Results tagged ‘ Eric Chavez ’

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.

 

Buck Cries Over A-Rod’s Pact Off Yanks’ Payroll

When it comes to Alex Rodriguez and the impending suspension amid the Biogenesis scandal, I have been silent because it really does not concern me much.

I mean, I do write a blog about the New York Yankees but I do not consider Rodriguez a true member of the team. After all, how long has he been AWOL or virtually useless to the team? Three years?

But I got my dander up when Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter decided to open his big mouth about it on Friday.

“If [Commissioner] Bud [Selig] lets them get away with that, they’re under the luxury tax,” Showalter told USA TODAY Sports. “If they can reset, they can spend again and I guarantee you in two years Matt Wieters is in New York.”

Of all the managers in Major League Baseball you would think that Showalter, who formerly toiled for the so-call “Evil Empire,” would know when he should hold his tongue before looking like the horse’s ass he now appears.

First of all, the decision MLB makes concerning Rodriguez is none of his business. The second point is does he really in his right mind think the Yankees’ front office will go to Selig and request that baseball should apply the portion of A-Rod’s contract he forfeits while on suspension be applied to the team’s payroll and the luxury tax?

Geesh, to hear Showalter you would think that the Yankees have dear old Bud wrapped around their finger and they were dictating the penalty they want for A-Rod so they avoid paying him the $82 million they owe him through the 2017 season. That is just plain poppycock.

The Yankees have been MIA since 2009 in the annual free-agent signing sweepstakes. They have let free agents like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson go to the highest bidders while they have filled their roster with blowout patches like Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones. That suited the Old Buckeroo just fine because it allowed teams like the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays to play on a more even playing field.

But now that the Yankees might get to write off A-Rod’s contract for the rest of 2013 and all of the 2014 season (if A-Rod accepts the the deal baseball is offering) to get under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million in 2014. In addition, they can write off the entire $82 million if Rodriguez draws a lifetime ban.

That has Buck soiling his Pampers.

He obviously fears his team’s potential future free agents like Wieters, Chris Davis and Manny Machado may see the Yankees holding up stacks of cash and have them running from the exits at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Poor Buck sees the potential to lose his best players to the enemy and it irks him.

But there is one way to prevent any of that from happening, Buck. Pay those damn players what they worth to keep them happy. Period. Exclamation point!

In the meantime, the Bucker needs to shut his fat trap and stay out of the whole business.

The Yankees were victimized by Rodriguez. Remember in 2007 when A-Rod opted out of his $275 million deal he originally signed with the Texas Rangers (while the Buckeroo was managing them I recall)? A-Rod’s venomous agent Scott Boras was seeking a mega-deal by getting other teams to bid on his All-Star client.

Unfortunately, no bidders were looking to pony up the $200 million-plus it was going to take to get Rodriguez to put his signature on a contract.

Rodriguez sheepishly told Boras to take a hike and he put his enormous tail between his legs to crawl back to the Yankees for forgiveness. Perhaps the Steinbrenners, Randy Levine and Brian Cashman should have kicked that enormous tail of his back to the curb.

But they instead hammered out a 10-year, $252 million deal that Rodriguez for which Rodriguez is now beholden. It also is the one contract that has hung around the Yankees’ necks like an albatross ever since Rodriguez’s effectiveness as a run producer has moved from an upper tier to the level of an ordinary third baseman like Juan Uribe of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Be sure that Rodriguez wants all the money that is due him whether he plays at a respectable level or not. I honestly believe he could hold on through 2017 hitting .210 with 10 homers and 37 RBIs as a part-time player with the Yankees. A-Rod has no real pride in his craft and abilities. As long as he is being paid he has no shame.

So the partial ban and the ever-looming potential of a lifetime ban does benefit the Yankees in their ability to rebuild the ballclub going forward. But it is not if the Yankees deliberately staged the whole thing with A-Rod so they could sign Wieters in 2015, Buck!

So, Mr. Showalter, you go about patching that disaster area of a pitching staff that has your team falling like a stone in the American League East and keep your bulbous nose out of issues that do not really concern you. Come to think of it, the Orioles recent drop in the standings is likely behind much of this childish tirade.

It is perfect for the papers in Baltimore. After all, it takes attention away from his deficient managing and makes the Yankees the bad guys. That is the strategy after all, Buck. Deflect your shortcomings off to another subject.

It seems to me that Orioles owner Peter Angelos has done his share of spending on free agents over the years. If Buck is really worried about the Yankees getting his players he should just beg Angelos to open his huge saddlebags  to keep the players he wants to remain as Orioles.

That would make sense, right?

After all this I actually do hope the Yankees do sign a few Orioles so the Bucker can wail like Kim Kardashian’s North West over it.

Now, now little Bucky, quiet down. Sssshhhh! Here is your pacifier. We are here to make it all better. How about some Gerber split pea? That will make it all okay.

Even Wieters thinks you are acting like a child and he is less than half your age.

 

Pettitte, Backed By 3 Homers, Clips Jays’ Wings

GAME 15

YANKEES 9, BLUE JAYS 4

A lot of the experts predicted the Toronto Blue Jays would win the American League East in 2013 and that the injury-riddled New York Yankees would finish in last place. I wonder after watching Friday’s game at Roger’s Centre if those so-called “experts” feel the same way.

Andy Pettitte showed no signs of any problems with his back in pitching into the eighth inning and the Yankees teed off on the Blue Jays for three home runs  -  two of them by former Blue Jays  -  as New York pounded Toronto in front of a paid crowd of 40,028.

Pettitte (3-0) gave up three runs on six hits and one walk while he struck out five in 7 1/3 innings to notch his 23rd career victory against the Blue Jays. The 40-year-old left-hander had not pitched in 10 days because his spot in the rotation was skipped due to back spasms.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were able to build Pettitte a huge lead early against right-hander Brandon Morrow (0-2).

The Yankees scored two runs in the opening frame on Travis Hafner’s RBI double and a RBI groundout off the bat of former Blue Jays Vernon Wells.

They added three more runs in the third inning on Hafner’s fifth home run of the season and a two-base throwing on Toronto center-fielder Colby Rasmus that allowed two unearned runs to score.

The Yankees finally chased Morrow in the sixth when former Blue Jay Lyle Overbay led off with a solo home run and Francisco Cervelli slapped an opposite-field ground-rule double.

Jays manager John Gibbons replaced Morrow with left-hander Brett Cecil and Brett Gardner greeted him with an RBI triple. Robinson Cano then scored Gardner and on an RBI groundout to make the score 8-1.

Wells, who was booed heavily by Blue Jays fans each time he was introduced, closed out the scoring for the Yankees by slapping a line-drive home run to left off Cecil in the seventh.

Morrow gave up seven runs (five earned) on nine hits and one walk and he struck out four in 5 1/3 innings of work.

