An early analysis of the Yankees

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010, 6:42 PM [General]

    BALTIMORE –- The Yankees have played 18 games, which is about 11 percent of their schedule. It is barely an appetizer, the equivalent of receiving bread and water before a seven-course meal. No matter how satisfied the Yankees were about going 12-6, it is only a sliver of their season.

    Believe it or not, there is still time for Javier Vazquez to potentially win the 15 games, still time for Mark Teixeira to hit like himself and still time for Nick Johnson to climb above the .270 mark. Likewise, there is still time for Andy Pettitte to pitch like a mortal, for Robinson Cano to struggle with runners in scoring position and even time for the mighty Mariano Rivera to blow a save.

    But, for now, the 18-game sample, however small, is the way to evaluate the Yankees. General Manager Brian Cashman explained that Teixeira and Johnson's "track records" as hitters makes Cashman less concerned about the two. While that explanation is legitimate, the first three weeks of the season have shown some reasons for the Yankees to be enthralled and some reasons for them to inhale.

    Andy Pettitte: There was a calm surrounding Pettitte during spring training. He didn’t care that he only pitched 8 1/3 official innings. Pettitte’s left elbow, which he thought would end his career in 2006, felt fine. That was all that mattered to the leaner Pettitte. Still, regardless of how serene Pettitte felt, he wouldn’t have predicted that he would start the year with a 3-0 record and a 1.29 earned run average. The man who has never won a Cy Young Award might be the American League’s Cy Young of April.

    Robinson Cano: Shifting Cano to the number five spot in the order might prove to be one of the smartest moves Manager Joe Girardi makes all season. I think Cano likes to be challenged. The Yankees coddled him too long in 2008. Cano is now playing with a healthy swagger. After Scott Kazmir plunked Cano in the buttocks with a pitch last Sunday, Cano stared at him, spit on the ground and went to first. A few innings later, Cano homered off Kazmir. He didn’t need to stare at Kazmir again. That’s a healthy swagger.

    Brett Gardner: The undercurrent of doubts must get annoying for Gardner. Although Gardner was a decent outfielder for a championship team last season, he is the Yankee who is frequently dismissed as the player who needs to be replaced. I’m not saying Gardner will ever be an All-Star. But, with Gardner’s incredible speed, he can use his legs to boost his average and on base percentage. He might be keeping left field warm for Carl Crawford until next year, but he’s no stiff.

    Phil Hughes: Hughes has only made one start, which isn’t a constant. But the way Hughes pitched in carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning is why he is mentioned. He featured an exploding fastball, a wicked curveball and precise control. Hughes acted like the high school senior who was pitching to the junior varsity. “It was the best I’ve ever seen him as a starter,” Cashman said.

    Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada: How can a list about Yankee constants not include these three players? All three continue thriving, although Girardi might use Francisco Cervelli behind the plate and slot Posada as the designated hitter more often than Posada expected.

    Javier Vazquez: After the Yankees obtained Vazquez from the Braves, Red Sox Manager Terry Francona wondered how the savvy acquisition wasn’t given a lot more attention. Through four starts, Vazquez is 1-3 with a 9.00 E.R.A. and is getting the wrong type of attention. Vazquez threw 78 pitches in his last start, but only 29 fastballs. That seemed to indicate that Vazquez wasn’t confident in a pitch that he needs to use more often to be successful.

    Nick Johnson: A walk is as good as a hit. That saying is shouted to twitchy Little Leaguers again and again. Johnson would like to trade some walks for some hits.  Johnson’s patience is what has helped him to a .401 career on base percentage. When Johnson slumps, he said he tries to be more aggressive. That is not Johnson’s style and that is the conundrum he is in right now.

    The Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays are athletic, talented and hungry and will be a nuisance for the Yankees all season. “Everyone bought into our philosophy from day one,” said Joe Maddon, the Rays’ Manager. “We don’t want to let up this year.” The Yankees have averaged to win two out of every three games, a terrific pace. But, before Tuesday night’s game against the Orioles, they still trailed the Rays by one and a half games.  “With the way we have played, you’d like to see more separation from the other teams,” Cashman said.

    Mark Teixeira: This is worth documenting, but Teixeira, who had some nice swings in his last game, will surely produce.  He is too good to remain this bad (.119 average).

