Results tagged ‘ Yu Darvish ’

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.

 

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.

 

McCann Deal Shows Yankees Are Rebuilding

It appears the first plank to rebuilding the New York Yankees into a playoff contender has been hammered in place.

It took an offer of five years and $85 million to lure Georgia native Brian McCann from the Atlanta Braves to the Big Apple and it will be money very well spent.

McCann, 29, hit .256 with 20 home runs and 57 RBIs in 102 games with the Braves last season. In his nine-year career, McCann has hit 176 homers and driven in 661 runs while hitting .277. That is far better that what the Yankees had on hand last season.

As power-hitting switch-hitter Jorge Posada eased into retirement the Yankees turned to Russell Martin in 2011 to provide some power and defense behind the plate. For two seasons, Martin provided both those things but he chose to accept a more lucrative contract offer with the Pittsburgh Pirates last winter.

Martin, 30, hit .226 with 15 homers and 55 RBIs in 127 games with the much-improved Bucs in 2013. He was sorely missed in the Bronx, however.

After auditioning holdover backups Francisco Cervelli, 27, and Chris Stewart, 31, in spring training the Yankees selected Cervelli as their starting catcher to begin the season. But much like almost every other player on the roster, Cervelli fell early in the season to a broken finger on his right hand.

The Yankees did not know at the time that Cervelli’s last game would be on April 26.

First there there was an extended process after surgery which delayed his rehab. Then Cervelli ended up suffering an injury to his right elbow.

Later, part of the Major League Baseball’s investigation into Biogenesis resulted in Cervelli accepting a 50-game suspension without pay for his admission into using performance enhancing drugs. So Cervelli’s season consisted of 17 games in which he hit .269 with three home runs and eight RBIs.

Cervelli’s injury forced the Yankees to use a career backup in Stewart as their starting catcher for the remainder of the season. Although Stewart was hitting a robust .284 as late as June 11, his season quickly nose-dived from there and ended up hitting an anemic .211 with three homers and 25 RBIs in 109 games.

Rookie Austin Romine, 25, was brought up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on April 27 to back up Stewart and he did not fare much batter at the plate. Romine hit .207 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 60 games.

The Yankees had admitted that they were allowing Martin to go in order to usher in a new philosophy of “defense first” behind home plate. Though Cervelli, Stewart and Romine were not accomplished hitters each of them could be counted on to call a good game, block pitches in the dirt and control the other teams’ running game.

Stewart was exceptional. He threw out 31 percent of potential base-stealers and committed only two errors.

However, on a team that started the season with some 190 home runs short on power and who lost most of the remaining power they had on their roster to injury, Stewart Cervelli and Romine stuck out like sore thumbs because of their lack of power and production.

On a franchise that fielded the likes of legends such as Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Posada, it seems only fitting the Yankees would quickly switch gears from their “defense first” approach and find a catcher who can put the ball into the seats.

McCann certainly can do that.

The fact that he is a left-handed hitter makes him very attractive to the Yankees because of the short porch in right-field.

McCann is a seven-time All-Star, was the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player in 2010 and was a five-time Silver Slugger award winner.

In 2006, McCann posted his best season as a pro. He hit .333 with 24 home runs and 93 RBIs. He has averaged 21 homers and 80 RBIs in his eight full major-league seasons.

Though he has never been awarded a Gold Glove, McCann is not exactly a liability on a defense either. He has thrown out 200 of 842 base-runners in his career, which works out to a respectable 23.8 percent. He only committed one error in 92 games behind the plate last season.

The Yankees see McCann as a starting catcher but he also could remain in the lineup as designated hitter against right-handed pitching. That is one of the reasons McCann was looking to move to the American League. With the Braves he had only could pinch-hit in games he did not start.

The Yankees have already indicated that they intend to offer Cervelli a contract for 2014 and Romine certainly factors into the equation as a backup. But McCann’s signing likely ended Stewart’s days in pinstripes. He probably will not be tendered a contract offer and thus will become a free agent.

The Yankees do have to be encouraged with the development of J.R. Murphy, 22.

Murphy received a late call-up and, despite the fact he hit .154 in 16 games, he made great strides in the minors, hitting .248 with nine homers and 44 RBIs in 110 games between Double-A Trenton and Scranton. Murphy provides the Yankees with some depth behind the injury-prone Cervelli and Romine, who has had a history of lower-back issues.

The big prize in the Yankees minor-league remains 20-year-old Gary Sanchez, who hit a combined .253 with 15 home runs and 71 RBIs at stops at High-A Tampa and Trenton.

Sanchez, much like his predecessor Jesus Montero, has a bat that looks like it will make him a potential star at the major-league level. The big concern with the Yankees, as it was with Montero, is Sanchez’s defense.

Though Sanchez has made great strides in his four minor-league seasons behind the plate, he has committed 43 errors, including 16 and 11 the past two seasons. His arm is exceptional, though. He has nailed 33.4 % of would-be base-stealers.

With McCann’s five-year deal with a vesting option for a sixth season that makes the deal potentially worth $100 million, Sanchez might have a tough time shoving aside the veteran down the road. But it does not look like Sanchez will get that chance until 2015 anyway.

The McCann signing does prove that the Yankees have reached a point where they realized getting by on “cheap” free agents and waiver-wire pickups were not going to cut it if the team expects to be competitive in 2014 and beyond.

While the Yankees have McCann on board they are also looking to keep second baseman Robinson Cano as a Yankee for the remainder of his career, if he and his agent Jay-Z realize that he is not going to get the 10 years and $310 million he is seeking.

The team is also interested in re-signing right-hander Hiroki Kuroda and making a huge posting bid for fellow Japanese right-hander Mashiro Tanaka, 25, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 2013 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles and is being compared to Texas Rangers star right-hander Yu Darvish.

The Yankees are also contacting outfielders Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo as well as hoping to convince Curtis Granderson to remain with the team.

The Yankees are showing signs that they are going to be aggressive in the free-agent market as they were the winter before the 2009 season when they signed left-hander CC Sabathia, right-hander A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira to lucrative free-agent contracts.

Coincidentally, that was the last season the Yankees won a world championship.

General manager Brian Cashman and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner seem to be on the same page this offseason and it is looking like that their statement that the $189 million payroll mark was more of a target that is not set in stone may mean Yankee fans might have a team they rally around in 2014 instead of the sad group they fielded in 2013.

There seems to be hope in the Bronx and it all starts with Brain McCann.

 

Suzuki Shoots Down Rangers With Walk-Off Blast

GAME 76

YANKEES 4, RANGERS 6

Two things pretty much describe what has happened with the 2013 New York Yankees: They rarely hit home runs and they have not won a game in the bottom of the ninth inning all season. Well, the Yankees hit four solo home runs and the last one gave them a walk-off victory on Tuesday.

