Pedroia: Cano’s the MVP

    Monday, September 27, 2010, 3:05 PM [General]

    NEW YORK – The former Most Valuable Player looked like the injured kid on the playground who had been left out of another game. With his left foot in a cast and crutches by his side, Dustin Pedroia sat in the third base dugout at Yankee Stadium and watched. He hates watching. He would rather play.

    While Pedroia can’t play baseball, he can talk baseball. Since Pedroia won the MVP two years ago for the Red Sox and has done a lot of watching lately, I wanted to know who he thinks has been the most valuable player in the American League. He responded in 1.2 seconds.

    “It has to be Robbie, you would think,” Pedroia said. “Doesn’t it have to go to him?”

    Robinson Cano, Pedroia’s counterpart as the Yankees’ second baseman, is having a memorable season that might end up as an MVP season. Derek Jeter is hitting 50 points below his career average, Alex Rodriguez missed games with leg injuries and misplaced his home run swing for long stretches and Mark Teixeira took almost two months before producing consistently. But Cano has been the anchor in the lineup.

    As the other marquee Yankees have sputtered, Cano hasn’t experienced many droughts. He is hitting .318 with 28 homers and 105 runs batted in, robust numbers for a second baseman. Cano, who has also excelled defensively, had better numbers before the All-Star break (.336, 16, 58) than after the break (.295, 12, 47). But Pedroia lauded Cano for being a slick fielder and the most consistent hitter on a team that leads the Major Leagues in runs.

    “He would get my vote for MVP,” Pedroia said. “I’d like to see another second baseman get it.”

    If Josh Hamilton of the Rangers didn’t fracture two ribs, there probably wouldn’t be a debate about who should win the award. Hamilton is batting .361 with 31 homers and 97 runs batted in and is one of the primary reasons the Rangers won their first division title since 1999. But Hamilton has only played two games in September and isn’t expected to play again until the last few games of the season.

    Can someone who barely played in the final month of the season be the MVP? Hamilton was the best player in the AL before getting injured and helped put the Rangers in a commanding position to reach the postseason. Hamilton hit .421 against Boston this season and Pedroia talked as if every hit left a bruise.

    “That wasn’t MVP stuff,” Pedroia said. “That was Hall of Fame stuff.”

    According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no position player who played fewer than 10 games in September (excluding strike seasons) has ever won the MVP. Pedroia noted how Carlos Quentin of the White Sox was the favorite to win the award in 2008, but Quentin broke his wrist and missed the last 26 games. Pedroia (.326, 17 homers, 83 RBIs) swooped in and won the MVP over Quentin, who hit .288 with 36 homers and 100 RBIs.

    “It stinks for Josh that he hasn’t played the last month,” Pedroia said. “It’s really tough.”

    Besides Cano and Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera (.328, 38, 126) of the Tigers and Jose Bautista (.264, 52, 118) of the Blue Jays are also candidates for the MVP. When I mentioned those players to Pedroia, he said it would be difficult for them to win because their teams haven’t been contenders. Joe Mauer, who was the 2009 MVP for the Twins, has had a good, but not great season. He is batting .331 with nine homers and 74 RBIs.

    Cano added to his MVP candidacy by slapping a game-tying, run-scoring single off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning on Sunday. The Yankees won, 4-3, in 10 innings, which was their biggest victory of the season because it lowered their magic number to one and allowed them to exhale. All the Yankees need is one more win to secure a postseason berth.

    A few hours before Cano’s hit, I told him that Pedroia thought he was the MVP.

    “That’s cool to hear that a guy you play against thinks you’re the MVP,” Cano said. “That’s really nice. That’s a great thing.”

    Although the debate about Hamilton’s vacant September and how it will impact MVP voting will be intense, Cano said that injuries show that players “are human.” Cano cited how Mauer missed a month last year and still won the MVP Of course, Mauer missed the first month of the season. Voters scrutinize April much differently than September. Still, the MVP chatter doesn’t consume Cano.

    “It’s out of my hands,” Cano said. “It’s not something I can worry about.”

    Cano stressed that he was much more concerned about the Yankees winning than about the possibility of winning an MVP. Two writers from each AL city will vote for the award. Pedroia’s vote for Cano was symbolic, but it was meaningful to Cano.

    “If you see him,” Cano said, “tell him I said thank you.”

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    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Jeter has no intention of hanging on

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010, 2:17 PM [General]

    It took me 20 minutes to find the notebook that included an unused Derek Jeter interview. I knew the notebook was in my home office, but I didn’t know it was buried beneath several more old notebooks, a book about how to win at blackjack and a compact disc player. Yes, a CD player.

    I searched for the notebook because Jeter’s disappointing performance this season reminded me of a conversation we had six months ago. On a random morning in Tampa, Fla., I asked Jeter about the future. Jeter didn’t want to discuss being in the final year of his contract with the Yankees so I asked him about the years beyond 2010. Just how long does Jeter want to play?