With the victory, the Yankees improved to 9-6. The Blue Jays fell to 7-10.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Hafner’s early-season hot streak continued on Friday. He was 2-for-5 with a double, a home run,  a run scored and two RBIs. He now leads in the team in hitting with a .349 average. He also is tied for the team lead in home runs with Cano with five and second to Cano in RBIs with 10. 
  • Wells and Overbay came back to the Rogers Centre with a vengeance. They were a combined 3-for-10 with a single, two home runs and three RBIs. Both were booed heavily throughout the game by the fans that used to cheer them. But they both also got a measure of revenge of against the team for which they used to toil.
  • Pettitte did give up a leadoff triple to Rajai Davis that led to an RBI groundout by Melky Cabrera in the inning. He also gave up a two-run home run to Jose Bautista in the seventh following a Cabrera single. But the rest of night he was in command. He threw only 90 pitches on the night and 61 of them were strikes (68 percent). He also lowered his season ERA to 2.01.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Kevin Youkilis was 0-for-4 and he is in a bit of batting slump over his past six games. He is 3-for-25 (.120) with no home runs or RBIs. That has lowered his season average from .424 to .293.
  • Eduardo Nunez is also in a bit of a batting funk. He was 0-for-4 and his season average is at .206. Nunez got the news on Thursday that he will have a chance to start at shortstop until Derek Jeter returns after the All-Star break but he might lose the role to Jayson Nix if he does not produce.
  • Shawn Kelley came in to pitch the final 1 2/3 innings and he could not resist giving up a solo home run to J. P. Arencibia with two outs in the ninth. Kelley has been tagged for four home runs in just seven innings over five appearances this season. His season ERA is 9.00.

BOMBER BANTER

For those baseball experts who thought the Yankees would be in big trouble without Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson on the disabled list and with free agents like Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez elsewhere here is a statistic for you to chew on. The Yankees lead the American League with 25 homers.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their weekend three-game series in Toronto on Saturday.

Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 2.87 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda is coming off a complete-game shutout against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. He gave up five hits, walked none and fanned five. Kuroda, 38, is 2-1 with a 4.67 ERA lifetime against the Jays.

The Jays will counter with left-hander Mark Buehrle (1-0, 7.31 ERA). Buehrle shut down his former Chicago White Sox teammates on just two runs for his first victory of the season. He is 1-8 with a 6.38 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 1:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Yankees Will Prevail In 2013′s ‘Game Of Thrones’

The New York Yankees open defense of their American League East championship on Monday against the Boston Red Sox with pundits and even their own fans criticizing them for their many injuries and their reluctance over the past few years for opening their wallets to get quality young players. I will try to examine how I believe the division race stacks up and predict how it might go. You may be surprised by my conclusion.

REAL LIFE GAME OF THRONES

If you are a fan of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones” you might notice that the American League East is a lot like the many kingdoms in the show.

The Yankees, with their money and dominance, are a lot like the Lannisters. The Boston Red Sox are a lot like the Starks, highly principled and loyal folk who fight the good fight only to suffer myriad indignities and failures. Of course, you also have those teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles who also are swirling around the periphery of Kings Landing believing they have a rightful claim to wear the crown.

The 2013 season will play out a lot like the television series and I can tell you why I believe that.

A DOMINANT KING

Since 1995 the Yankees have only missed the American League playoffs once (in 2008) and they have won the division championship in 16 of the past 17 seasons. If that is not dominance than what is? Like the Lannisters, the Steinbrenner family has lavished riches of the kingdom on the best knights to defend the realm and their loyal subjects have been a fairly happy lot for the most part.

But their knights have grown old and their battle wounds have been severe. Some are ready for the fight in 2013 but others are not. Their apparent weakness has given their rivals confidence they take the crown away and you saw that play out this spring.

THE KING NORTH OF THE WALL

The Blue Jays had a legendary team in the early 1990s and they won two world championships during that period. But since then they have fallen into a barren abyss of failure. But their general manager Alex Anthropoulos engineered a winter campaign to load his roster with the best players the Miami Marlins and New York Mets could offer him.

They boast a starting lineup with the speedy Jose Reyes and a line-drive hitting machine in Melky Cabrera to add to their long-ball threats Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They also pried away National League Cy Young Award-winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets to add to right-hander Josh Johnson and left-hander Mark Buerhle from the Marlins to form a strong rotation with their own holdover Brandon Morrow.

The kings of North think they now have a team that storm the wall protecting the kingdoms that lie s to the south such as Kings Landing in 2013.

But there are some warning signs that could give them pause before they are able to proclaim victory.

One is the Blue Jays’ bullpen. I was listening to their broadcasters this spring lamenting about how weak this group appears to be.

Closer Casey Janssen is coming off shoulder surgery and they HOPE he will available for Opening Day. Behind him is failed closer Sergio Santos and his awful 7.88 spring ERA and Esmil Rogers and his 6.39 ERA.

Of all the teams in the A.L. East, this bullpen projects to be the worst in the division, especially if Janssen is unable to capture lightning in a bottle and return as the closer he was last season when he saved 22 of 25 games. The Blue Jays may have to cover there bullpen weakness by asking their starters to go longer than they should.

That tends to weaken the starters and it also could be discouraging when the offense builds a 6-1 lead after six innings and they end up losing the game 7-6. That will get mighty old for the Rogers Centre faithful this summer.

The offense has its own issues.

Third baseman Brett Lawrie plays the game all out and he also tends to get hurt a lot. He enters the season banged up and there are questions about how good centerfielder Colby Rasmus, catcher J.P. Arencibia and designated hitter Adam Lind really are. They have yet to establish themselves as quality major-league players.

There also is a major questions about whether Reyes, whose talents in the past have been held back by leg issues, will be able to play a full season on the hard artificial surface of Rogers Centre without issues at age 29.

So instead of automatically installing them as the kings of this division, you may want to look deeper into these drawbacks. Teams do not win championships on paper. Just ask the 2012 Marlins.

THE LORDS OF BALTIMORE

The Orioles remind me of the twisted and tortured King Stannis, who attacked Kings Landing in season two of the “Game of Thrones” only to be turned back at the gates by the eldest of the Lannisters and his men just as if seemed they were winning.

Stannis had a magical sorceress behind him convincing him that he could win the battle, but he failed in the end. She later told him he still could prevail even as he was licking his wounds in defeat. Manager Buck Showalter is much like this sorceress. His skill of masking weaknesses and enhancing strengths of a ballclub made the Orioles seem much stronger than they appeared to be in 2012.

They won such a ridiculous amount of one-run and extra-inning games that they qualified for the playoffs as a wild card only to be dispatched in Game 5 of the American League Division Series by the CC of Sabathia. They were at the gates of the kingdom of The Bronx only to be turned away by their elders, Prince Derek Jeter and the eldest of Lannisters, Raul of of the House Ibanez.

Showalter still believes his charges can storm the gates of the castle and take the throne in 2013. But, unlike most teams in this division, he did not add much of anything to this team. He is largely counting on the same black magic of 2012, which rarely happens.

Those one-run victories in 2012 can easily turn into one-run losses in 2013. Those extra-inning miracles can become extra-inning nightmares a year later.

Their rotation of Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Jake Arrieta really scares no one. Nobody is going to get up out of bed at the hotel and say “Oh no, we have no chance of winning because Arrieta is pitching tonight!”