Ichiro Suzuki connected on a 1-2 fastball from right-hander Tanner Scheppers for a lined shot that easily cleared the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center with two out in the ninth as New York brought a paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 41,674 to its feet by defeating Texas.

Suzuki’s fourth home run of the season was only his second walk-off homer of his career. His first came on April 4, 2012 as a member of the Seattle Mariners against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

Rivera (1-1) pitched a scoreless ninth inning to get credit for his first victory of the season.

Scheppers (5-1) was saddled with his first defeat of the season.

The game started as a battle between a pair of former Japanese baseball stars both born in Osaka. It was only the 11th time in major-league history two Japanese pitchers have faced each other and the second time for the Yankees’ Hiroki Kuroda and the Rangers’ Yu Darvish.

The Rangers struck first in the third inning off Kuroda when Leonys Martin lined a 2-2 pitch into the right-field bleachers with one out in the inning.

They added an unearned run in the fourth when an throwing error by David Adams on a ball off the bat of Adrian Beltre and singles by A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman loaded the bases with one out and Mitch Moreland’s slow-rolling fielder’s choice grounder allowed Beltre to score.

The Yankees halved the lead when Travis Hafner blasted his 12th homer of the season, a high-arcing shot that landed in the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center to lead off the fourth inning.

But the Rangers added a run in the fifth when Martin connected for his second home run of the game and his fifth of season to start the frame.

But the Yankees got that run back when Brett Gardner slammed his season-high tying seventh homer of the season deep into the right-field bleachers to start the bottom of the fifth.

Jayson Nix set up the eventual victory with only second homer of the season into the bleachers in left to lead off the sixth.

Darvish, who was less than sharp, was tagged for three runs on seven hits and two walks while he struck six batters in 5 1/3 innings. It was only his second start of less than six innings this season.

Meanwhile, Kuroda yielded three runs (two earned) on five hits and a walk while fanning six in 6 2/3 innings.

With the dramatic victory, the Yankees improved their season record to 42-34 and they remain percentage points ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in second place in the American League East. They also are just 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox and one game back in the loss column.

The Rangers fell to 44-33.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Hafner was 2-for-4 including his solo home run. He entered the game hitting .217 but he is beginning to come around a bit at the plate. In his past six games he is 6-for-24 (.250) with two home runs and five RBIs. He has at least one hit in five of those six games.
  • Suzuki was 2-for-5 with his walk-off shot and it was his second home run in the past week. He hit a home run and drove in three runs on June 19 against the Los Angeles Angels in 6-4 victory. Suzuki is batting .299 in June and has raised his season average to .270.
  • After Kuroda gave up a second home run to Martin in the fifth, Kuroda and relievers Boone Logan, David Robertson and Rivera retired 14 of the final 17 batters they faced and struck out five. Good starting pitching and a very good bullpen is keeping the Yankees afloat in the division this season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • With the Yankees without the services of third basemen Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Youkilis, Adams is struggling to recapture the stroke that had him hitting .295 with two home runs and five RBIs in his first 11 games. Since then he is 4-for-46 (.087) with no homers and four RBIs. He was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a walk on Tuesday. He is hitting .185.
  • Lyle Overbay had a night to forget. He was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and left a total of five runners on base. He has not delivered a hit in his last nine at-bats and his season average has slipped to .239.
  • Rookie Zoilo Almonte proved he is human. He was 0-for-4, which ended his four-game hitting streak. He is still 7-for-16 (.438) with a home run and four RBIs in his first six games. Manager Joe Girardi has temporarily benched left-fielder Vernon Wells in order to let the rookie play.

BOMBER BANTER

Rodriguez drew the ire of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman after he sent out a Tweet on Tuesday indicating that his hip surgeon had cleared him to begin playing minor-league rehab games. Cashman responded angrily by telling ESPNNewYork.com:  “You know what, when the Yankees want to announce something, [we will]. Alex should just shut the [expletive] up. That’s it. I’m going to call Alex now.”  . . . Meanwhile, the Yankees are fearing the worst in sending first baseman Mark Teixeira to specialist on Tuesday to look at his ailing right wrist. Teixeira’s wrist did not respond as the team had hoped to a cortisone injection last week. Season-ending surgery is a very real possibility. Teixeira has hit .151 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 15 games this season.  . . .  The Yankees elected to keep right-hander Ivan Nova on the roster after his impressive start against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday. They are not sure what his role will be but Nova will stay nonetheless. The Yankees currently have 14 pitchers on the roster, leaving them only three bench players.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their three-game home series with the Rangers on Wednesday.

Andy Pettitte (5-5, 4.20 ERA) will start for the Yankees. The 41-year-old left-hander was raked for nine hits and five runs in 6 2/3 innings against the Rays on Thursday. He is 6-6 with a 4.53 ERA in the past 10 seasons against the Rangers.

The Rangers will counter with right-hander Justin Grimm (6-5, 5.57 ERA). Grimm allowed three runs on three hits in five innings to win his sixth game of the season against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday. The rookie has never faced the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by ESPN2 and locally by the YES Network.

 

Swisher’s Sweet Slam Starts Texas-Sized Swoon

GAME 115

YANKEES 8, RANGERS 2

Ryan Dempster was navigating carefully through the New York Yankees’ lineup and he opted to walk Derek Jeter to load the bases with one out in the third inning. But Nick Swisher and a hanging slider proved to be his undoing on Monday.

Swisher’s sixth career grand slam and the 200th home run of his career was all part of a five-run inning and Swisher ended up driving in five runs as New York pounded Texas in the opener of a four-game series at Yankee Stadium between the two American League teams with the best records.

Dempster (6-6) began the third with a 2-0 lead, having retired the first six batters he faced. But, Russell Martin led off by lacing a sharp single to right and Raul Ibanez followed with another hard-hit lined single to right.

Ichiro Suzuki then laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Martin and Ibanez.

On a 2-2 pitch, Jeter smacked a split-finger fastball down the left-field line that just hooked foul. Dempster then opted to toss two pitches off the plate to walk Jeter as if he wanted to pitch around Jeter to look for a double-play ball off the bat of Swisher.

But Dempster hung a slider on a 1-0 delivery and Swisher blasted a mammoth shot into the second deck of the bleachers in right to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 lead on one swing. The crowd of 45,676 let out  huge roar as a smiling Swisher rounded the bases.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old rookie right-hander David Phelps, pitching in place of the injured CC Sabathia, tossed a solid five innings to win his first major-league game as a starter.

