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Yankees’ Starters Talented But Health Big Issue

With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them.

STARTING ROTATION

No. 1 – Masahiro Tanaka, 26 (13-5, 2.77 ERA in 20 starts)

No. 2 – Michael Pineda, 26 (5-5, 1.89 ERA in 13 starts)

No. 3 – CC Sabathia, 34 (3-4, 5.28 ERA in 8 starts)

No. 4 – Nathan Eovaldi, 25 (6-14, 4.37 ERA in 33 starts)

No. 5 – Chris Capuano, 36 (2-3, 4.25 in 12 starts)

The Yankees began the 2014 season with a rotation of Tanaka, Pineda, Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. At one point last season, Kuroda was the only one of the five still pitching.

In fact, the then-39-year-old veteran made 32 starts and was 11-9 with a 3.71 ERA for a team that struggled to finish six games over .500. Unfortunately, after pitching three seasons with the Yankees, Kuroda elected to exit Major League Baseball and go back to his native Japan to finish up his career.

That leaves a 2015 rotation steeped in talent and great possibilities. However, it also is a quintet laden with big question marks.

The Yankees made quite a splash last season with the signing of the Japanese star right-hander Tanaka to a seven-year, $155-million contract on Jan. 23. Tanaka was coming off a dream season in Japan where he was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013.

The Yankees saw Tanaka as a potential ace and they were hoping that his eight-pitch assortment including a world-class strikeout pitch in his split-finger fastball would translate to the American game.

After a spring training in which he was 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA in five games, Tanaka hit the ground running and never really stopped. On June 17, Tanaka was 11-1 with a sparkling 1.99 ERA.

Ther was talk of a Cy Young Award and a Rookie of the Year Award buzzing around him until . . .

After losing three of his next three starts, Tanaka complained of pain in his valuable right elbow. Because Tanaka came to the United States after logging 1,315 innings since the age of 18 in Japan, he did come to the Yankees with some very inherent risks.

The Yankees discovered he had a partial tear in ulnar collateral ligament and left the choice to Tanaka whether to have surgery to repair it and likely miss two full seasons or rehab the small tear and hope that it healed on its own.

Tanaka chose the latter and came back to make two starts in September. Despite the fact he was shelled for seven runs (five earned) in 1 2/3 innings in his final start, Tanaka and the Yankees were encouraged enough to stay committed on not having Tommy John surgery.

So with two spring bullpen sessions under his belt, Tanaka has assured the Yankees and the media that his elbow is fine and he expects no further problems. To outside observers, however, Tanaka’s elbow is a ticking time bomb that can explode at any moment, especially for a pitcher who throws a splitter with so much torque on his elbow.

But the Yankees are willing to take that chance so that they can have their ace on the mound for 2015.

If he is right and he remains healthy the Yankees will have one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. Tanaka has proven to be the consummate pitcher capable of even changing his game plan if pitches are not working or batters change their approach.

Last season, pitching against the Twins at Target Field, Tanaka noticed that the Twins were laying off his split-finger pitch and it was causing him to get into some deep counts. So Tanaka switched gears and went to his slider, a pitch that he could throw for strikes. Tanaka ended up winning the game.

So Tanaka is far from just a thrower and his cerebral approach along with his stuff make him a very formidable foe for hitters. If the Yankees are to make any noise in the American League East they will need Tanaka at the top of the rotation pitching just as he did in 2014.

If patience is a virtue than the Yankees have it spades when it comes to Pineda.

The 6-foot-7, 290-pound right-hander was obtained in a much ballyhooed deal between the Yankees and Seattle in 2012 that sent the Yankees No. 1 prospect, catcher Jesus Montero, to the Mariners.

However, in his final start of the spring in 2012, Pineda complained of shoulder pain. He ended up undergoing season-ending surgery on the shoulder and he was only was able to make 10 minor-league rehab starts in 2013.

So the Yankees wanted to see what a healthy Pineda could do in 2014. Very quickly they learned he could do quite a lot. In spring training, Pineda was 2-1 with a 1.20 ERA in four games with 16 Ks in 15 innings.

The Yankees could not wait to see what he could do with a full season. However, after going 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA in his first three starts, Pineda decided to tempt fate once too many times by placing a glob of pine tar on his neck in a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 23.

He was ejected from the game in the second inning and he was suspended for 10 days by Major League Baseball. In what only could be called “Pineda Luck,” while preparing for his first start after the suspension, Pineda strained the teres major muscle behind his right shoulder and he was placed on the 60-day disabled list. He would not return to the Yankees until Sept. 5.

In his final five starts, Pineda was 2-2 with an even more sparkling 1.62 ERA. So the Yankees open spring camp thinking they have a second top-drawer starter in Pineda IF ONLY he can stay healthy and off suspension.

It is obvious the talent is there. Pineda exhibits absolutely spotless control: He walked only seven batters in 76 1/3 innings and he only gave up 56 hits. How he lost five games is amazing but very understandable considering how weak the Yankees offense was last season.

With a full season under his belt in 2015, Pineda may take the next step into the elite class of pitchers and he forms a very tough one-two pitching punch with Tanaka.

At this point, the rest of the rotation takes a decided turn to the worse.

Sabathia, the team’s former ace, is coming off two consecutive very bad seasons.

In 2013, Sabathia saw his record slip from 15-6 in 2012 to 14-13 and his ERA exploded from 3.28 to 4.78. After pitching 200-plus innings for six consecutive seasons since 2007, Sabathia discovered he was losing velocity, which negated the effectiveness of his change-up.

He vowed to be better in 2014. He would somehow transition into a finesse pitcher capable of winning on guile instead on pure power as he had throughout his career.

He was 3-1 with 1.29 ERA in five spring starts so the early results looked encouraging. But when the regular season started the whole thing came crashing down on Sabathia.

He was 3-3 with a 5.11 ERA in April. He then made two very poor starts in May and that was all for Sabathia for the rest of the season. Swelling in his right knee forced him to the disabled list and after breaking down in a second rehab start on July 2, Sabathia finally called 2014 quits.

Yankee team doctors discovered that Sabathia had a degenerative condition in his right knee and underwent arthroscopic debridement surgery in July. Doctors also shaved out a bone spur.

Though Sabathia dodged a more invasive and career-threatening microfracture surgery, he will always have some pain in the knee because he has no cartilage between the bones. So Sabathia enters 2015 as one big fat question mark, literally.

Sabathia, claiming that he was too light the past two seasons, elected to come to camp 10 pounds heavier this spring. Sabathia said he expects to pitch this season between 295 and 305 pounds. Last season, he reported weighing 275 pounds.

It would seem to be counterintuitive for a pitcher coming off knee surgery with no cartilage in his knee would add weight. But Dr. Christopher Ahmad, the Yankees’ team physician, cleared him for the weight and manager Joe Girardi said it will not be an issue in camp.

Sabathia vows he wants to make at least 30 starts in 2015 and after his first bullpen session he said he already feels stronger than he has the past two seasons. But the jury on Sabathia remains out.

Just two seasons ago the Yankees provided Sabathia a six-year, $142 million deal. In retrospect, that deal is looking pretty disastrous now because it is doubtful that Sabathia will ever reclaim his status as the team’s ace.

The even larger question is can he adapt and become a the finesse pitcher he thinks he can? The left-hander sounds all the right chords but the results so far have be awful. So no one on the Yankees’ staff has more to prove that Sabathia in 2015.

With Kuroda unavailable the Yankees could have gone in a lot of different directions to replace him in 2015.

After all they did have young pitchers such as David Phelps, Adam Warren and Shane Greene on the roster. In addition, Brandon McCarthy pitched well for the team after he was acquired from the Diamondbacks last July.

However, the Yankees did not opt for Plan A, Plan B, Plan C or Plan D. They dealt Phelps and Greene away in separate trades and they allowed McCarthy to sign a four-year, $48 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

They are now on Plan E as in Eovaldi, who the Yankees obtained along with infielder/outfielder Garrett Jones for infielder Martin Prado and Phelps.

The right-hander features a sizzling fastball that averages 95.7 mph. However, even with that hard fastball Eovaldi led the National League in hits allowed (223) and he recorded only 142 strikeouts.

The problem according to the Yankees: He needs to develop his secondary pitches  –  his splitter, slider and change-up. The thought is that if Eovaldi does that the sky is the limit for him as a pitcher.

“We’ve talked about developing his repertoire and having him establish confidence in all his pitches in all the counts,” Girardi told reporters. “It’s one thing to have three or four pitches, but it’s another thing to have the confidence to throw them at any time.”