The bullpen with closer Jim Johnson is solid but hardly merits superlatives.

The team largely returns the same cast in 2012 minus Mark Reynolds and with the return of second baseman Brian Roberts, who has not played a full season in the majors since 2009.

Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are marvelous talents and Nick Markakis is healthy after missing the stretch run. But I have to wonder if all the magic Showalter spun in 2012 really will return in 2013. Teams like this usually fall back to the pack and that is what I see for the Birds.

DRAGONS AT THE PORT CITY

The Tampa Bay Rays remind of the Targaryens, who once sat upon the throne in 2008 when they faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series but have been unable to mount the offensive to get back there.

They have been trapped wandering in a hot climate in Florida and they have been restricted by the lack of soldiers and a lack of money to really win it all.

One year they lose Carl Crawford and Matt Garza. Another year they lose B.J. Upton and James Shields. They try to compensate with their own farm system because they lack money to compete with the Lannisters or the Starks of this division.

They only have the fire of their small but growing dragons who someday might destroy the mightier armies they have to face. For now, it appears the dragons are way too small and too inexperienced to go the entire distance.

The Rays rely on a pitching staff led by the American League Cy Young Award-winner David Price. How ironic that a team that has to pinch its pennies would be beholden to man named Price.

Behind him on promising youngsters like Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. But there are problems here.

Hellickson spent most of the spring throwing much less than fire at opposing batters. He was rocked often and ended up with a 6.75 ERA. Moore did not fare much better. His velocity was way off and his command was even worse. He finished the spring much better but his once-high promise has faded some.

The Rays have to rely on these pitchers and their bullpen led by reclamation project Fernando Rodney and his 48 saves because the offense leaves a lot to be desired.

Without Upton, the Rays will have to rely on Evan Longoria even more for power. Longoria himself has a problem staying healthy and, if he is missing for any portion of the season, the Rays can kiss their hopes bye-bye.

They have a semblance of an offense with Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and new shortstop Yunel Escobar. But they also are starting guys like Matt Joyce and Luke Scott, who have not proven they can establish careers for themselves and help a team win.

They also are still counting on Jose Molina to do a bulk of the catching at age 37.

The Targaryens in the television series did not have enough money to purchase the ships to ford the sea leading back to Kings Landing. That kind of jives with the subjects who live in Tampa, FL, who are unwilling to lay down their riches or mount their horses to ford the bridge that leads to the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

The low attendance puts even more stringent strains on the team’s coffers to keep players like Price in the kingdom for their entire careers.

The Rays, with their young dragons, should remain afloat long enough to mount a serious challenge to take the throne. But the rich Lannisters in the Bronx still have the wisdom and wherewithal to stem the tide. Like in the series, men do not blindly follow the bravest warriors but remain loyal to the men with the gold.

The gold remains in the Bronx.

THE STARKS OF BOSTON

In Season Two of “Game of Thrones” the elder Stark loses his head, the eldest daughter is enslaved to the Lannister king, the youngest daughter is lost in the hinterlands, the two youngest boys have their home burned while the man’s widow and the eldest son plot to overthrow and vanquish the Lanisters to avenge the patriarch’s death.

That pretty much wraps up the Red Sox of 2012. Winterfell befell Landsdowne.

Their king (Bobby Valentine) had his head lopped off and served to the media, they abandoned their home fans and cast adrift a lot of their high-priced talent in order to restock and rebuild to defeat their arch-enemy in the rich Bronx. It was indeed a completely lost season for the Red Sox and the Starks.

They hold out hope that a new manager (Jon Farrell) and a team built around Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury will help get them back to the promised land they have failed to reach since 2007. In fact, they have failed to make the playoffs in the last three seasons.

They want left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Clay Buccholz to pitch better while young Felix Doubront develops and they pray retreads Ryan Dempster and John Lackey (all kingdoms must have their lackeys) have something left. The problem is that this was the division’s worst pitching staff in 2012 and no swordsmanship will make it much better in 2013.

The bullpen has undergone a two purges since Jonathan Papelbon rode off for the riches of the Phillies. They are now hoping a Pirate can plug the leaks in the hull of the bullpen. Joel Hanrahan has come over from Pittsburgh to be the closer while former closer Andrew Bailey and lost child Daniel Bard try to figure out what happened to their talent.

Bailey is the team’s setup man while the Bard (in true Shakespearean fashion) has been cast into the dungeons of the minor leagues. For shame, for shame!

It also appears that the kingdom’s version of Hodor, David Ortiz, is finally showing signs that those seasons of carrying excess weight have a price. He has a bad heel and he can’t even trot, let alone run. Without Ortiz, most of the power and production will fall upon first baseman Mike Napoli.

There are lots of weaknesses everywhere, including shortstop (Stephen Drew, really?) and catcher, where Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits home runs in small bunches and strikes out in major droves.

Though young outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. promises to give the Fenway faithful something to cheer about when the team is dredging the bottom depths of the division, the ponderous weight of the anchor of this foundering team will keep them from even getting a whiff of the roses near the Iron Throne.

THE RICHES OF KINGS LANDING

The Evil Empire in the Bronx has paid its knights Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Mark Teixeira handsomely over the years. Along with the reward of titles and championships, the team has also fallen short of its goals of late due to injury and the age of these players.

It actually started last season when spring injuries to Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain was just a mere hint of what 2012 would bring. Rodriguez missed time, CC pitched with a sore elbow, Pettitte was lost for a time, Jeter hobbled until he broke in the playoffs,

Speedy outfielder Brett Gardner played in only 18 games.

So why should 2013 be any different?

The rich Lannisters are already missing Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones because payroll concerns were such they were ordered to cut back on their excesses.

Injuries to Teixera, Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes and a slow recovery by Jeter this spring heightened the concerns of fans who have loyally followed this team over the years. The town criers, the scribes and pundits all denounced this team and said it was dead. They would not win the title in 2013.

They may even finish last.

STARK REALITY

But an odd thing happened on Friday. The team that was battered all spring played a Washington Nationals team that many say will win the world championship in 2013 fell to the Yankees. Oh, it was just an exhibition game. I know it did not count.

But what you saw in the Yankees was a semblance of a very good team. Pettitte pitched well and the bullpen proved to be as strong as ever.

The major surprise was the offense with Robinson Cano, Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez and Vernon Wells seemed to respond and it all seemed to come together in one cohesive package.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said earlier this spring that he fails to believe that the Yankees will be bad in 2013. He said he thinks they will be as difficult to beat as they always have been. I agree.

You see injuries do heal. The Yankees will get Jeter, Hughes, Granderson and Teixeira back at some point this season. They also might get Rodriguez back.

They are a team that has always gotten off to slow starts and got better as the season moved along. I see the same scenario this season.

The pitching with Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps is deep. They have Rivera in the bullpen for one last season and David Robertson, Chamberlain and Boone Logan form a strong setup group for the King of Closing.

The offense features the two best singles hitters of their generation in Ichiro Suzuki and Jeter along with the speedy Gardner. Cano, who is due to become a very rich free agent signing after the 2013 season, is poised for breakout season of offense and defense. He could very well win the Most Valuable Player award this season.

