Warm and Hopeful Thoughts on a Cold Day

It’s a bitterly cold day here in the Midwest, with the early morning temperature at -1 and the early afternoon reading right now topping out at a whopping 2 degrees.  With the wind chill, it feels like -22.  It’s a good thing that I finished up my Christmas shopping yesterday afternoon, heading out on a cold but manageable day with my daughter, the helpful, witty GLG.  We grabbed a few things for my nieces, had lunch (Mexican, with me destroying a delicious chicken salad with some Caeser dressing and lots of habanero sauce, and GLG working over a veggie fajita platter), then more shopping with everyone covered by day’s end.  It was very productive and lots of fun galavanting around with The Big Kid, whose wit never waned and whose helpfulness was crucial in a couple judgment calls.  She’d make a very good referee–good, quick, and ultimately accurate calls.  With a crackling fire in the fireplace, it’s a very good day to be inside with my Little Guy, a cold one, and the laptop.

Kevin Kernan has an article worth reading in today’s New York Post contending that the Yankees, despite not having yet made him an offer, are very much players in the race for switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira.  Kernan’s rationale is that the Yankees would not upgrade the pitching without addressing the glaring needs still facing an offense that, having scored 789 runs in 2008 (179 fewer than in 2007), ranked 10th in the majors.  This of course says nothing about how poor the Yankees were in the clutch last year, where Teixeira thrived last year–.308/.445, 8 HR, 82 RBIs with RISP, .303/.419, 16 HR, 104 RBIs with men on.  Importantly, these are not anomalies for Teixeira’s six-year career–.324/.442, 63 HR, 442 RBIs with RISP, .298/.402, 109 HR, 582 RBIs with men on.  Teixeira produces, period. He’s also an excellent glove, something the Yankees haven’t had from a regular there since Tino’s tenure as the everyday first baseman ended after the 2001 season, and has only appeared with platoon players–Tony Clark (the ultimate good guy in the clubhouse), John Olerud, Tino in 2005, and Nick Johnson.

We’ve been through this before–discussing and debating the reasons why the Yanks need him.  My gut still tells me that Teixeira will go back to the Angels.  However, should the Yankees land him, it would not only be a tremendous coup and a seismic shift in the AL.  It would also have occurred the opposite from how I surmised it a while back, when I urged the Yankees to make a strong, early play for Teixeira to show earnest interest in the same way that the Yankees did Sabathia, whom the Yankees landed with just such an approach but also a straightforward expression of their long-term plans for acquiring him.  Sam Borden, who wrote for The New York Daily News a few years back before moving on from, then returning to, New York now with The Amsterdam Journal News, provided some excellent quotes and analysis via Pete Abraham’s LoHud blog this past week.  In his missive, Borden relayed how the Yankees ultimately convinced Sabathia to come to New York not only with the richest contract a major league pitcher has ever received, and not only through the crucial recruitment of Johnny Damon and his wife, but also by Brian Cashman’s methodically laying out to Sabathia that the Yankees passed on acquiring ace lefty Johan Santana last off-season in order to push for Sabathia this off-season.  These lengthy excerpts are woth including in their entirety:

Brian Cashman gets (and deserves) a lot of credit for bringing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to the Yankees, but Johnny Damon may have been the Yankees’ biggest recruiter this winter. Amber Sabathia said that Johnny’s wife, Michelle, played a big part in convincing her it was possible to enjoy raising a family in the New York area.

The Damons spent their first two years with the Yanks living in Manhattan, but then moved to the New Jersey suburbs, and Michelle sold Amber on the suburban life.

“She said you’re going to love it,” Amber said. “The schools are good, the pediatricians are good, the supermarkets are good – it’s like a nice little place to live.”

The Sabathias have three kids – CC Jr., age 5; Jaden, age 3; and Cyia, 2-months – but Amber and CC plan to spend some time in Manhattan, too. Amber said their favorite restaurant is Tao – an Asian spot which serves some of the greatest sushi and fragrant duck in the city – and that she is “a Saks’ girl.”

Johnny D was also one of two Yankees to call Burnett (A-Rod was the other) during the offseason, and he gave Burnett the hard sell about coming to the Bronx. Cashman said that Damon – along with Derek Jeter and others – also bent his ear during the season about getting Burnett since he always gave the Yankees such a hard time whenever he pitched against them.
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The first serious conversation about the Yankees getting CC Sabathia didn’t happen this winter. It happened last offseason, when the Yanks were considering whether to trade for and then give an extension to Johan Santana. Knowing that Sabathia was going to be available, the Yanks decided not to give up prospects and money for Santana, and instead “take a gamble,” in Cashman’s words, on getting Sabathia for only money in free agency.

As it turned out, that long-term plan played a big part in Sabathia ultimately accepting the Yankees’ offer. At the final meeting Cashman and Sabathia had at Sabathia’s California home, Cashman laid out exactly how long Sabathia had been on the Yankees’ radar. He told Sabathia and his agents how the Yankees had been targeting him for over a year and explained the entire process behind their decision, in hopes it would show how committed the Yankees were to Sabathia.

“Ten minutes after he left, I called him to tell him I’m in,” Sabathia said. “That really meant a lot to me.”

