in his last 15 starts beginning on July 5. This came after a season in which Nova’s game flew off the rails and he ended up 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA in 2012.

So the Yankees believe that Nova’s second half is more indicative of what he is as a pitcher after he was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA in 2011.

Nova decided not to use his slider very much last season in order to concentrate on his mid-90s fastball and devastating curveball. The result was 79 strikeouts in those 15 starts. The fact that he still just 27 makes him an excellent No. 3 starter in this bolstered rotation.

Before Nova came on, Kuroda, who will be 39 on Feb. 10, was the Yankees’ most consistent pitcher. In fact, on Aug. 12, Kuroda was sporting a 11-7 mark with a 2.33 ERA on one of the weakest hitting Yankee teams in generations.

But a heavy workload of 154 2/3 innings began to take a toll on the veteran. In his last eight starts, Kuroda was 0-6 with a awful 6.56 ERA. It is clear that Kuroda was overtaxed into pitching past six innings too early in the season because he was not getting adequate offensive support.

Manager Joe Girardi was forced to keep him in a lot of close games and Kuroda paid a heavy price down the stretch. Even still, Kuroda finished the season 11-13 with a 3.31 ERA and he will certainly benefit from an improved offense in 2014.

The Yankees are impressed with the way Kuroda is able to adjust midstream in games by dipping into his arsenal of fastballs, sliders, splitters and curves to find the pitches that are working best for him that night, That is why they chose to re-sign him to a third one-year contract for $16 million.

Kuroda and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki should also help make Tanaka feel at home in the Yankees’ clubhouse.

The big concern for the Yankees now is who will claim the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Fortunately, they have some options to fill the spot.

The “dream scenario” for the Yankees would have 25-year-old right-hander Michael Pineda ready to take the ball this spring and run with it. Pineda, after all, was obtained in a 2012 trade with the Seattle Mariners along with right-hander Jose Campos, 21, for catcher Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi.

However, after a 2011 rookie season in which Pineda made the American League All-Star team and was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA for a weak-hitting Seattle team, Pineda ended up having to undergo surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder after his last spring training start in 2012.

He missed the entire season and pitched only 40 2/3 innings in the minors last season until he was shut down in August after experiencing some minor shoulder soreness.

The Yankees still have high hopes for Pineda, who boasted a mid-90s fastball, an above average change-up and a slider before his injury. The Yankees took a lot of heat from their fans when they traded away their No. 1 prospect in Montero and allowed the Mariners to deal Pineda instead of parting with ace right-hander Felix Hernandez.

So there is some pressure on Pineda as he enters spring training having not thrown a single pitch for the Yankees in two seasons. It will be interesting to see how much Pineda has lost off his heater and if he still can be effective for the Yankees.

But the Yankees claim he is healthy and should be ready to go.

Another option for the No. 5 spot is right-hander David Phelps.

Phelps, 27, started his second major-league season in his usual role as a long man in the bullpen until he was thrust into the rotation on May 1 to replace the injured Nova.

Phelps showed great promise by going 2-2 with a 4.32 in six starts in May. But he stumbled to a 3-2 record with a 5.57 ERA in his next six starts before he landed on the disabled list in July with a strained right forearm.

Phelps did not return to the roster until Sept. 15 and was 0-0 with a 4.50 ERA in four relief appearances.

The Yankees see Phelps as a solid Plan B if Pineda is not quite ready to pitch or he suffers a setback in his rehab. But the Yankees clearly see Phelps more valuable in the bullpen, as his numbers in 2012 indicate. Phelps was 4-4 with a 4.34 ERA in his rookie season.

Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild admire Phelps fearlessness in attacking hitters though he owns only a pedestrian fastball.

Phelps makes up for a lack of velocity with good command of the strike zone and he can ring up a lot of strikeouts with his breaking stuff and pitching smarts.

The Yankees also have right-hander Adam Warren, 26, who was 2-2 with a 3.39 ERA in a long relief role for the Yankees in his rookie season in 2013.

Warren did make two late-season spot starts and was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in those starts. Unlike Phelps, Warren has above-average velocity on his fastball. But the Yankees are not sure how high Warren’s ceiling extends as a starter. They would prefer to keep him as a long reliever if they could.

The Yankees got an unexpected boost with a reclamation project in left-hander David Huff last season. Huff, 29, who was former starter with the Cleveland Indians, was signed after his release from the Indians and recalled from Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre in mid-August.

He was 3-1 with a 4.67 ERA. But that does not tell the whole story. Huff was tagged for nine runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 7. Without that disastrous appearance Huff had a 2.37 ERA in his other nine appearances.

Huff also seemed comfortable in a long relief role as well as in his two spot starts in September. He also brings some value as a left-hander.

However, because the Yankees have to make room on the 40-man roster for Tanaka, Huff was designated for assignment. He will only return to the Yankees as a free agent if he is unable to find work elsewhere, which is unlikely considering he is left-handed and he pitched so well in 2013 for the Yankees.

There has been an ongoing rumor this winter that the Yankees might be interested in signing former two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.

Santana, 34, became a free agent when the New York Mets declined to pick up his option for 2014. Santana did not pitch in 2013 after suffering a second tear of his anterior left shoulder capsule. Santana was 46-34 with a 3.18 ERA over parts of four seasons with the Mets.

The signing of Tanaka makes Santana’s signing less likely. Santana was scheduled to make $25 million before the Mets bought out his option for $5.5 million. If the Yankees can get him for less than $10 million they might take a shot. But Santana also has to prove he is healthy.

The Twins, the team with whom he won those two Cy Young awards, are among the teams interested in Santana when he is given the go-ahead to throw from a mound for scouts at his Fort Myers, FL, home in February.

The Yankees do have some good young pitchers in the minors but none of them look ready to break camp with the team. A few could be called up during the season if they progress well.

At the top of the list is left-hander Vidal Nuno, 26, who was the Yankees top rookie of spring training in 2013.

Nuno was 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA at Scranton and he received a midseason call-up to the Yankees. In five appearances, including three starts, Nuno was 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA. He missed most of the remainder of the season with a strained left groin.

For some reason Nuno is able to keep batters off-balance with a mix of breaking stuff that he features with a very lackluster upper 80s fastball. The reason is he has pinpoint control. He walked only eight batters in his combined 45 minor- and major-league innings in 2013.

If he has another strong showing this spring, Nuno could certainly leapfrog Phelps or Warren for the No. 5 spot. In addition, he could also make the squad as a long reliever and spot starter. Girardi loves pitchers who challenge hitters and don’t issue walks.

This spring all eyes will be on 22-year-old left-hander Manny Banuelos, who missed the entire 2013 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Banuelos was considered the team’s No. 1 prospect at the time he was injured in 2012. In 2011, Banuelos was 1-1 with 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings in spring training, earning him the James P. Dawson Award as the Yankees’ top rookie.

However, the young Mexican lefty struggled with his control in 2011, walking 71 batters in a cobined 129 2/3 innings between Double-A Trenton and Scranton. He was 6-7 with a 3.45 ERA that season.

In 2012, he made only six starts before being shelved with elbow soreness and he ended up having to undergo surgery to repair a ligament in his left elbow in October.