So spring training will be an opportunity for pitching coach Larry Rothschild to refine the diamond in the ruff in Eovaldi and 2015 will be a proving ground to see how the pupil progresses with the lessons he is taught.

Eovaldi did throw 199 2/3 innings last season for a very weak Marlins team. Perhaps some improved offense from the Yankees combined with the refinements Eovaldi is making will translate into success for him in 2015.

The Yankees opted to bring back the veteran left-hander Capuano after he made 12 starts with the team last season.

Capuano was designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox on July 25 and he was signed to a minor-league contract on July 4 by the Colorado Rockies. After making two minor-league starts, the Yankees acquired him from the Rockies in exchange for cash considerations.

Capuano debuted on July 28 and he finished with a 2-3 mark with a 4.25 ERA.

Having a second left-hander in the rotation is advantageous for the Yankees, particularly at home with so many teams wanting to load up on left-handed batters to exploit the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium.

The problem is left-handers hit .321 with a .942 OPS against Capuano last season. So he is going to have to work on that this spring.

Capuano has not started 33 games in a season since 2012, But if he can keep his ERA to his career mark of 4.28 the Yankees will be satisfied.

The Yankees also enter 2015 with a bit of a problem. The Yankees have a stretch at the end of April and the beginning of May where they are scheduled to play 30 games in 31 days.

In addition, they have Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia coming off injury-shortened seasons n 2014. So Giradi and Rothschild are planning to use a six-man rotation this spring and they may extend it into the regular season to ease the strain on their staff through that 30-game stretch in May.

As a result right-hander Warren, 27, looks to be in the best position to fill that role for the Yankees. Warren was 3-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 69 games last season, all of them in relief.

But Warren has been a starter throughout his minor-league career and he is well-suited to slip back into the bullpen when he is no longer needed.

Warren was one of the strengths of the bullpen last season and he seems to have settled into the role Phelps once held.

It would not be the Yankees unless they entered a season with one of their starting  pitchers rehabbing something and that is the case with the 28-year-old right-hander Nova, who ended up on the disabled list after four starts after he suffered a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament on his right elbow.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery on April 29 last year, Nova will be unavailable to the Yankees until late May or early June, barring any unforeseen setbacks. However, it is unclear how effective Nova can be.

The Merriam-Webster definition of the word nova is “a star that suddenly increases its light output tremendously and then fades away to its former obscurity in a few months or years.” That could apply to the veteran from the Dominican Republic.

Nova burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011 with a 16-4 record and a 3.70 ERA. However, in 2012, Nova regressed and finished 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA with 28 home runs allowed in 170 1/3 innings.

He then bounced back from an injury in 2013 to become the Yankees’ best pitcher down the stretch. He ended the season 9-6 with an excellent 3.10 ERA.

So 2014 was supposed to be Nova’s chance to build as a starter. But it ended early after the elbow flared up with a 2-2 record and a 8.27 ERA.

The Yankees are hopeful that Nova will be able to step into the rotation in late May or so. The reality is that it usually takes pitchers some time to find the feel for the pitches and trust that the repaired elbow will hold up.

Nova had developed a devastating curveball that just had batters shaking their heads. He also was able to throw his fastball in the mid-90s with good control. If that Nova is able to contribute to the Yankees in 2015 they may be able to shift Capuano to the bullpen and the rotation will look a lot better.

But Nova remains a big question mark for now.

The Yankees have options beyond these seven starters but there is a huge drop in quality also.

Chase Whitley, 25, made 12 starts for the Yankees last season. After going 3-0 with a 2.56 ERA in his first seven starts he collapsed. He was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in his last five starts.

However, he did pitch six innings of shutout baseball on seven hits on July 22 at home against Texas in his final start but still was shifted to the bullpen, where he ended the season.

It is unlikely that Whitley will start once the season opens but he could be a valuable swing man in the bullpen who is available to make a spot start if needed. Whitley has very good numbers as a reliever in the minors and the Yankees feel he is going to be an integral part of their revamped bullpen.

There also is Esmil Rogers, a 29-year-old right-hander signed as a free agent after he was designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays on July 27. He made his debut with the Yankees on Aug. 4 and finished 2-0 with a 4.66 ERA.

Rogers was a failed starter with the Blue Jays before being shifted to the bullpen in 2014 and he seems more suited for that role. But he struggled with the Yankees in September with a 7.84 ERA.

Blessed with immense talent, Rogers just has not been able to put it all together yet at the major-league level and time is beginning to run out.

Another starter candidate is right-hander Bryan Mitchell, 23, who came up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in August and pitched in three games, one of them as a starter.

Mitchell was 0-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings. He was a combined 6-7 with a 4.37 ERA at Double-A Trenton and Scranton.

Yankee insiders compare Mitchell’s build and stuff to that of A.J. Burnett because he possesses a power fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a power curveball that hits at 84 mph. Mitchell has also added a cutter but his change-up needs work.

If Mitchell can harness the command of his pitches he could be something special. He is ranked as the team’s No. 20 prospect.

If the Yankees have one pitcher coming to camp as a non-roster player that I can’t wait to see it is 21-year-old right-hander Luis Severino, the team’s top rated prospect in 2015.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in July 2012, Severino began 2013 as a complete unknown quantity and finished it as the top right-handed pitching prospect in the system.

Though only 6-feet and 195 pounds, Severino showed uncommon strength to post a 4-2 record with a 2.45 ERA and 53 Ks in 44 innings between two rookie league teams.

He topped that in 2014 by sailing through three different teams, making it all the way to Trenton and he did not look overmatched at any of those stops.

After posting a 3-2 record with a 2.79 ERA at Class-A Charleston (SC) in 14 starts, Severino was promoted to Class-A Tampa. All he did there was go 1-1 with a sparkling 1.31 ERA in four starts.

So the Yankees sent him on to Trenton, where he was 2-2 with a 2.52 ERA in six starts. Over the course of 113 1/3 innings in his three stops, Severino punched out 127 batters.

To say he looks like the real deal is putting it mildly. He was chosen to participate in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game and he has become the organization’s No. 1 prospect, period.

Severino’s fastball reaches up to 98 mph and has a natural sink at the low end of his velocity (94 mph). Severino also features a hard slider and a change-up that both have the potential to be big weapons for him.

The Yankees would love to see what he can do this spring but they are going to be deliberate and cautious with his development. But there is no doubt that Severino is on a fast-track to the major leagues and he could be in the rotation as regularly as soon as 2016.

Book it: Severino is a star in the making!

Just behind Severino is left-hander Ian Clarkin, 20, who was selected in the first round (33rd pick) by the Yankees in 2013 First-Year Player Draft.

Clarkin recorded a 4-3 mark with a 3.13 ERA in stops at Charleston and Tampa using his 90-94 mph fastball mixed in with a 12-to-6 curveball and a change-up. The youngster also shows a lot of polish for a prep pitcher and the Yankees hope to have him ready for the majors by 2017.

He is ranked as the team’s fourth best prospect.

The Yankees also have very high hopes for No. 7 prospect Domingo German, 22, another player signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Miami Marlins in 2009.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound right-hander posted a breakout season in 2014 at Class-A Greensboro, going 9-3 with a 2.48 ERA in 25 starts. He also was selected to pitch in the SiriusXM Futures Game and then the Marlins packaged him with Eovaldi and Jones in the deal for Prado and Phelps.

German excels at command and scouts rave about his touch already on his breaking pitches. He features a power sinking fastball along with a above-average change-up. Right now his slider needs more break but he is developing it.

The Yankees also expect to see him around 2017.

These three gems have Yankee fans very excited and with good reason.

OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: AVERAGE

Though I truly believe that Tanaka and Pineda will not only be healthy all season but they will actually be among the best starters in the American League, the other three spots in the rotation have some question marks.

Even after surgery, Sabathia’s right knee could be a recurring problem for him and I fail to see the added weight will help it. But if Sabathia can remain healthy all season, eat innings and keep his ERA in 4.25 area the Yankees could settle for that.

Eovaldi was a real gamble. His arm, no doubt, is a good one. The question is can he finally put it all together to become a winning pitcher? Rothschild has had some success grooming young pitchers and if he gets Eovaldi untracked he should have his salary doubled.

The veteran left-hander Capuano is up there in age and he obviously is a placeholder while Nova rehabs his surgically repaired elbow. The problem with Capuano is can he pitch well enough to keep the Yankees in games.

Years ago the Yankees scoured the scrap heap for Freddy Garcia. Now it is Capuano in the same role. Let’s hope it works out.

The Yankees also have Warren if they need a sixth starter in the early part of the season. Warren has been excellent as a reliever so there is no reason to believe he can’t be successful as a starter.