I plan to blog in the future about Damon’s pivotal role in the Sabathia and Burnett acquisitions–legacies that will dictate the Yankees’ future well beyond Damon’s likely tenure in pinstripes.  The Yankees acquired not only a very good offensive, speedy outfielder but also a prime-time recruiter in Johnny Damon, whose personality may pay big dividends in determining the Yankees’ fate in the coming years not only through his own exploits but also, and vitally, those of the players he helped draw to The Bronx.  Kudos also to A-Rod for being a prominent voice helping to land Burnett, against whom he’s 8-27 but with 9 K’s in their career match-ups–as I recall A-Rod’s big two-run blast off Burnett to help turn a 3-0 deficit into a big 7-6 win September 18, 2006 as a moment of rare success against him.  Yet for now, some things merit further attention in this highly revealing excerpt from Borden. The first is that player recruiting is clearly both a collective and deeply personal exercise.  Damon was central in the recruiting effort for Sabathia and Burnett.  So was Cashman’s conveying to Sabathia that the Yankees not only wanted him, but had for a long time.  It’s one thing for a big contract to illustrate the desire to acquire a big-time free agent pitcher.  It’s another to indicate the comfort a player may have outside the game.  It’s still yet another to convince a player, as the Yankees did Sabathia, that they not only wanted him but have for a while.  It shows deep thought and consideration of what a player like Sabathia means to an organization and not only in his own right, but in comparison to one of the best pitchers of this generation–Santana.  It doesn’t surprise me at all that soon after the meeting, Sabathia expressed his desire to sign with the Yankees.  There’s nothing quite like being truly wanted.

Borden provides additional keen insight, with telling quotes from Cashman, that Sabathia was the right person as well as pitcher for the Yankees below:

Near the end of the Brewers season, when Milwaukee was basically pitching Sabathia every third day, his agents called Brewers GM Doug Melvin a few times. Seems they were worried about how all the extra work might affect Sabathia’s arm, possibly injuring him as he was about to become a free agent. According to Brian Cashman, Greg Genske (the agent) and his associates were saying to Melvin, “Don’t pitch him on three days rest. What are you doing?”

When Sabathia heard about these phone calls, he went into the office the next time it happened and began yelling back at his agents, “Stop calling!”

When the Yankees heard that story, they knew that was the kind of guy they wanted to add to their own team chemistry.

“He put his own situation aside for the team, trying to win a championship even though he hadn’t been there very long,” Cashman said. “That tells you what kind of guy he is. … We’re buying an extreme talent, yes, but we’re also buying an incredible personality in that clubhouse.”

I think I’m going to like this Sabathia guy.

I think the Yankees truly need both Sabathia and Teixeira.  They did the right thing in aiming for and landing the player in Sabathia they also certainly wanted.  I’d be interested to see whether or not the Yankees make a viable offer to Teixeira–with Boston’s reportedly about $23 million per year over eight seasons, thus it’s already as high-rent as Sabathia’s and would need to be more to land him.  Should they push for him, I’m just as interested to see how the Yankees will go about recruiting Teixeira, if they have not already.  Given his efforts thus far, should the Yanks really be in the running for Teixeira, Cashman deserves a lot of trust and patience from Yankees fans in the quest.

Speaking of quests, Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports is reporting that Andy Pettite’s re-signing with the Yankees is “virtually inevitable,” “according to a source with knowledge of the pitcher’s intentions.”  However, Rosenthal also states in his report that Pettite is reticent about taking a pay cut from his $16 million salary for 2007 and 2008.  Perhaps the alleged source knows, as we all do, that Pettite wants to be with the Yankees before all others by far.  I must add that, if Pettite’s reluctance to take a sizeable pay cut is accurate, I wouldn’t exactly consider his re-signing with the Yankees “virtually inevitable.”  In fact, it seems as though the information, taken at face value, is contradictory at best since we do not know the degree to which his re-signing outweighs his qualms about making less money in 2009, or vice versa.  Nonetheless, it does merit watching.  Additionally as discussed before, and after seeing Phil Hughes and Ian E. Neumann implode last season, a veteran with Pettite’s track record and history in the clutch and as a stopper after losses would be a fine pick-up to round out the rotation, likely serving as the number 4 starter to allow Joba–whose stuff merits being closer to the top than the bottom of the rotation–to be skipped, thus cutting down on his innings.  Hughes and Neumann would thus stay sharp, confident, and ready in the event of injury in SWB.

[Edit:  According to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, the Angels are pulling out of the Teixeira sweepstakes, making Yankees fans wonder all the more if this means New York is a (the?) frontrunner for him.  I won’t consider any team actually out of the running for Teixeira until he’s actually agreed to a deal.  This could also be a negotiating ploy.  That said, for those who have long advocated spending the many millions, signing Teixeira would make this an incredible off-season haul for the Yankees, one that has already been bountiful and productive.  Wouldn’t it be something if the Yankees’ refrain, that signing Teixeira wasn’t a realistic possibility, has been nothing but a smokescreen for a play on the coveted first baseman?  We’ll see, and I’m not about to hold my breath.  But this news has surprised me quite a bit, I’ll admit.]

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Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Yankees Game Photos, 4/23/08

Geez, I thought I lost these!  In fact, they were buried in an e-mail, and perhaps good for keeping spirits high this off-season.

The first and only time I got to see Dr. Mussina operate.

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Jorge hanging tough despite a bum shoulder and a cold night.  He also stood tall at the plate, going 4-5 with 3 doubles and 2 RBIs, including one ripped to the center-field wall over Nick Swisher’s head.