Phelps (3-3) gave up a bloop two-out RBI single to Nelson Cruz in the first inning and a solo home run to David Murphy to lead of the second inning. However, he settled in and retired nine of the last 14 batters he faced. In addition, he picked off two Rangers base-runners.

Phelps gave up two runs on six hits and a walk while he struck out three in five innings in which he threw 51 of his 78 pitches for strikes.

Newly acquired 39-year-old right-hander Derek Lowe pitched four scoreless innings in his Yankees debut to pick up his first major-league save since he was a closer for the Boston Red Sox during the 2001 season.

The Yankees offense made only Dempster’s third A.L. start of his career a living nightmare.

After Swisher’s grand slam, the Yankees reloaded the bases in the third and Curtis Granderson lofted a deep fly ball in center to score another run.

Red-hot Eric Chavez, who entered the game 9-for-16 with two home runs and five RBIs in his last four games, swatted a monstrous solo home run of his own over the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center to lead off the sixth inning.

Jeter added an RBI double in the eighth, which chased Dempster, and Swisher ended his night with an RBI single to center off reliever Michael Kirkman to close out the scoring.

Dempster was tagged for eight runs on nine hits and two walks and he fanned four batters in six-plus innings.

The Rangers have lost nine of their last 13 games against the Yankees and are 23-45 against them during the regular season since 2004. They have lost nine of their last 10 regular-season games at Yankee Stadium.

With the victory, the Yankees have the best record in the American League at 68-47. They lead the second-place Tampa Bay Rays by 5 1/2 games in the American League East. The Rangers are now 67-47.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Swisher was 2-for-4 with home run and five RBIs on the night. It was his 15th homer of the season as well as the 200th of his career. In his last seven games, Swisher is 11-for-30 (.367) with a home run and seven RBIs. The hot streak has raised Swisher’s season average to .264.
  • Phelps faced what is arguably the best hitting team in the league and pitched exceptionally. Despite throwing 26 pitches in the first inning, Phelps was able to pitch the longest outing of his career in his fourth major-league start. The rookie is 3-3 with a 2.53 ERA. He entered play having not been scored upon in his last seven relief appearances covering 10 2/3 innings. He had given up just three hits and a walk while striking out 14 in that span.
  • Chavez hit his 13th home run of the season and he was 2-for-4 in the game. So Chavez is 11-for-20 (.550) with three home runs and five RBIs. Chavez did not play at all in the road series against the Blue Jays because the team faced three left-handers and Chavez was also unable to play due to back stiffness.
  • Lowe, 39, was released by the Cleveland Indians after a July 31 start in which he was blasted for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings against the Royals in Kansas City. The Yankees officially signed him on Monday and he paid immediate dividends by throwing four innings of two-hit, no-run baseball in his debut. Lowe will slot in as a long reliever while Phelps pitches in place of Sabathia.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

This was a game the Yankees were supposed to lose. Sabathia is on the disabled list and Phelps had not gotten past 4 2/3 innings in any of his previous starts. But the Yankees were able to put up eight runs on the Rangers and they coasted to a huge victory over a sure-fire playoff team. There is nothing negative to say.

BOMBER BANTER

When Lowe was signed and added to the roster the Yankees optioned right-handed reliever Ryota Igarashi back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Igarashi gave up three runs on three hits in two innings in Sunday’s 10-7 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays and he has no record an 18.00 ERA in his four appearances with the Yankees.  . . .  Mariano Rivera threw off flat ground on Monday at Yankee Stadium with pitching coach Larry Rothschild looking on. But manager Joe Girardi said there is 99.9 percent chance Rivera would not pitch for the Yankees this season. Rivera has been on the disabled list since May 3 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their four-game home series against the Rangers on Tuesday.

Hiroki Kuroda (10-8, 3.24 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda gave up three runs on 10 hits and fanned five in 6 1/3 innings in a no-decision the Yankees rallied to win over the Detroit Tigers on Thursday. Kuroda lost in a pitcher’s duel with fellow countryman Yu Darvish on April 24 and he is 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA against the Rangers lifetime.

The Rangers will counter with left-hander Matt Harrison (13-6, 3.31 ERA). Harrison gave up four runs on eight hits and three walks in 4 2/3 innings against the Red Sox in a no-decision on Wednesday. Harrison was tagged with five runs in 4 2/3 innings in his last start against the Yankees. He is 2-2 with a 4.76 ERA against them in his career.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by My9.

 

Yankee Rotation Started Team’s First-Half Surge

The New York Yankees have reached the halfway mark of the season and they are comfortably in first place in the American League East. This is despite some injuries to some keep players such as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlain. As we do every year, let’s look at the individual components of the team and issue grades for the first half.  

STARTING PITCHERS

CC SABATHIA (9-3, 3.45 ERA)

HIROKI KURODA (8-7, 3.17 ERA)

PHIL HUGHES (9-6, 4.29 ERA)

IVAN NOVA (9-3, 4.05 ERA)

ANDY PETTITTE (3-3, 3.22 ERA)

When the New York Yankees were assembling their starting pitchers for the 2012 season they decided to stay away from high-priced free agents like C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish and when they inquired about potential trades they stayed away from teams that were asking too much in return for pitchers like Mark Buerhle, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Garza.

Their first order of business was make sure CC Sabathia was not going to opt out of his contract. He didn’t and the Yankees rewarded their ace with a very lucrative extension to the contract he signed in the winter of 2009.

With that accomplished they decided to offer a 2012 contract to Freddy Garcia, who impressed the Yankees by recording a 12-8 record and a 3.62 ERA in his first season in pinstripes.

They then bolstered their rotation even further by trading mega-prospect Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners in return from rookie sensation Michael Pineda and 19-year-old right-hander Jose Campos.

They then signed former Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda to one-year, $10 million contract.

The Yankees knew that they needed some additional starters to buy time for five young minor-league starters to develop. Trading for Pineda and signing Kuroda would allow the Yankees to continue the development of 21-year-old left-hander Manny Banuelos, 24-year-old right-hander Dellin Betances, 25-year-old right-hander Adam Warren, 25-year-old right-hander D.J. Mitchell and 25-year-old right-hander David Phelps.

The Yankees hoped that rookie right-hander Ivan Nova would continue to develop after a season in which he was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA and they were hopeful 26-year-old right-hander Phil Hughes had put his issues with weakness in his right shoulder behind him and was healthy for the 2012 season.

But, spring training proved to be a little more topsy-turvy than manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild would have hoped.

Pineda, 23, showed up in camp about 20 pounds overweight and as the spring unfolded he was not reaching the mid-90s velocity he exhibited in the first half of the 2011 season. Though publicly the Yankees were saying they were not concerned, privately they were wondering if they had made a terrible mistake in trading away a great prospect in Montero for sore-armed Pineda.