The Yankees hope to get Nova back and they also have Whitley, Rogers and Mitchell who are capable of starting. Mitchell has the most upside of the bunch because Whitley is more suited to relief and Rogers has been too inconsistent to be considered much of a help at this point.

The future of the Yankees’ starting rotation is looking quite bright with Severino, Clarkin and German coming off sparkling 2014 campaigns. This is one area the team that looks much stronger.

The temptation is for Yankee fans to want Severino on the roster this season. But the Yankees are taking a very careful approach with him and it is going to pay off of them next season.

NEXT: BULLPEN

 

2015 Yanks Likely Will Extend Playoff Drought

Welcome back to one of the best New York Yankees team blogs available on the web. Because of some circumstances beyond our control this site was non-operational for the past eight months. There was a thought of suspending the site entirely. But because of some 52 years devoted to the best franchise in sports history we felt we owed our fans the ability to stay up to date with the team on a daily basis. It is with that renewed commitment we will embark at looking at the team’s prospects for 2015.

The New York Yankees have faced two significant championship droughts in their most recent history.

The first was the end of the so-called Mickey Mantle Era in 1965 that lasted until Billy Martin managed the team to a loss to the Big Red Machine in the 1976 World Series. The 10 intervening years saw the team flounder with players such as Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Horace Clarke and Mel Stottlemyre.

George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973 and he immediately rebuilt the front office with general manager Gabe Paul, who wrangled trades for players such as Lou Piniella, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss and Mickey Rivers. The Steinbrenner money brought in free agents such as Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter, which was added to a minor-league system that had already produced Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry.

The teams of 1977 and 1978 battled to consecutive World Series titles over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, restoring the Yankees back to the pinnacle of baseball’s elite that they had not experienced since 1962. But this success proved to be short-lived.

During the strike-shortened 1981 season the Yankees qualified for the playoffs and faced the Dodgers again in the World Series. But they lost and the team soon again drifted into mediocrity. The team was unable to make the playoffs again until 1996 – a playoff drought of an astounding 15 years.

Through a parade of managers and general managers and an even longer list of failed free agents and personnel mistakes the Yankees rebuilt in the early 1990s through a farm system that very quickly produced Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.

Meanwhile the team was bolstered by the trade of Roberto Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for Paul O’Neill, the acquisition of first baseman Tino Martinez from the Seattle Mariners and the signings of players like Wade Boggs, David Cone, David Wells and Cuban star Orlando Hernandez.

Steinbrenner fired manager Buck Showalter after a very painful 1995 loss to the Seattle Mariners in the American League Division Series and hired Joe Torre. The rest was history as the Yankees managed to win four World Series over the next five seasons, a run of titles that has been unmatched in the modern era of baseball. In fact, Torre took the Yankees to the playoffs from 1996 until his firing after the 2007 loss to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series.

Though the Yankees returned to prominence under manager Joe Girardi in the 2009 season with a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, the team has steadily declined. Age forced the retirements of all the “Core Four” (Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and Rivera) and the performance declined from such former stars as CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

The team that enters the 2015 season is one that has age, long-term money commitments to fading players and a new mix of players that had to be procured on the cheap because of those commitments. The farm system has not produced a regular starter since Brett Gardner came up six years ago. The pitching staff has question marks all over the starting staff and the bullpen has lost its closer from from the past three seasons: 2012 (Rafael Soriano), 2013 (Rivera) and 2014 (David Robertson).

How did this happen?

Well, one reason is the declining health and eventual death of Steinbrenner. “The Boss” ran this club with a tough determination to make the franchise a jewel of Major League Baseball. The team had to win or managers or general managers went. Players had to perform or they would be discarded for better players. It was not always a successful process but the Yankees largely have been contenders for so long it is hard for fans to remember the bad stretches that began in 1965 and 1982.

The 4-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 American League Division Series may have marked an end of another chapter of success and the beginning of another long series of bad seasons.

It appears that the 2013 season may be one of those years like 1965 and 1982 and 2015 could be an extension of that futility. Transition with the Yankees is never pretty.

Another reason the Yankees are in this position is because Steinbrenner’s hand-picked successor Steve Swindal got caught up in a messy DUI incident in 2008 and then later a divorce from Steinbrenner’s daughter Jennifer. Swindal was bought out from the team and Steinbrenner’s sons Hank and Hal took the reins.

There was a very good reason that the elder Steinbrenner had selected Swindal instead of his own sons to run the team. Swindal was the most knowledgeable baseball man and conformed to Steinbrenner’s desire for excellence at all costs. The Steinbrenner sons did not have that same ability and the result has been obvious after the 2009 season.

After the team had invested millions in free agents such as Teixeira, Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the team decided to hold general manager Brian Cashman to an austere budget to pare the Yankees payroll under the MLB’s salary cap limit that forced the Yankees to have to pay a tax.

From 2010 through the 2013 free-agent signing seasons the Yankees allowed all major free agents to go without much of an effort. Even Cuban and Japanese imports such as Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish barely got a cursory look. The team was determined to either trade, use farm talent or sign cheap free-agent bargains. The team has fallen under the heft of its expensive guaranteed contracts and there is one in particular that has weighed on this team like an albatross.

That was the misguided decision in 2007 to re-sign then free-agent third baseman Rodriguez to a 10-year contract. The team still owes Rodriguez $60 million over the next three seasons despite the fact that age 39 he has not played more than 137 games in a season since 2007. Injuries, controversies and dabbling with performance enhancing drugs has basically reduced A-Rod to a mere shell of what he once was.

The Yankees have to hope he can regain some semblance of that magic because they are on the hook for his contract for three more seasons. Though Rodriguez may be planning to apologize to Yankee fans for his season-long suspension in 2014, he owes the fans an awful lot more.

If this team really does perform as badly as it looks as if they will in 2015 it will mostly be the fault of the Steinbrenner brothers, Cashman and him. It hard to see the sense of providing 10 years of big guaranteed money to someone who has always felt he is above baseball and the rules that govern it.

But here the Yankees are and no one expects Rodriguez to retire with $60 million coming his way. He will gladly hit .210 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs as long as those paychecks keep rolling in. His presence also poisons the clubhouse for the other 24 players on the roster. It is pretty obvious that A-Rod will not be out having beers with Sabathia or Teixiera. More likely he and his entourage will move in its own circles.

It is shame that a fine manager like Girardi will likely lose his job if this team plummets in the standings because none of this is his fault. For the past two seasons he has been patching this lineup with duct tape when it lost players like Rodriguez, Teixeira, Jeter and Sabathia for long stretches of time. It is miracle the team has contended at all the past two seasons given their weakened roster.

Though Girardi is virtually blameless the same can’t be said for Cashman, who is the longest serving GM in Yankee history.

He was given permission to sign free agents last season even at the risk of busting past the salary cap limits. But the whole key to Yankees 2014 season was the re-signing of second baseman Robinson Cano, who was the heir apparent to Jeter’s mantle as team leader and was the best player on this aging team. But Cashman chose to play hardball with Cano instead of treating him as a respected player.

When the Dodgers and Detroit Tigers looked elsewhere for help at second base last winter, Cashman figured that the market for Cano had dried up. So instead of negotiating Cano off his 10-year, $325 million request he went out an signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $275 million deal. Cano was livid because placing his numbers next to Ellsbury’s was an obvious mismatch weighted towards Cano. He felt he was easily worth $325 million in comparison.

He also was right. Ellsbury is a fine player but he is not in the same league with Cano.

So Cano shopped himself to the Mariners and they felt he was worth the price.

Cashman’s answer to Cano’s signing: He opted to cave in to Carlos Betran’s demand for a three-year deal and he filled Cano’s spot at second with former Baltimore Orioles star Brian Roberts.

The result was very ugly. The 37-year-old Beltran developed a painful bone spur in his right elbow in spring training and he ended up playing 109 games, hitting .233 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Roberts played in 91 games and never could get even close to what he used to be. He ended up being released in midseason after hitting a woeful .237 with five homers and 21 RBIs.

Cano, meanwhile, hit .314 for  a Mariners club that nearly made the playoffs.

Cashman’s miscalculation has placed the Yankees in a position where they enter the 2015 season with 31-year-old Stephen Drew as their starting second baseman after he hit .162 with seven homers and 26 RBIs with the Yankees and Red Sox last season.

So when the Yankees begin their complete fall off the cliff in 2015 it actually should be Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner who go and not Girardi. But I am not sure that is the way it likely will play out. I can see Steinbrenner firing Girardi and keeping Cashman. That is how those long championship droughts are born. Bad choices and bad luck equal bad results. (Did Casey Stengel say that?)