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And, of course, as big an event in the whole evening, getting to see the greatest closer and, to me, greatest relief pitcher of all time come in for a five-out save.  From the upper deck behind home plate, we could easily hear Mariano’s cutter blowing the dust off Jorge’s glove, making the save look routine.  Great stuff.

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61 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Published in: on December 15, 2008 at 10:31 pm  Comments (5)  

Yankees Beat Round-Up

Beat writers and baseball pundits today offered some very thoughtful and quite divergent opinions on the Yankees’ landing both CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, all worth reading.  Buster Olney at ESPN.com and Pete Abraham at LoHud seem to be on the same page regarding the Yankees’ patience in landing Sabathia this year instead of Johan Santana last off-season.  Joel Sherman at The New York Post offered a critique that others and I, here and elsewhere, have leveled at those sniveling about the Yankees’ spending and, bringing up the rear end, Mike Lupica of The New York Daily News seems to have pulled an about-face to complain about how much the Yankees have spent after criticizing the Yankees for not acquiring Santana last season.

Olney makes a very good case that the Yankees not only got what and who they wanted by acquiring Sabathia, then Burnett.  The Yankees also happened to do so, according to Olney, not by flouting their professed focus on developing the farm system, but rather by maintaining it.  Instead of trading Hughes and/or Ian E. Neumann to the Twins for Santana, the Yankees will sacrifice a first-round pick to Milwaukee for signing Sabathia–not one of the prized young arms.  By continuing to hoard young talent, Olney proffers, the Yankees continue to approach Boston’s lead in blending veteran acquisitions with home-grown talent.  While the Yankees are still behind the curve and the Red Sox on this, they still have their youngsters in house. As Olney reminds, the Yankees are still due to pare down their payroll from last year, even as they acquired Sabathia and Burnett and threaten to trade [hand rubbing forehead] for Mike Cameron.

I’d add that while various problems beset the Yanks last year, young players are key to the Yankees’ fortunes in 2009. Wang returns from his foot injury and Cano has worked himself into terrific shape while huddling with hitting coach Kevin Long to sharpen his plate approach.  I’d also contend that Brett Gardner as a viable fourth outfielder matters to the Yanks–getting on and stealing, providing excellent defense, and continuing to develop at the plate–all the more since they’re still old.

Abraham seconds Olney when saying that the Yankees retained their young prospects.  This is a big key, for the Mets traded some not only for Santana but also Putz.  Abraham also contends that Santana’s $25 million club option can vest based on incentive clauses.  If so, Santana’s contract would be only $4 million less in total value than Sabathia’s $161 million deal.  Abraham makes a really good point in saying that, should Sabathia stay for seven years, his contract would be more cost efficient than Santana’s given likely market values in several years.  I also like that Abraham was possibly taking an indirect shot at Lupica (though to be clear he didn’t mention any columnists by name), when he said the following on the Yankees’ spending:

Meanwhile it’s amusing to read so many columnists in New York and elsewhere criticizing the Yankees for spending so much money on Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. These are the same people who ripped Cashman for not getting Santana and would have called for his head had Sabathia signed with another team.

I can’t say I agree with every move Cashman has made. But he can’t win. If he spends money, he’s evil. If he doesn’t spend money, he’s foolish. Until baseball changes the rules, the Yankees are playing by the rules.

For the most part, I agree.  The Yankees are playing by the free-agent rules.  They’re also investing hundreds of millions of dollars to substantively improve the team in a crucial area–starting pitching–that drastically hampered their fortunes in 2008.  As Sherman echoes, it’s difficult at best to criticize Cashman and the Yankees for that, especially considering how much the team plugs into the sport.  This excerpt below echoes what Mike and I discussed a couple days ago:

It also is true that the Yanks are the mother lode to the industry: More than $105 million combined in revenue sharing/luxury tax is distributed from the Yanks to other clubs. And though the 30 teams share equally in items such as merchandise sales, MLB.com dollars, and rights fees for radio, TV and international media, does anyone believe there are as many Kansas City Royals jerseys sold as those of the Yankees?

In other words, much of the sport gladly takes the massive dollars generated by the star-driven Yankees with one hand, and then slaps the Yanks with the other hand when the Yanks purchase more stars.

Indeed.  It is something that Frank the Sage and I have also railed against–the pseudo-populism of fans such as the Royals, who staged an anti-Yankees walkout in 1999, yet whose franchise–known or unknown to their fans–accepts millions in revenue-sharing and luxury tax payments from aroudn the league, including and especially from the “big, bad Yankees.” In his excellent piece, Sherman lays bare some little-known or overlooked contradictions for those bashing the Yankees:

Nevertheless, let’s ponder this question: What is more detrimental to baseball, that the Yankees gave a pitching-record contract to the 2007 AL Cy Young winner (CC Sabathia) and likely will have a lower payroll in 2009 than 2008, or that the Padres are working feverishly to trade the 2007 NL Cy Young winner (Jake Peavy) as yet another way to plummet their way to a $40 million payroll and irrelevance?

And, no, San Diego is not doing this to clear cap room for LeBron James in two years. It is doing this because its owner, John Moores, is going through a costly divorce. The Yankees are being criticized because they continue to try to win, and not a word is spoken that the Padres already have surrendered for at least 2009-10.

