Posada a reluctant DH, but a logical move

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010, 2:39 PM [General]

    When Jorge Posada marches into the Yankees’ clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, he will search for the lineup that is affixed to the door and he hope he is starting at catcher. Posada is a proud and stubborn catcher, a man who wants his last inning in the Major Leagues to be spent with shin guards strapped around his legs.

    Posada returned to his comfortable spot behind the plate for the first time in almost a month on Sunday and belted his second grand slam in two days to help the Yankees stifle the awful Astros. While Posada left the game after eight innings because of soreness in the right foot, he considered it typical soreness from catching and not a serious concern.

    Still, when I asked Posada if he expected to start at catcher against the Phillies on Tuesday, he gave an interesting response.

    “We’ll see,” Posada said.
     
    We’ll see. That was not the proud, stubborn Posada talking. That wasn’t an example of Posada wondering if his sore foot would be OK, either. Posada had stressed that the soreness in his foot wasn’t because of the fracture that had put him on the disabled list and was merely from catching so much for the first time since the middle of May.

    We’ll see. That was the practical, not-so-stubborn (at least publicly) Posada talking. He didn’t want to discuss the next lineup because he didn’t know what manager Joe Girardi had planned. Does Posada want to catch on Tuesday? Absolutely, he does. But Posada understands that some things have changed around the Yankees, including how Girardi is likely to use him for the rest of the season.

    In Posada’s absence as the regular catcher, Francisco Cervelli reiterated that he is an energetic and smart catcher, a backup player who can fill in as a starter and be an asset. Cervelli is more athletic than Posada, has a stronger arm than Posada and has a solid rapport with the pitchers. When Cervelli flashes a sign and punches his mitt to encourage a pitcher, it reminds me of a corner man imploring his boxer to go for the knockout.

    Because Cervelli has emerged as a more productive player, and because Nick Johnson’s wrist injury has left the Yankees without a full-time designated hitter, it is sensible for Girardi to use Posada at DH more than the team had originally planned. I think Posada should catch the bulk of the games, but it would be silly to ignore the potential benefits the Yankees get from using Cervelli at catcher and Posada as the DH.

    Posada will be 39 years old in two months and has already endured some nagging injuries this season. If the Yankees want to keep Posada as healthy as possible, using him as the DH two or three times a week will help that goal. Without a reliable DH, the best lineup Girardi can field has Cervelli catching and Posada at DH Girardi linked Posada’s calf injury to catching him three straight games, an indication that Posada won’t be catching three straight games too often.

    “He’s going to DH, but he’s going to catch, too,” Girardi said. “He’s not going to DH every day. We need him to catch for us.”

    After Posada returned from the disabled list and was used as a DH, he went 4-for-30 with one run batted in. He finally emerged from that drought with a grand slam on Saturday. Although Posada dislikes being a DH and has woeful career statistics as a DH (.222 average), he also attributed his sparse output to a troublesome swing . Even if Posada was catching, it might have not mattered because he needed to get the timing of his swing resolved.

    Since Girardi benched Posada and had Jose Molina catch A.J. Burnett in the postseason a year ago, he has already conquered a much stickier issue with Posada than this one. Girardi won’t be trying to completely bench Posada. He will just be sliding Posada to DH every so often. Proud and stubborn, Posada wants to catch every day. But I think it’s logical for the Yankees to use him as a DH sometimes to help him and help the team. How will it unfold? We’ll see.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    The evolution of Robbie Cano

    Thursday, June 10, 2010, 4:08 PM [General]

    Robinson Cano stood on first base after chopping a game-tying single to right field against the Orioles on Wednesday night, stuffed a piece of bubble gum in his mouth and failed to suppress a smile. At that moment, Cano looked more like a Little Leaguer than one of the best players in baseball.

    To watch Cano is to watch a player who is giddy, confident and aware. Watch Cano after he gets another important hit or makes another stylish play at second base. He will usually point to a teammate or to the dugout and smile. It is fun to be that good and to know you are going to get even better.

    The evolution of Cano from a very good player to a superb player is happening this season and it is happening at an alarming rate. Cano is hitting .376, which leads the Majors, and has 12 homers and 46 runs batted in, power numbers which lead the Yankees. On defense, Cano has also improved his range to the left by honing his footwork. He also makes as seamless a pivot at second as any infielder.

    When Cano positions himself at second, he sees shortstop Derek Jeter, one of the best Yankees of all-time, to his immediate right. To Jeter’s right, Cano sees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who might finish his career as the all-time home run champion. When Cano looks to his left, he sees Mark Teixeira, a $180 million first baseman who, despite a shocking .224 average, is a stellar all-around player.