There will be some bright spots on this team. After all, the team is not completely devoid of talent.

It appears that Dellin Betances could be the real deal if he can maintain his control as a full-time closer. The signing of left-hander Andrew Miller gives the Yankees a second option as a closer and fills the void the team felt when they let Boone Logan walk in 2014.

The signing of Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka proved to be a very good decision. He was exactly what the Yankees hoped he would be in the United States until a small ligament tear was found in his right elbow in July. The Yankees are hoping rest and rehabilitation will prevent him from a more serious tear that will basically shelve him for two seasons. They are rolling the dice on it anyway.

It also was apparent that if Michael Pineda had not missed most of the season with a shoulder muscle injury that he would have established himself as a rising young right-hander.

But the rest of the rotation is a litany of question marks, hopes and prayers. The bullpen has been completely reshuffled and it is not clear what pitchers Girardi will have pitching ahead of Miller and Betances.

The offense? Don’t ask.

Recently a composite ranking of fantasy baseball players came out. Ellsbury was ranked No. 22, which makes him a third-round selection. The next highest Yankee position player on that list was Gardner at 109, which is an 11th-round choice. That is an grim indicator of how much the Yankees offense has fallen on hard times.

They require bounce back seasons from Teixeira, Rodriguez and Beltran as well as for second-year starting catcher Brian McCann, who stumbled his way through a 2014 season in which he batted .232 with 23 homers and 75 RBIs.

The biggest news of all is that for the first time since the 1995 season the Yankees will be without Jeter at shortstop. Because there was no one in the system groomed to replace him (Cashman again), the Yankees acquired 25-year-old Didi Gregorius.

His reputation is that he has a great glove, great range and a developing bat. His big weakness is left-hand pitching so he likely will have to share the position with great-field and no-hit Brendan Ryan, yet another player over 30.

The Yankees also have to hope Drew can recapture his magic at the plate and that third baseman Chase Headley is better than a .243 hitter that he was with the Padres and Yankees last season.

The bench has some veterans, of course.

Former Pirate Garrett Jones has been added as a backup first baseman, right-fielder and designated hitter. The Yankees also retained Chris Young, who is a poor man’s version of Alfonso Soriano with even more strikeouts.

If you think this sounds bad I am actually trying to sugarcoat some of it.

But, hey, the Kansas City Royals made the World Series last season and who could have predicted that? Of course, they did it with a team full of young players and an exceptional bullpen. They Yankees currently have neither of those two ingredients.

But I can say that Girardi will select the best 25 players this spring. He also will put out the best lineup he can on a daily basis. You can also count on him getting the team to outperform expectations as they have the past two seasons.

Whether it will be enough to win the American League East or qualify as a wild card is an open question.

In the coming days I will examine the players more in depth and take a look forward at spring training to go over who the Yankees will likely keep on the roster and what young players are poised to make a splash for the team in coming years.

I hope you enjoy the analysis. All I can say is I am glad to be back and let’s get ready to play ball!

 

Ellsbury Shines As Yankees Clip Cardinals’ Wings

GAME 52

YANKEES 7, CARDINALS 4

Since May 3, Jacoby Ellsbury has been struggling at the plate. So much so that his season average dipped from .346 to .259 entering Wednesday’s contest. By the time the game was over Ellsbury seemed back on track.

Ellsbury was 3-for-5 with three RBIs, two stolen bases and two runs scored to lead a seven-run, 12-hit attack to help Hiroki Kuroda and New York take a three-game series over St. Louis in front of a paid crowd of 45,267 at Busch Stadium.

The Yankees scored four runs in the third and three in the fourth against right-hander Shelby Miller and Ellsbury had a hand in both rallies.

With one out in the third, Brett Gardner drew a walk and Brian Roberts followed with a single up the middle. Ellsbury then scored Gardner with the game’s first run with a single to right-center as Roberts hustled into third.

Ellsbury stole second without a throw from catcher Yadier Molina and Brian McCann walked on four pitches to load the bases because Miller was pitching around him to face rookie catcher John Ryan Murphy.

But Murphy spoiled the strategy by delivering a single to center to score both Roberts and Ellsbury and Ichiro Suzuki capped the scoring by beating out a potential double-play grounder to score McCann.

With two out in the fourth and Kelly Johnson on first base after a single, Roberts doubled into left-center and Ellsbury scored both of them with a lined single to center. Ellsbury then stole second, again without a throw from Molina, and McCann followed with a single to right to score Ellsbury, giving the Yankees a 7-0 lead.

Miller (6-4) was charged with seven earned runs on nine hits and two walks with one strikeout in five innings.

Kuroda (4-3), who has spent most of major-league career as a pitcher who has received very little run support, suddenly has an abundance of runs provided by his teammates.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals took advantage of Kuroda’s desire to limit walks and keep his pitch count down by teeing off on Kuroda’s fastball.

The Cardinals managed to score single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth and they chased Kuroda from the game in the sixth when Matt Carpenter laced an RBI double off the wall to score pinch-hitter Jhonny Peralta from first with two out.

Kuroda yielded three runs on nine hits with no walks and three strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.

The Yankees bullpen quartet of Matt Thornton, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and David Robertson were knocked around a bit, giving up four hits and two walks in 3 1/3 innings. In fact, after Warren was chased by a two-out double by Carpenter, Kolten Wong greeted Robertson with an RBI single, his fourth hit in five at-bats on the night.

But Robertson ended the eighth by striking out Matt Holliday looking.

Then in the ninth, Robertson was touched by a leadoff single by Allen Craig and he walked Molina to bring up the potential tying run.

But Robertson ended the night with a flourish by striking out in succession John Jay, pinch-hitter Matt Adams and Daniel Descalso.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 28-24. They are in second place in the American League East, three games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. The Cardinals fell to 29-24.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Ellsbury’s night also included an impressive sliding catch of a sinking line drive off the bat of Craig in the second inning. Ellsbury is an extremely talented player who was responsible for carrying the team through the first month of the season. He now has at least one hit in four of his past five games and is 7-for-20 (.350) with a homer and seven RBIs in that span.
  • Murphy was 1-for-5 in the game but that single drove in two big runs with the bases loaded in the third inning. It raised a few eyebrows when manager Joe Girardi had him batting fifth in the lineup. But the 22-year-old rookie is batting .357 with a home run and eight RBIs in limited playing time behind McCann.
  • Give Roberts credit for doing well in the second spot in the order replacing a resting Derek Jeter. Roberts was 2-for-4 with a double and a walk and two runs scored. Roberts also extended his hitting streak to five games and he is 7-for-19 (.368) in that span. He has raised his season average to .248.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • It was hard to judge whether the Cardinals were knocking Kuroda around or if he was losing his competitive edge because he had such a big lead. Kuroda is 4-3 and he has not lost a start since May 1. But his ERA is hovering now at 4.57 and his highest ERA since he came to the United States was in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 when it was 3.73. The Yankees need him to pitch better.
  • The Yankees had a chance to extend their lead in the eighth when they loaded the bases on right-hander Sean Maness. But left-hander Randy Choate struck out Gardner and Roberts smacked a 3-0 pitch to Carpenter at third and ended up in an inning-ending double play. The Yankees have to stop coming up empty in bases loaded and no out situations.
  • Robertson looked a little shaky in yielding two hits and a walk but he made up for it with recording all four of his outs on strikeouts. The Yankees know that comparing Robertson to Mariano Rivera is not fair but it is inevitable. The fact that Robertson has one blown save in 12 tries and a 2.20 ERA in 16 appearances is pretty darn good.

BOMBER BANTER

It is amazing that the Yankees got seven runs out of their offense with Mark Teixeira nursing a sore right wrist, Jeter sitting out to rest and slumping Alfonso Soriano and Yangervis Solarte held out of the lineup. McCann even started his first professional game at first base. But it all worked. Solarte was benched after hitting just .152 since his nine-game hitting streak was stopped on May 15. So Johnson moved to third, which opened first base for McCann.  . . .  Teixeira will have his right wrist examined on Thursday by Dr. Keith Raskin, who performed Teixeira’s surgery to repair the torn sheath in the wrist in the offseason. Teixeira will also have precautionary ultrasound. However, the Yankees are saying the stiffness and soreness are normal after this type of surgery and Teixeira is expected to be back in the lineup soon.

ON DECK

The Yankees will have Thursday off and they return home to begin a three-game weekend series against the Minnesota Twins on Friday.

Left-hander Vidal Nuno (1-1, 5.49 ERA) will start for the Yankees coming off what was his best start of season on Saturday. Nuno gave up three runs in the first inning to the Chicago White Sox but did not give up another run in the following six innings. Nuno walked one and struck out five.