Exactly.  Exactly.  What is worse for the game and for fans, teams reinvesting cash for top-flight players to rebuild especially with a new stadium opening, or teams routinely holding fire sales ala Connie Mack that give fans no real hope or reason to come to the ballpark, thus accelerating the downward helix for not just teams’ finances but also their fans’ desire to back a winner?  Making money takes investing money, and teams such as San Diego–not a small market, by the way, standing as the eighth-biggest city in America–are all too frequently unwilling to do that.  They want to get by on the cheap, making money from others while holding down salaries–sticking it to many players–thus putting out mediocrity year after year.

This is the kind of sports reporting well worth the price of newspapers in the shrinking but still profitable world of journalism, all the more because Sherman doesn’t end things on a sanguine note, reminding that the Yankees haven’t won since their spending has drastically increased.  Still, I’d prefer the Yankees’ approach to that of the Padres, Royals, or Pirates anyday.  They made substantive improvements to the team and in the right area first and foremost, while not sacrificing the farm system.

Published in: on December 14, 2008 at 7:55 pm  Comments (2)  

Bills Lose 31-27, Fulfilling Their Destiny

Classic Bills loss, yet another in a long line of games given away, this one literally and in a few ways.  Having just taken a 27-24 lead by ramming the ball down the Jets’ figurative throats, and having just stopped the Jets and forced them to punt, the Bills had the chance to run out the clock.  After running thrice for a first down, then for five yards on first down, the Bills out-thought themselves on second and five with about two minutes to go, having backup quarterback J.P. Losman (pronounced “LOSS-man,” fittingly enough) roll out to the right for a pass.  Rather than run the ball as they had successfully most of the day, the Bills tried to pass for a first down, LOSS-man failed to read the pressure, was sacked from behind and fumbled, with the ball eventually ending up in the hands of Jets lineman Shaun Ellis who ran it back for a touchdown, 31-27 Jets.  Having seen more than my fair share of Bills losses, I can personally attest that this was classic, neo-Pisarcik in its embarrassing pointlessness.

LOSS-man now takes his place among Giants QB Joe Pisarcik of the Giants, whose botched hand-off to Larry Csonka against Philadelphia resulted in a Herman Edwards touchdown return and 19-17 loss November 19, 1978–just over 30 years ago, fittingly enough.  I had a bottle of Gouden Carolus Noel ready to uncork in the event of a win, the first I would have actually seen on TV since moving from Western New York to the Midwest over five years ago.  Instead, I told myself as the Bills were ahead, Don’t get too excited.  After all, it’s the Bills, the most inventive team when it comes to finding ways to lose.  They could still blow this.  Sure enough, they came through–like the Hindenburg.  Today, it wasn’t just the embarrassing fumble return for a touchdown.  It was that the Jets scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, coming from behind to win, without recording a single first down. It is perfectly fitting for the Bills, who held the ball for 15 consecutive minutes from the first into the second quarter against the Jets in Buffalo back on November 2, yet not only didn’t score a point but were outscored 7-0 during that stretch on an interception return for a touchdown, leading to a 26-17 loss.

That’s my cross to bear–being a Bills fan.  Back to the days of the mid-1980s, when the Bills had a worse record but lost in similarly ignominious fashion on a weekly basis.  Enjoy, Tim the Wizard.

Thank God for the Yankees.

Published in: on December 14, 2008 at 3:16 pm  Comments (5)  

Old-Style NBA Offense; New Arms = Some Optimism

Today is the 25th anniversary of the highest-scoring NBA game in history, Detroit’s 186-184, triple-overtime victory over Denver.  It was a different era–short shorts, early mullets, high socks, and run-and-gun basketball.  What a hoot, and it was showing on NBA.TV today. Playing in a hall-full McNichols Arena, Isiah Thomas poured in 47, John Long 41, Kelly Tripucka 35 in the win, with Kiki Vandeweghe scoring 51, Alex English 47, and Old Man Dan Issel 28 in a losing cause.  That’s 123 points among three Pistons, 126 among three Nuggets.  The game was tied at 74 at halftime, 145 at the end of regulation, 159 each after the first OT, and knotted at 171 after the second OT.  Remarkably, Detroit had only one 3-point basket, Thomas’s three to tie the game at 159.  For Thomas, this helped atone for his going 10-19 from the free throw line, part of a dreadful evening from the stripe for the Pistons, who went a dismal 37-60 as a team. To no small degree, Detroit sent themselves to such a long night with their free throw futility, yet in the process provided one of the most entertaining basketball games of all time.

This game also culminated a tough West Coast road trip for Detroit, which had lost three straight to Golden State, Portland, and Seattle, averaging 129.3 points allowed in those losses.  Detroit played like a team desperate for a win and bleeding points all at once, finally pulling out the win after 63 minutes.  Each team had its tongues hanging out, with players doubled over throughout.  I remember reading all about this game many moons ago, and was thrilled to finally watch it this afternoon. It reminded me of the heart-stopping, thoroughly energizing 34-31 Bills win in San Francisco in Week 2 of the 1992 season, with the teams combining for 1,086 total yards in the first puntless game in NFL history. Great offenses that would not be denied. Classic.