    But, for the first 10 weeks of the season, Cano has been the best player from that star-studded Yankee infield because he has arguably been the best player in the American League, too. Although it is too early to predict who will win the Most Valuable Player Award, Cano has shown how valuable he can be. At the very least, Cano’s torrid start has allowed Teixeira and Rodriguez, who only has eight homers, to avoid additional scrutiny.

    If Cano was hitting .306, his lifetime average entering the season, and the Yankees were eight games, not two games, behind the first-place Rays, there would be more angst around the team. There would be more energy directed toward finding scapegoats. Cano’s play has helped lessen the search for offensive failures. In New York, where the next villain is one slump away, that’s a valuable achievement.

    “I’m swinging at strikes,” Cano said. “I’m not chasing pitches. That’s one of the differences.”

    Cano is swinging at more strikes and has been more disciplined, but the differences are subtle. According to fangraphs.com, Cano swung at 72.6 percent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone last year. This year, he is swinging at 73.5 percent of the strikes he sees. Interestingly, Cano is also swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone (34.8 to 30.9 percent). But that tells me Cano’s being smarter about when to expand the strike zone. Cano studies 3.53 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.39.

    These days, Cano is much more relaxed at the plate. Cano, who has nine hits in his last 12 at-bats, showed that against Chris Tillman in the sixth inning on Wednesday. With runners on first and third, Cano fouled off a 1-2 pitch and then let a curveball bounce in the dirt. He took the next pitch for the third ball and then fouled off a 3-2 fastball. When Tillman tossed another curve, Cano swung and bounced a ball off a leaping Ty Wigginton’s glove for a single. It wasn’t even Cano’s best swing of the night, but the hit delivered the tying run in a 4-2 win and the at bat was emblematic of Cano’s growth.

    Two weeks ago, I asked Cano about his sweet swing. Cano explained why it is crucial for him to “stay short” to the ball and keep his swing compact. What would prevent Cano from not staying short to the ball? Sometimes, Cano said, he could get lazy with his approach. Not anymore. Cano is not lazy and he is doing more than enough. Watch him. He is one of the best players in baseball.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Rene Rivera sees best, and gets best of, Strasburg

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010, 11:15 AM [General]

    The Stephen Strasburg Era is scheduled to begin at the Major League level on June 8 when he finally pitches for the Washington Nationals. The Nationals will surely have a sellout crowd against the Pirates because their restless fans want to see how great Strasburg is. Not how good, but how great.

    On that same night, Rene Rivera of the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees is scheduled to play in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Unlike Strasburg, Rivera probably isn’t thinking that far ahead. Two weeks ago, Rivera was still with the Camden Riversharks, an independent Minor League team in the Atlantic League. The Yankees signed him on May 21. Rivera takes his career day-by-day.

    The two disparate players, an intimidating pitcher and a journeyman catcher, will forever be connected because of what happened last Saturday. In Rivera’s sixth game with Scranton, he clubbed a homer off Strasburg to help guide the Yankees to a 3-2 win over Syracuse. It’s the only homer Strasburg has allowed as a professional this season, a span of 50 1/3 innings.

    “I guess,” Rivera said, “I hit it pretty good.”

    When Strasburg makes his debut with the Nationals, he will be about six weeks shy of his 22d birthday. When Rivera made his Major League debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2004, he was 21 years old and two months. Rivera wasn’t as highly-touted a prospect as Strasburg (besides Bryce Harper, who is?), but he was a second-round draft pick who received an $800,000 signing bonus and who made it to the Majors at a younger age than Strasburg.

    Now, as Strasburg zooms forward in a career that is supposed to be special, Rivera is trying to revive a career that has stalled. Rivera played 53 games in the Major Leagues with the Mariners, but he hasn’t sniffed a big-league at-bat since 2006. He hit .233 for the Mets’ Triple A affiliate in Buffalo last year. Rivera led Camden with seven homers before the Yankees added him for veteran catching depth. He has mostly been used as a designated hitter.  

    But, for one glorious night in Syracuse, N.Y., Rivera had a better night than Strasburg. In Rivera’s first at-bat against Strasburg, he advanced the count to 3-2. That gave Rivera a chance to see Strasburg’s pitches and get a feel for them. What Rivera saw was daunting.

    “His fastball was from 95 to 99,” Rivera said. “He had a good curveball, a good change-up. Like everybody said, he’s one of the best pitchers around.”