Late in spring training, Pineda came off the mound in a game in which he was shelled by the Phillies complaining of a sore right shoulder. An MRI indicated a partially torn labrum and Pineda would have surgery and miss the entire 2012 season. Oops!

That left the Yankees with five healthy pitchers for five slots. However, Andy Pettitte, who retired after the 2010 season, decided this spring that he wanted to make a comeback and the Yankees were more than willing to accommodate him. He stayed behind at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa, FL, to get in shape for a return sometime in early May.

Now the Yankees had six pitchers and five spots available. But Girardi was confident things would work out on their own. Little did he know that his rotation would end up in tatters in April.

In his four April starts, Garcia was 0-2 with a 12.51 ERA. Garcia’s fastball, which he used to be able to reach the low 90s with was topping out at about 86 miles per hour. That made him fodder for major-league hitters who were willing to wait for something in the strike zone to whack. And Garcia ended up taking some major whackings.

Hughes was 1-3 with a 7.88 ERA in his four April starts and the Yankees possibly were thinking of either shifting him to the bullpen, sending him to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre or trading him altogether. It was as if the Yankees had finally reached a point with Hughes that they were willing to give up on him.

Nova was hit really hard in the spring and when the season started there was major concerns about his effectiveness. The funny thing was Nova was 3-0 in April but his ERA was 5.18. Ouch!

Kuroda was getting lit up also. American League East teams found his off-speed stuff worth teeing off on, but Kuroda mixed in a few impressive starts to record an inconsistent 2-3 mark with a 3.69 ERA.

Sabathia, meanwhile, was a lot like Nova. He was 3-0 but his ERA was elevated at 4.58. But, then again, Sabathia has been known to start slow and get hot as the weather warms. So there were no real concerns with him.

Pettitte, meanwhile, returned to the Yankees on May 13 for a start against the Mariners. Garcia was banished to the bullpen to make room for the 40-year-old left-hander.

The week after May 13 also seems to coincide with the resurgence of the pitching staff. Every starter seemed to pull things together and harness their stuff to begin a long winning streak. The starting pitching was strong enough to overcome what was an inconsistent offense that could only hit home runs and not hit with runners in scoring position.

Pettitte seemed to light a spark under Hughes and Nova. Kuroda seemed to make the adjustments he needed to make pitching in the American League for the first time and Sabathia got hot like the weather.

Pettitte was 3-3 with a 3.22 ERA in his nine starts through June 27 when a hard-hit ball off the bat of Casey Kotchman of the Cleveland Indians struck Pettitte just above his left ankle and fractured his tibia. As a result, Pettitte will miss about two months. But the Yankees are hopeful he will be able to pitch down the stretch enough to be ready for the playoffs.

It is a shame but the staff that Pettitte inspired has really not missed a beat since he was placed on the disabled list.

Since May 25, Nova is 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA in nine starts. Since May 6, Hughes is 8-3 with a 3.46 ERA in 12 starts. Since May 27, Kuroda is 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in eight starts.

Sabathia is 6-3 with a 2.89 since May 4. But Sabathia had to be placed on the 15-day disabled list for the first time since the 2007 season on June 25 due to a slight strain in his left groin. He missed two starts leading up the All-Star break but is expected to be activated on July 17 for a start at home against the Toronto Blue Jays.

In Pettitte’s place, the Yankees have discovered a starter with almost an equal ability to mix pitches and speeds to keep batters off balance. He is Garcia. Yep, that same Garcia that took  thrashing in April.

The man who was abruptly banished to the bullpen found his old fastball velocity and the difference in his results on the mound have been like night and day.

In his two starts in place of Pettitte, Garcia is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA. The Yankees can certainly live with that until Pettitte returns sometime in late August.

Though the Yankees were criticized for not signing any high-priced free-agent pitchers or trading for some, the Yankees have been patient with what they have and it has paid dividends.

On May 21, the Yankees took a 6-0 walloping from the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium and it dropped their season record to 21-21, which found them tied for last place in the American League East with the Boston Red Sox. They trailed the first-place Tampa Bay Rays by 5 1/2 games.

The Yankees reached the 81-game mark with a 4-3 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL, to improve their season record to 49-32. Their 28-11 surge since May 21 gave them a .718 winning percentage over that 39-game stretch and put them in first place in the division by 5 games over the second-place Baltimore Orioles.

The biggest reason the Yankees were able to surge into first place was the strength of their starting rotation, which not only held opponents hitters down but they also pitched deep into games. That ended up helping the bullpen shine in closing out games in the late innings because they were not needed as much as they were in April.

The combined record of the starters at the 81-game mark is 40-24. Their team ERA of 3.73 is fourth in the American League.

With the second half to go, Girardi and Rothschild have to keep this momentum from the starters going while preparing them for the playoffs. At this moment it appears that the Yankees will have a good chance to have four pitchers (Sabathia, Hughes, Nova and Kuroda) win 16 games or more. That would make the staff formidable come the playoffs.

Add to that the most successful starter in modern playoff history in Pettitte, than you have the makings of a strong group heading into the postseason.

MIDSEASON GRADES:

SABATHIA: B

KURODA: B

HUGHES: B-

NOVA: B-

PETTITTE: I (Incomplete)

GARCIA: I (Incomplete)

BACKUPS

DAVID PHELPS (0-1, 2.08 ERA in 3 starts)

ADAM WARREN (0-0, 23.14 ERA in 1 start)

The Yankees dipped into their minor-league quintet of young starters at Triple-A to make some fill-in starts.

Phelps made two starts in early May in place of Garcia while the Yankees were still waiting for Pettitte to make his 2012 debut. Meanwhile, Warren and Phelps filled in one start apiece for Sabathia just before the All-Star break.

Phelps actually pitched quite well overall in his three starts and he shows some long-term promise as starter for the future. His only negative was that his pitch count got the better of him in all three starts and he was not able to complete five full innings in any one of them.

Earlier in the season, Phelps spent most of the season with the Yankees as a long man out the bullpen and he was 1-3 with a 3.05 ERA overall in 41 1/3 innings over 15 appearances.

But after his start for the Yankees on the Fourth of July against the Rays, the Yankees sent him Double-A Trenton to stretch him out as a starter. So if anything should happen to any of the Yankees five current starters, Phelps would likely be first in line as a replacement.

Warren, however, had a disastrous major-league debut on June 29 at Yankee Stadium against the Chicago White Sox. As a result we are not likely to see Warren the rest of the season.

He is 5-6 with a 4.19 ERA in 16 starts at Scranton this season.