I share the skepticism with other fans about A.J. Burnett and his huge contract.  It’s too long and too expensive, giving a talented, hard-throwing but oft-injured pitcher a huge contract.  That this occurs on the heels of the Pavano bust, another former Marlins righty with a history of injury issues.  Burnett’s health is a significant issue on which the Yankees are banking plenty.  Yet, as Alex Belth said in a very good post at Bronx Banter, there is some reason for optimism.  Burnett “really does have STUFF,” as Belth says.  He has blazing stuff, and can either blow top-flight batters away with the gas or embarrass them with the bender.  He’s less consistent and surely never as stellar, but he has to remind some of those who witnessed the great lefty of Sandy Koufax, with his a bility to embarrass in myriad ways.  He just needs to be healthy, a big if on which the Yankees have staked tens of millions over the next five years.  But the foursome thus far–CC, Wang, Burnett, and Joba with Pettite or Sheets looming–looks very imposing.  Should Pettite sign, likely for a pay cut, it would mean that opponents would face two hard-throwing righties and a lefty each series.  I’d take that any day.  It makes me feel optimistic–though still a bit guarded–about the staff for a change, and would allow Hughes, Aceves, and Ian E. Neumann to mature at and be ready from SWB.

Importantly, and drawing upon an interesting conversation begun on a previous post, the Yankees have done much to restock the staff to compete with Tampa Bay and Boston.  Taking the AL champion Rays first, Price will likely join Shields (14-8, 3.56 ERA, 215 IP, 160 K, 1.153 WHIP), Garza (11-9, 3.70 ERA, 184 2/3 IP, 1.240 WHIP) , and Kazmir (12-8, 3.49 ERA, 166 K, 152 1/3 IP, 1.267 WHIP) on the staff, with Sonnanstine the fifth starter.  Turning 24 next August, Price was very good in his short stint late in the season before a sterling post-season, allowing one earned run, four walks, and eight strikeouts in 5 2/3 October innings.  That’s a very good rotation, with the Rays sporting a young, talented staff on the upswing. To me, the question among those is Sonnanstine–whether or not the 2009 Sonnanstine will be closer to his 2007 version (6-10, 5.85 ERA) than to last year’s ascent (13-9, 4.38 ERA).   I can’t help but think that, without overpowering stuff, he won’t retreat to those 2007 numbers but will struggle to reach his 2008 performance.

In fact, Sonnanstine is among several pitchers–some of whom are still young and with their futures to be determined–who had drastically different or peak seasons last year.  In the bullpen, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, and Grant Balfour all pitched way above themselves, making me think that the Rays won’t find it easy to again win 97 games.  If they do or approach that, I’d be very surprised if it were the same way as they did last year.  It could well be that the Rays found a way to reach these pitchers, to get the most out of them and instill confidence into players whose combined major-league ERA each season was more often over 5 as it was under.  Wheeler has either been very good or very bad, and last year was very good.  Howell had success after the move to the bullpen, while Balfour has been in and out of the majors, never with an ERA under 4.15 before last year.  Not to be lost is the fact that Percival, while a very good pickup for his leadership as well as his performance as a solid closer (2-1, 4.53 ERA, 27 BBs, one bad month from August 14 to September 10 when he allowed 8 ER, but only 9 ER the rest of the season) was again hurt and missed the post-season.  Do the Rays actually think that Wheeler (6.23 ERA last post-season) is an adequate replacement as closer?  I don’t.  In essence, while the Rays staff looks potentially imposing, I seriously question the degree to which the Rays’ bullpen of retreads, as currently composed and without Price, can duplicate their outstanding 2008. The real test for any team striving to win and improve is following up a very good season with another.  It’s just not easy to do and requires a combination of factors. With a top-notch rotation and a deep bullpen, the Yankees can go toe-to-toe with Tampa.

How Tampa scores runs in 2009 will also bear watching.  Pena (31 HRs, 102 RBIs, .247/.377/.494, 166 K’s) and Longoria (27 HRs, 85 RBIs, .272/.343/.531, 122 K’s) supplied most of the offense, which may improve with the continuing maturity of Upton, his and Crawford’s return to health, and if the Rays sign Giambi.  Yet I believe the Rays must improve offensively, for they would be hard pressed to win in 2009 as they did in 2008.  The team scored 774 runs last season, 13th in the majors, but was only 21st in batting average at .260.   It was 25th in all of baseball with a .257 average with men on (15 points behind the Yanks in 14th), 28th in the majors with RISP at .249 (12 points behind the 17th-place Yanks), and a dismal .232 (23rd) with RISP, two outs while the Yanks were actually second at .268. The Rays won with timely hitting and very good pitching.  Getting such pitching again is possible but will be a challenge.  If the Rays’ pitching slips somewhat, good luck winning again with such low clutch hitting statistics as a team.  One could reasonably expect more from Upton and Crawford, both of whom should be healthy while Upton should be closer to his excellent 2007 (24 HRs, 82 RBIs, .300/.382/.508,65 BBs, 154 K’s) than last year’s [likely injury-related] dips (9 HRs, 67 RBIs, .267/.383/.401, 97 BBs, 134 K’s).  Upton was outstanding against Boston in the ALCS.