    So how did Rivera conquer Strasburg? Rivera said he felt he “had a chance” to hit Strasburg’s fastball, which is exactly what he did. Rivera smacked an opposite-field homer off Strasburg’s 98-mile per hour offering. The pitch was down and away, but Rivera hammered it. In Rivera’s only other at-bat against Strasburg, he whiffed on a curveball.

    “It’s tough to compare his stuff to Major League pitchers, but his fastball reminds me of Felix Hernandez,” Rivera said.

    On the morning after Rivera’s memorable homer, I mentioned him to some Yankees. But they were unaware of Rivera. That’s not surprising since Rivera had only been with Scranton about a week and is caddying for top prospect Jesus Montero. Besides, there aren’t many Major Leaguers who scour the Triple-A box scores.

    Before Rivera’s homer off Strasburg, I knew little about him. Once I researched Rivera’s career and interviewed the man with a .227 average, his story intrigued me. Like the rest of the baseball world, I will closely follow Strasburg. But, because of Rivera’s memorable homer, I will also monitor his attempt to climb back into the big leagues.
     
    Strasburg has one more Minor League start against Buffalo, Rivera’s old team, on Thursday. If Strasburg doesn’t surrender a homer, Rivera will be the only player to bash a Minor League homer off the pitcher who is supposed to become an ace. For someone who is four years removed from playing in the Majors, that’s a decent line on an idling resume.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Twin Cities perfect fit for Mauer

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010, 11:13 AM [General]

    Admit it. You wanted to see Joe Mauer in a Yankee uniform. You thought about it. If you are a hopeful Yankee fan, you probably thought about it a lot. How sweet would it have been to have Mauer catching for the Yankees in 2011? I know fans fantasized about that incredible possibility.

    Even with Jorge Posada signed through next season and even with a bevy of talented young catchers behind him in Francisco Cervelli, Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, Mauer’s availability as a free agent could have superseded any plans. Mauer is the catcher from another baseball galaxy. He is too superb to bypass, especially since the Red Sox would have pursued him, too.

    Before the Yankees or the Red Sox could get too enthused about possibly adding Mauer, he signed an eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins in March. It was a spectacular development and a relief, too, for Mauer, a polite Minnesota kid who never wanted to leave home.

    Still, Mauer must have thought about the Yankees, right? There had to be a moment or three when Mauer wondered if the small-market Twins would be able to pay him like one of the best players in baseball. What would happen if the Twins couldn’t do it and Mauer had to consider other teams and their mammoth proposals?

    “To make decisions, I always try to check out all the angles and things like that,” said Mauer. “When it came to this one, I really didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

    That was Mauer’s simple answer to me earlier this month. He didn’t envision himself in the same lineup as Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. He didn’t imagine himself bashing doubles off the Green Monster for 81 home games. Mauer saw himself continuing to play in his own backyard. You know what? That’s the way it should be.

    As much as the Yankees would have loved to install Mauer as their catcher and used Posada as their designated hitter, and as much as the Red Sox would have loved to solve their catching problems with one of the premier catchers of all-time, Mauer needed to stay with the Twins. It was the best thing for the player, the team and baseball.

    “This is where I wanted to be,” Mauer said. “I wanted to be in Minnesota. I wanted the chance at winning. I think we have that in Minnesota.”

    The wobbly Yankees will see Mauer and will see Target Field for the first time as they begin a three-game series on Tuesday night. After losing five of their last six games, the Yankees need their starting pitchers to be powerful again, they need some hits with runners in scoring position and they need their relievers to be reliable. Any or all of those developments could spur a revival.

    While Mauer and the Twins negotiated, Mauer, who is a shy sort, offered scant insight about the discussions. I wonder what LeBron James thought of Mauer’s decision. Like Mauer, James, a son of Ohio who is on the Cleveland Cavaliers, must decide if he wants to stay with his hometown team or seek the glory and glitz of another city with another team. Of course, one of those teams is the Knicks, who play in a city Mauer intimated that he didn’t think about at all.

    It seems as if King James enjoys the relentless attention that he is receiving about becoming a free agent on July 1. Quiet Mauer hates being the focus and conceded it would have “gotten pretty old” if he had to talk about free agency every time the Twins visited another city this season. Instead, Mauer now owns the fourth-most lucrative contract in baseball history.