The Yankees love his low-90s fastball and change-up combination that saw him strike out 125 batters in 2011. He is still young and talented enough to progress quickly if he puts it all together. But the Yankees would like to see him do that at Scranton before they bring him up to the big club.

He remains the team’s No. 8 prospect. He just has to prove he is healthy and regain his control.

The Yankees are also very high on 24-year-old right-hander Jose Ramirez, who was 1-3 with a 2.76 ERA in eight starts at Trenton before going 1-3 with a 4.88 ERA in eight starts at Scranton. Ramirez struck out 78 batters in 73 2/3 innings and the Yankees believe he has a very high ceiling.

But he likely needs a full season at Scranton before he makes a bid for the big club.

The same can be said for left-hander Nik Turley, 24.

Turley, a relative of former Yankees right-hander Bob Turley, was 11-8 with a 3.88 ERA in 26 starts at Trenton last season. Compared to Pettitte in style, teammates call him “Little Andy” and he backed that up by fanning 137 batters in 139 innings last season.

Below Banuelos, Ramirez and Turley the Yankees have a nice corps of young starters who are a few years away from making it to the majors.

The biggest buzz is surrounding the team’s No. 4 prospect Rafael De Paula, 22.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander hits up to 99-mph on his fastball and he has a hard curve and a change-up. He was a combined 7-5 with a 4.29 ERA at High-A Tampa and Charleston last season. More impressive was his 146 punch-outs in only 113 1/3 innings.

DePaula enters the 2014 season as the team’s best young arm and deservedly so. This young Dominican has quality starter written all over him.

Don’t forget about the right-handed Campos, either. Campos, 21, was obtained along with Pineda in the Montero deal and he may have even an higher ceiling than Pineda.

Campos suffered an elbow injury that did not require surgery in 2012, In 2013, he was 4-2 with a 3.41 ERA in 26 games (19 starts) at Charleston. He has an above-average fastball to go along with very good control of two secondary pitches.

That mix will take him far as long he can prove he can stay healthy in 2014.

The Yankees also have high hopes for 22-year-old right-handed flamethrower Bryan Mitchell, who likely will be at Trenton this season. Mitchell was 4-11 with a 4.71 ERA at Tampa and Trenton last season. The Yankees need only to see him command his 96-mph fastball and nearly unhittable curve to make a giant leap this season.

Two others to watch are 2013 first-round draft pick Ian Clarkin, a left-hander, and 20-year-old right-hander Ty Hensley, who was picked in the first round in 2012.

Unlike the position players, the Yankees are pretty rich in young starters at the minor-league level. It is quite possible that three or four of them could be strong contributors with the big club very soon.

In the meantime, the signing of Tanaka has given the Yankees a major shot in the arm. Just ask the rival Boston Red Sox. They see that the $471 million the team has spent on free agents has thrust them back among the top tier teams in the American League East.

Without pitching it is hard to compete in such a tough division. It appears now the Yankees will have a starting staff that can get them back to the playoffs.

That would require one huge “arigato” (thank you in Japanese) to the signing of Tanaka.

 

Robby’s 6 RBIs Rip Red Sox As Yankees Rule East

GAME 162

YANKEES 14, RED SOX 2

Most baseball experts pegged the Yankees to win the American League East and to have the best record in the American League in 2012. However, those same experts were not counting on them needing 162 games to accomplish it.

But in a season in which the team lost baseball’s best closer ever, a 24-year-old hard-throwing starting pitcher, their best base-runner and defensive outfielder and their All-Star third and first basemen for long stretches of games while they blew a 10-game lead they owned on July 18. But they held on to win their division and maintain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Robinson Cano was 4-for-4 with two mammoth home runs and six RBIs and Curtis Granderson added a pair of home runs and four RBIs as the New York erupted with some heavy lumber to throughly thrash a hapless, listless and joyless Boston team on Wednesday in front of a jubilant paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 47,393.

Combined with the Oakland Athletics’ 12-5 victory over the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays’ 4-1 defeat of the Baltimore Orioles earlier, the Yankees’ victory gave them the dual prize of champions of their division and the best record in the league. It was the Yankees’ third division title in the past four seasons and they made the playoffs for the 17th time in the past 18 seasons.

The Yankees will open their postseason quest for their 28th world championship on Sunday when they play on the road against the winner of the Baltimore-Texas inaugural one-game Wild-Card playoff game, which will be played on Friday in Arlington, TX.

After Freddy Garcia struck out the side in the ninth inning, the stadium broke into delirious cheers as the team and coaches celebrated on the field and put on their charcoal-gray American League East champion shirts and caps.

Though the journey was a long one and it was fraught with many ups and downs, the Yankees came into the game confident they held their fate in their own hands. They only needed to win this one game.

The Red Sox put up a run in the first inning off Hiroki Kuroda on a Jacoby Ellsbury single and he scored – after advancing to third on two groundouts – on Cody Ross’ sacrifice fly.

The rest of the night belonged to Cano, Granderson and some booming hits all over the turf off Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka and a tattered Red Sox bullpen.

After a 1-2-3 first inning, the real Matsuzaka (1-7) appeared in the second when Cano ignited the fireworks with a single to center and Nick Swisher drew a walk. One out later, Granderson launched his 42nd home run of the season into the bleachers in right-center to give the Yankees a lead they would not dare give up the rest of the evening.

An inning later, Alex Rodriguez rolled a one-out single into left and Cano crushed a Matsuzaka change-up into the second deck in right-field for his 32nd home run of the season. After a Swisher single, Bobby Valentine – rumored to be managing what will be his last game with the Red Sox – removed Matsuzaka after he gave up five runs on six hits and a walk in just 2 1/3 innings.

Meanwhile, Matsuzaka’s fellow countryman Kuroda (16-11) settled in nicely after the first frame to pitch a solid seven innings in which he gave up two runs on seven hits and two walks while he struck out four batters. Kuroda’s 16 victories are a career high since he came to the United States in 2008 and he also evened his career record to 57-57.

The Yankees were determined, however, to keep the pressure on the Red Sox and they did in the fifth when Rodriguez slapped a one-out double in the corner in left and Cano hit the first offering he saw off reliever Clayton Mortensen even deeper that his first homer into the second deck down the right-field line.

Though Cano entered the game with an eight-game hitting streak in which he had multiple hits in each game and he was hitting an unbelievable .571 over that stretch, he was not through punishing Boston’s beleaguered pitching staff.

With reliever Pedro Beato on the mound in the sixth, the Yankees rallied again when Russell Martin reached base when he was struck in the left elbow on a 3-2 pitch. Derek Jeter singled and, after Suzuki forced Jeter on a groundout and stole second, Rodriguez drew a walk to load the bases.

Valentine removed Beato in favor of Scott Atchison and Cano said hello to him with a single into right to score Martin and Suzuki. The Yankees were up 9-1 and Cano had six RBIs.

After the Red Sox scratched out a two-out run in the seventh on a Pedro Ciriaco double and a Jose Iglesias RBI single, the Yankees put the game away by sending 10-men to the plate and scoring five runs on the Red Sox in the bottom of the frame.