MIDSEASON GRADES:

PHELPS: B+

WARREN: I (Incomplete)

In addition to Phelps and Warren, the Yankees have also called up Mitchell and he is currently on the 25-man roster as a long reliever.

Mitchell is 0-0 with a 2.45 ERA in just 3 2/3 innings covering three appearances. Mitchell’s main calling card is his sinking fastball that allows him to induce a lot of groundball outs.

He was 5-4 with a 5.36 ERA in 14 starts at Scranton this season. The Yankees still consider him a starter but he actually may have more value at the major-league level as a reliever. The Yankees liken him to former Yankee sinker specialist Ramiro Mendoza.

The two biggest jewels in the Yankees’ minor-league system are Banuelos and Betances. Banuelos entered 2012 as the No. 1 prospect and Betances was listed at No. 2. However, neither has distinguished himself at Scranton.

Banuelos was 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA in six starts before being placed on the disabled list with a left elbow injury. Fortunately for the Yankees, an MRI showed no structural damage to the elbow, but the team is being extremely cautious with their top pitching prospect.

Betances, meanwhile, was 3-5 with an ugly 6.39 ERA at Triple-A in 16 starts before being demoted back to Double-A Trenton. He is 0-1 with an 0.75 ERA there in two starts.

Both pitchers have plus fastballs and they both project to top of the rotation starters in the major leagues. But they both share a problem with harnessing their stuff. Betances walked 69 batters in 74 2/3 innings at Scranton and Banuelos walked nearly five batters every nine innings last season.

The Yankees best pitcher at Triple-A is 39-year-old right-hander Ramon Ortiz. The Dominican is 6-3 with a 2.94 ERA in 16 starts. Though at age 39 he would fit right in with the Yankees’ roster, Ortiz is with his 12th different organization and the Yankees likely would feel more comfortable using Phelps or Mitchell.

Campos, 19, led the Northwest League in strikeouts and ERA last season and the Yankees were excited to get him as part of the deal that brought them Pineda.

Campos was 3-0 with a 4.01 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings before also being shelved with an elbow injury. Like Banuelos, the Yankees are saying the injury is not serious, but Campos is in Tampa rehabbing at a slow pace.

The Yankees most successful minor-league pitcher this season is 22-year-old right-hander Brett Marshall, who is 9-3 with a 3.17 ERA in 17 starts with Double-A Trenton. Marshall is not a fireballer like Banuelos or Betances (he has just 61 strikeouts in 91 1/3 innings).

After Tommy John surgery Marshall has found that the movement on his pitches is more important than velocity. He is on track to make it to the Yankees within the next two or three years.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B

The much-maligned Yankee rotation has been the biggest factor in the Yankees re-awakening after May 21 and their current comfortable lead in their division.

Veterans Sabathia and Kuroda have mixed well with young guns Hughes and Nova to make this one of the best rotations in baseball.

The addition of Pettitte boosted the staff in May and Kuroda, Hughes and Nova immediately started erasing Yankee fans memories about how awful they were in April. When Pettitte returns the Yankees will have the best No. 1 through No. 5 rotation in baseball.

In the meantime, Garcia has fixed his velocity problem an he appears to be pitching to his 2011 form based on his most recent two starts.

With Phelps in the wings it is doubtful the Yankees will make a trade-deadline move to get an additional starter.

Though I continue to see fellow bloggers and Yankee fans insist the Yankees should make an effort to trade for Matt Cain or Cole Hamels, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has maintained the Yankees are determined to cut payroll by 2014.

If the Yankees passed on Wilson, Darvish, Buerhle, Gonzalez and Garza before there is no reason to think they will add to the team’s payroll by trading for a high-priced starter at the end of the month. The Yankees think they can win with what they have and it is doubtful they will add anyone significant at the deadline.

Those dyed-in-the-wool Yankee lovers can start crying now. It just is not going to happen.

 

Should Yankees Trade For Outfielder For Gardner?

I have been receiving some excellent questions lately and I thought it would be a great time to share some of them of with you all. So let’s dip into the old e-mail and see what is on the minds of some fellow Yankee fans.

Q: With Brett Gardner out do you think the Yankees should trade for another outfielder, preferably someone with some speed? Why not bring Eduardo Nunez back up and play him in left? (CiscoK)

A: Cisco, I would be with on board with a trade for an outfielder with some speed but the news concerning Gardner is actually pretty good. After getting an opinion on his balky right elbow from Dr. James Andrews in Pensacola, FL, on Monday, Gardner received a confirmation of the diagnosis from Dr. Timothy Kremchek in Cincinnati on Thursday. The opinion is that Gardner should rest the elbow an additional three to four weeks and he does not require surgery. Gardner received a platelet-rich plasma and cortisone shot on Thursday and he will wear an elbow brace to ensure the elbow is rested properly. That is pretty good news. I have heard rumors about the Yankees may be interested in Alfonso Soriano of the Cubs and Chone Figgins of the Mariners but both those guys earn hefty paychecks and the Yankees want to cut payroll. So unless they can get a team to pay most of the tab like the Yankees did with A.J. Burnett, it does not make much sense. As for Nunez, he injured his thumb and is currently on the minor-league disabled list. So even if the Yankees wanted to call him up, they really can’t because of the injury.

Q: Why did the Yankees send David Phelps down instead of Freddy Garcia or Cody Eppley? (JIMMAJAMMA)

A: The Yankees decided to activate David Robertson on Thursday instead of waiting before Friday’s game against the Nationals in Wasington and Phelps was sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The answer, JJ, does not come down to performance or who deserves to go. It is simply because Phelps is 25, he has options left and the Yankees really see him as a starter and not a reliever. Phelps was 1-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 33 2/3 innings over 13 games (two starts). He impressed the Yankees with aggressiveness and he really has a bright future ahead of him. Garcia (0-2, 7.68 ERA) is being paid more than $4 million this season and the Yankees are not going to eat that contract by sending him out or releasing him at age 35. Eppley is 1-1 with a 5.16 ERA but he has been much better in June than he was in May. He has a 2.08 ERA against right-handers and he gets exposed when he faces lefties (5.40 ERA). Eppley is a specialist like Clay Rapada is from the left side and he seems to have earned the trust of manager Joe Girardi.

Q: Why do the Yankees keep Francisco Cervelli at Scranton when Russell Martin can’t hit? (Martini88)

A: Martin has been hitting a lot better this month and, truthfully, the Yankees are in love with his pitch selection, defense and throwing. Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, who know a bit about catching in the majors, think he is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. He does a great job of blocking pitches in the dirt and he does dissuade teams like the Angels and Rays from turning the game into a track meet. Backup Chris Stewart is out of options and he can’t be sent to the minor leagues without losing him as a free agent. The Yankees do not care what he hits and love his defense also. Frankly, Francisco Cervelli is at Scranton because the Yankees were not happy with his throwing accuracy. In 174 games in the major leagues, Cervelli has committed 20 errors and he has nailed base-runners at a subpar 19%. Stewart in 104 games has committed 10 errors and he has nailed base-runners at rate of 38 percent. I think that pretty much explains it.