    “As long as I’m having fun, I’m going to keep playing,” Jeter said. “Why would you put limitations on yourself?”

    That was a typical response from Jeter, who oozes with confidence on his worst day. Jeter’s ability to keep things simple is a trait that other players wish they had. Baseball is a grind, a draining game that can became tougher when the mind is cluttered. Jeter eliminates the clutter. In 2010, the clutter has multiplied because Jeter has deteriorated into a .264 hitter.

    But, back in March, Jeter was a linchpin player who was five months removed from a season where he batted .334 and helped the Yankees win another World Series title. As Jeter pulled his knee guards and sliding pants out of his locker, he stressed why he intended to keep going and going.

    “I don’t feel,” he said, “like I’m hanging on.”

    At the time, Jeter’s words were innocuous. He was right. He wasn’t hanging on. But, as Jeter struggled this season, I thought about those words. Jeter has been late on too many fastballs and has been fooled by too many breaking pitches, the signs of a hitter who is guessing. For the first time in his glorious career, Jeter has heard a consistent buzz about whether he is hanging on. That’s why I needed to find my notebook and revive my interview. Suddenly, Jeter’s words weren’t innocuous anymore.

    On the night where the Yankees honored George Steinbrenner with a massive monument at Yankee Stadium, Jeter slapped two hits in an 8-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Jeter punched a single past Matt Garza in the sixth inning to deliver the go-ahead run on Monday. It wasn’t a thing of beauty and it barely sneaked past the infielders, but it worked. Curtis Granderson followed with a three-run homer.

    When manager Joe Girardi has been asked about shifting Jeter from the first or second spot in the lineup, he has dismissed the question. Girardi has been publicly supportive of Jeter, hoping that he will prove the manager right, a la Mark Teixeira. The Yankees are still waiting, still hoping.

    Since Jeter was benched for a game against the Texas Rangers on September 11 and had a 300-swing tutorial with Kevin Long, the batting coach, he is 11-for-33 with five walks, five runs batted in and seven runs scored in eight games. Long worked with Jeter on adjusting the movement of his left leg, the front leg that Jeter uses as a timing mechanism, so that the leg moves forward and gives him a clearer path to the ball. That adjustment should also help Jeter have a better chance against inside pitches.

    While the adjustments have helped Jeter be more productive, it is a testament to how much he has struggled that an encouraging eight-game stretch is even being evaluated. Jeter has always been a player the Yankees could depend on, especially in October. The Yankees must hope that Jeter’s 2010 postseason will resemble his other postseasons, not his 2010 regular season. Jeter has a .313 average, a .383 on base percentage, 175 hits and 20 homers in 138 postseason games.

    If Jeter has another superb postseason, the questions about the regular season won’t seem as loud or as pertinent. Six months ago, Jeter didn’t dispute the notion that he would like to play three or four more years. He did mention that he won’t “watch baseball” after he retires.

    No baseball? Not even an occasional game? I asked Jeter how he was going to avoid watching baseball if he had plans to eventually own a team.

    “If I own a team,” he said, “I’ll be watching those games.”

    But, in Jeter’s world, those days are in the future, the distant future. Jeter still believes he has a lot of playing, not some hanging on, to do.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Yanks, Rangers flawed, but on course to meet in October

    Friday, September 10, 2010, 3:55 PM [General]

    Your favorite team always has the most question marks and the most flaws. Why? Because you analyze your team more than you scrutinize the opponents. You know more about your team than you know about any other team. It is natural to fret.

    When Yankee fans lament the status of their team, I often tell them exactly what I wrote in the first paragraph. Study the full landscape. Every team has problems, but fans typically believe that their team has more problems than anyone else. That’s not always true, especially with the Yankees. Still, I don’t blame fans for worrying. That’s one of the prerequisites for being a fan.

    As the Yankees prepare to begin a three-game series against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, on Friday night, I wondered what it must be like to be a Rangers’ fan these days. The Rangers are having a stellar season and, despite a recent drought, they should win the American League West. If the Rangers win the division, they will make their first postseason appearance since 1999.

    While a division title would definitely be a reason to celebrate, I’m certain there are Rangers fans that are nervous about what might happen after that. Cliff Lee, who was supposed to be a savior, has a stiff back and hasn’t pitched since August 31. Lee is scheduled to start on Sunday, but the Rangers won’t know if he is healed until he actually works deep into games.

    “He threw a bullpen today and had no issues,” said Jon Daniels, the Rangers’ general manager on Thursday night. “He’s set to go on Sunday.”