Youkilis looks like the Youkilis of 2007, when he led the rival Red Sox to their last championship. You add Granderson and Teixera to that and you have a good offense to go along with strong pitching.

The “new guys” Wells, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco and Travis Hafner will have pressure on them to keep the team afloat until the stars come back. They might fail but they can’t be any worse than last season’s Yankees that failed to hit with runners in scoring position.

It also behooves manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman that the Yankees are looked upon as dead meat awaiting a fork to be thrust into them. Perhaps lower expectations is a good thing for the Yankees after always being the team expected to win.

Girardi has a chance to really manage this season and Cashman has staked his reputation by finding these veteran pieces to fill in while the wounded heal in the tent.

That is why I truly believe that some how, some way the Yankees, the rich Lannisters of the Bronx, will have just enough to win this division again.

They may stumble in the playoffs. That is almost as much expected by their fans. But I do see victory here.

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. YANKEES
  2. BLUE JAYS
  3. RAYS
  4. ORIOLES
  5. RED SOX

For fans of the show “King of Thrones” I must add a note that Season Three premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO. If you liked this analogy to the A.L. East please pause a moment miladies and milords to send me a raven. 

 

Sabathia Fine In Debut As Yankees Hook Marlins

GAME 20

YANKEES 7, MARLINS 3

TAMPA  -  You can make a case that spring has not really sprung until a major-league team’s ace pitches in his first exhibition game. Well, for the Yankees it sprung on Friday as CC Sabathia toed the rubber for the first time and he pitched five solid innings.

Later the Yankees broke a 3-3 tie when Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto’s passed ball with the bases loaded in the bottom of seventh inning allowed Jose Pirela to score the tie-breaking run as New York went on to overtake Miami at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

The Yankees added another run in the frame when Realmuto was charged with an error on an attempted pickoff of Ichiro Suzuki at first base that allowed Gil Velazquez to score.

David Robertson (1-0) pitched an inning of scoreless relief to get credit for the victory. Dan Jennings (0-1) took the loss.

The Yankees initially rallied from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead on a solo home run by Francisco Cervelli in the second inning and a mammoth two-run blast to right off the bat of Travis Hafner in the third. The home runs were the first of the spring for both Hafner and Cervelli.

With the victory, the Yankees improved their spring ledger to 8-12. The Marlins fell to 7-10.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Hafner finally provided the power the Yankees were looking for when they signed him to a one-year contract to be the team’s left-hand designated hitter. Hafner’s home run with one out in the third inning came off former Mets right-hander John Maine, who is attempting to win a starting rotation spot with the Marlins. Hafner, 35, is now hitting .174 with a homer and four RBIs.
  • The pitching line for Sabathia looks bad at first glance: Two runs on eight hits and one walk and two strikeouts in five innings. But most of those eight hits were not hard-hit balls. They included a bunt single, two bloop singles and a few others that just wriggled through holes in the infield. Sabathia, 32, was making his first start after recovering from offseason surgery to remove a bone spur in his left elbow.
  • Pirela, 23, has very quietly had a great spring. He entered the game in the fourth inning and ended up going 2-for-3 with a triple and a single and he scored the tie-breaking run and drove in another run in the eighth. Pirela, who hit .293 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs in 82 games at Double-A Trenton last season, is hitting .385 this spring.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • After a scorching hot start Brett Gardner is beginning to struggle a bit. He was 0-for-4 on Friday with two strikeouts and he did not get a ball out the infield. In his last six starts dating back to March 7, Gardner is a miserable 1-for-18 and his spring average has plunged to .324.
  • Non-roster infielder Dan Johnson is seemingly playing his way out of a chance to make the 25-man roster. Johnson, 33, was 0-for-2 on Friday and he is hitting a ridiculously low .043 this spring with seven strikeouts in his 23 at-bats. With injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, Johnson had a great shot to make the team as backup corner infielder  -  the same role Eric Chavez filled last season. But it looks like that ship may have sailed unless Johnson gets awful hot in a hurry.
  • Even in scoring seven runs the Yankees still did not hit well with runners in scoring position. They were 1-for-8 in the game and it remains a major concern going forward.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees have added to their outfield depth by signing Brennan Boesch, who was released earlier this week by the Detroit Tigers. Boesch, 27, hit .240 with 12 home runs and 54 RBIs in 132 games with the American League champions in 2012. He was hitting .188 in 16 at-bats with the Tigers this spring. Boesch signed a one-year major-league contract for $1.5 million and $600,000 in performance incentives and he will give the Yankees a left-handed hitting corner outfielder as Curtis Granderson recovers from broken right forearm. It appears that Juan Rivera and the newly acquired Ben Francisco are competing for the right-hand portion of the corner outfield spots. Rivera also has been playing some first base in Teixera’s absence.  . . .  Utility man Ronnier Mustelier was forced to leave Friday’s game with multiple contusions on both legs after he ran into a metal dugout railing chasing a foul pop off the bat of Juan Pierre in the fourth inning. Manager Joe Girardi said Mustelier likely will be out until at least Tuesday. Mustelier, 28, has been a hitting sensation this spring and the Yankees have looked him at the corner outfielder spots and at third base.  . . .  Yankees relief prospect Mark Mongomery and rising star outfielder Tyler Austin were presented with 2012 Kevin O’Brien Lawn awards before Friday’s game. Montgomery, 23, received the “Pitcher of the Year” award after going a combined 7-2 with a 1.54 ERA and 15 saves between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. Austin, 21, was named “Player of the Year” after batting a combined .322 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs in four minor-league stops last season. The annual awards are dedicated to Kevin O’Brien Lawn – the son of longtime Yankees Vice President and Chief of Operations Jack Lawn – who passed away in 1999.

ON DECK

The Yankees will play a pair of games on Saturday.

In one game the Yankees will play host to the Philadelphia Phillies. In the other game, the Yankees will send a split squad to play the Atlanta Braves at Champions Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, FL.

Hiroki Kuroda will start at home against the Phillies. He will be opposed by reliever Raul Valdes.

Game-time will be one hour earlier than usual at 12:05 p.m. EDT to accommodate an evening concert at Raymond James Stadium by country star Kenny Chesney.  The game will be telecast live by the YES Network and on tape delay by the MLB Network.

David Phelps, who is still in the running to be the team’s fifth starter, will pitch in the road contest. He will square off against left-hander Paul Maholm of the Braves.

Game-time will be 5:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast on tape delay by the MLB Network.

 

Gardner’s Shift Becomes Yanks’ Center Of Attention

Well, the worst-kept secret through the New York Yankees’ rumor mill became a reality on Thursday. Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner will be swapping outfield positions this spring.

Manager Joe Girardi said that Granderson will play left and Gardner will play center this spring in an “experiment” to gauge if the move will improve the Yankees’ defense. Of course, Girardi always has the prerogative to change his mind and switch them back, but it doubtful that will be the case.

Gardner, 29, has provided the Yankees with Gold Glove-quality defense in left-field – when healthy – since the 2009 season.