Veteran right-hander Ricky Nolasco (2-5, 6.12) will get the nod for the Twins. Nolasco has lost his past two starts and was shelled by the San Francisco Giants on Sunday. Nolasco was tagged for seven runs on nine hits and a walk in  4 2/3 innings.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.

 

Astros Silence Yankees Bats To Post Another Win

GAME 2

ASTROS 3, YANKEES 1

When the Yankees ended spring training knowing they were starting the season with the lowly Astros it seemed the perfect way to start the season with a completely revamped starting lineup. After what happened on Wednesday the Yankees should be careful what they wish for.

The Astros scored a pair of early runs against Hiroki Kuroda and the Yankees  –  for the second straight evening  –  could not muster an offense as Houston defeated New York in front of a paid crowd of 23,145 at Minute Maid Park.

Dexter Fowler, who is 4-for-8 in the series, had a hand in both Astros runs off the right-handed Kuroda (0-1).

Fowler ripped Kuroda’s second offering in the first inning into the center-field bleachers to give the Astros an early 1-0 lead. Two innings later, Fowler laced a one-out triple to deep center and he scored on RBI grounder off the bat of Robbie Grossman that was misplayed by Mark Teixeira.

Kuroda gave up two runs on only there hits and one walk while he fanned five batters in six innings. But he could have sued the Yankees hitters for nonsupport.

The Yankees offense just could not push any runs across against Astros 23-year-old right-hander Jarred Cosart (1-0).

Cosart shut out the Yankees on four hits, he did not walk a batter and he struck out three in his five innings of work.

They did not fare much better against the four relievers who followed Cosart.

The Yankees did finally score a run in the seventh inning after Brett Gardner drew a leadoff walk from left-hander Kevin Chapman and Brian Roberts followed with his third consecutive single to advance Gardner to third.

Manager Joe Girardi pinch-hit for Kelly Johnson with rookie Yangervis Solarte and, in his first major-league at-bat, Solarte hit into a double play that scored Gardner.

The Astros got that run back in the bottom half of the seventh when Matt Dominguez touched right-hander David Phelps for an opposite-field home run into the right-field bleachers. In the first two games of the series, the Astros have hit four home runs and the Yankees have none.

Right-hander Josh Fields pitched a perfect ninth inning to earn his first save of the season.

The Yankees stranded eight runners and were a combined 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Do not blame this loss on Kuroda. Unlike CC Sabathia in the the season opener, Kuroda, 39, held the Astros to just two runs in six innings. This has been the story of Kuroda’s major-league career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees. He pitches well and he does not get the run support to show for the effort. That is why his career record is 68-71 and his ERA is a sparkling 3.40, the lowest ERA of any starting pitcher from Japan.
  • Roberts did his part for the offense. He was 3-for-4 with three singles that helped ignite scoring opportunities that his teammates failed to capitalize upon. Roberts, 36, is trying to re-establish his career after suffering through four seasons marred by injury. The early results show that he still has a lot left in the tank.
  • The Yankees managed just seven hits and Brian McCann and Roberts combined to post seven of them. McCann, 30, was 2-for-4 with a pair of singles. McCann is 3-for-8 with an RBI in the first two games hitting out of the cleanup spot. The five-time Silver Slugger award winner looks very comfortable at the plate in the early part of the season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano, batting fifth and sixth, respectively, were a combined 0-for-8 in the game, they struck out five times and they stranded seven base-runners. If you need to point at the two biggest culprits in the Yankees’ demise in this game you need to look no further than this pair. Soriano actually swung and missed at two pitches that hit the dirt and one of those pitches nearly hit him. In the first two games Soriano is 0-for-8 with four strikeouts.
  • The Yankees have had a history of not being able to hit pitchers they know little about and Wednesday’s game was another example. Cosart was making only his 11th major-league start and his first against the Yankees. The Yankees managed to get their first hit and base-runner with one out in the third inning on Roberts’ single. McCann added a two-out single in the fourth. Then Gardner and Roberts hit back-to-back one-out singles in the fifth. But Johnson into a fielder’s choice and Jacoby Ellsbury grounded out and Cosart left the game without yielding a run.
  • The inning that defined the evening is the eighth. Carlos Beltran led off with a double against right-handed reliever Matt Albers. However, McCann, Teixeira and Soriano all struck out swinging. Futility is contagious.

BOMBER BANTER

Former teammates Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Mike Stanton were among the guests who honored Jeter before the game with a ceremony marking his impending retirement. The Astros presented him with a pair of pinstriped cowboy boots emblazoned with his No. 2, a huge Stetson hat and a free stay and golf lessons at a golf resort operated by Astros owner Jim Crane. The Astros players all came out of the dugout to give a standing ovation to Jeter before he took his first at-bat. Jeter tipped his batting helmet to the crowd.

ON DECK

The Yankees will try to salvage one game and some of their pride in the final game of the series with the Astros on Thursday.

Right-hander Ivan Nova (2-1, 3.66 ERA in spring truing) will make his 2014 debut after ending the 2013 season as the team’s best pitcher in the second half of the season. Nova, 27, was 9-6 with a 3.10 ERA last season.

The Astros will counter with24-year-old right-hander Brett Oberholtzer (0-2, 11.00 ERA). Oberholtzer was 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA in 13 games (10 of them starts) with the Astros last season.

Game-time will be 8:10 EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.

 

 

Bucs’ Late Rally Ruins Yanks’ Spring Home Opener

GAME 2

PIRATES 8, YANKEES 2

TAMPA – Mel Rojas Jr. blasted a three-run homer as part of a five-run eighth inning on Thursday as Pittsburgh spoiled New York’s Grapefruit League home opener at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

Rojas’ home into the right-field bleachers came off losing pitcher Robert Coello (0-1). Matt Hague followed Rojas’ game-winner with a two-run single.

Reliever Yao-Hsun Yang (1-0) pitched a scoreless seventh inning to get credit for the victory.

Top outfield prospect Gregory Polanco cranked a solo home run in the first inning and former Yankee Chris Dickerson added an RBI single in the sixth inning for Pittsburgh.

The Yankees scored their first tally in the fifth inning when Francisco Cervelli slapped a leadoff single and Kelly Johnson scored him with a double to right-center. The Yankees then tied it an inning later when John Ryan Murphy stroked a two-out RBI single to score Adonis Garcia.

An announced crowd of 7,763 saw the spring debut of Derek Jeter, who was playing in his first major-league game since Sept. 7, 2013. Jeter played five innings and was 0-for-2 in the game, hitting into a double play and grounding out.

The Yankees are 0-2 on the spring with both losses coming to the Pirates.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Although he was tagged for Polanco’s homer in the first, David Phelps looked very sharp in his two innings of work. Phelps gave up two hits but fanned four batters, all looking, and walked none in his first outing of the spring. Phelps is trying to earn the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation and he fared well in throwing 20 of his 30 pitches for strikes.
  • Brett Gardner started in left-field and batted leadoff going 1-for-2 with a infield single and a walk. Though Jacoby Ellsbury will be the team’s leadoff hitter this season, Gardner looks primed for a good season batting ninth. Gardner was recently rewarded with a four-year, $52 million extension to his contract.
  • Johnson’s RBI double in the fifth inning opened the scoring for the Yankees. Though Johnson, 32, has primarily been a second baseman most in his career, he is expected to get the bulk of the starts at third base this season while Alex Rodriguez sits out his season-long suspension. Johnson batted .235 with 16 home runs and 52 RBIs in 116 games with the Tampa Bay Rays last season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Coello was tagged for five runs on five hits and a walk in one-third of an inning. Coello, 29, was signed out of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization. He was 1-0 with a 4.58 ERA in 16 games at two minor-league stops before coming up to the Dodgers and going 2-2 with a 3.71 ERA in 16 games, all in relief. As he showed on Thursday, he has problems with command. In 36 2/3 innings of relief last seasons, Coello walked 19 batters.
  • The Yankees scored four runs in their first two innings against the Pirates on Wednesday. Since then they have scored two runs on eight hits in their past 16 innings. After hitting into two double plays on Wednesday, the Yankees hit into four more on Thursday.

BOMBER BANTER

After the game Jeter told reporters that he has not felt this good in a year and he was glad to get this first game out of the way. “I haven’t played in a game in quite some time,” Jeter said. “Today was the first time I’ve swung off of live pitching. It’s good to get the first game out of the way and get into a routine of playing games.” Jeter played in 17 games last season due to a series of leg injuries related to surgically repaired left ankle.  . . .  The Yankees opened their spring home schedule by playing in their regular-season home uniforms with the pinstripes. They also introduced a group of Yankee legends including Willie Randolph, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry and David Wells. The George M. Steinbrenner High School Band also performed for the crowd.  . . .  The Yankees have two pitchers who are injured. Right-hander Francisco Rondon will be out for a couple of weeks with stiffness in his back. Right-hander Jose Ramirez also has been shut down and underwent MRIs on his back and oblique.