Granderson keyed that inning with his 43rd home run of the season, a solo-run shot over the Yankee bullpen wall in right-center to start the uprising. The home run was also a historic one for the team. Granderson’s blast was the 245th home run for the team this season, which broke the previous record of 244 by the 2009 Yankees, who won their 27th world championship that season.

By that time, the Orioles had already lost to to the Rays and the Yankees already knew they reached their goal. That just left playing out the string of the next few innings against a dispirited Red Sox team, which were outscored 28-7 over the three-game series sweep.

The loss of Mariano Rivera and Michael Pineda for the season and the injuries that shelved starting left-fielder Brett Gardner for most of the season and took Rodriguez and Teixiera out the lineup for key parts of the campaign are but a distant memory now.

The next step will be to rest the wounds of the season and await manager Joe Girardi’s difficult choices for a 25-man playoff roster.

But the champagne still flowed freely in the clubhouse, the smiles were genuine and there is, no doubt, a lot of relief that their epic struggle to get to this point was finally over. As Jeter said it after the game, “Now the real season begins.”

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Is it possible for the Yankees to send Cano to play some games somewhere so his red-hot bat does cool off before Sunday? In his final nine games, Cano was 24-for-39 (.615) with seven doubles, three home runs and 14 RBIs. Cano finished the season hitting .313 with a career-high 33 home runs and 94 RBIs. In his last at-bat, Valentine brought in left-hander Craig Breslow to face him with one out and two on. Breslow walked him on four pitches to load the bases. Smart move!
  • Granderson’s two home runs and four RBIs give him a team-leading 43 home runs and 106 RBIs on the season despite the fact he struck out a career-high 193 times and hit just .232 this season. It goes without saying the Yankees’ lineup is a deep one but Granderson was hitting seventh on Wednesday despite the fact his 43 homers tied him with Josh Hamilton of the Rangers for second in the majors to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, who hit 44.
  • Kuroda put in a good performance in advance of his next start behind CC Sabathia in the playoffs. Kuroda had struggled somewhat in September (3-1 but with a 5.22 ERA). His outing was very sharp and he pitched very well once the Yankees had staked him to a big lead. Kuroda was, by far, the Yankees’ best and most consistent pitcher this season. The Yankees need him to pitch well in the playoffs.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

A typical New Yorker might have found some faults here or there in this game. Yankee fans are a hard bunch to please. But I am not going to go there. They needed to win this game and they did it. Why be negative?

BOMBER BANTER

After some questioning from the media about his lineup on Tuesday, Girardi moved Suzuki back to the second spot, shifted Cano up to fourth and batted Teixiera sixth. Good thing, too, because Teixiera still does not have his timing at the plate down and he was 0-3 with a walk and a run-scoring fly ball. Cano, meanwhile, cleaned up in the cleanup spot.  . . .  It will be interesting to see how Girardi selects his bench and bullpen for the playoffs. Backup catcher Chris Stewart, outfielder Raul Ibanez, corner infielder Eric Chavez and middle infielder Eduardo Nunez are assured of spots but Andruw Jones may lose his spot in favor of Gardner. There also is a good possibility that Derek Lowe will make the roster and Garcia won’t because Lowe has proven to be valuable as a reliever.

ON DECK

The Yankees will open their playoff series in either Baltimore or Texas on Sunday. Sabathia (15-6, 3.38 ERA) will get the start for the Yankees.

The best-of-five American League Division Series will be telecast nationally by TBS.

 

Ibanez Ties It In 9th, Wins It In 12th As Yanks ‘Raul’

GAME 161

YANKEES 4, RED SOX 3 (12 INNINGS)

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman badly wanted to sign Raul Ibanez this winter but the front office told him he had to trim salary before he could. Cashman finally was able to trade A.J. Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates the weekend before spring training opened to clear enough salary and Ibanez was signed.

That signing looks huge now because in the 161st game of the season Ibanez blasted a pinch-hit two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings and then delivered a game-winning RBI single in the 12th as New York reduced its magic number to just one with a thrilling come-from-behind classic defeat over arch-rival Boston on Tuesday.

The 40-year-old outfielder first brought the paid crowd of 41,564 at Yankee Stadium to its feet when he stroked a low line-drive home run off Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey into the fifth row of the right-field bleachers with Curtis Granderson aboard to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 3-3 tie.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, the team then managed to load the bases with one out in the same inning but Mark Teixeira, who spent all night dashing the team’s scoring hopes, and Robinson Cano could not deliver off reliever Mark Melancon.

So the game, played on a very chilly 62-degree and rainy evening, trudged on to the bottom of the 12th.

Things did not look promising when left-hander Andrew Miller retired Teixeira and Cano to begin the inning and Francisco Cervelli, pressed into service because manager Joe Girardi had pinch-run and pinch-hit for Russell Martin and Chris Stewart earlier in the contest, was making his first plate appearance of the season.

He also was down in the count 0-2 on the first two pitches. But Miller threw four straight pitches out of the strike zone to walk him. Granderson then came to the plate and he drew a four-pitch walk to advance Cervelli into scoring position.

Girardi was also forced to keep potential pinch-runner Chris Dickerson in the dugout because Cervelli was the last catcher on the roster.

But Girardi’s concerns became moot when Ibanez laced an 0-1 pitch into the hole between shortstop and third base. Cervelli raced around third and headed for home as Daniel Nava scooped the ball and threw it towards home plate. But Cervelli crossed the plate well before the ball arrived and the Yankees flooded the field to celebrate one of their most hard-fought comebacks of the season with the division title on the line.

The Yankees knew that the Baltimore Orioles had defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 earlier on Tuesday. A Yankee loss would have hurtled them back into a flat-footed tie with the Orioles atop the American League East.

The Yankees can clinch their third division title in the past four seasons on Wednesday with a victory over the Red Sox in the final game of the regular season or if the Orioles lose to the Rays.

Derek Lowe (9-11) came on pitch two scoreless innings in the 11th and 12th to pick up the victory. Miller (3-2) took the loss.

Frustration as a word does not begin to tell the story of the evening for the Yankees.

They collected 11 hits and a walk over the first eight innings of the game but they failed to get any big hits to add to the one run they scored in the second inning off Red Sox starter Jon Lester.

With two out, Granderson reached first on an infield single and advanced to second when third baseman Pedro Ciriaco’s throw to get Granderson bounced into the stands. Eduardo Nunez, who started as the designated hitter instead of struggling Andruw Jones, delivered a hard-hit single off the glove of shortstop Jose Iglesias to score Granderson.

That run halved the deficit to 2-1 because the Red Sox jumped on rookie right-hander David Phelps early.

Jacoby Ellsbury laced a leadoff single and Dustin Pedroia, playing despite a fracture in his left thumb, then stroked an RBI double in the gap in right-center to score Ellsbury.

Pedroia advanced to third on a infield groundout off the bat of Nava and he scored on a sacrifice fly to deep center by Cody Ross.

However, Phelps pitched well the rest of the way. He left with one out in the sixth after giving up just two runs on three hits and two walks while he struck out four.