Yet will Navarro hit near .300 next year (.295 in 2008)?   Will Matt Joyce, whom the Rays acquired for pitcher Edwin Jackson and who will be 25 next August, be a good everyday right fielder? If not, will Tampa get such production by committee again from multiple right fielders?  I for one have been–rightly I believe– preoccupied with what holes the Yankees have to fill, in what facets they need to improve.  Upon reflection, especially after the preliminary agreements with Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees stack up quite well in some areas, with the Rays having their own issues for 2009.  Add to the list that the Rays, for the first time in their brief and mostly ignominious history, have the bulls-eye on their collective back.  They’re the targets.  Teams are now responding to and gunning for them, with the Yankees compiling most of what will be an excellent rotation to try to match the Rays and others.  Can the team handle heightened expectations and competition?

What say you?

Published in: on December 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm  Comments (1)  

ESPN: Yankees to Sign Burnett

According to “a baseball source,” Jerry Crasnick of ESPN is reporting that the Yankees’ stockpiling free-agent starting pitching continues with A.J. Burnett and the Yankees agreeing to a preliminary agreement for five years, $82.5 million.  While I am enamored with neither the length nor the cost of the contract, this is a good signing for a few reasons.  Burnett, if healthy, will be very good and has done fairly well with Toronto in the very tough AL East.  Consider also that Pettite, making $16 million per year for the last two years with the Yankees (turning 35 in 2007 and 36 in 2008), went 29-23, 4.29 ERA, 1.419 WHIP in those two years.  Can Burnett be expected to meet or exceed those numbers, averaged over 5 years?  If healthy–there’s that caveat that will likely become a hackneyed mantra over the next several years–he certainly should.

Burnett is also turning 32 in a month.  Last year, he was 18-10 with a 4.07 ERA, 1.342 WHIP in 34 starts.  In his three years with the Jays, he was 38-26, 3.94 ERA, 1.284 WHIP.  His stuff is just electric–high 90s fastball, wicked curve and slider, and he’s good at keeping batters on their heels.  His problem has obviously been staying healthy.  Yet if there is a flip-side to his oft-interrupted, injury-plagued career, it’s that he doesn’t have a ton of wear-and-tear from innings.  Though the clear counter-question is whether or not he can handle the innings load, and the speculation of wear-and-tear from injuries, I still think there is something to be said about the reduced innings load in his first 10 years–1,376 1/3 IP, including 951 2/3 in the last five years.  Take those last five years, two with Florida and three with Toronto–851 2/3 IP, 57-44, 836 K’s in 133 appearances/132 starts–and add about 100 innings, some starts, and some wins.  I for one would take that during his contract with the Yankees–about 190 IP/season average, 30-32 starts on average, and about a K an inning, and Burnett will probably win 15-18 games per year.

Again, the question is health.  The Yankees have essentially bet that Burnett will be healthy often enough to be very effective, to strengthen the top of the rotation, and to throw some serious power and heat at opponents for at least 30 starts a year.  Mike Sommer (The Sommer Frieze, please read and thank me later) says that his friend Josh Imboden likes the flame throwers.  By and large, so do I.  A pitcher who has the heavy gas and good, tricky off-speed stuff is my kind of pitcher.  That’s in good part why, despite some concerns about his contract and injury track record, I like the Burnett signing quite a bit.  Thus far, here is the rotation: Sabathia, Wang, Burnett, Joba, and possibly Pettite, Lowe, or Sheets.  That’s one hell of a starting four assured, and any of those would make it a top-notch five, no two ways about it.  Personally, I’d put Wang as a #2 with no disrespect to Burnett, but rather to contrast Wang’s nasty, heavy sinker with Sabathia’s lefty heat and slider before him, and Burnett’s heat/curve/slider afterward.  It’s also acknowledging the fact that Wang is nothing less than 54-20, 3.79 ERA, 1.293 WHIP in his 97 starts over four years with the Yanks.  That’s excellent #2 stuff, and he or Burnett can fill that role.  To me, it should be Wang.  If it’s Burnett, I won’t lose much sleep.  That Sabathia, Wang, and Burnett are the top 3, with Joba and another good arm looming, makes me thrilled that the Yankees will throw a rotation at opponents that gives the Yankees a better than decent chance to win every series this year.

Health is the key, and would be regardless of Burnett’s eventual signing.  But this is another very good sign the Yankees mean business, reinvesting the cash from the payroll to restock the staff.  Tell me that landing CC and Burnett in a couple days doesn’t drastically change the complexion of the AL East.  Tell me also that signing him and CC hasn’t brought smiles to Yankees fans everywhere.  There’s still the need to improve the offense, to me.  But that staff, including a significantly improved bullpen in 2008, have me thrilled that the Yankees can win close, low-scoring games as well from the mound.  That’s invaluable.

Published in: on December 12, 2008 at 5:21 pm  Comments (9)  

Mets Land (Whadda) Putz

Last night, the Mets landed a set-up guy for K-Rod, pulling off a three-team deal with the Mariners and Indians to bring JJ Putz to Queens.  That’s a heck of a bullpen tandem, with Putz an excellent closer going to set up for K-Rod.  A big improvement in an enormous problem area for the Mets, who gave up outfielder Endy Chavez, pitcher Aaron Heilman, and three minor leaguers for Putz, reliever Sean Green, and outfielder Jeremy Reed.

Published in: on December 11, 2008 at 8:44 am  Comments (2)  

Daily News, ESPN: Yankees to Deal Melky for Cameron

In the immortal words of that great 20th-century thinker Charlie Brown, good grief.  According to Mark Feinsand of The New York Daily News, the Yankees will reportedly deal Melky to the Brewers for Mike Cameron.  While the Yankees will have found their center fielder for now, why is it that a good deal of me feels that the Yanks will have re-acquired Tony Womack but with power?