    Randy Winn: This isn’t as concern as much as it is a realization about Winn. The Yankees hoped Winn could play a supporting role because he can handle all three outfield positions and is an excellent baserunner. But Winn’s rare at bats have been disappointing and he’s mostly been used as a late inning replacement. Since Winn has averaged 155 games across the last seven seasons, it is a huge drop off.

    The Yankees have 144 games left, which is the rest of their seven-course meal. Their constants and concerns will eventually emerge and will determine if this team plays a 163d game and beyond. 

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Beane, A’s seeking high marks for offense

    Thursday, April 22, 2010, 12:31 PM [General]

    If the answer is a young team with a low payroll and modest expectations, what is the question? It could be “Which club is the opposite of the Yankees?” or “Who are the Oakland Athletics?” The small-market A’s, who had one of the bleakest records in the American League last season, are astronomically different than the large-market Yankees, who won a World Series title six months ago.

    Billy Beane, the general manager of the A’s, discussed the differences between the teams in a factual manner, not in a frustrated manner. The A’s have used superb pitching to hang out near the top of the American League West, but Beane stressed that the A’s need more than pitching to try and make the next five-and-a-half months as interesting as the last two weeks.

    “Our biggest challenge is going to be scoring runs,” Beane said. “Coming in, we knew power was going to be an issue. Quite frankly, it’s tough to win in this league without hitting some home runs.”

    The Yankees hit some home runs. They hit lots and lots of home runs and led the Major Leagues with 244 in 2009. Nick Swisher, who hits eighth for the Yankees, blasted 29 last year. He might hit fourth of fifth in Oakland’s lineup. Curtis Granderson, who ripped 30 homers for the Detroit Tigers last season, now hits seventh for the Yankees. Granderson would also find his name higher in the batting order if he were with the A’s, who were last in the A.L. with 135 homers.

    Beane was blunt in acknowledging that the A’s don’t have a serious power threat in the Major Leagues right now. While Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, a pair of Triple-A hitters, could provide that power at some point, Beane said the A’s will be patient with both players. So when Beane compares his offensively-challenged lineup to a Yankees’ lineup that has power potential in the seventh and eighth slots in the order, is he envious?

    “Oh, man, if I spent the last 13 years being envious of the Yankees, I’d have gone crazy years ago,” said Beane, in a telephone interview. “That’s the game. The Yankees, they’re one of the biggest sports franchises in the world. We’re one of the smaller ones, so we’ve always sort of dealt with that.”

    The A’s came perilously close to conquering the Yankees in 2000 and 2001, losing in the fifth game of the Division Series both times. Beane called the Yankees “our Waterloo.” Now Beane, who has collected young players like baseball cards through trades, is trying to help the A’s get back there. Phil Hughes stalled that pursuit for a day by taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning in powering the Yankees past the A’s, 3-1, for the second straight game Wednesday night.

    Watching Hughes from the Oakland dugout was Brett Anderson. After Anderson went 11-11 with a 4.06 earned run average and 150 strikeouts and 45 walks in 175 1/3 innings as a rookie, Beane realized the A’s should make a significant commitment. The A’s signed Anderson to a four-year, $12.5 contract that could expand to $31 million over six years because Beane said “the price on Brett was going to keep going up.”

    With Anderson, 22, supported by Trevor Cahill, 22, Gio Gonzalez, 24, and Dallas Braden, 26, Beane is confident that Oakland’s present and the future will include starters “that are young and talented and that are going to be good.” Still, there is a lot more work for the A’s, who depend on the likes of first baseman Daric Barton and outfielder Ryan Sweeney, two players they obtained in trades, to produce important hits. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, they are not.
    “I don’t think there’s necessarily envy toward the Yankees,” said Beane. “It’s something we’re used to.”

    Beane won’t say it publicly, but it would be surprising if the A’s made the postseason in 2010. Unless Oakland’s hitters overachieve, that probably won’t happen. But Beane did speak publicly about how surprising it would be if the Yankees went home after the regular season.

     “I think your first response is to say, ‘Yeah, it would be shocking,’” Beane said. “But I think you also respect the teams in that division. To me, it’s the best division in sports. I think the SEC football coaches would debate you. But the AL East is the most competitive. When you’ve got the Yankees and the Red Sox, and you throw in a club like Tampa that is really starting to compete right now, I don’t think there are any guarantees with anyone.”