    Imagine how chaotic it would be in Yankeeland if CC Sabathia had a stiff back? There wouldn’t be enough sports talk radio stations to handle the panicky calls. Lee, who is 2-5 with a 4.69 earned run average since the Rangers acquired him from the Seattle Mariners, is the pitcher who is expected to at least match Sabathia if Texas and New York meet in the Division Series. But will Lee be healthy enough to do that?

    Lee exacerbated the situation by not immediately telling the team that his back was bothering him. The Rangers have had a comfortable lead so it would have been sensible for Lee to be honest about his pain and to have more time to be ready for the post-season. Nolan Ryan, the Rangers’ president and owner, told The Dallas Morning News that he was “disappointed” with Lee’s behavior.

    When Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, failed in his attempt to acquire Lee from the Mariners, he explained why he would have been willing to trade Jesus Montero, the organization’s top prospect.

    “There are a few elite pitchers who you expect to win every time they go out there,” Cashman said. “Cliff Lee is one of them. CC is one of them, too.”

    As of today, Sabathia is still one of those pitchers. But Lee, who was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA for the Phillies in the 2009 postseason and beat the Yankees twice in the World Series, isn’t one of them right now. Lee has to prove he can be that premier pitcher again or the postseason will get muddier for the Rangers. C.J. Wilson, a converted reliever who is 14-6 with a 3.10, would be an accidental ace.

    Of course, the Yankees have injury issues and pitching issues, too. Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched since July 18 because of a strained groin. Pettitte will probably make one more Minor League rehab start before returning to the Yankees. Cashman said the Yankees don’t know who will follow Sabathia in their rotation if they make the playoffs, but it would probably be Pettitte, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett.

    Still, as effective as Pettitte has been this season, there is a difference between him being hurt and Lee being hurt. Even if Pettitte was healthy, he wouldn’t start Game 1. That is Sabathia’s domain. If Lee is healthy, he would start the opener and would make two starts in a five-game series. Ryan said he expects Lee to “be back to his old self” against the Yankees. That is of paramount importance for the Rangers.

    Pettitte’s successful return is crucial for the Yankees, too. Besides Pettitte’s return, the Yankees must hope that Hughes will become more adept at finishing off hitters and that Burnett, who is 1-6 with a 6.91 since August 1, can rebound and be trusted. Ivan Nova is a wild card to start in the postseason, but Cashman said he is hesitant “to put those expectations on him.”

    There are other questions for the Yankees to ponder. Will Derek Jeter emerge from an endless funk? Will Jorge Posada’s concussion scare remain just a scare? Can the bullpen, which has been superb for almost two months, continue to thrive? All of the questions are relevant, but, like the Rangers with Lee, the most serious question swirling around the Yankees is about their uncertain rotation.  

    One subject that could hover over the Rangers, but not the Yankees, is the past. If the Rangers oppose the Yankees, they will repeatedly be reminded that they lost to New York in the first round in 1996, 1998 and 1999. Darren Oliver is the only current Ranger who played in the 1996 series, but that doesn’t matter. The 2010 Rangers will be judged by how they performed this season, but they also must overcome what those other Texas clubs couldn’t.

    Cashman and Daniels declined to offer much insight about the postseason because their teams haven’t clinched spots yet. That’s not surprising. Worrying is a prerequisite for their jobs, too, because they need to be ready if something goes awry. The general managers know their teams have flaws. They just hope those flaws aren’t exposed and aren’t as glaring as the other team’s flaws.  

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    For Posada, danger a regular part of the job

    Thursday, September 9, 2010, 5:26 PM [General]

    Jorge Posada’s job can be demanding and dangerous. It is also a job he loves. Posada is a proud catcher, a man who has crouched behind the plate for more than 1,500 Major League games. Every time Posada lowers his fingers to call for a pitch, he knows there is a possibility he could get injured.

    “You can’t think about the negative and stuff that could happen,” Posada told me in 2007. “You just got to keep on hoping that everything is going to be fine and you can keep playing the game.”

    Posada’s three-year old comment seemed prescient after the Yankees disclosed that he didn’t play Wednesday because of concussion symptoms. That revelation was chilling because of what it could potentially mean to Posada’s future as a player and a person, and what it could mean to a team that needs his production. Posada took a foul tip off his mask Tuesday, which jarred him and which caused him to undergo neurological tests.

    A couple of hours after the Yankees revealed Posada’s health issue, they announced that his tests had come up negative and that he had been “cleared to play.” Still, there was more than enough time for the Yankees to worry about Posada’s health and whether they might have had to cope without one of their core players. The encouraging test results allowed the Yankees to exhale.

    But there will be more baseballs tipping off Posada’s mask and there could be more collisions at the plate. Back in 2007, Posada explained how he undergoes a CT scan after each season to determine if he has incurred any brain damage. The scans detect certain brain injuries, but not concussions. Still, it is notable that Posada has made the scans part of his off-season routine.