Lester, in addition to his teammates in the bullpen, kept walking the tightrope between trouble and disaster but he kept escaping thanks to some poor hitting by the Yankees with runners in scoring position:

  • In the first inning, Derek Jeter singled and and reached third one out later on a bloop single by Alex Rodriguez. However, Teixeira – still hobbling on a sore left calf – hit into an inning-ending double play.
  • In the third inning, Nick Swisher slapped a one-out double and  advanced to third on an infield single by Rodriguez. But, Teixiera again hit into an inning-ending double play.
  • In the fifth inning, Cano led off with a single and Nunez stroked a two-out double. Alas, Ichiro Suzuki lined a shot into center but right at Ellsbury to end the inning.
  • In the ninth, Bailey gave up a one-out double to Jeter after Ibanez’s game-tying home run. Swisher was intentionally walked and Rodriguez followed by drawing a walk to load the bases. However, Melancon entered the game and retired Teixeira on a broken-bat pop to shallow center and Cano grounded out weakly to Pedroia at second.
  • In the 11th inning, Swisher slapped an opposite-field single with two out off Vicente Padilla and Rodriguez followed with a blast to the warning track in center that Ellsbury was able to run down before he crashed into the wall.

Lester left after five innings having given up one unearned run on eight hits and one walk while he fanned one.

The Red Sox added to their lead in the top of the ninth when James Loney uppercut a 2-1 offering from Rafael Soriano in to the second deck down the line in right-field. The Red Sox and their beleaguered manager Bobby Valentine were figuring that it was the insurance run that would put the Yankees away with Bailey on the mound.

Ibanez had other ideas.

The Yankees ended up with 16 hits and five walks in the game and they stranded a total of 14 runners. Teixeira left nine runners on base in his six at-bats.

But none of that all matters much now because of Ibanez.

The Yankees, thanks to the Oakland Athletics’ 3-1 defeat of the Texas Rangers late Tuesday, now also hold claim to the best record in the American League at 94-67.  The Red Sox had their season record fall to 69-92.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Ibanez entered the game in the ninth and ended up 2-for-3 with a home run and three very big RBIs. Since Sept. 22, Ibanez is 14-for-34 (.412) with five home runs and nine RBIs in largely a platoon role against right-handers. He is hitting .235 with 18 homers and 59 RBIs on the season. His single in the 12th was his 11th career walk-off hit.
  • The bullpen, with the exception of Soriano’s hiccup to Loney, was actually very good. In  6 2/3 innings, they gave up one run on five hits and two walks and struck out seven batters. Lowe was especially good in his two innings of work. In a game when the relievers needed to hold the Red Sox down long enough to wake up the bats, they did a very good job.
  • Girardi chose to go with Phelps in place of Ivan Nova and Nunez in place of Jones. Both moves paid off for the Yankees. Nunez was 2-for-3 with an RBI until Ibanez pinch-hit for him in the ninth and Phelps pitched into the sixth and kept the Yankees in the game. You have to give the manager credit for those moves.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Fans do have a right to question Girardi’s move to put Swisher second in the order with Rodriguez and Teixeira behind him. That left Cano, the team’s hottest hitter batting fifth. Teixera ended up 0-for-6 and he only got that weak pop to shallow center out of the infield in those at-bats. Teixera’s at-bats killed the Yankees all night long and it was Girardi’s fault. Shifting Suzuki to ninth did not seem to make sense either. Suzuki has owned Lester throughout his career.

ON DECK

The Yankees end their regular season with a chance to clinch the division and home-field advantage in the playoffs with a series sweep of the Red Sox on Wednesday.

Hiroki Kuroda (15-11, 3.34 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda won his last start despite giving up 10 hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday. He is 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA this season against the Red Sox.

The Red Sox will counter with every hitter’s dream in Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-6, 7.68 ERA). Matsuzaka gave up five runs on nine hits and a walk in three innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in his last outing on Sept. 19. This likely will be the last start of his career for the Bosox, who can’t wait to shed his huge contract. He is 3-3 with a 5.52 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by ESPN and locally by the YES Network.

 

Yankees Poised To Stick Fork In Red Sox Season

The New York Yankees welcome their old pals, the Boston Red Sox, to Yankee Stadium for the first time this season beginning on Friday. The Dead Sox, as they are being referred to many Boston circles, are limping in having lost five of their last six games and are 10 1/2 games back in last place in the American League East. This series is pretty much their season. If they get swept, it’s over. If they sweep, there is still a glimmer of hope. But in some ways the Red Sox have the look of Custer at Little Big Horn, the Texas Army at The Alamo and the Red Sox in September 2011. Here is why they will fail this weekend:

PITCHING IS KING

Looking at the pitching matchups this weekend does not instill much confidence in Boston.

Journeyman right-hander Aaron Cook (2.3, 3.50 ERA) will open the series for Red Sox. Cook, 33, is a symbol of the inability of the Red Sox to build a starting rotation this season. In past years the Red Sox would trade for a Josh Beckett and sign free agents like Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey while they developed young stars like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

But with the team’s record 13-24 in games started by Beckett and Lester this season it really has not mattered much what three pitchers follow them in the rotation. Buchholz is 8-3 with an elevated 4.93 ERA and he has been hampered by injuries for a good part of the year.

Lackey is out for the season after Tommy John surgery. Dice-K came back from the same surgery only to make five ill-fated starts with an 0-3 record and 6.65 ERA before landing on the DL again. Matsuzaka has made only 49 starts since the 2008 season in which he was 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. The Red Sox have their own version of Carl Pavano, collecting huge paychecks while he constantly rehabs.

That is why the Red Sox have been forced to use Cook and Felix Doubront in their rotation. Doubront is 12-7 with a 4.62 ERA but he has become less effective as the innings have piled up. His ERA has steadily risen all season and was 5.83 in June.

So Cook enters this game actually as the the team’s most effective starter lately. He has a 2.79 ERA in July. But he also is 0-2 in his three July starts, which means he has not got much in the way of run support.

The Red Sox also will be facing right-hander Phil Hughes, who has rediscovered his 2010 form this season. Hughes is 9-8 with a 4.09 ERA, however, those numbers are misleading.

Hughes is 5-3 with a 2.77 ERA in his last nine starts and he has issued only 15 walks while striking out 53 in his last 61 2/3 innings. Add to that, the Red Sox have been outscored 43-17 in their last six games and you have the makings of a very ugly opening night for them in the Bronx.

The Red Sox will just have to hope they score enough runs early to keep Cook in the game and get Hughes out of it early. In other words, a typical Red Sox-Yankees four-hour marathon where the total of runs scored is about 24. But I do not think that is going to happen on Friday.

The Red Sox are without their Yankee kryptonite in designated hitter David Ortiz. Without his bat, the Red Sox become less potent against the Yankees. In a 9-1 loss to the Texas Rangers on Monday, the Red Sox collected 10 hits against fill-in starter Scott Feldman. But they were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and left eight men on base.

The Yankees do come in having lost five of their last seven and they are without Alex Rodriguez and possibly may be without Nick Swisher.

But the Yankees also come back home for this series and home is where they shine.