ON DECK

The Yankees will travel to Lakeland, FL, on Friday for a contest against the Detroit Tigers.

Right-hander Adam Warren will get the starting nod for the Yankees. Warren is in the four-man mix for the No. 5 starting spot. He was 3-2 with a 3.39 in 34 games with the Yankees last season.

Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran are scheduled to make the trip.

The Tigers will counter with American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who was 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA last season.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EST and the game will be broadcast on MLB Radio via WXYT-AM in Detroit.

 

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.

 

What’s On Second, I Don’t Know At Third For Yanks

Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on the . . . team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third -

Costello: That’s what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the . . . team.

Abbott: I’m telling you. Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third -

————————————————————————————————————————-

The classic Lou Costello and Bud Abbott comedy sketch is a perfect metaphor for the 2014 Yankees. Because it is beginning to look like What’s on second and I Don’t Know is on third.

The angry free-agent departure of Robinson Cano and the looming suspension hovering over the head of Alex Rodriguez have those two spots in a bit of limbo now.

The Yankees pretty much were prepared for the suspension of A-Rod but they were not really expecting Cano to get in a tizzy over the contract offered to outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and leave like a spoiled child. But general manager Brian Cashman has had to deal with these situations since he became general manager in 1998.

He does not panic. He moves on.

When second baseman Omar Infante elected to sign with the Kansas City Royals for four years and $30 million on Dec. 17, Cashman turned to two-time All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts to fill the void for the Yankees.

At the moment, news reports indicate, the Yankees are close to signing Roberts, 36, to a one-year deal worth about $2 million plus incentives. If Roberts does indeed sign he likely would become the Yankees’ primary starting second baseman for the 2014 season.

When Cano left for the Seattle Mariners, Cashman said that all players are replaceable. But he added that some were harder to replace than others. Cano certainly falls into that latter category.

It is not easy to replace a player who hit .314 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs and played Gold Glove-quality defense. Putting it succinctly, how do replace the team’s best second baseman in history? The answer, of course, is that you don’t.

Even if the Yankees had signed Infante, it would not have been the same. Infante, 32, hit .318 with 10 home runs and 51 RBIs for the Detroit Tigers last season but he is not even close to Cano in ability. So with Infante off the board, Roberts becomes the Yankees No. 1 target.

The question with Roberts is at his age does he have anything left? Another question is can he remain healthy?

After the Yankees disastrous 2013 campaign when even Cashman himself broke his leg skydiving at a charity event, making sure their players can answer the bell to start the 2014 season and have confidence they can finish it would have to be a top priority.

Roberts does not instill a lot of that confidence.

From 2007 through 2009, Roberts was among the top second basemen in baseball, averaging .290 with 120 stolen bases and playing in 157 games a season. But much like A-Rod, staying on the field since 2010 has been a challenge for the former Baltimore Orioles star.

He has played in only 192 games since the 2010 season due to a variety of injuries with the most serious being a concussion that shelved him for portions of two seasons.

Roberts played in 77 games for the O’s last season, batting .249 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs.

Because Roberts is a switch-hitter, the Yankees would likely use him as their primary second baseman because free agent infielder Kelly Johnson has the ability to play third base and he could be used there should Rodriguez have to face a suspension covering all of the 2014 season.

Johnson, 31, bats left-handed and he figures in as more as a potential platoon third baseman with the Yankees also looking to possibly re-sign free-agent Mark Reynolds. Johnson also could back up Roberts at second, as could shortstops Brendan Ryan and Eduardo Nunez.

The disarray at second and third is odd for a Yankee team that has boasted an infield of Mark Teixeira at first, Cano at second, Derek Jeter at short and Rodriguez at third since the 2009 season. But injuries and off-field troubles for Rodriguez and the recent departure of Cano have thrown this once powerful part of the team for a loop.

Teixeira and Jeter are both coming off serious injuries and they hope to be ready to play sometime during spring training in order to begin the season. Rodriguez missed all but 44 games last season recovering from hip surgery last January and has played in 138 games or less since the 2007 season.

Adding the injury-prone Roberts does not seem to make much sense. But he might be healthiest among the other three at this point.

In addition to Roberts, the Yankees are also talking with former All-Star infielder Michael Young, 37, who is capable of playing all four infield positions.

Young hit a combined .279 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. He is a right-handed hitter who primarily is considered a third baseman. The Yankees would not sign Reynolds if Young decides to sign.

But the signing of Roberts would not preclude the team from also signing Young, who would platoon with Johnson at third base in the absence of Rodriguez.

So Roberts looks to be more a Plan A signing while Young and Reynolds are more of a Plan B after the Yankees get a ruling from the arbitrator who is deciding Rodriguez’s appeal of his 211-game suspension for his alleged role in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal.

The hearing was concluded in mid-November with the players’ association seeking to overturn or reduce Rodriguez’s suspension handed down by Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig last summer. Rodriguez actually stormed out of the hearing in a huff on Nov. 20 when arbitrator Frederic Horowicz ruled that Selig did not have to testify in front of Rodriguez’s attorneys.

Rodriguez said, at that time, that the issue of his suspension likely would end up in a federal court.

Horowicz is expected to issue his ruling some time in January.

In the meantime, the Yankees have kept a public posture of saying that they expect Rodriguez, 38, to be their starting third baseman on Opening Day. But privately they have to be ready to fill the position should Rodriguez be suspended for the entire 2014 season.

That is why they signed Johnson and why they remain interested in Young and Reynolds.

One thing is certain, however: The Yankees would be better off with Rodriguez’s diminished bat in the lineup than without it.

Rodriguez hit .244 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs in 44 games last season and was hampered the final month of the season with tightness in his left hamstring. But it was a far cry better than the production they got from Jayson Nix, Nunez, Corban Joseph, David Adams, Chris Nelson and Luis Cruz.

Reynolds, 30, did hit .236 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 36 games but he was also needed at first base in a platoon with Lyle Overbay and he is not considered to be as adept fielding at third base as he is at first.

So when the Yankees say “I Don’t Know” is playing third they really mean it.

To be sure, the Yankees have shored up the team’s offense by signing catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Carlos Beltran and Ellsbury and trading last season for outfielder Alfonso Soriano. They also are shoring up the rotation by re-signing Hiroki Kuroda and looking to sign 25-year-old Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka, who has been posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

But around the horn of the infield there are question marks everywhere.

Those question marks all have answers. But none of them appear to be answerable in the short term. What was once a Yankee strength appears to be a possible weakness.

Of course, should Teixeira show up in spring training hitting home runs and Jeter starts running the bases and fielding his position without any pronounced limp, the rest of the infield troubles can be overcome with some hard work.

Roberts could be the answer at second and there are worse things than having a platoon at third until Rodriguez is able to return.

Yankee fans are not accustomed to it. But they might just have to get used to it. Things just look like they will be in a state of flux for a good while.

 

Cano’s Temper Leads To Sad Departure To Seattle

Some Yankee fans got together and attempted to ship some baby pacifiers to Robinson Cano. How appropriate!

Temper, temper, Robbie! Tsk! Tsk!

Cano, 31, as you all know by now, got pissed off when the Yankees offered outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury an eight-year, $169 million contract and took his bats and gloves and run off to the Great Northwest for a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners.

Hope you did not let the clubhouse door hit you in the rump on the way out, Robinson.

To be clear, it is a shame that a marvelously talented player like Cano has decided to leave the Yankees. He was the best player on the team the past two seasons and his durability was welcome in a disastrous 2013 season that saw the Yankee roster look, at times, like an Independent League All-Star team.

Cano also had a point in looking at Ellsbury’s career statistics compared to his own and conclude that the Yankees were “low-balling” their monetary offer to him. They never really budged off the $175 million they were offering.

But after the excessive deals offered to Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Carl Crawford over recent seasons, teams are learning that mega-year contracts for boatloads of cash is not a wise idea. A-Rod has been playing on reputation alone for the past three seasons. Pujols is a walking physical wreck and Crawford is one of the worst fiscal mistakes the Boston Red Sox ever made.

If Cano and his agent Jay-Z had been realistic in the first place with their opening offer it would have been smoother sailing. But they sought $305 million, which would have been a record contract. No team was willing to shell out that much cash for Cano and he had to know it.

Once the Yankees zeroed in on seven years at $165 million the gauntlet was laid. But the chief rivals for Cano, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Detroit Tigers stepped out of the process.