    About a minute later, Beane said he expects that the Yankees “will do everything they possibly can to guarantee” a postseason berth. Beane praised Brian Cashman, his counterpart on the Yankees and an executive whose $206 million payroll is about $150 million higher than Oakland’s payroll. By focusing on how talented the AL East is, Beane said he was “trying to take the pressure off Brian.”

    That remark made me laugh. With all due respect, I told Beane that nothing he uttered would ever reduce the pressure on Cashman. The Yankees insist that they want to win a championship every season. Beane knows that, knows that Cashman and the Yankees always have grander expectations.

    “Sometimes,” Beane said playfully, “that makes him envious of me.”

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Cashman wants separation for Bombers

    Friday, April 16, 2010, 3:39 PM [General]

    Brian Cashman worries a lot. It is what general managers do. To Cashman, nothing is ever perfect in Yankeeland. There is always something that could go wrong, catastrophically wrong, so Cashman thinks about the worst possible scenarios so he can be prepared if they come to fruition.

    As the Yankees have won three straight series to begin the season with a 6-3 record, Cashman has been pleased with their performance. But, naturally, he wants more. He wants Javier Vazquez to get acclimated to Round 2 in New York and be a productive pitcher. He wants the relievers to grab their specific roles in the bullpen. He wants Robinson Cano to continue playing like an M.V.P. in-waiting.

    But what Cashman wants more than anything else for the Yankees is some breathing room. With the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays constantly colliding in the American League East, Cashman knows that this could be another draining season. Whatever separation the Yankees can get from the Red Sox and the Rays in April and May could help them in August and September.

    “You want to get to the point where every game isn’t a steel cage match,” Cashman said. “You don’t want every pitch or every play to be do-or-die.  It’s healthier if all 162 games aren’t do-or-die.”

    After the Yankees enjoyed a playful World Series ring ceremony at the expense of Hideki Matsui and Nick Swisher and then defeated the Angels, 7-5, in the home opener, Cashman was delighted. He loved how the Yankees behaved on and off the field that day. The 2010 Yankees showed that they could play a prank or two, even if no pies were involved, and also showed they were serious about every inning.

    “We saw that the heartbeat of 2009 still exists in 2010,” Cashman said. “They still understand what it means to have fun. They still know how to compete.”

    When Cashman worries these days, Vazquez is one of the players he worries about. While Cashman will never publicly say that he is concerned, Vazquez is the last player the Yankees wanted to have a sluggish start this season. Since Vazquez is still lugging the baggage from a disappointing second half in 2004 with him, the Yankees wanted to see him pitch effectively and deflect the questions about his past. Instead, the questions have intensified.

    In Vazquez’s first two starts, he is 0-2 with a 9.82 earned run average and has allowed 11 earned runs in 12 innings. Dave Eiland, the Yankees’ pitching coach, is working with Vazquez to refine the lower half of his delivery. Vazquez’s fastball, which averaged 91.1 miles per hour last season, has clocked in a 88.9 in his first two starts. That two-mile shortage matters for a pitcher who relies on finesse.

    “I want him to go out there and compete and be the pitcher he has been for seven or eight out of every 10 starts he’s made in his career,” Cashman said. “I want him to settle in. The only time he has struggled in his career is in the second half of 2004.”

    But, Yankees fans remember Vazquez’s struggles. They reminded Vazquez about the past by booing him in the present on Wednesday, something that Vazquez called “pretty unfair.”

    Despite Vazquez’s poor start, I still think he will eventually relax and be a solid contributor to the Yankees. Vazquez has a superb blend of pitches with a fastball, a slider, a curveball and a changeup. Bobby Valentine, the former Mets’ manager, agreed that Vazquez will steady himself.

    “He’s got everything he needs to succeed,” Valentine said. “I’ve always liked him as a pitcher.”

    Besides Vazquez, the other members of the rotation have combined to go 4-0 with a 2.79 E.R.A. Andy Pettitte has been brilliant with a 0.75  E.R.A., CC Sabathia was four outs away from a no-hitter in his last start against the Rays,  A.J. Burnett was stellar in his last start and Phil Hughes pitched into the sixth to win his season debut on Thursday.