The addition of Ichiro Suzuki could make a big impact in this series with is bat, his legs and his glove. Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira come into the series hot and the Yankees are getting contributions from their bench in Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez and Jayson Nix.

Look for Game 1 to be close early but the Yankees will eventually burn Cook and serve him up as a special at NYY Steak over the weekend.

TOO MANY CCs

Even if the Red Sox do succeed on Friday, they will have to face CC Sabathia (10-3, 3.30) on Saturday. That is bad news for the lefty-dominant Red Sox lineup of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who stinks as a right-hand hitter.

The Yankees, meanwhile, face Lester (5-8, 5.46 ERA). In Lester’s last three starts, he is 0-3 and has given up 22 runs (21 earned) on 25 hits and 10 walks over 12 1/3 innings. That is an ERA of 15.32. Ouch!

The word from scouts is that Lester decided to develop a cutter a few years ago. He used it to compliment his other pitches, which were nasty. He was able to control both sides of the plate and he was 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA last season despite a September slide that coincided with the epic collapse of the Red Sox.

But this season, Lester has become cutter crazy and it cost him in velocity and command of his fastball. Hughes found the same thing happened to him in 2011 and he junked his cutter this season. But Lester has tried to carry on with his same arsenal and he is getting pounded harder than a herd of cattle in a butcher shop.

In his last start against the Yankees on July 8 at Fenway Park, Lester lasted just 4 1/3 innings and he surrendered five runs (four earned) on nine hits and a walk.

The bottom line is Lester is just not the Lester that Red Sox Nation is used to seeing dominate lineups. He is headed for a big fall on Saturday.

COUP DE GRACE

The Red Sox will face on Sunday the Yankees’ best pitcher, of late, in Hiroki Kuroda (10-7, 3.34 ERA).

Kuroda is 7-1 with a 2.49 ERA in last 11 starts. Though he did struggle against Boston at Fenway Park, Kuroda has proven to be a much more effective pitcher at Yankee Stadium this season. He is 7-3 with a 2.68 ERA in the Bronx.

That is bad news for the Red Sox, who have not announced a mound opponent for Kuroda.

Doubront defeated the Yankees at Fenway on July 7 but he also was shelled for six runs on eight hits and three walks in five innings against the Rangers on Monday. The Red Sox may, instead, call upon Buchholz to pitch the finale. He gave up just one run on four hits and three walks in seven innings against the Rangers on Tuesday.

If Buchholz pitches on Sunday it indicates that manager Bobby Valentine is desperate. He has to be if the Red Sox pick up the Sunday New York Times facing a 12 1/2-game deficit to the Yankees.

The game will be very close on Sunday but the Yankees have a decided edge on the mound. They should win in a very close game.

IN THE END

The truth is that the seeds of the 2012 season for the Red Sox were sown in the aftermath of their historic collapse in September 2011. The departures of manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein have left Valentine and new general manager Ben Cherington with a mess.

He has some prima donnas like Beckett and Lackey and a huge albatross of a contract to Crawford tied around his neck. The team can’t rebuild only through free agency because they are right up against the edge of having to pay the luxury tax.

They could start shipping high-priced underachievers out and let their free agents like Ortiz walk. But there are so many holes on this roster it looks like Swiss cheese.

Young talent the Red Sox are hoping to develop is in short supply and that is really the biggest problem they have going forward. They likely would be better off with a roster purge and rebuild effort. But that also will mean they have to be candid with Red Sox Nation that they will not be competitive for some time.

That is hard sell. But after this weekend, it could be quite likely you will see Beckett go and others will follow.

The Curse may be over but it might be a long, long time before we see a Red Sox team capable of competing with the Yankees.

To us Yankee fans, that is just fine.

 

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.

 

Yankees To Learn If They Are With Or Without Yu

“Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails he makes us wait
And we wait without Yu

With or without Yu
With or without Yu”

                                                                             – Lyrics (with slight revision) of a popular U2 song

After ducking and coyly answering questions about whether the New York Yankees have any interest in Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish, general manager Brian Cashman will finally have to lay his cards on the table on Wednesday by 5 p.m. Eastern time.

That is the deadline for all teams who are interested in Darvish’s services have to come up with what is called a posting (or bid) to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the team for which Darvish has toiled since he was 18. That bid goes from the team with the highest bid to the Fighters and it only earns the team a 30-day window to negotiate a contract for Darvish. If the team fails to agree with Darvish on a contract the posting money is returned to the American team and Darvish remains with the Fighters for another season.

For all the successes some Japanese players have had in America (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Hideo Nomo) there have also been some monumental failures (Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa and to some degree Daisuke Matsuzaka). So on which side of this equation does Darvish fit?

Scouts who have been watching him the past six years have seen a skinny 6-foot-5 right-hander mature into a 220-pound dynamo. On the world stage at the Olympics and the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Darvish has shined, winning the Most Valuable Player Award for Japan’s winning WBC team.

In his seven seasons with Nippon Ham he is 93-28 and since 2007 he has recorded ERAs below 2.00 in five consecutive seasons. In 2011, he was 18-6 with a 1.44 and 276 strikeouts and only 36 walks in 232 innings.

He throws in the mid-90s on his fastball and he throws both a two-seam and four-seam variety along with a cutter. He has three breaking pitches and some believe he throws a decent changeup. But unlike Matsuzaka, who throws pitches off the plate to get batters to swing, Darvish attacks the strike zone and is confident in his ability to get batters out.

Will the talents of Darvish translate to American baseball?

New Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who managed for six years in Japan, certainly knows Darvish well and likes what he has seen of him. The Yankees have scouted him and Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has seen him pitch in person.

But no club is willing to say out loud they are interested in bidding for Darvish because they know that will only drive up the price of the posting. In 2006, the Red Sox bid $51 million to the Seibu Lions for Matsuzaka. They later signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract.

The posting for Darvish could very well easily eclipse the $51 million Seibu received from the Red Sox. Some say that the absence of quality pitching in the American free-agent market this winter gives teams an opportunity to sign what could potentially be a No. 1 starter for less money than the Angels paid to sign Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson.

The reason is the posting fee does not count toward a team’s payroll. The only money that counts is the money paid to Darvish. Because Darvish is just 25, a team could structure a long-term graduated contracte that pays Darvish about $10 million the first season and up to about $15 million in the final season. Wilson is being paid $20 million per season by the Angels. So Darvish actually could be a bargain at half the money the first season.

There are also many teams who can’t afford to get into the bidding in the first place due to payroll issues. The Boston Red Sox, for one, are out the bidding because they need to re-sign free agent David Ortiz and his contract will put them perilously close to the $178 million mark in which the luxury tax kicks in. New Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said the Red Sox will not raise their payroll past that level so Darvish will not be a target.

The Angels seem pretty much tapped out after their signings of Wilson and first baseman Albert Pujols. The Marlins have also spent a lot on closer Heath Bell, shortstop Jose Reyes and starter Mark Buerhle.

So just where are the Yankees in all this?

They have spent only $5.5 million to re-sign free-agent starter Freddy Garcia and $2.5 million for the rights to Japanese infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima of the Seibu Lions.