Q: Are the Yankees paying a big price for not going after C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish? (Tex25Fan25)

A: I don’t think so. Their recent surge (16 out of their last 20 games) has been accomplished largely with the addition of Andy Pettitte and pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova pitching much better than they did in April. If you look at what has happened to the Rays’ staff the last few days against the Mets, I think you can see that even good pitchers can go through some struggles. It is much better to get them out of the way early and the Yankees starters seemed to have done that. Besides the Yankees, if you can believe it, are not looking to add payroll because of the more stringent salary cap rules that go into effect in 2014. As a result, the Yankees won’t be looking at big-ticket free agents unless they shed a lot of salaries to ckear room. So they only made a token bid on Darvish and they basically ignored Wilson. That will continue for the next three years.

Thank you for your interest in my blog and keep your questions coming.

 

Yankees Look Poised To Take Control Of A.L. East

The New York Yankees have played 33 percent of the season and their record stands just about where it was in 2011 when the Yankees were 31-23. That team ended up winning 97 games to lead the American League. The question is in 2012 can the Yankees reach the same heights with the loss of Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, young right-handed starter Michael Pineda and an offense that seems to sputter with runners in scoring position. Let’s examine how the Yankees have fared.

OFFENSE

Last season the Yankees wielded a powerful offense despite the fact only Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano had what could be called good seasons. Their hope in 2012 was that Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Brett Gardner would join them along with new designated hitter Raul Ibanez, who replaced the retired Jorge Posada.

Instead, the Yankees can actually only point to one hitter who has truly carried the offense throughout the season and that is Jeter. The 37-year-old shortstop has reached the one-third mark with the third-highest batting average in the American League at .336 with six home runs and 20 RBIs.

It is an extension of the way he has hit since he returned from the disabled list last July and it has finally silenced talk throughout Yankee Universe that his productive days were behind him.

The only disappointing part of Jeter’s season is his run scored total of 30. That number points to the problems the Yankees have had in scoring runs this season when they are not hitting home runs.

The team’s batting average with runners in scoring position is atrocious. Jeter leads the team in that category hitting a mere .262. Ibanez is hitting .256. The rest is abysmal: Swisher, .236; Granderson, .222; Teixeira, .218; Martin, .172; Rodriguez, .170; and Cano, .140.

What is manager Joe Girardi to do? Should he bench A-Rod and Cano in favor of Eric Chavez and Jayson Nix? Should he bat A-Rod leadoff because he is hitting .346 with the bases empty and make Jeter the cleanup hitter?

The problem is all Girardi can do is trust that these hitters will begin to hit more like they have in the past and the law of averages will mean the Yankees will start to begin to punish pitchers who dare to load the bases. The Yankees are 9-for-57 (.158) in those situations this season.

The Yankees have also suffered from a dramatic shift in their offense away from speed because Gardner has been on the disabled list since April 19 with a strained right elbow that has been slow to heal. In addition, Eduardo Nunez was sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after he continued to butcher balls so badly fielding he earned the nickname “Eduardo Scissorhands.” With it, Nunez took his 22 steals playing half the time in 2011.

Without Gardner and Nunez, the Yankees are less of a threat on the bases. Rodriguez has six steals and that ties him for the team lead with Nunez, who had six before his demotion on May 11.

The Yankees hope to have Gardner back within a week and it will be a welcome sight. Gardner was hitting .321 when he was injured and he has the ability to spark the offense with his speed. His exceptional Gold Glove-worthy defense in left-field has also been missed.

There are also hopeful signs that Teixeira is coming out his usual early-season struggles at the plate. In his last 10 games, Tex is hitting .351 with four home runs and 12 RBIs. He has abandoned his “put the ball in play” strategy to increase his batting average and gone back to his “swing for production” approach and it appears to be working.

Just don’t expect Teixeira to anywhere near the .308 average he hit in the season before he joined the Yankees. Those days seem to be behind him much like they were for his predecessor Jason Giambi after he left Oakland.

Cano and Rodroguez also are showing signs of life with the bat. Rodriguez has four home runs in his last four games and Cano was hitting .308 on May 26 until a recent 4-for-29 (.138) slide has dropped his average back to .284.

The truth is that the Yankees only will go as far as the productive bats of Cano, Rodriguez and Teixeira take them. If you triple their current numbers, Cano would have 24 home runs and 72 RBIs, Rodriguez would have 27 homers and 66 RBIs and Teixeira would have 27 home runs and 96 RBIs.

Would anyone like to bet the house that those numbers will actually be their final numbers? It would be a fool’s bet, for sure. But they have to start hitting and soon.

Granderson is having a season much like his breakout 2011 season. He has 17 home runs and 33 RBIs. His .261 average is only a point lower than he hit last season. No problem there. But there are some negatives, too.

Granderson has struck out 61 times in 207 at-bats and that translates to 183 strikeouts for a full season. He also has stolen three bases in six attempts. He also has only one triple.

It would be nice to see Granderson elevate his speed game and cut the strikeouts as the season progresses.

Swisher helped carry the offense in April by hitting .284 with six home runs and 23 RBIs. But in May, Swisher suffered a hamstring injury and he has slumped ever since. He hit just .207 in May with two home runs and nine RBIs. With this being his contract year, Swisher has all the motivation in the world to get busy hitting again. Let’s see if he can.

Ibanez, meanwhile, has been a revelation. Only signed to be a left-handed DH, Ibanez has been forced to play left-field in Gardner’s absence and he has done fine there. Ibanez has also contributed nine home runs and 29 RBIs while hitting.252. Gardner’s return should allow him to get some occasional rest at age 40 and it also might help him stay fresh the remainder of the season.

Andruw Jones, the right-handed half of the DH platoon, is off to a slow start similar to his 2011 season. He has five home runs and 11 RBIs and he hitting .233.

The biggest disappointment in the Yankees’ offense this season has been Martin.

Last season, Martin hit 18 home runs and drove in 65 runs despite hitting .237. This season, Martin is hitting a mere .194 and has four home runs and 12 RBIs. With Martin’s defensive gifts behind the plate, it is inconceivable that Girardi would replace him.