While I was sour on Melky, I don’t like this trade for various reasons.  Yes, Cameron steadily hits for power, averaging 20 homers a year over his 12 full-time seasons from 1997 to 2008.  He’s also good for 25-30 doubles, while stealing a high percentages (78.5%) of bases in those 12 years (289 out of 368, about 24 a year).  Not bad, especially for a guy who will turn 36 in a month.  Of course, there’s the likelihood that his productivity stayed high through his use of banned substances, for which he was suspended the first 25 games last season.  He’s also a good center fielder who can play a big center-left center in Yankee Stadium, and his right-handed bat (career .266 against lefties) should help to even out what has been a lefty-heavy lineup in recent years.  Some positives, yes.

However, his average has steadily declined from mediocre (high .260s to a career high of .273 in 2005, and that is not a typo), with him hitting all of .242 and .243 the last two seasons.  Worse, he had only one season with fewer than 100 strikeouts, and that was in 2005 when he only played 76 games, fanning 85 times.  In his 12 full-time years, he’s averaged 135 strikeouts a season.  Again, it’s not as though he hits 40 homers a year.  Last season, he hit 25 in 120 games, not bad, but he fanned 142 times.  He draws a decent amount of walks, enough to keep his OBP in the low-to-mid .300 range (.340 OBP career), but that’s not exactly setting it afire, either.  Thus, how exactly does Cameron’s fairly undisciplined style fit into the Yankees’ normally patient approach?

They must have figured that Melky’s poor habits and on-field regression were either irreversible or not worth the effort, for they traded a younger player, also good in the field, whose productivity was surely lower but whose average was slightly higher than Cameron’s.  I’m not implying that Melky would have either had a bounce-back year, or would have matured into a Cameron-type player less prone to fanning.  Melky might become good and mature, or not.  My point is just that the Yanks just acquired a player who will do some things well for them, but who brings significant limitations that, as of now, will only exacerbate trends we saw–particularly last year–that need strong remedy.

I’m trying to stay positive after the pending CC deal.  Though this doesn’t ruin it, it’s testing my patience too soon after that good news yesterday.  Trading for Cameron will have me shaking my head periodically all day, in no small part because I still want Gardner to have the chance to play and mature, and not into a faster Bubba Crosby.

Published in: on December 11, 2008 at 8:34 am  Comments (15)  

ESPN: Yankees and Sabathia “Very Close” to Deal

Jayson Stark is reporting that the Yankees’ willingness to add a seventh year to the offer to CC Sabathia has left “zero major road blocks” to landing Sabathia.  The seven-year deal would be for a total of $160 million, by far the biggest ever for a pitcher.  Clearly, this is the biggest move yet in the off-season, with the Yanks instantly moving back into serious contention in the deep, competitive AL East.  The rotation with two spots left to fill is CC, Wang, and Joba–three guys I’d take in a playoff series, Ahem, with the possibility of landing Sheets for a two-year deal, signing Beckett or Lowe, and/or re-signing Pettite for a year.  Immediately, those three, whether or not they constitute the putative “top of the rotation,” make a formidable trio for anyone facing the Yanks.  As Mike said in a brief but spirited chinwag on the horn this morning, teams entering Yankee Stadium will likely face at least two top-flight starters in a three-game series.  Considering that the Yankees are not done in the free-agent market and with any kind of improved offense, they have the makings of a staff who can go toe-to-toe with anyone.

That’s certainly what the Yankees and we as fans expect, as Buster Olney reminds in a very good blog.   Such a staff as the Yankees will assemble, when healthy, will give the Yankees a chance to win every time out.  Sabathia provides an alpha starter, a tough lefty who can help shut down the short porch in right, get hitters facing the biggest part of the park in left center and center, and match up with any ace.  CC will be an enormous lift.  Count on it also opening things for other free agents, with the so-called pattern being set for other free agents, downward but with no shortage of largess to go around.  The Yankees need one more pitcher, and word of a two-year, $30 million offer to Sheets would be just right–short-term for the Yankees, lots of money to Sheets who could have two unusually healthy, typically productive years to help a team but also himself get another good and maybe longer-term deal afterward.

Today’s one of those great Midwest days in December–cold and windy but without a cloud in the sky.  These are the kinds of days that get me thinking positively and about possibilities.  It probably would have anyway, but the likely signing of Sabathia has that vibe flowing all the more this morning.

[Edit: From what I’ve read at LoHud, this deal includes an opt-out clause after 2011, about which I’m not thrilled.  However, if he likes NY and thrives on the field, why leave?  The Yankees have given him gobs of money, and there are plenty of places nearby for him to reside in peace and comfort.  I’m not too worried about the opt-out, and Cashman must have felt it necessary to get the deal done.  He’ll likely only opt out if his market value is high, in which case he will have been performing quite well in pinstripes.  OK by me, and I’m not worried much about it right now.]

Published in: on December 10, 2008 at 10:17 am  Comments (15)  

Joe Gordon Elected to the Hall of Fame; New NBA Golden Age?