Though Cashman looked at the free-agents starters available, he determined that their cost was much more than he thought they were worth. It was, by far, not a buyers’ market for such limited talent available.

So Cashman spent the Winter Meetings last week trying to gauge the availability of starting pitchers via the trade route and came up empty again. He looked at possible deals for pitchers such as Gio Gonzalez of the Athletics, Matt Garza of the Cubs, Jair Jurrgens of the Braves and John Danks of the White Sox.

But each time he asked teams what they wanted in return the names of the Yankees’ best prospects such as catcher Jesus Monetro, pitchers Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos or outfielder Mason Williams came up. Cashman seems loathe to deal away the best prizes of the minor-league system the Yankees have rebuilt over the past five years.

There also was interest in some homegrown Yankee major leaguers such as Brett Gardner, Eduardo Nunez, Phil Hughes, David Robertson and Phil Hughes. But Cashman did not want to go there either.

So just how interested could the Yankees be in Darvish?

My gut feeling is very interested.

The reason is that unlike trades, a free-agent signing means you can keep your young talent. In addition, with the signing of a Japanese pitcher like Darvish the Yankees do not lose a draft pick like when they sign a Type A free agent stateside. Keeping the farm system intact and not having to surrender a draft pick for Darvish appears to be win-win situation for Cashman.

The fact that teams like the Red Sox and Angels are out of the bidding also seems to bode well. The only teams strongly rumored to be interested in Darvish are the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays. The Yankees simply have more financial resources to put toward a bid than those teams. It is a question of just how much of a bid do the Yankees put forward.

The $51 million bid the Red Sox made for Matsuzaka shocked Cashman, who was believed to have bid a little more than half that amount. But the Red Sox were desperate for pitching and they wanted to ensure they would not lose out to the “Evil Empire” that stole Cuban star Jose Contreras away from them years earlier.

This posting looks to be definitely different. There has been less hype and teams have been very circumspect in their public statements.

But if Cashman really wants Darvish, it stands to reason he will be able to convince Hank and Hal Steinbrenner to provide the cash it will take to get it done.

With the time difference in Japan it likely won’t be until Thursday before we find out something about Darvish. The team ownership of the Fighters have four days to accept the highest bid. But I don’t think it will be that long before we hear who has submitted the high bid.

For the sake of Yankee fans, let’s hope that Caahman is the man with the biggest grin this week. Yankee fans need to see some movement towards improving the team for 2012 and Darvish could be the one piece of the puzzle that gets the team just a bit closer to the goal of winning their 28th world championship.

The key to that is pitching, pitching and more pitching. Right now the Yankees just have pitching.

But I can just hear Yankee fans rising in their seats and shouting through the Bronx night air “Yu, Yu, Yu.” Music to my ears!

 

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?

Wilson, Darvish Top Yankees’ Winter Shopping List

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 1 – Starting Pitching

PRIORITY NO. 3 – Finding help with free agents or trades

Looking at the New York Yankees’ starting rotation you have the possible loss of CC Sabathia, the return of injured right-hander Phil Hughes, the return of severely underperforming and overpaid right-hander A.J. Burnett, the sophomore season for rookie surprise Ivan Nova and the likely release of free agents Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.

Even if Sabathia somehow decides to re-sign with the Yankees, they will still likely need another starter to add behind the ace left-hander and Hughes, Burnett and Nova. So that begs the question: Will general manager Brian Cashman be looking to spend big bucks to add another starter or two to the Yankees for the 2012 season?

That seems likely given that the Yankees were so hellbent on signing left-hander Cliff Lee last winter. But Lee spurned a better contract offer to sign for less money to pitch with the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite the fact Lee thought he was joining a super rotation of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, the Phillies got no father than the Yankees did in the playoffs and Oswalt was allowed to become a free agent.

This season the Yankees obviously will be focused on getting Sabathia to remain in pinstripes. Sabathia has two days to decide to stay with the Yankees for the four years and $92 million left on his contract or opt out and look for a more lucrative deal. Most baseball insiders believe Sabathia, never being accused of being foolish, will opt out to seek a longer term on his contract and more money.

The Yankees, unlike their attitude when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract in 2008, are prepared to offer Sabathia a very lucrative six-year, $160 million contract modeled after the contract Lee signed with the Phillies. But Sabathia will have other suitors, including the Texas Rangers to increase the bidding price.

If the Yankees succeed in bringing Sabathia back into the fold, they will then turn their attention to acquiring a pitcher who they can slot in as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.

TARGET NO. 1 – C.J. WILSON (16-7, 2.94 ERA)

Wilson is a 31-year-old left-hander who was the ace of the American League-champion Rangers. But unlike most 31-year-old starters, Wilson has only two seasons of throwing more than 200 innings behind him because he was a reliever in his previous five major-league seasons, all with the Rangers.

If the Yankees were to keep Sabathia and land Wilson it would a tremendous dual victory for the organization. They would have retained their ace and added a second left-hander to the rotation. In addition, it would be a double blow to the Rangers, who are not exactly swimming in starting pitchers who could pitch on the level of Sabathia and Wilson. Strengthening the Yankees while weakening the Rangers is a definite plus to a front office that is taken a great dislike in the Rangers’ front office over the past two years.

A rotation of Sabathia, Wilson, Hughes, Burnett and Nova does not sound all that bad when you add up their record from last season. That five (understanding that Hughes only pitched 74 2/3 innings) was a combined 67-35 with a 3.81 ERA.

Wilson will command a nice princely sum on the open market because he clearly is the best free-agent pitcher available this winter. In the past three season, the Yankees have not bid on pitchers like Halladay and John Lackey, preferring to either solve their problems from within or signing cheaper free agents like Colon and Garcia.

There is no doubt that Colon and Garcia helped the Yankees during the regular season. They were a liability at crunch time, however.

Colon was 6-4 with a 3.20 ERA and Garcia was 7-6 with a 3.13 ERA in the first half of the season. But in the second half, both pitchers struggled at times. Colon was 2-6 with a 4.96 ERA and Garcia was 5-2 with a 4.45 ERA. Colon pitched so badly he was not even placed on the active roster for the playoffs. Garcia pitched and lost Game 3 to the Tigers.

Neither Colon at age 38 or Garcia at age 35 figure to be back next season.

The Yankees also have a host of young pitching prospects like Manny Banuelos (20), Dellin Betances (23), David Phelps (25), D.J. Mitchell (24) and even Hector Noesi (24), who pitched out of the bullpen for the Yankees. Signing Wilson would give the Yankees an opportunity to bring those prospects along slowly. Banuelos and Betances are easily the most talented of the group and they could use a season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to fine-tune their electric stuff.

Of course, some of them can be used in trades if Cashman felt a need to make a deal for a bench player or a veteran pitcher.

TARGET NO. 2 – YU DARVISH (18-6, 1.44 ERA for the Nippon Ham Fighters)

Darvish is a 25-year-old right-hander who stands 6-foot-5 and weights 187 pounds. He is the Randy Johnson of Japan with 276 strikeouts in 232 innings this season.

Even more impressive is that he is 88-33 in his last six seasons with his highest ERA during that period of 2.89 in 2006 when he was just 19.