But the Yankees have ben spoiled by the offense Posada provided and there are Yankee fans who are still angry that general manager Brian Cashman traded rookie catcher Jesus Montero to the Mariners. To make them even madder, Montero is on a pace to hit 21 home runs and drive in 81 runs with the Mariners this season.

Martin better pick it up and fast. Backup catcher Chris Stewart is hitting .227 with six RBIs catching just once a week.

STARTING PITCHING

The Yankees got tired of hearing that the quality of their starting pitching began and ended with CC Sabathia.

In 2011, they cobbled a starting staff together with retreads like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia and a promising rookie in Ivan Nova and somehow won 97 games and made the playoffs. But they were quickly eliminated to a staff of pitchers that were better in the Tigers.

This season, they ignored the extravagant fixes like C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish and decided instead to sign Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million contract and trade megastar Montero for Pineda. They also re-signed the 35-year-old Garcia after his 12-8 record with a 3.62 ERA.

They were counting on Nova’s continued development after a 16-4 mark and a 3.70 ERA and the return of 25-year-old Phil Hughes, who was throwing with velocity again much like he did in 2010 when he was 18-8 with a 4.16 ERA.

A funny thing happened on the way to the start of the regular season. None of this really worked out as Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild would have hoped.

Pineda showed up to camp this winter overweight by 20 pounds and the velocity on his fastball was down considerably. As spring training unfolded, Pineda never regained the velocity he had last season and after a late spring start he revealed he was pitching with a sore right shoulder.

He underwent surgery to repair a slight tear in his right shoulder and he hopes to return in the early stages of the 2013 season. Scratch Pineda.

The Yankees then hoped Garcia would be able to provide the same ability to keep them in games he showed last season. Unfortunately, Garcia was unable to regain even the modest velocity on his pitches he had last season and he was lit up like bottle rockets at the start of the Chinese New Year.

After four April starts in which he was 0-2 with a 12.71 ERA, Garcia was banished to long relief in the bullpen and there he sits. He has not pitched a game since May 21. Scratch Garcia.

The Yankees big surprise was when 39-year-old left-handed legend Andy Petitte decided to return to the Yankees after one year in retirement. After allowing Pettitte to build up his arm and legs in the minors early this season, Pettitte returned to the majors on May 13.

In his four starts, he is 2-2 with a 3.49 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. By all measures it does not appear that Pettitte has suffered any regression of his abilities when he was idle. After the loss of Pineda for the season and Garcia’s demise, Pettitte has provided some optimism to the Yankees’ rotation.

The rest of the staff has been down early and getting better lately.

Kuroda in six of his 11 starts is 4-1 with a 1.44 ERA. In his other five starts he is 0-5 with a 8.03 ERA. Inconsistency with his command and perhaps having to adjust to a new league has a lot to do with the bad numbers. But, Kuroda is showing signs of improvement since April 24. Since then he is 3-3 with a 3.40 ERA.

The Yankees have hope the 37-year-old right-hander will continue to improve as the season goes along as he adjusts to a much tougher division like the American League East.

Hughes has also shown signs of finding his rhythm after missing most all of 2011 with weakness in his right shoulder.

The 25-year-old right-hander was 1-3 with a 7.88 ERA in April. Since then he is 4-2 with a 3.94 ERA and he is coming off the first nine-inning complete game of his career as he held the Tigers to one run and struck out eight on Sunday. Hughes is beginning to show the form that he showed when he made the American League All-Star team in 2010.

The enigma of the group has been Nova.

When he is good, it seems he gets little support or he gives up a key home run that beats him. When he is shaky, the Yankees score a lot of runs and he wins anyway.

So Nova is 6-2 with a 5.60 ERA. That is a far cry from his 2011 rookie season when he won 13 straight games.

The home-run ball is killing Nova. Last season he gave up 13 in 165 1/3 innings. This season he has given up 13 in 62 2/3 innings.

The odd thing is Nova probably has more electric stuff than any starter apart from Sabathia. The problem is Nova has been unable to harness it. When you can’t command the strike zone you are reduced to throwing fastballs over the plate and fastballs over the plate can end up in the seats.

So the answer to Nova’s troubles might be easily fixed when he begins to harness that command. He struck out 12 Reds in six innings on May 19 but lost because of three-run home run hit by Joey Votto. That is pretty much defined Nova’s odd season so far.

But at age 25, Nova is capable of good things and the Yankees have to trust he will continue to improve as he gets older. As long as Pettitte, Kuroda and Hughes are pitching well, Nova will be given that chance to grow. The alternatives of Garcia or rookie David Phelps or minor leaguers like D.J. Mitchell do not have the same arsenal Nova possesses.

That is why the Yankees have to continue to use him.

Sabathia has been, well, like Sabathia always has been.

At times shaky early in the season, Sabathia is 7-2 with a 3.12 ERA in his last nine starts. He has 74 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings and his WHIP is 1.24.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Sabathia is simply off to another season like his first three with the Yankees in which he 59-23 with a 3.05 ERA. The 31-year-old left-hander is the rock and foundation of this rotation.

He is pitching like it and as long as Pettitte, Kuroda and Hughes provide quality innings behind him, the Yankees should win enough as Nova develops. If they don’t this season is simply doomed to be a pretty bad one for the Yankees. It is just that simple.

BULLPEN

For all intents and purposes the Yankees’ 2012 season should have ended on May 3 when All-Universe closer Mariano Rivera went down in a heap shagging a fly ball on the warning track at Kauffman Stadium.

No doubt about it, losing Rivera was a big blow to the Bronx Bombers.

But Girardi had faith that David Robertson and Rafael Soriano would pick up the slack and the Yankees would be able to carry on without their precious Mo.

However, not more than 12 days later Robertson ended up on the disabled list with a left oblique strain.

Suddenly, the team with the deepest and best bullpen in baseball was no longer as deep or perceived to be as good.

However, Soriano has been successful in all seven of his save opportunities and he is 2-0 with a 1.89 RRA. Those are not too far from Mo numbers so the Yankees still have faith in their bullpen.

Girardi is hoping Robertson is a few weeks away to returning to the team. It is unclear if Robertson will get another opportunity to close. It is more likely he will resume his eighth-inning setup role.

In the meantime, Girardi is getting yeoman work from a mix-and-match righty combination of Cory Wade (2.55 ERA) and Cody Eppley (4.22) and a lefty combination of Boone Logan (2.79) and Clay Rapada (3.86).  Phelps is providing quality long relief (2.94 ERA).

So somehow the Yankees’ bullpen is getting the job done despite the injuries and that is a credit to Girardi and Rothschild.

The long-term prospects for the bullpen also appear bright because the Yankees have a number of possible replacements in the pipeline.