    Last September, I interviewed Mauer in an empty room at Detroit’s Comerica Park. Mauer told me he was “not really” interested in being baseball’s highest-paid player, which wasn’t surprising. That comment also confirmed my expectation that Mauer would stay with the Twins. The Yankee fans would have embraced Mauer, but he belongs to the Twins. Admit it.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Thames’ inspiring story and happy return

    Tuesday, May 18, 2010, 12:19 PM [General]

    Before the memorable swing that produced the game-winning two-run homer, before the rowdy celebration at the plate and before he received the pie in the face treatment on Monday night, Marcus Thames thought he was done. Before Thames played one game with the Yankees this year, he thought he might be an ex-Yankee.

    As the days frittered away in Spring Training and Thames continued slogging through lousy at-bats, he put more pressure on himself to succeed. The more Thames obsessed about getting hits, the more difficult it became. Thames was a non-roster invitee so he needed to show that he could still be a power threat. He needed to show something. Instead, he was an automatic out.

    “I remember calling my wife and telling her, ‘I think I’m blowing this,’” Thames said.

    After debuting with the Yankees by smashing a homer off Randy Johnson in 2002, Thames was traded to the Rangers in 2003. He was in the Tigers’ organization from 2004 to 2009. Ever since Thames was dealt by the Yankees his goal was to return. That goal was seemingly achieved when manager Joe Girardi called Thames while Thames was at the Super Bowl and told him the Yankees wanted him.

    But everything that Thames had envisioned about happily returning to the Yankees was dying in an abysmal spring. Thames managed three hits in his first 33 at-bats, a dreadful .091 average. The player that the Yankees viewed as a threat because he averaged one homer in about every 15 at-bats couldn’t keep his average above .100.

    “I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders,” Thames said. “I wanted to do so well that I couldn’t do anything.”

    One day before the season opener, Thames finally signed a Major League deal and was added to the 25-man roster. The Yankees analyzed Thames beyond his .135 average in the spring and determined that he could help them because he usually hammered left-handed pitchers. They were right.

    In a season where Curtis Granderson has been on the disabled list, where Nick Johnson will require wrist surgery and where Javier Vazquez has been erratic, Thames, a less splashy addition than those three players, has been very productive. Thames proved that he can hit right-handed pitchers as well by crushing a two-run homer off Jonathan Papelbon to lift the Yankees to a pulsating 11-9 win over the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Monday night. He is hitting .365 this season, including a .414 average against lefties.

    When I told Thames two weeks ago that he was logging Little League statistics in the Majors, he smiled and said, “Just trying to do my role.” It was a relieved smile, the smile of a player who spent parts of nine years in the Minor Leagues and a player who thought he might be released less than two months ago. It was also the smile of a player who is used to persevering.

    Seeing Thames go deep and then leap into a sea of teammates at the plate was a spectacular sight for Yankees fans. But, believe me, it was a more rewarding sight for a woman who spends every minute of her life confined to a custom hospital bed in Mississippi. Veterine Thames, Marcus’s mother, has been paralyzed for almost 28 years and watches baseball and everything else on her back.

    A few days before Thames’ Tigers played the Cardinals in the 2006 World Series, I traveled to Louisville, Mississippi, to interview Veterine. Veterine can’t move her legs or her torso, and can’t use her hands to grasp anything, but, with the help of a parade of relatives, she raised five children without leaving her bed. One of those children was “Slick,” which is what Veterine nicknamed Marcus.

    On June 19, 1982, Veterine seriously damaged two vertebrae in her spine after being involved in a one-car accident on a state highway in Louisville. Veterine, who was a passenger in a vehicle driven by G.W. Hughes, the father of four of her kids, didn’t want to rehash the specifics of the tragic day. Marcus, who was five at the time, said he never asked his mother about what happened.

    As devastating as the accident was for Veterine, she showed remarkable resiliency in keeping her family together. Since Veterine had a tracheotomy in 2002, she needed to have a tube inserted into her throat so we could discuss Marcus. She wept through her words while explaining how her paralysis had made Marcus “want to show he could make something of himself.”

    Thames agreed that his mother’s daily challenges have always been a daily motivation to him.

    “When you have somebody who can’t get themselves a glass of water, you look at this baseball stuff and it’s easy in comparison,” Thames said.    

    So, on a frenetic Monday night, Thames hit a dramatic homer off Papelbon and guaranteed that the Yankees would snatch a win away from the wobbly Red Sox. But, before Thames even reached third base, I’m sure you would understand why I wasn’t thinking about him. I was thinking about a woman in Mississippi. I’m sure Thames was, too.

    4.6 (4 Ratings)

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