Granderson, 31, acquired in a trade with the Detroit Tigers before the 2010 season, has played center-field, at times, shakily. Granderson does not make instinctive reads on balls and loses some. He also takes strange routes to balls and he has to rely a lot on his speed to make up for his mistakes.

The Yankees also have asked him to get his vision checked on a few occasions.

So the move of Gardner to center was almost inevitable and it looks like it could become permanent.

Granderson also is playing in the last year of his four-year contract and it is no secret that the Yankees are not looking to keep him by signing him to multiyear extension. So it makes sense to make the shift now because it is whole lot easier to find a quality player who can play left than it is to find someone with the skills to play good defense in center.

The Yankees are actually quite fortunate that they have three starting outfielders who are capable of playing center, which includes Ichiro Suzuki, 39. Not many teams can say that.

However, there is a big difference from saying someone is capable of playing center than it is to say that someone is better off playing the corner positions. The Seattle Mariners made that decision some years ago with Suzuki because Franklin Gutierrez had more range in center and Suzuki’s arm was perfect for right.

The Yankees are just making a similar decision with Granderson.

With all the talk this offseason that the Yankees offense took a major hit with the departures of Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones, it would seem that there would be a premium be placed on pitching and defense this season.

Moving Gardner does that and the Yankees actually boast in Granderson, Gardner and Suzuki one of the best fielding outfields in baseball. They have good speed, range and excellent arms. A good defensive outfield should pay off on preventing a few runs here and there from crossing the plate as the season unfolds.

Managers love it, pitchers love it and the fans will be happy too.

“I have a pretty good idea how they react in center and left, and they do a pretty good job. I just want to see if it improves or stays the same or what happens,” Girardi said. “More, in a sense, how they play individually, but how the tandem works together with covering from right-center all the way over.”

Granderson still considers himself a centerfielder but said that he is good with the move. He said he would have more of an issue if he was benched entirely. Moving to left seems to be a better option than that and so he will play the good soldier.

Gardner has always considered himself a centerfielder. But when he came up in 2009, Melky Cabrera was already entrenched in center. Granderson’s arrival in 2010 pretty much meant he would stay in left since Granderson had not played left since 2007, and only then to play just a handful of games there.

So 2013 is Gardner’s year to shine in center.

But that does not mean Granderson is unimportant in left. Because of the amount of real estate in left-center at Yankee Stadium, leftfielders must possess the range and the ability to cut balls off in the alleys. Granderson can do that and that is why it should not really much of an issue come late May.

The novelty will wear off and there will be other things to talk about.

But the bottom line here is that the Yankees are making a move that is a positive step for the team’s defense and it is going to work out well for both players.

NEWS AND NOTES

  • The Yankees will open their spring schedule on Saturday against the Atlanta Braves at Champion Field at Lake Buena Vista, FL. Right-hander David Phelps, 26, will start for the Yankees and he is expected to pitch two innings. Veteran left-hander Paul Maholm will pitch for the Braves. The game will start at 1:05 p.m. EST and the game will be broadcast on MLB Radio only.
  • Girardi also announced that first baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Robinson Cano and shortstop Eduardo Nunez will make the trip. In addition, catchers Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine will play with Cervelli getting the starting nod. After Phelps, right-handers Brett Marshall, Mike O’Brien, Kelvin Perez, Branden Pinder and Chase Whitley and left-hander Nik Turley are scheduled to pitch.
  • Girardi announced that after Adam Warren starts the Yankees home spring opener against a Toronto Blue Jays split squad on Sunday that left-hander Vidal Nuno and right-hander Jose Ramirez will start the next two games.
  • Phil Hughes, 26, continues to feel better in his recovery from a bulging disk in his upper back. Hughes is taking anti-inflammatory medication and expects to be able to advance to working out in a pool in several days. He hopes to be able to return to action within two weeks.
  • Alex Rodriguez issued a statement through his spokesman Thursday saying he is working out twice a day in New York in his recovery from hip surgery under the supervision of Dr. Bryan Kelly and trainer Pete Draovitch. Rodriguez is targeting a return to the team at midseason. Kelly performed Rodriguez’s two-hour operation in January at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
  • For those of you planning to attend Saturday’s game at Disney’s Wide World Sports complex along with me you will not have to pay a dime for parking. That is the best part of seeing games here. But most of the stadium gets a pretty good dose of sun so you will need to lather on the sunblock.
  • The Disney staff is generally accorded to be the best in customer service but last season I was not feeling it. Before the game began I was snapping photos of the Yankees during batting practice when a Disney attendant barked at me for being a section over behind home plate. It was more than an hour before the game and no one was sitting there. Huh? Much later I chose to leave the hot sun and watch the game from the standing-room section behind home plate. Another Disney attendant came up to me and yelled at me for – of all the most serious transgressions – having my right foot a half-inch over the line painted on the floor behind the section. I understand if you put your foot all the way over the line they have to stop the game and remove you for interfering with play. Geesh!

 

Yankees To Showcase Four Huge Spring Battles

The pitchers and catchers of the New York Yankees have reported to spring training camp in Tampa, FL, and the position players will soon be joining them. The Yankees’ first scheduled exhibition game is a week away. There are very few jobs on the line this spring as it is with most seasons with the Yankees. But there are four battles worth watching this spring and the result may determine how successful the team will be in 2013. Let’s look at them.

4) STARTING CATCHER: FRANCISCO CERVELLI vs. CHRIS STEWART

With the departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent, the Yankees will be looking at replacing him from within their own ranks. The Yankees elected not to sign such free agents as A.J. Pierzynski and Miguel Oilvo. The problem is that Martin not only provided the Yankees with Gold Glove-quality defense behind the plate, he also provided power despite the fact his batting average was stuck below .200 for most of the 2012 season. The two main candidates to replace Martin are Cervelli, 26, who had been the team’s primary backup catcher in 2010 and 2011 but was optioned to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre on the final day of spring training last season due to the acquisition of Stewart, 30, from the San Francisco Giants. Cervelli arrives as the team’s best hitting option because he owns a career .271 batting average. But he lacks power and, although he calls a good game behind the plate, his throwing can be very erratic. He has a career success rate of throwing out 19.8 percent of base-runners. In contrast, throwing out base-runners is Stewart’s forte. He has nailed 33.7 percent of potential base-stealers and Stewart’s other defensive skills are pretty much on par with Martin’s. The big negative with Stewart is that he is a career .217 hitter and he has no power. In addition to this battle, there are a pair of catchers looking to make an impression in rookie Austin Romine, 24, and non-roster invitee Bobby Wilson, 29. Romine is coming off a season in which he was plagued by a lower-back strain that limited him to just 33 games in the minors last season. Wilson, a former backup catcher with the Los Angels Angels, was released by the Toronto Blue Jays after spending the entire 2012 season at Triple A. Romine’s strong suit is defense and manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, both former catchers, believe Romine is ready to catch at the major-league level now. The issue with Romine is that he has to prove he is healthy and he has to improve as a hitter. Wilson is almost a carbon copy of Stewart. He has nailed 27.1 percent of potential base-stealers but his career major-league batting average is .208.