The Dodgers signed Cuban star Alexander Guerrero to play second and the Tigers traded slugging first baseman Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman felt he was in the catbird seat at that point because Cano, at the time, had no other offers. Overtures by Cano’s people made to the New York Mets were turned aside so Cano and his agents came back to the Yankees and lowered their demands to $240 million.

The Yankees, appreciative of the semblance of reality, still were not too keen on extending the contract past eight years and, with no other bidder in sight, they smartly held the line at about $175 million.

The whole situation blew up after ongoing talks by the Yankees with free-agent outfielder Carlos Beltran had broken down. The Yankees shifted gears away from Beltran and they signed Ellsbury for a tidy sum. When Cano read about the monetary details he pitched a hissy fit.

Cano’s father, Jose, issued a statement to the effect that the “Yankees were obviously not interested in keeping Robinson.”

That could not be further from the truth. Cashman and the Yankees were hoping that any offer Cano might have received from other teams could be brought back to the Yankees to give them a chance to match or top it. Now $240 million looks to have been a problem but the Yankees could have extended a year and increased the offer to $200 million.

But Cano did not give the Yankees a chance and he had to shop himself to the Mariners to get what he what he was seeking.

Fortunately, Cano had a willing partner in Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who has made his career on just two things: turning out lousy clubs year after year and miscalculating the value of young prospects he has in his system and ones he has acquired in trades.

Let’s look at the Mariners most recent history.

Since 2004, the Mariners have been a losing franchise. They have been below .500 in all but two seasons and have not finished better than second place in the American League West in any of those years.

After the departures of stars like Ken Griffey Jr., A-Rod, Randy Johnson and manager Lou Piniella at the beginning of the new century this franchise has languished, boasting only outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and right-handed ace Felix Hernandez as true stars.

Zduriencik tried to seed the team with prospects by making trades, such as the 2010 deal he made to trade All-Star left-hander Cliff Lee.

The Yankees thought they had a deal for Lee in place, offering their No. 1 prospect Jesus Montero, right-hander Ivan Nova and second baseman David Adams. But Zduriencik balked at Adams because he was recovering from a severe ankle injury. He asked for shortstop Eduardo Nunez instead.

Cashman said no and Zduriencik turned around and shipped Lee to the Texas Rangers for their top prospect, first baseman Justin Smoak.

Smoak, 27, has been an absolute bust. In 2011, Smoak hit a scintillating .234 with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs. In 2012, he floundered like a real flounder at the Pike Street Market.

He hit just .217 with 19 homers and 51 RBIs. Last season he batted .238 with 20 homers and 50 RBIs. A budding Mark Teixeira he’s not.

He is currently listed on the teams 2014 depth chart as a backup to journeyman Logan Morrison, who is a career .249 hitter with a grand total of 42 major-league home runs.

Then there is Zduriencik’s 2012 deal acquiring Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi from the Yankees for right-handers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.

The Yankees decided to ship out Montero because they had determined he would never become a major-league quality defensive catcher and he would either have to move to another position or become a designated hitter to succeed in the majors.

The Mariners found out the hard way that the Yankees were right. Montero batted .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBIs in 2012, but he started only 55 games as a catcher.

In 2013, Montero not only lost his job as a catcher but he was sent back to the minors after hitting .208 with three home runs and nine RBIs in 29 games. He also suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee that shelved him for most of the season.

Montero, 24, is listed behind Mike Zunino on the team’s depth chart.

This is the team Cano has decided to grace with his presence.

Good luck!

It could be 10 years before Seattle ever gets close to competing with the Oakland Athletics, the Los Angels Angels and the Rangers in the division, much less compete for a playoff spot. Cano does not solve the team’s weak hitting in the outfield and infield, with the exception of third baseman Kyle Seagar.

The pitching with King Felix is competitive enough but the rotation lacks depth and the bullpen is a disaster.

Another point is that over the 10 years of Cano’s contract, a lot of young prospects will be brought up to follow his example. Let’s hope they cover their eyes when Cano raps a easy grounder to an infielder, who boots the ball but still nails him because Cano was loafing out of the batter’s box.

Let’s also hope they are not watching when he drops the bat at the plate thinking he has a home run and gets tossed out at second base because he did not run hard. That is a Cano trademark that manager Joe Girardi played off casually to the media but it chafed his chestnuts to the core.

Speaking of home runs. Robinson, you won’t be hitting as many of those in spacious Safeco Field. Your home run totals should drop back to the 20 to 25 mark or so because you line most of your shots.

You can also kiss goodbye having your number retired in Monument Park. That would have made you the first Dominican so honored. You also will not pass some the greats of the game on the franchise’s offensive categories list. You also will miss out on the division tiles, playoff games and championship rings. Lucky you got that 2009 ring squirreled away. That will be the only one you get.

It is shame you let your temper get the better of your good judgment.

Now you will be booed when you come to Yankee Stadium on April 29 with the rest of the no-name band you are hanging with these days. That is a shame, also.

You were a magnificent player and you really were a benefit to the Yankees with your skills as a hitter and a fielder. Those skills will be wasted in losing efforts much like the 2013 season you suffered through.

But you still can count your precious money after the game. Enjoy it because it obviously means more to you than winning.

Adios, amigo!

 

Ellsbury Signing Buoys Yankees, Weakens Bosox

In the world of baseball free agency there is one maxim that is absolute: It is no-brainer to want to strengthen your club but it is extremely smart to weaken your opponent’s while you are strengthening your club.

The New York Yankees not only added to their roster with the signing of Gold Glove center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, they significantly weaken the Boston Red Sox. Toche’.

Following in the footsteps of Johnny Damon in 2006, Ellsbury will  –  after passing a physical  –  sign a lucrative seven-year, $153 million contract with an option for an eighth year that will bring the total contract to $169 million.

Ellsbury, 30, batted .298 with eight home runs and 53 RBIs while leading the major leagues in stolen bases with 52 in 134 games last season. In 2011, Ellsbury batted .318 with a career-high 32 homers and 105 RBIs and earned his only All-Star selection and a Gold Glove.

On the heels of the five-year, $85 million contract offer to catcher Brian McCann last week, the Steinbrenner family, general manger Brain Cashman and the entire Yankees braintrust are serving notice to the other major league teams they are through with fiscal constraints that have seen them largely sit out free agency period for top-name talent for the past four seasons.

After the team suffered through a horrific string of free-agent departures and crippling injuries to the core of the team in 2013 that saw the club limp to the finish line with only 85 wins, missing the playoffs for the second time in five seasons, the Yankee hierarchy is saying enough is enough.

The McCann signing I told you last week was just the start of this new era in spending and it definitely is not over.

Ellsbury’s signing certainly brings an end to the team’s pursuit of Carlos Beltran, who had the Yankees balking at giving the 37-year-old a third year on a potential contract. The Yankees shifted off Beltran and then contacted Scott Boras, who is is Ellsbury’s agent.

The Yankees also will be saying so long to Curtis Granderson, who led the majors by hitting 84 home runs in 2011 and 2012, but he also struck out 360 times in that span. The Yankees figure his power was largely a product of Yankee Stadium and that he will not be able to maintain that level of power elsewhere.

The big question Ellsbury’s signing poses is what happens to center-fielder Brett Gardner?

Gardner, 30, is coming off his best season with the Yankees after hitting .273 with eight home runs and 52 RBIs and stealing 24 bases in 145 games. Ellsbury’s deal likely means he will become the center-fielder. So if Gardner stays with the Yankees, does he move to left?

If Gardner moves to left, where will the Yankees put left-fielder Alfonso Soriano? If Soriano moves to right-field, what happens to holdovers Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki, who are both signed for the 2014 season?

The Yankees could choose to package Gardner in a trade and get something of value back for him but they will not get much back for either Wells or Suzuki. Both showed signs that indicated that their careers, which were once quite productive, are coming to a quick end.

Wells, who will turn 36 on Dec. 8, batted .233 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs in 130 games last season. But he hit only one home run after May 15 and he largely was pretty useless unless he was facing a left-handed pitcher. Because the Los Angels Angels are paying a huge portion of his contract, the Yankees would have no problem releasing him if they wanted to do so.

Suzuki, 40, hit .262 with seven homers and 35 RBIs in 150 games. He was mostly a non-factor late in the season, hitting .228 in August and .205 in September. Suzuki, however, does have some value as a platoon designated hitter, a late-inning defensive replacement in the outfield and a pinch-runner. But his days of full-time play appear to be over.

There also is another big question about the Ellsbury signing. Where does this leave the Yankees with respect to second baseman Robinson Cano?