Darvish has requested that his team owner post his contract in order to make himself available as free agent in the United States. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters owner Hiroji Okoso indicated his readiness to respect Yu Darvish’s decision earlier this month even though the Japanese baseball season has not concluded.

Darvish’s posting will make the posting of Daisuke Matsuzaka in the winter of 2007 look like a flea-market sale. Darvish is a much more gifted pitcher who challenges hitters with his mid-90s fastball and he has some dazzling breaking stuff to go with it. Darvish has also succeeded on the grand stage, being named as the MVP of Japan’s victory in the last World Baseball Classic.

The Yankees, who have been burned in the past with the signings of Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa, are nevertheless intrigued by Darvish. They have had a bevy of scouts in Japan clocking every fastball and monitoring the break on his curve. They see him as a potential ace in the major leagues.

But, if the Yankees are committed to re-signing Sabathia and they decide to make a long-term offer to Wilson, Darvish would be even out of reach of the Yankees deep pockets. The posting fee itself could be double the $100 million the Red Sox paid for Matsuzaka. Then the team that wins the posting must sign Darvish to a lucrative contract which might reach $150 million.

So it looks like Darvish would only come into the Yankees’ sights if they fail to keep Sabathia.

The Yankees would then have to pile their cash to sign Wilson and then offer a rich a posting fee to obtain the rights to sign Darvish. They could only afford that if Sabathia does not come back.

Darvish is Plan B if Sabathia leaves. If Sabathis stays, the Yankees likely will still look to sign Wilson and they will let Darvish go to another team with deep pockets like the Red Sox or Rangers.

TARGET NO. 3 – ROY OSWALT (9-10, 3.69 ERA)

Oswalt was injured in 2011 and he started only 23 games for the Phillies. He wasn’t bad as his ERA indicates.

But he also is 34 years old with 2,154 innings pitched in his major-league career. The Phillies chose to not keep him and he will be probably be the second-most sought after pitcher behind Wilson.

Oswalt is consummate pro with the ability to win at the major-league level with less stellar stuff then what he had in early days with Houston like 2005, when he was 20-12 with a 2.94 ERA and 184 strikeouts. Last season batters hit .280 off of him and he was forced to pitch out of a lot of jams.

Back issues forced him to miss all of July and he even considered retiring after this season. But he did throw four quality starts in his last seven appearances. But when it comes to signing Oswalt as a free agent, he is going to have to have doctors clear him to pitch in 2012 before he ever gets a contract offer.

The Yankees’ interest at this point of Oswalt’s career is unlikely. The Yankees would have to basically strike out on keeping Sabathia and signing either Wilson or Darvish before they would even consider making that move. Oswalt has pitched only in the National League and the Yankees have to be leery of guys like him and Javier Vazquez, who post low ERAs in the NL only to pitch with plus 5.00 ERAs in the American League.

Oswalt is the longest of longshots on the Yankees radar this winter. He has too much mileage, there are injury concerns and you have to consider he has not pitched in the AL.

TARGET NO. 4 – FELIX HERNANDEZ (14-14, 3.47 ERA)

With the Yankees, King Felix has been like Jonah’s whale. They try to reel him in but he slips through the nets every time.

Dealing with the Mariners in the past has not been pleasant. The Yankees attempted to deal for Lee when he was pitching for the Mariners in 2010. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik induced Cashman to include Jesus Montero and Ivan Nova in a potential deal for Lee.

The Rangers, on the other hand, were offering a package including power-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak.

Zduriencik then got greedy and asked the Yankees to sweeten the pot by including minor-league shortstop Eduardo Nunez to the package. Cashman said no and Zduriencik went running back to the Rangers to accept the Smoak package. The fact that Smoak bombed badly for the M’s in 2011 gives Yankee fans a lot of pleasure.

The Yankees, in the long run, were better off hanging onto Montero, Nova and Nunez and all three have bright futures ahead of them in pinstripes.

Any deal involving Hernandez likely will start with Zduriencik requesting Montero, Nunez and either Betances or Banuelos or both. This would the cost of doing business with a team that is desperate to fill the seats with a creditable team building for the future. But the Yankees would be crazy to be locked into this madness unless they were real desperate to replace Sabathia and they had lost both Wilson and Darvish in free agency.

This would be their Plan C and it would have to make sense to Cashman to give up so much talent. But Hernandez is not even 25 yet. So if you are going to deal for an ace it might as well be a young one with talent like the King.

But I do not see this happening. The M’s are building a nice rotation of young pitchers and Hernandez is a big part of that. However, their offense is just dreadful and King Felix could bring a package of young hitters the Mariners could build around. Montero would be a special prize here.

But the odds of it happening are in the 500-1 range. Cashman knows Zduriencik practices legal extortion and Cashman may be unwilling to pay up.