PREDICTION: Cervelli should win the job, barring injury, which is a legitimate concern. Cervelli has suffered three separate concussions, a broken wrist and a broken bone in his foot over the past five seasons. So his durability is an issue. Stewart, on the basis of his solid season as backup in 2012, seems to be almost assured of retaining his job. But Romine is worth watching this spring. If he is healthy and he shows signs his hitting is improving he might get a promotion to the majors this season. But realistically the Yankees would prefer that he get in a full season at Scranton and he could be promoted in September with a hope he can compete for a starting role in 2014. Wilson will be insurance in case there is an injury to Cervelli or Stewart and he likely will share the catching chores with Romine at Scranton.

3) RESERVE INFIELDER: JAYSON NIX vs. EDUARDO NUNEZ

Although this is, in a sense, a rematch from last spring, it also is not. Confused? Well, Nunez was actually competing for the backup infield spot with Ramiro Pena and Nix, who was signed as a minor-league free agent, was just invited to spring training. Nunez, 25, easily won the role by hitting .372 while Pena hit .240. Nix, 30, was a longshot to make the team and did not. However, he did open some eyes by hitting .323 and flashing some solid defense at second base, third base and shortstop. Nix also proved valuable in that he could play the corner outfield spots. So he was optioned to Scranton and he hit .233 there before he was summoned on May 3. Nunez was hitting a sizzling .294 but his penchant to commit careless fielding errors doomed him. He was optioned to Scranton on May 11 and Nix became the team’s backup infielder. Nunez’s season pretty much fell apart after that. He suffered an injury to his right hand that sidelined him for most of the minor-league season. He was recalled to the Yankees when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1 but the Yankees top brass insisted that Nunez was being groomed as primarily a shortstop and that he would not used as a utility infielder anymore. Nix,meanwhile, flourished in his role, hitting .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 174 at-bats in 77 games. Though Nunez is clearly a better athlete, a better hitter and a better base-stealer, Nix was so much steadier in the field that the Yankees were pleased with his work. Nunez committed seven errors in 38 games with the Yankees while Nix was charged with only three. A quick look at the Yankees’ depth chart on yankees.com shows something interesting this spring. Nunez is listed as the primary backup at second, third, shortstop and leftfield. Huh? I guess the Yankees changed their minds about Nunez not being a utility player and he will battle Nix for the role. If anyone believes Nunez is going to shed his nickname of “Eduardo Scissorhands” this spring than I have some prime swampland to sell you. But the Yankees may need his hitting and his base-stealing ability more than they need his fielding this season. The Yankees lost a lot of power from the 2012 club and they may need to score more runs by moving runners around the bases and stealing more bases. That would favor Nunez, who actually embarrassingly was third on the team last season with 11 stolen bases despite playing in only 38 games. Nix is still in the picture because of his fielding and steady play. It is going to be a very close call either way it goes.

PREDICTION: Nunez not only has hitting and base-stealing advantages this spring. He also may benefit from the slow recovery of Derek Jeter from surgery on his fractured left ankle and the presence of camp invitee Dan Johnson. If Jeter can’t start the season at shortstop, Nunez will man the position in his place. The reason Johnson is important is that he is a left-handed power hitter who can play both first and third base. If Johnson can make the team and show he field third base adequately enough, Nunez would only need to back up at shortstop and second base. That would lessen the chances Nix would have to making the 25-man roster. Johnson would, in effect, replace Eric Chavez, who opted to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks. That would allow Nunez to remain as a backup middle infielder and potentially a right-handed platoon designated hitter. If I was a betting man, I would wager that this is the scenario that likely will play out. Nix could accept a demotion to Scranton as insurance. It also is possible that Nunez could be packaged in a trade before the season starts. But that won’t happen until Jeter shows he will be ready to play by Opening Day.

2) BACKUP OUTFIELDER: MATT DIAZ vs. JUAN RIVERA

One of the reasons Nunez is listed as a backup in leftfield is because both Diaz and Rivera are non-roster invitees to spring training. But, rest assured, one of them make the team as a right-handed hitting backup outfielder. Diaz, 34, was released by the Atlanta Braves after suffering through a season cut short in August by season-ending surgery on his right thumb. Diaz hit .222 with two home runs and 13 RBIs. He is a career .291 hitter and he has been an exceptional hitter against left-handed pitching. Rivera, 34, originally came up through the Yankees’ minor-league system and played with the Yankees in parts of the 2002 and 2003 seasons before being traded to the then Montreal Expos before the 2004 season. Rivera was reserve outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season and hit .244 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs. He is a career .274 hitter and h also has been a much better hitter against left-handers. When the Yankees chose to allow Andruw Jones sign with a team in Japan, the Yankees opened up a spot on the roster for a right-handed hitting corner outfielder who could also serve as a right-handed platoon designated hitter. Neither player is considered as accomplished fielders though Diaz has a bit more range. As hitters, Diaz is a better hitter for average though Rivera boasts considerably more power. Because the Yankees starting outfield is an all left-handed-hitting group consisting of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki it is important that the Yankees have a right-handed-hitting option on the bench. So these two players will be fighting it out.

PREDICTION: Because of Rivera’s former ties to the club and the fact he hits with more power, he has a big edge over Diaz. Neither Gardner or Suzuki have much power so it will be important to have a hitter on the bench who can provide it from the right side. Should Girardi also need a right-handed DH, Rivera fits the Jones mold better than Diaz does. Diaz also has slipped significantly since the 2009 season when he hit .313 and he also is coming off surgery. Rivera, on the other hand, also has slipped from his 2009 season when he hit .287 with 25 home runs and 88 RBIs with the Los Angeles Angels. But last season was the first season in which he has failed to connect for double-digit home runs since the 2007 season in which he played in only 14 games. Rivera will likely win the job easily barring injury or something else unforeseen.

1) NO. 5 STARTING PITCHER: IVAN NOVA vs. DAVID PHELPS

Those other position battles are the undercard but this one is the Main Event. It is also odd that there is even a competition involving Nova considering how good he was in his rookie season in 2011. But Nova, 26, struggled from the minute spring exhibitions started in 2012 and it got so bad that he was taken out of the rotation in favor of Phelps by Girardi in September. Nova’s record in 2011 was 16-4 and he was 12-8 last season. However, his ERA jumped from 3.70 to 5.02 and, though he recorded a 1.26 ERA in June last season, his ERA in the other months was: 5.18 in April, 5.87 in May, 5.97 in July, 7.03 in August and 6.23 in September. Ouch! So that is the reason Phelps is challenging him for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Phelps, 25, arrived in camp last spring voted as the organization’s best minor-league pitcher in 2011. Though scouts have always doubted him, Phelps rose through the minors and carries a record of 40-15 with a 2.51 ERA in 90 starts. In spring training, Phelps was 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven appearances and was named the Yankees’ top rookie of the spring. He also earned a spot in the bullpen. Phelps then turned in some sparkling performances as a long reliever and spot starter with the Yankees. He ended the season 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts). This competition is hard to handicap because Nova – truth be told – has the nastiest stuff of any of the Yankees’ starters. Last season he just could not harness it and he got hit hard when he fell behind and had to throw fastballs. Phelps is pit-bull on the mound who has supreme confidence in himself and his stuff.