One is David Aardsma, a former Mariners closer who is hoping to return to the majors at around the All-Star break. The Yankees also have sinkerball specialist Mitchell a phone call away at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Mitchell is a starter but his long-term major-league career may translate to the bullpen.

The Yankees are also holding out some hope that Joba Chamberlain may recover from his Tommy John surgery and the horrific ankle injury he suffered this spring to pitch some this season. The jury is out but he insists he is ahead of schedule.

FORECAST

The Yankees are pretty much paddling water like most of the other teams in the American League East.

They stand 1 1/2 games out of first place and they are playing the first-place Rays at home beginning on Tuesday.

That will allow the Yankees to get into position to make a push over the next 54 games. After the Rays they will open their interleague schedule starting against the Mets at home this weekend.

The Yankees have the best interleague record in baseball and this period will give them a chance to press into the lead in the division while pretenders like the Orioles and Jays are poised for a slide downward. The Rays and Red Sox look to be ready to keep pace with the Yankees moving into the summer.

The biggest keys to the Yankees’ success lies in its offense being able to turn itself around and begin to hit with runners in scoring position. The team also must get more consistent pitching from Kuroda, Hughes and Nova behind Pettitte and Sabathia.

The bullpen has held together for now and Girardi must hope it continues to hold up in the absence of Rivera.

If I was a betting man, I would not bet against the Yankees standing atop this division at the the two-thirds mark of the season. There is just too much talent on this roster for it not to start asserting itself.

The Yankees have always been a second-half team. They seem to be able to turn it on in the summer months and steam ahead of the pack. I see this happening again soon. The question is who will be with them.

The Rays, boosted by their pitching, should be one. I am not sure how much steam the Red Sox have but I do know that the Orioles and Jays do not look capable of staying with the big boys.

The Orioles are in a slide already and it appears that the ball is over for this Cinderella. The Jays have struggled all season and their pitching is not capable of keeping them in it over the long haul.

So even with no Mo, the Yankees seem to have enough “mo” (as in momentum) to carry them into the summer.

 

Darvish Fans 10 As Yankees Lay Huge Goose Egg

GAME 17

RANGERS 2, YANKEES 0

Yu Darvish pitched 8 1/3 shutout innings and struck out 10 batters as he and his Texas teammates outdueled Hiroki Kiroda and New York on Tuesday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, TX.

Ian Kinsler hit a solo home run to leadoff the bottom of the first inning and Josh Hamilton added an RBI single after Elvis Andrus drew a two-out walk and stole second in the third inning to give Darvish the only runs he needed.

Darvish (3-0) scattered seven hits and walked two before giving way to Joe Nathan, who induced a double-play grounder on his first delivery to pick up his fifth save.

Kuroda (1-3) gave up only five hits and two walks and fanned five in 6 2/3 innings to take a tough-luck loss.

With the loss the Yankees fell to 10-7. The Rangers improved to 14-4.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • In the “He Can Do It All By Himself” Department, Derek Jeter had a bunt single that loaded the bases in the third and a two-out double in the fifth. That raised Jeter’s season average to .416. On Monday, he became the first Yankee to ever have as many as 30 hits in the team’s first 16 games. He is not only having the best start of his career, he is having the best start of any Yankee, period.
  • Robinson Cano also contributed a leadoff double in the fourth and a one-out single in the sixth. But it did little good because nobody was capable of stepping up and getting a hit to advance or score him. In his last 10 games, Cano is 12-for-40 (.300) with a home run and three RBIs. It has raised his batting average from . 229 to .268.
  • Kuroda deserved a better fate. After pitching horribly against the Twins last week, Kuroda was able to keep the Rangers off balance with his breaking stuff and he only spotted his fastball on the corners or up in the strike zone. He just ended up being outpitched by a his fellow countryman from Ozaka.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • If you want to beat the Yankees, just throw incredibly slow stuff that breaks out of the strike zone. Nine of Darvish’s 10 strikeouts were swinging strikes and eight of the nine came on pitches that were nowhere near the strike zone.  It kind of reminded me of the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the oversized brutes tie themselves in knots while the baseball floats harmlessly into the catcher’s glove.
  • Curtis Granderson gets the “If You Are Just Going To Watch, Buy A Ticket” Award for watching Darvish paint strike three on him on a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded and NO OUTS in the third inning. It was just inexcusable for him not to protect the plate in that situation.
  • Alex Rodriguez was not much better. He followed Granderson with a weak grounder right on the third base bag that Adrian Beltre turned into an inning-ending double play by stepping on third and firing to get Rodriguez at first. Rodriguez was 0-for-4 with a strikeout and three infield grounders. The Yankees were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position so they deserved to lose.

BOMBER BANTER

The exact condition of Michael Pineda’s right shoulder is in doubt still after an MRI dye contrast test was conducted by the Yankees team physician, Dr. Christopher Ahmad, on Tuesday. Apparently, Pineda’s agent has requested a second opinion from the New York Mets team physician. Reading between the lines, this can’t be good news for the Yankees or Pineda. The 23-year-old right-hander has been on the 15-day disabled list since March 31 with what was termed rotator cuff tendinitis. Pineda cut short a bullpen session in Tampa, FL., on Saturday after 15 pitches, citing discomfort in his shoulder.  It is unclear how long Pineda will be sidelined.  . . .  Andy Pettitte will make his third minor-league start on Wednesday for Double-A Trenton in a home game against Erie at 7:05 p.m. EDT. Pettitte, 39, is scheduled to throw 80 to 85 pitches in his effort to return to the Yankees and the major leagues after a one-year absence.  . . .  Manager Joe Girardi announced on Tuesday that Freddy Garcia will pitch on Saturday at home against the Detroit Tigers. That means CC Sabathia will get an extra day’s rest and pitch on Sunday.

ON DECK

The Yankees will try to win the rubber game of their three-game road series against the Rangers on Wednesday.

Right-hander Phil Hughes (1-2, 6.75 ERA) will get the start for the Yankees. Last Thursday, Hughes was tagged for six runs (two earned) on six hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings against the Twins in his last start. However, Hughes is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA against Texas in his career.

The Rangers will counter with spot starter Scott Feldman (0-0, 0.00 ERA), who is coming out of the bullpen to make a start. He is 29-28 with a 4.68 ERA in 80 career starts. But he is just 3-2 with a 4.76 ERA against the Yankees in four starts and two relief outings.

Game-time will be 8:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Blue Jays Pack Punch But Rotation Still Looks Thin

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

PART 2 – TORONTO BLUE JAYS

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

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

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

STARTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BULLPEN

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

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

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

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

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

STARTING LINEUP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BENCH

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

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

ON WEDNESDAY – PART 3  TAMPA BAY RAYS

 

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