It’s been a busy day.  I had some work to do around spending time with my son, who has been sick with the flu and a fever.  He awoke in the middle of the night vomiting in his bed, then awoke this morning with more of the same in the bathroom.  Poor little guy, all with a fever over 102.  He’s been either in front of the tv crashed, or spending some time on the computer or in his Dad’s arms.  It wasn’t a bad day to be home sick.  After a cold week last week, with morning temperatures in low single digits, it warmed up but to the tune of freezing rain, leaving the local roads a grid of narrow skating rinks, like frozen canals in Denmark or Holland only not as tasteful.

When I got home this afternoon, I was pleased to see on ESPN.com, then via e-mail from Mike Sommer at The Sommer Frieze, that the Veterans Committee elected the great Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon to the Hall, with the great Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds missing out on a trip to the Hall of Fame by a mere one vote.  I’m almost as disappointed about Reynolds (182-107, 3.30 ERA, six-time all-star, two no-hitters in 1951 including a 1-0 classic against Bob Feller of the Indians 7/12/51) as I am excited about Gordon, and Mike and I both touted the deserving Reynolds as well.  The second baseman spent most of his time with the Yankees, from 1938 to 1946 (missing 1944-1945 due to the war), during which he was the MVP in 1942.  Blessed with more power than most second basemen before recent decades, Gordon amassed 253 HRs, 975 RBIs, .268/.357/.466, drove in more than 100 runs four times (3 as a Yankee), was a nine-time All Star, won five rings (four with the Yankees), and began batting seventh on some powerhouse teams such as the 1938-1941 Yankees.  It’s about time, and Reynolds should be next given his accomplishments and centrality to the 1947-1953 great Yankees dynasty.

Watching Boston, Cleveland, and the Lakers run away from the rest of the league in the first quarter of the NBA season has me thinking, or perhaps more appropriately dreaming, of the kind of franchise intensity that the NBA saw from 1980 onward, with the Celtics, Sixers, and Lakers driving each other to tremendous heights, accomplishments, and frenetic games and playoff series.  I say this not to disparage the great rivalries of the 1960s and 1970s but, to me, the golden age of professional basketball truly began in 1980.  The Celtics and Sixers battled in the same division and for the opportunity, except for Houston in 1981 and 1986, to play the Lakers for the title every year from 1980 through 1987–an incredible eight years of some of the best basketball ever.  The games were always up tempo and very physical.  Just as importantly, the teams pushed each other all year, with occasional teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks of the early to mid 1980s, and later the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls, providing new and equally intense rivalries in the East to determine a finalist.

I think the NBA  this season is shaping up similarly to those great years and, with the changes made and not made, 2008-2009 has the chance to rival the great 1980s.  At 20-2, Boston the defending champion is winning games against good teams in lopsided fashion, especially at home, allowing their older roster to rest in many fourth quarters while getting younger and bench players the opportunity to shore themselves with the departures of James Posey and PJ Brown.  Crucially, the Celtics have witnessed the blossoming of Rajon Rondo, who is becoming difficult to control at the point and on the drive as he also sharpens his mid-range jumper.  Averaging just over 10 a game, Rondo has become a very good, reliable distributor as well as a good backcourt rebounder.  The better he becomes, the easier it gets for the big three of Pierce, KG, and Allen.  They also need Rondo all the more without as solid and well-rounded a bench as they had rolling into the playoffs last year.

The Lakers (17-2) made a very good move when the decided to bring Lamar Odom off the bench in favor of size up front in Gasol at power forward, and a healthy Andrew Bynum at center.  The Celtics were sharper but also much more physical than the Celtics in last year’s NBA Finals, with the one-and-done Game 6 clincher in the Garden probably convincing the Lakers’ brain trust that they needed to be able to bang with the Celtics to compete.  As with Rondo, the more Bynum develops, the easier it becomes for Kobe.  Plus, a quasi-“Twin Tower” approach affords them the chance to have a big man in the game most of the time, to avoid the worst of front-line foul trouble most nights, and to diversify the offense away from being exceedingly reliant on Kobe.

Not to be overlooked, the 17-3 Cavaliers are a bit more (perhaps too?) reliant on guard play than either the Celtics or Lakers, but have in LeBron one of the two best players in the game (with Kobe), have a healthy Big Z Ilgauskas, and have a good bench with Varejao, Daniel Gibson, and Szczerbiak playing key roles.  They lack offensive firepower up front, and that may hurt them against the Celtics, but their defense is tight, and their guard play might be the deepest.  LeBron has a ton to do with that, playing multiple roles of scorer, distributor, and young leader.

Think the parallel between now and the heyday of the 1980s isn’t an apt analogy?  Perhaps not yet, but check out the records of the Sixers, Celitcs, and Lakers on this date in the 1982-1983 season, when the Sixers eventually won the big one, sweeping the Lakers in the NBA Finals: Sixers 17-3, Celtics 16-4, Lakers 15-5.  They were far and away the best of the league that year, and the class of the NBA throughout the first half of the 1980s–just as the Celtics, Lakers, and Cavaliers of today.

We’ll see if the first decade of the new millenium witnesses the re-emergence of a dominant triumvirate of teams over a span of several years.  We could only be so lucky, and the start to this season has me summoning up fond memories of Bird versus The Doc versus Magic, Kareem versus Parish versus Moses Malone/Darrly Dawkins/Caldwell Jones, DJ, Mo Cheeks, and Cooper, McHale and Worthy, Byron Scott and Andrew Toney–ahhh, the gold ol’ days.  May they return.

Published in: on December 8, 2008 at 7:47 pm  Comments (5)