PREDICTION: I really have no idea on how this will turn out but I still believe that Nova has a bit of an edge on the basis of his rookie season. But Phelps has been doubted at every step of the way since he starred at Notre Dame. You can never measure desire and he has it. I can tell you the loser of this battle will not necessarily be heading to the bullpen. For one thing, Nova has little or no bullpen experience. Another reason is that the Yankees probably will want to make sure that the starter they do not select for the rotation remains “stretched out” as a starter at the minor-league level so they can step in case of an injury. I can also say it is refreshing to see that with homegrown starters like Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes already in the rotation and two homegrown starters like Nova and Phelps battling for the last rotation spot, that the Yankees’ minor-league system is beginning to churn out talent at a time when the payroll needs to be reduced.  It sure beats shelling out money to guys like Sergio Mitre and Freddy Garcia. That is progress.

 

My Spring Coverage Of Yankees Will Be Top-Notch

I started this blog in 2009 and I have vowed to my loyal readers that I would provide an unvarnished and journalistic approach to covering the New York Yankees. I feel I have fulfilled that promise and more over the years.

With the opening of spring exhibition games beginning for the Yankees on Feb. 23 against the Atlanta Braves at Lake Buena Vista, FL, through the spring finale against the Washington Nationals in Washington, D.C. on March 29, I will be personally attending 18 games to provide reporting and analysis.

In addition, I will have access to one national television broadcast through ESPN and 13 additional games through radio broadcasts to ensure you will be getting complete and authoritative coverage of the Yankees this spring.

I will provide game coverage but I also will look at how the team is shaping up as a whole. I will look at the starting rotation, the bullpen battles, how the starting lineup is shaping up and how the young Yankees and spring invitees are doing in seeking roster spots.

If there is an injury that could affect the Yankees in 2013 you will know about it fast and accurately.

Last spring, I lamented through my game reports about how poorly the Yankees were hitting with men in scoring position. As we later learned, it became a significant issue for the team in the first half of the season and it was their ultimate undoing in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.

I will try to provide the same analysis that I have through the past three spring training schedules. It will be done as if I was the Yankees’ correspondent for yankees.com. I was passed over for that post some years ago despite the fact I have been a journalist for more than 20 years and have worked for a number prestigious newspapers and wrote my own syndicated sports column.

But their loss is your gain because I always tell the truth about the Yankees and I do not hold punches in order avoid angering players, coaches and club executives as yankees.com reporters do. I am free to speak my mind and tell you that Alex Rodriguez and his bloated contract is an albatross around the necks of the Yankees and will be through the 2017 season.

I also have already told you my belief that Phil Hughes would be more suited and more effective of he pitched out the bullpen rather than basically a two-pitch starter.

Earlier this winter, I wrote how the Yankees are missing so much of their power from the 2012 club (Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones) that manager Joe Girardi would be wise to use a more unconventional slash and dash approach using his better base-runners like Brett Gardner, Eduardo Nunez, Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter.

Call it the “Bronx Bunters.”

That would mean more bunting, hit and runs and base stealing instead of waiting for the home run. We will see if the Yankees implement that strategy this spring.

Join me for my reports direct from Tampa, FL, and I promise you will be ready and primed for my regular season game reports when the Yankees open their 2013 schedule at Yankee Stadium on April 1 when they will play host to the Boston Red Sox.

Thank you for those who have been my loyal readers and thank you to the new readers I have picked up along the way. I intend to give you the best information I can. Your feedback is always appreciated and encouraged.

Go Yankees in 2013!

 

 

Yanks Sign DH Hafner, Invite 43 Others To Camp

With the announcement of the signing of designated hitter/first baseman Travis Hafner to a one-year contract on Feb. 1, the New York Yankees are basically finished with their roster moves prior to the opening of spring training camp in Tampa, FL.

Hafner, 35, is a potential replacement for the loss of Raul Ibanez, who opted to sign with the Seattle Mariners this offseason.

Hafner hit .228 with 12 home runs and 34 RBIs in 64 games with the Cleveland Indians last season.

Though Hafner has played first base in his career, he has not played in the field since the 2007 season. So it appears he primarily will be the team’s left-hand DH and will play first sparingly, if at all.

To make room on the 40-man roster, the Yankees designated fellow former Indians first baseman/outfielder Russ Canzler for assignment. If Canzler is not picked up by another team he could be reclaimed and invited to spring training with the Yankees.

In addition to Hafner, the Yankees added to their spring roster by inviting a total of 43 players to spring training.

Among those is left-hand hitting first baseman Dan Johnson, who most recently played for the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox, and outfielders Matt Diaz and Juan Rivera.

Diaz, 34, hit .222 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 51 games for the Atlanta Braves last season. The right-hand hitting Diaz had his season cut short by a right thumb injury that required surgery in August.

Diaz is a career .291 hitter and he has an excellent chance to make the team as a backup corner outfielder and designated hitter.

Rivera, also 34, originally came out of the Yankees minor-league system and played for the team in portions of the 2002 and 2003 seasons before being dealt to the Montreal Expos in 2004.

Rivera hit .244 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs in 109 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. He is a career .274 hitter.

Rivera is also a corner outfielder and he likely will compete with Diaz for a roster spot.

Johnson, 33, has an excellent chance to make the roster as a replacement for Eric Chavez, who signed in the offseason with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Johnson is a left-handed hitter who can play first and third base and as a corner outfielder.

He hit .364 with three home runs and six RBIs in late season call-up with the White Sox. But at Triple-A Charlotte, Johnson hit .267 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs in 137 games before being recalled in September.

With Hafner and Johnson both having good shots at making the team and Diaz and Rivera competing for a backup outfield and right-hand DH spot, the other battles for bench spots will come down to backup catcher and a utility infield spot.

The Yankees lost starting catcher Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent so the starting catcher spot will come down to a battle between Francisco Cervelli, 26, and Chris Stewart, 30. The loser of the battle likely will be the team’s backup.

The Yankees also invited former Los Angeles Angels catcher Bobby Wilson, 29, to camp as a non-roster invitee. However, Wilson likely will be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre just in case Cervelli or Stewart are injured and he will back up rookie Austin Romine, 24, who is coming off a lower-back injury.

The backup infield spot will be a rematch of last season’s battle between speedy Eduardo Nunez, 25, and steady Jayson Nix, 30.

Nunez is a career .272 hitter with 38 steals in 46 attempts. He is the team’s second-best base-stealer behind Brett Gardner and is perhaps the best athlete on the team.

However, his glovework the past two seasons has been so bad the Yankees want him to primarily play shortstop and second base, which gives Nix a huge edge despite the fact he arrives in camp as a non-roster player.

Nix hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 74 games with the Yankees last season. He is able to play second, third, shortstop and the corner outfield spots.