    After Boston’s Eric Hinske lowered his shoulder into Posada in a play at the plate in September of 2007, Posada had a normal headache and told the Yankees’ trainers he wanted to get a scan. At that time, Posada estimated that he had experienced three or four concussions in his career.

    “Sometimes, you get it and you don’t even know you had it,” Posada said. “You play through the game.”

    While the idea of playing through the pain has surely contributed to some players exacerbating their injuries, the Yankees are confident that Posada is O.K. If the Yankees ever had to compete without Posada in the lineup, they probably wouldn’t be O.K. Posada has played in 111 post-season games and is still a legitimate power threat. Francisco Cervelli, his backup, hasn’t hit a homer in over 14 months.

    “You’re talking about a guy that’s playoff-tested, World Series-tested, September-down-the-stretch-tested, a switch-hitter in the middle of our lineup,” said manager Joe Girardi about Posada. “It’s an impact” if he is unable to play.

    Tony Pena, the Yankees’ bench coach, caught for 18 years in the Majors and said he blacked out several times after being hammered with foul tips. Like Posada, Pena stressed that catchers can’t think “about getting hurt.” Pena added that catchers realize they must play with pain. Posada knows that and understands it, but doesn’t make his job any less demanding or dangerous.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Cano showing maturity, talent of an MVP

    Monday, August 23, 2010, 1:21 PM [General]

    TORONTO – Robinson Cano was exasperated. He waved his hands toward the scoreboard operator’s booth at Yankee Stadium, futilely trying to get some music pumping during early batting practice. Cano never got the music a few weeks ago, but he did get his swings. Cano always gets his swings.

    For a team that has the best record in Major League baseball, the Yankees have spent a lot of time explaining what has gone awry. A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez have had too many erratic starts. Joba Chamberlain fumbled away his job as the eighth-inning setup man. Mark Teixeira was missing for most of April and May. Derek Jeter’s average is over 50 points lower than last season’s average. Alex Rodriguez’s average and home run totals are down, too.

    But, other than some occasional blips, Cano has been the constant in the Yankees’ lineup. He has been the best player on the best team, a remarkably reliable hitter who teams now approach more cautiously than Rodriguez or Teixeira. Opposing players have told me that Cano is the Yankee they most discuss in scouting meetings.

    Cano continued to flash his maturity and his talent as a hitter as he blasted a grand slam and drove in six runs in a 10-0 thrashing of the Mariners on Sunday. After Luke French struck out Cano with a changeup in the first inning, Cano hit a first-pitch changeup for a grand slam in the fifth. That’s maturity. Cano also reached across the plate to slap Chris Seddon’s outside pitch for a two-run single in the sixth. That’s talent.

    Since Rodriguez is on the disabled list with a calf injury and can’t be activated until September 5, Cano will keep commandeering a more high-profile spot as the cleanup hitter. Remember the questions in Spring Training about whether Cano could protect Rodriguez as the Yankees’ No. 5 hitter? Cano made those questions vanish before April was over.

    Now Cano has eliminated any doubts about whether he can fill in for Rodriguez in the cleanup spot as well. The Yankees are 12-0 in games Rodriguez that hasn’t played, a startling and quirky statistic that is difficult to explain. But Cano is obviously a significant part of the explanation. In a dozen games as the cleanup hitter, Cano is batting .375 with six homers, 19 runs batted, a .455 on base percentage and a .792 slugging percentage. He acknowledged the importance of replacing Rodriguez.

    “Now it’s time for me,” Cano said, “to step up and win games.”

    If the Yankee wanted to trumpet Cano as a Most Valuable Player candidate, they could start by highlighting his numbers as a cleanup hitter. The public relations pitch would be simple: How good has Cano been? So good that he has helped the Yankees not miss A-Rod, a player who was won three MVP awards.

    "He's growing up right in front of our eyes," Rodriguez said. "He's slowly but surely becoming one of the elite players in our league."

    Can Cano win the MVP? Absolutely. He is batting .325 with 25 homers and 86 RBIs, robust power statistics that are rare for a second baseman. The Yankees have 38 games remaining and Cano has already matched his home run and RBI totals from last season. While Cano’s defense doesn’t get enough attention, he has incredibly fast hands in turning double plays and has become more proficient at fielding balls to his left.

    Will Cano win the MVP? That answer is unknown and will be determined across the next six weeks. Josh Hamilton (.357, 28 homers, 88 RBIs) of the first-place Texas Rangers is probably the leading candidate. Miguel Cabrera (.342, 31, 102) is another strong candidate, but his candidacy will be bruised if the underachieving Detroit Tigers don’t muscle their way into post-season contention.

    Cano has referred to Rodriguez as his “big brother,” but throughout Cano’s superb season, the little brother has produced the most valuable hits for the Yankees. If Cano keeps flourishing, especially in Rodriguez’s absence, he could end up being more valuable than anyone in the American League.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

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