With the two main rivals of the Yankees for Cano’s services, the Los Angels Dodgers and the Detroit Tigers, out of the bidding, Cano has lowered his 10-year, $305 million demands. But the Yankees have not raised their offer from their initial seven-year, $160 million bid.

But the Yankees seem to have the cash sufficient enough to get into the eight-year, $240 million range and talks with Cano will continue.

The Yankees are also looking to add 400 innings to their starting rotation by signing a pair of free-agent starting pitchers this winter.

Phil Hughes , 27, is poised to sign a three-year, $24 million with the Minnesota Twins. The Yankees, however, felt Hughes was more suited to a bullpen role after he turned in a horrific 4-14 record and a 5.14 ERA last season.

The Yankees are targeting the re-signing of Hiroki Kuroda, 38, who was 11-13 with a 3.31 ERA last season for the Yankees, and fellow Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, 25,  who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA with the Rakuten Golden Eagles this season.

The Yankees intend to be much more aggressive in the bidding process for Tanaka than they were for right-hander Yu Darvish, who signed with Texas after the Rangers posted $51.7 million bid for the right to sign him.

The Yankees could bid as much as they want without the cost affecting the $189 million salary limits for 2014. They also have some salary flexibility with the retirements of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, the decision to allow Granderson to leave and the likely suspension of third basemen Alex Rodriguez for the entire 2014 season, which means they will not have to pay his annual $25 million salary.

The best part of the Ellsbury deal was that it is the first shot off the bow on Red Sox Nation.

The Red Sox have a number of key contributors to their 2014 season like Ellsbury, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, shortstop Stephen Drew and first baseman Mike Napoli trolling the free-agent waters. Each one of those losses forces the Bosox to find replacements elsewhere and there is no guarantee those replacements will maintain the same chemistry the team had last season.

The Red Sox Nation social media is already doing the usual “Ellsbury stinks” and “Ellsbury is old” rants and they are already touting Jackie Bradley Jr. as the next Willie Mays in center. But, to be sure, they are hurting deeply on the inside. Ellsbury was part of the corps that the Red Sox counted upon last season and he is gone to the “Evil Empire” no less.

He expects to be booed in Boston. It will just be interesting to see how he is treated in New York. My guess is, like Damon and Kevin Youkilis (very briefly) last season, the Yankees will warm up to Ellsbury.

After all, any signing that weakens the Red Sox is fine by me. It also will be just fine with the Yankee Universe.

 

Cano Inching Closer To Re-Signing With Yankees

When Robinson Cano fired combative player agent Scott Boras to become the first sports client for recording artist Jay-Z and his new agency, Yankee fans figured it was a given that a loyal Yankee fan like Jay-Z would steer his client to the Yankees without any problem.

Well, it has not quite been that way so far.

Cano, 31, and the Yankees still remain very far apart in negotiations on a new contract for the All-Star second baseman.

Representatives for Cano kind of stunned the Yankees and the baseball world as a whole by seeking a 10-year contract in excess of $300 million. Many observers claim that Cano’s agents are marketing him as a baseball version of Michael Jordan and it is hard to see the analogy.

Cano is a talented player with great appeal but his jersey and other gear is not even selling among the top 20 players in the sport. He even trails fellow second baseman Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox.

However, Yankee fans, reality and circumstances may be settling in at Camp Cano now.

Cano’s representatives, Brodie Van Wagenen and Juan Perez of CAA Baseball, met with Yankees president Randy Levine on Tuesday and Cano has reportedly lowered his contract demands. However, the two sides remain far apart. After all, the Yankees were offering seven years at $160 million.

But the fact that Cano’s people are lowering his demands shows there is some wiggle room in the talks. More talks are planned and we could see the Yankees raise their offer a bit.

The Yankees were extremely fortunate to gain an upper hand in the negotiations when two prime teams Cano could have coaxed into a bidding war for his services solved their second base problems early.

The Los Angeles Dodgers signed 27-year-old Cuban star Alexander Guerrero to fill their big need at the position. That was strike one on Cano.

Then this week the Detroit Tigers dealt first baseman Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in return for second baseman Ian Kinsler. Strike two.

That has given Yankees general manager Brian Cashman just the kind of leverage he needed to lower Cano’s very lucrative demands. Now it appears common sense will prevail and the two sides can work something out because their is one very salient fact about all this: The Yankees can’t afford to lose Cano.

Cano is simply the best player the Yankees have and on the heels of a disastrous injury-marred 2013 campaign the Yankees don’t want their franchise player to leave.

The Yankees are playing it like they are cool with it. I’m sure the rumor the Yankees were talking with free agent Omar Infante had all the hallmarks of Cashman behind the scenes fanning the flames.

But even he knows that Infante is not even a blip on the radar compared to what Cano can do for a team. But, hey, if it works, it works for Cashman.

Infante, 31, hit a robust .318 with 10 home runs and 51 RBIs for the Tigers last season. Cano, on the other hand, batted .314 with 27 home runs and drove in 107 runs and should have won a Gold Glove after just committing six errors last season. (Pedroia dives and flops around like a dying carp while Cano glides to everything and the voters think Pedroia is better. Geesh!)

Cano’s growth as a player has been immense. He came up as a colt in 2005 but he is now a bona fide thoroughbred.

He is a career .309 hitter with 204 home runs and 822 RBIs. He is four-time All-Star, he has won two Gold Gloves and five Silver Slugger awards and he is simply the best second baseman in baseball today. You don’t replace that with Infante.

Last season, the Yankees lost a huge chunk of its power when players such as Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez left as free agents. Then the team lost most of its remaining power with Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter rehabbing from offseason surgeries and Curtis Gramderson and Mark Teixeira sustaining injuries before the season even started.

The one constant the Yankees could count on all season long was Cano. Despite the fact teams pitched around him all season, Cano delivered.

The other hallmark of Cano’s career has also been his durability.

Since 2007, Cano has not played in less than 159 games in any season. Last season, he answered the bell for 160.

The only knock on Cano has been that label of “lazy” that dogged his early career and cost him a few more Gold Gloves because he made everything seem so dang easy. He has mostly beaten that rap in the field but it still dogs him as a base-runner.

Cano has a habit of coasting to first on grounders and he has been embarrassed by getting thrown out at second base on balls he thought were going out of the park. But all his positives far outweigh that negative. The sum of the parts adds up to the greatest second baseman in Yankees history.

And should Cano remain in pinstripes, he could certainly make a case for himself up against the likes of Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. He and Jeter have formed the best double-play combination in Yankees history.

There is no telling what Cano will do if he remains a Yankee.

The only question remains is will he?

There is no doubt Infante remains the only viable fallback position should Cano leave.

After all, the Yankees have some players who play the position but none of them hold a match, much less a candle, to Cano.

The Yankees dealt right-hander Ben Paullus to the San Diego Padres for second baseman Dean Anna on Nov. 20. Anna, 27, was a Triple-A All-Star at Tucson in 2013 and batted .331 with nine home runs and 73 RBIs. Another big plus in his favor is that he bats left-handed.

The word on Anna is that he is solid fielder. In fact, he also played 60 games at shortstop and seven at third base. His versatility seems to make him a player worth watching this spring. But he is not likely going to be the heir apparent to Cano if he leaves. The Yankees are not fools.

Anna is going to compete for a backup infield spot, period. He will get some stiff competition from holdover Jayson Nix.

The Yankees have not given up on David Adams but they certainly were disappointed with what he produced when he was pressed into service as a third baseman in 2014.

Adams, 26, has primarily been a second baseman in the minor leagues and he will get a shot at both second and third this spring. But after hitting .193 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 43 games with the Yankees in 2013, he will be on a very short leash if he does not produce this spring.

Meanwhile, after a very strong 2012 season, 25-year-old Corban Joseph slipped mightily in 2013 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He hit .239 with six homers and 19 RBIs in 47 games. With the acquisition of Anna, Adams and Joseph are quickly dropping off the radar as prospects if they were at all.

At lower levels the Yankees have hot-hitting Jose Pirela, 24, who batted .272 in 124 games at Double-A Trenton and 21-year-old speedster Angelo Gumbs, who hit .213 in 91 games at two stops at the A level last season. Though Gumbs is pretty raw with the bat the Yankees love his potential.

But all talk surrounding second base with the Yankees begins and ends with Cano. Yankee fans would just love to hear that Cano has re-signed with the team. It is hard to imagine 2014 without him.

The signs, though, are pointing toward the Yankees retaining him. The question just remains at what price. It is looking at this point that it will be the Yankees price and Cano will just have to settle on a more realistic number.

Then he can start racking up more big numbers with his bat.

 

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