Nunez possibly could make the team as a right-hand DH and he could play a lot of shortstop this season in place of 38-year-old Derek Jeter, who is recovering from a fractured left ankle he sustained in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

Another option for Nunez is that he could be traded this spring if general manager Brian Cashman feels the need to add a player before the season begins.

Along with Johnson, Wilson, Nix, Diaz and Rivera, the Yankees invited the following players to camp:

CATCHERS: Francisco Arcia, Kyle Higashioka, J.R. Murphy, Gary Sanchez.

INFIELDERS: Gregory Bird, Cito Culver, Walter Ibarra, Addison Maruszak, Luke Murton, Jose Pirela, Kyle Roller, Gil Velazquez.

OUTFIELDERS: Abraham Almonte, Tyler Austin, Adonis Garcia, Slade Heathcott, Ronnier Musteller, Thomas Neal, Rob Segedin.

PITCHERS: Corey Black, Juan Cedeno, Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley, Nick Goody, Shane Greene, David Herndon, Tom Kahnle, Jim Miller, Bryan Mitchell, Mark Montgomery, Zach Nuding, Mikey O’Brien, Kelvin Perez, Brandon Pinder, Ryan Pope, Josh Spence, Matt Tracy, Chase Whitley.

 

Hughes In Rotation But Really Belongs In Bullpen

The New York Yankees will enter spring training with a virtually set starting rotation. That is a luxury among major-league clubs but there are some concerns about the staff and how effective it will be. Let’s examine each starter individually in a five-part series.

PART 4

PHIL HUGHES (16-13, 4.19 ERA)

If you were casting a James Bond movie would you select Owen Wilson for the role? If you were casting a new dramatic Broadway play would you cast Zach Rogan?

Of course, the answer would be no to both. Yet the Yankees still insist on miscasting Phil Hughes as a starting pitcher.

They can point to his two full seasons as a starter in which he is a collective 34-21 with a 4.20 ERA. Considering the fact Hughes came up through the Yankees’ minor-league system as a highly touted starter, why shouldn’t he be a starter?

The reason he shouldn’t is not because of what Hughes has accomplished. It has more to do what he has failed to accomplish that limits his ceiling as a quality starter.

Hughes, 26, is basically a two-pitch starter: Fastball and curve. Efforts to add a cutter and a change-up have been met with mixed results. There is no doubt that with good run support he can remain a successful starter. But think back to a time when Hughes had his best success with the Yankees.

That was in 2009 when Hughes was brought up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as a fill-in starter and then, out of necessity, was shifted to the bullpen. Hughes’ two-pitch assortment was perfect for the bullpen and his fastball got some added zip during his short stints. Gradually manager Joe Girardi shifted him into the setup role in front of Mariano Rivera.

Hughes was simply sensational. His ERA, his WHIP and his strikeout rate were all better than Rivera’s in 2009 and Hughes became a major reason why the Yankees won their 27th world championship that season.

There is one huge reason why Hughes has not pitched out of the bullpen since and it has nothing to do with Hughes. It has to do with the failure of Joba Chamberlain to make it as a starting pitcher. Once the Yankees determined that Chamberlain was not suited to start they were not about to do the same with Hughes.

The Yankees did not want to suffer the indignity of having both of their prized homegrown youngsters in the bullpen. Besides, the bullpen has been crowded with hard throwers behind Rivera and Chamberlain like Rafael Soriano and David Robertson.

So Hughes became a starter in 2010 and he had so much initial success (he sported an 11-2 record at the All-Star break and he made the American League All-Star team) that those minor-league scout comparisons to Roger Clemens did not seem so farfetched anymore.

But after the break, the league caught up to him and he was a very pedestrian 7-6 the rest of the way.

High hopes for him in 2011 were very quickly dashed when he showed up to spring training with a noticeable drop in velocity. After getting blasted early and often in April, the Yankees placed him on the disabled list with weakness in his right shoulder. Though Hughes did return late that season, his 5-5 record and 5.79 ERA cast a lot of doubt on his future.

But Hughes worked his way back last season and he did pitch well enough to tie with Hiroki Kuroda for the team lead in victories with 16. Hughes also matched his season ERA of 4.19 in 2010. So not all the numbers were bad or disastrous.

There are still some numbers Hughes with which he can’t be pleased.

Hughes was vulnerable to the longball as the 35 home runs he surrendered in 191 1/3 innings pitched indicate. That was a home run given up every 5 1/2 innings.

Consistency has also been a problem. Hughes started the season 1-4 with a 7.48 ERA before he rebounded to go 8-2 with a 3.34 from May 6 through July 1. From July 1 on, Hughes was pretty mediocre, going 7-7 with a 4.08 ERA the rest of the way.

Pitch count has also been problem for Hughes. In 14 of his 32 starts Hughes failed to pitch at least six innings. That was mostly due to elevated pitch counts coming from batters repeatedly fouling off pitch after pitch. Hughes basically succumbed in a lot of games due to just the attrition of pitches.

Another pitch in his arsenal would help Hughes with this problem but it appears that it is unlikely Hughes will be able to develop a major-league quality third pitch at this stage of his career.

So the Yankees are committed to Hughes as a starter but they are gong to have to accept his limitations. Absent another weapon what you currently see with Hughes is pretty much what you are going to get.

Though the top three pitchers on the staff (Kuroda, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte) might be able to adapt to getting a bit less in run support, Hughes might be severely harmed by the loss in power the Yankees suffered when Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones signed with other teams in the offseason.

But with Chamberlain still in the bullpen, along with Robertson and Rivera, the fact that the Yankees top young pitchers such as Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are a long way away from being able to step into the starting rotation, Hughes will be forced to remain a starter this season.

How he fares may come down to his ability to adjust and adapt. At age 26 there is still time for him to improve. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild could be very valuable in putting the final pieces to the Hughes puzzle in place.

However, there is faction of Yankee fans who want Hughes to be traded for some young prospects. That would not seem to make much sense given the plight of Pineda, Banuelos and Betances and the fact that Ivan Nova has his own issues to deal with this spring.

It just seems to be a fact that Hughes is locked in as the team’s No. 4 starter and the Yankees can take comfort in the fact that they could do worse than have a pitcher who has won 34 games in his first two full-time seasons as a starter.

Hughes is pretty much the Rodney Dangerfield of the Yankees’ staff. He gets little respect for what he has done and he has taken far too much of the blame for what he has failed to accomplish.

The 6-foot-5 right-hander from southern California signed a one-year contract worth $7.15 million last week to avoid arbitration so Hughes can now concentrate on the task of getting ready for the 2013 season.

The Yankees are just hoping that the unusual amount of patience they have accorded a young pitcher in their system like Hughes is rewarded with a huge breakout season. But realistically, the Yankees should be happy if Hughes is healthy for a full season and ends 2013 above .500 in winning percentage.

Those are pretty achievable goals.

Perhaps someday Hughes might get a chance to replace Rivera as the team’s closer. But for now he will just have to continue to play the role he has been given – no matter how miscast he seems to be.

NEXT: IVAN NOVA

 

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