    Like an always worried GM, Cashman said the Yankees need “all the pitching depth” they can accumulate because it will give them protection against an injury or a drought. If the Yankees lose one of their starters or need to rest a starter, Cashman stressed how it will be a lot easier to digest if they have a decent lead in the A.L. East.

    “It’s important to get out of the gate fast,” Cashman said. “The competition in this division is tough. We want to solidify ourselves as early as we can.”

    Again, whatever separation the Yankees can build in April and May will help them in August and September.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    The heartbeat of '09

    Friday, April 16, 2010, 2:19 PM [General]

    Jack Curry participated in the season premiere of the Pinstriped Podcast, during which he discussed a conversation he had with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman over how the attitude and approach from winning a World Series has carried over into the 2010 season. The key, especially with this veteran team, will be staying healthy.

    Click here to listen.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Mr. Simple, baseball gentleman, back in the Bronx

    Monday, April 12, 2010, 12:42 PM [General]

    The baseball gentleman will return to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. Hideki Matsui will stroll into his old home with the Angels, his new team. There will be a flock of reporters chronicling every handshake and high-five that Matsui shares, but he will remain as stoic as always. He rarely looks flustered, mostly because he rarely is.

    If Matsui could have dictated his baseball address for 2010, he would have returned to the Yankees. Matsui loved playing and living in New York, adored his teammates and felt comfortable in a place he had been for seven seasons. Because Matsui was instrumental in helping the Yankees win a title last year so, he would have relished being part of a club that is trying to win back-to-back championships.

    But Matsui did not totally control his script for this season. The Yankees had a lot of decision-making power, too. As valuable as Matsui was to the Yankees, they felt that they had squeezed everything out of a player with two surgically-repaired knees and did not push to re-sign him. Matsui was savvy enough to recognize New York’s disinterest and signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Angels.

    “There was a bit of sadness given the time that I had spent there,” said Matsui, in an e-mail response through Isao Hirooka, his liaison to the Japanese media. “But I was ready to move forward.”

    As disappointing as it was for Matsui to leave New York, he worked to make it simple. Matsui has a penchant for simplicity. Whether Matsui was batting in an important situation or doing daily interview sessions with American reporters and then Japanese reporters, he made it easy on himself. Matsui didn’t complicate matters, which might explain why he had a kinship with Derek Jeter. Jeter is the king of simplicity.

    Matsui’s first trip to the Stadium as an opposing player is the Yankees’ home opener and also happens to be the day they are distributing their World Series rings. The Yankees get to save the shipping costs on Matsui’s ring by presenting it to him in person. Matsui said it is “every baseball player’s goal to win the championship” so he is anxious to collect his jewelry.

    Since Matsui is no longer a Yankee, I thought it might feel awkward for him to pick up the ring as an Angel. On the contrary, Matsui, Mr. Simple, disagreed with that theory.

    “Well, this was about last year so, in my mind, I don’t quite see it that way,” Matsui said.

    After Matsui hit .615 with three homers and eight runs batted in to help the Yankees clinch the World Series in six games, he was named the Most Valuable Player and called it “the best moment” of his life. That game ended up being the last moment of his Yankee life. Still, Matsui, in true gentlemanly fashion, said there was sadness, not bitterness, over leaving the Yankees.

    The Yankees eventually signed Nick Johnson to be their designated hitter, a position Matsui could have handled if they weren’t so concerned about his fragile knees. Interestingly, Johnson has a fragile history and has been on the disabled list nine times in his career. If both players remain healthy for the season, Matsui would be expected to smash more homers and drive in more runs while Johnson would be expected to have a higher on-base percentage. Matsui is batting .370 with two homers in his first six games for the Angels.

    During his stint with the Yankees, Matsui distinguished himself from other players in pressure spots. In late and close situations, which are defined as the seventh inning or beyond with the score tied, the batting team ahead by one run or the potential tying run at-bat, on base or on deck, Matsui has a .326 career average. Johnson has a .285 average in those spots.

    Matsui declined to speculate if the Yankees would miss him in crucial situations or if they would miss him at all this season. That was not surprising. He is too classy to utter a critical word about anyone. He is an Angel now, but the astute Yankee fans will recognize that the baseball gentleman deserves another rousing ovation on Tuesday.

    “They might applaud or they might boo me,” Matsui said. “Hopefully, it’s not the latter.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter all season long at @JackCurryYES.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

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