NEXT: PART 2 – Relief Pitching

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

Red Sox May Be Baseball’s Version Of The Titanic

TAMPA BAY RAYS 16, BOSTON RED SOX 5
Daisuke Matsuzaka gives up seven runs on eight hits and two walks in only two innings on Monday night. The Rays added five runs off Tim Wakefield and then battered former teammate Dan Wheeler for four more.
The Rays, who entered the game having scored only 20 runs all season nearly matched the total in one night feasting off Red Sox pitching.
The Red Sox are now 2-8. 
This is the team to beat for the American League East title? This is the A.L. champions? Excuse me, I don’t think so.
I have been hearing all this “You can’t judge a team by the way they play in April” talk and “It’s only been 10 games.” But the fact is this Red Sox team is hip deep in flaws and not all of them can or will be addressed in time to right the ship.
For one, the starting pitching is a shambles. Jon Lester is OK and Josh Beckett proved he is capable of pitching better this season but the rest is a disaster area. If you combine the three other pitchers’ totals for the season you have 25 2/3 innings, 44 hits, 14 walks and 34 earned runs.
That is an ERA of 11.92. You can have a lineup full of Carl Crawfords and Adrian Gonzalezes and still not have an offense that can overcome that degree of bad pitching.
Yet the Red Sox are stuck with the big contracts of Matsuzaka and John Lackey and they just signed Clay Buchholz to a huge extension. So looking for some improvement is a lot like bringing a knife to a gunfight and hoping all their guns jam.
Red Sox Nation, never short of quick fixes to their ailing ballclub, have weighed in with a lot of advice: Get rid of Mice-K, fire new pitching coach Curt Young and start Alfredo Aceves. But the Red Sox braintrust knows that their options are really limited.
When you pay top dollar for a Japanese pitcher as they did with Matsuzaka, you want return on investment. The fact is, the Red Sox got nothing but inconsistency out of what they thought was a star pitcher.
Theo Epstein, the executive vice president, general manager and legend in his own mind, should have donned his gorilla suit and high-tailed it after this fiasco. But now that the Red Sox have committed the dollars they are not going to give up on “Homer-san” any time too soon.
They let it be known all winter and this spring that Matsuzaka was available in trade but scouts from the other teams looked at what they were being offered and just laughed. No one wanted him and those that might have contemplated a deal might as well have thought of hari-kiri. Matsuzaka is just pure poison now.
His comments about the Red Sox medical staff and his own penchant to “do it his way” make him a very unattractive acquisition. Sure, they can bite the bullet and release him. But they are still obligated to pay the man. So the Sox are going to try “fix” him before they ever decide to admit they made a mistake in overpaying this stiff.
You ever wonder why the Yankees may no real effort to sign Lackey when he became a free agent?
You are seeing it now. Lackey has been, and always will be, kind of Joe Blanton-type of pitcher. Fierce competitor, yes. But he also is lacking a few bullets in the chamber.  
Look at Lackey’s career numbers and he never struck 200 batters. He also never was among the discussion of the best pitchers in baseball. He just was a tough and gritty pitcher who gave you max effort every time out.
Now that the age has slipped into the 30s and the innings have piled up, what Lackey can give is eroding with every inning. He can’t throw balls past hitters anymore so he has to trick them. But the hitters are catching up with the tricks.
Red Sox Nation can say “put him in the bullpen” or “release his butt.” But the fact is the Red Sox are committed to Lackey for the long term — emphasis on the word long. They signed him to a four-year deal and he is only in his second year.
Nope. John Lackey is not going anywhere but to the mound every fifth day for the Red Sox whether he gets his brains beat in or not. Thinking anything else is like wishing that it ain’t so.
So the Red Sox have to fix Matsuzaka and Lackey before the season really has started.
Then there is Buchholz, who last season was 17-7 with the league’s best ERA for a starter. You just pencil those good numbers in for 2010, huh? Not really.
Pitchers have to prove themselves every season. In 2008, Buchholz was 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA. In 2009, he was 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA. So which pitcher is Buchholz? Is he the guy with the 6.75 ERA or the guy with the 2.33 ERA in 2010?
Maybe you split the difference and get a pitcher who is the 4.21 ERA guy. Right now, his ERA is 7.20 so he has a ways to go to repairing the damage of his first two starts.
All this falls on Curt Young, who replaced John Farrell. Farrell had an established rapport with all these pitchers and now Young is trying to do the same. That takes time and sometimes it can be hard to unlock what is in the mind of a starter.
Young is an excellent pitching coach but he just is not the same guy as Farrell. He has different ways of saying things and doing things. The pitchers will have to adapt to him rather than the other way around. That takes time.
But one is a lead-pipe cinch: The Red Sox are not firing Young. That would not be fair.
So what if the losing continues? What happens if Lackey, Matsuzaka and Buchholz keep getting their brains beat in before the Fenway faithful take their first bite of their hot dogs? Well, I shudder to think of what will happen.
It certainly will get pretty ugly if this continues into May.
One thing is for certain. There is no way that Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee are showing up in Red Sox uniforms. Pedro and Curt Schilling are not coming out of retirement. Even if they did, the Sox would be better off with what they have.
So sometimes in building the perfect ship you end up with some rusty parts you did not see when you were in construction. That may be Theo’s biggest oversight this offseason. The shiny bright new toys obscured what lay underneath.
It was the same way the Titatnic was built and we all know what happened there. The only question now is are there enough lifeboats to get Red Sox Nation off this ship before it hits the bottom of the Atlantic.

Arlington Annihilation Has Red Sox Licking Their Wounds

I want to thank the Texas Rangers.
In the Opening Series of the 2011 season the Rangers proved my point about the weakness in the Boston Red Sox starting rotation. The Rangers outscored the Red Sox 26-11 this weekend in what can now be called the Arlington Annihilation.
Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz combined to give up 18 earned runs on 21 hits and five walks in only 15 1/3 innings. That is an ERA of 10.57 and walks plus hits to innings pitched ratio (WHIP) of 1.70.
So the Red Sox front office might want to hold off on printing those World Series tickets for a few months. General manager Theo Epstein might want to stop drafting that Executive of the Year acceptance speech.
It looks a little bleak in Beantown this weekend.
And the funny thing is their two weakest links in the rotation — Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka — have not even thrown a pitch yet. 
Just before Opening Day I wrote a post on this blog on how I felt that there was no real dominant starting rotation in the American League East. I basically pointed out that the Red Sox and the Yankees both had some major question marks to deal with in 2011.
As expected, I heard from some my dear friends in Red Sox Nation who felt compelled to put me in my place. You do not dare throw shades of gray over their rose-colored glasses. I mean, after all, they have Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Just declare the season over and give the Red Sox the championship trophy now.
Why bother playing out the inevitable, right?
But this weekend really proved my point. The Red Sox have no difficulty handling themselves when they are playing within the East. They do just fine there. 
They struggle to beat the teams they should beat outside the division. So they occasionally get swept in Kansas City and Seattle. Jonathan Papelbon blows his customary eight saves a year and the next thing you know the Red Sox are a wild card.
Manager Terry Francona has been preaching this to his team for years and the Red Sox have a hard time rectifying the problem. Now that the Rangers have left the Red Sox starting staff in tatters they might listen to Francona and heed his advice.
I am not going to say the Yankees have the better pitching staff. Their starters do have weaknesses that can be exploited. At the same time, I think the same thing about the Red Sox starters.
Lester is habitually slow starter. Lackey is proving that he’s gotten by more on his guile and competitiveness than he did on actual talent. Buchholz shows promise but needs to follow it up with another good season.
Beckett is coming off a serious back injury and those kind of injuries do not really go away. You have to monitor them and constantly keep an eye on them. After a very poor spring training, Beckett has a lot to prove in 2011.
At age 30, is Beckett finally paying for throwing all those innings for the Marlins at a young age? Will he get his velocity back? Can his back hold up to 200 innings?
Dice-K is an enigma wrapped within a anomaly. Japanese pitchers are used to a different routine and different way of doing things. Matsuzaka has had hard time letting go of how he wants to do things.
He insists on pitching backwards. He will walk the bases loaded before he will throw a fastball to challenge a hitter. It is mind-numbing to watch. Francona would have lost all his hair if he had any to lose.
The Red Sox simply do not know what to expect from their Japanese “star.” Maybe comet would be a better term. It certainly looks likes the tail of the comet is indicating a flame-out.
Add to all this the loss of pitching coach John Farrell, who decided to try his hand at managing the Toronto Blue Jays. Curt Young is not a bad replacement but Farrell had a close relationship with these starters.
Young has his work cut out for him working with these egos and finding the keys to open the  lock on each ones soul may be a daunting task. Especially prima donnas like Beckett and Papelbon.
The Red Sox now take their bruised egos off to Cleveland. There they might find an inferior team to beat up on before the begin their home schedule against the so-called Evil Empire. But these pitching woes are not going to disappear with a wave a magic wand or Red Sox Nation merely wishing it so.
It is going to take time and effort to make things better. Maybe now the Red Sox will understand that their opponents are not going to just let them win. They will have to win it for themselves.
The fact that the Yankees have a superior offense, defense, bullpen and bench is a troubling factor they will have to deal with. But they can compete and they will. They just have stop reading the papers and blogs that are telling them they are great.
They have to get on the field and prove it. So far, they have won nothing. And they will win nothing unless they put in the effort.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.