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)

    Hughes cool, collected, successful

    Monday, May 17, 2010, 10:30 AM [General]

    Phil Hughes looks different on the mound this season, different in a positive way. He acts more assertive and more fearless. He has the demeanor of a pitcher who is anxious to throw the ball because he doesn’t expect batters to do any damage. He looks that cool for the Yankees.

    Watch how Hughes performs when he faces the Red Sox Monday night. He rarely strays from the rubber because he doesn’t want to waste time between pitches. He shows little emotion because he is focused on the next pitch. While Hughes’ friends have told him that they have noticed a difference in his presence, he believes the most crucial difference is what has transpired above his neck.

    When Hughes thinks about what has allowed him to rumble to a 5-0 record with a 1.38 earned run average, he centers on “confidence and aggressiveness.” Yes, Hughes has used his cut fastball more often and will toss it in any count. Yes, his curveball is better and he has added a changeup. But Hughes feels the mental adjustments have been more important to his ascension than any physical changes.

    “I think if you look at my raw stuff to when I was starting games this season to last season, there’s probably not that much difference,” Hughes said. “I’m maybe a little bigger and stronger. But I feel what has really changed is my confidence out there and my ability to attack the strike zone. Those have been the two biggest things.”

    The Yankees always felt Hughes, who was a first-round draft pick in 2004, could be a No. 1 or a No. 2 starter in their rotation. Technically, Hughes is the No. 5 starter, but he has been the Yankees’ best starter in 2010. Better than CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte and a lot better than Javier Vazquez. It is silly to discuss the postseason in May, but let’s be silly for a sentence. If the postseason started today, Hughes would be a superb choice to start Game 2.

    The biggest change that Hughes has made in his repertoire has been the increased employment of his cut fastball. After throwing the cutter 16.4 percent of the time in 2009, Hughes has uncorked it 28 percent in his first six starts this season. Even though Hughes said his 88-mile per hour cutter is easier to hit than his fastball, which is about five or six miles faster, it isn’t easier to hit if hitters are expecting the fastball.

    Every pitcher, no matter how effective, is going to experience some bad counts in games. When those 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 counts arise, Hughes’s cutter helps him neutralize aggressive hitters. The hitters that are waiting to pulverize a fastball are stifled when they get a cutter that dives at the last second.

    “I throw my cutter often and I’m not afraid to throw it behind in counts or ahead in counts,” Hughes said. “Even when I’m behind in the count, I throw every ball with conviction. I’m not afraid to miss spots. I think that’s taken me a long way.”

    As valuable as Hughes’s cutter has been, he must be wary of not always throwing it when he is behind in the count. Hitters aren’t idiots. If Hughes throws his cutter every time he is behind, hitters will make adjustments and simply wait for it. So Hughes said he must be conscious of mixing in his fastball in those bad counts, too. As much as Hughes relies on the cutter, he must maintain the surprise element of the pitch.

    “It’s definitely more difficult to hit,” Hughes said, “when they’re not looking for it.”

    The Yankees haven’t publicized how many innings Hughes will be allowed to pitch during the season, but it will probably be about 170. Hughes pitched 111 2/3 innings (including the postseason) with the Yankees and at Triple-A as a starter and a reliever in 2009. But Hughes also threw 146 Minor League innings in 2006 so the Yankees might extend him a bit more than they did with Joba Chamberlain last season. Hughes hasn’t been given an innings limit and said he isn’t dwelling on it.  

    Since the Yankees finish the first half in Seattle on July 11, Hughes plans to travel home to Santa Ana, Calif., for the All-Star break. Less than 10 miles from Hughes’s home, the All-Star Game will be played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 13. About two months before the marquee game, it is premature to speculate about whether Hughes will make the team. Still, because the game will be played in Hughes’ backyard, I asked if he had thought about pitching in it. He laughed the laugh of someone who hadn’t considered it.

    “I was just going to go home,” Hughes said. “That’s my plan. I’ll be in Anaheim. But I wasn’t really making plans for that.”

    If Hughes continues pitching like this, he might need to make new plans.

    Follow Jack all season long on Twitter @JackCurryYES.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    One-man bend

    Friday, May 14, 2010, 11:42 PM [General]

    When Brett Gardner takes a lead off first base, he bends his right arm at an angle and keeps it tucked close to his chest. Gardner’s arm is bent in such a pronounced fashion that he looks as if he is prepared to fire an elbow at anyone who traipses into his patch of dirt.

    As different as Gardner’s elbow looks from the way most players look when they lead off first, there is a reason for it. By keeping his elbow bent, Gardner said that he generates more force when he turns his body to the right and powers to second base.  

    “When you run, the first thing that moves is your arms,” Gardner said. “You want to have your arms in a good position. Sometimes, if I open my arm up too much, that causes my body to stand up and I don’t get a good jump. I want to drive down and stay short and stay low.”

    Dana Cavalea, the Yankees’ strength and conditioning coach, recommended this technique to Gardner.  Cavalea said Gardner -- as the runner who bends his elbow -- is like a corkscrew that is creating “movement efficiency.” That helps Gardner run in a straight line toward second. Of course, the fastest way to get from first to second is in a straight line.

    Once Gardner reaches first, he eases into the position that Cavalea has prescribed. His head and chest are up, his lower half is loaded so he can explode off the inside edge of his left foot and his elbow is bent. The rumble to second starts after Gardner unleashes what Cavalea called “a short, compact arm drive.” That arm drive takes a motionless Gardner into first gear. 

    “It helps him create power into the ground,” Cavalea said. “It gives him the ability to get a stronger push off the backside and also utilize the musculature and the movement patterns that we create in the weight room.”

    Since Cavalea has a degree in exercise science and has a background in speed and movement, he patterns workouts around what can help baseball players. Manager Joe Girardi first asked Cavalea to work on Gardner’s footwork because Gardner was slipping too much when he tried to steal bases. From those sessions, Gardner’s bent elbow was born.  

    Gardner’s interesting approach has helped him get excellent jumps and also helped him steal 16 bases in 17 attempts this season. In Gardner’s career, he has been safe in 55 of 62 attempts, which is a success rate of 88.7 percent. Gardner’s goal is to always remain above 85 percent.

    Although Gardner wouldn’t speculate on how many bases he could steal this season, he said he would rather steal 50 in 55 attempts than 70 in 88 tries. I told Gardner that a Yankees fan e-mailed the YES Network and wondered if Gardner could steal 90 to 100 bases. Gardner laughed and said he would get “pretty beat up” trying to run that often. Still, Gardner is on pace to steal 74.

    “You could see when he first came up the type of speed he has,” said Joe Mauer, Twins catcher. “It can change ballgames.”

    Gardner didn’t steal any bases on Friday, but he helped impact the game. He had a homer and also motored home from first on Mark Teixeira’s double as the Yankees slapped the Minnesota Twins, 8-4. The game-changing moment came when Alex Rodriguez smashed a grand slam off Matt Guerrier, a pitcher he had previously dominated, to erase a 4-3 deficit in the seventh inning. Rodriguez is now 5 for 7 with four homers off Guerrier.

    Confidence is not a problem for Gardner because he has always been a successful base stealer. He had 58 stolen bases in one minor league season. But, sometimes, aggressiveness is a problem for Gardner. Gardner conceded that he is still “cautious out there.” He hopes to become more aggressive on the bases, with his bent elbow guiding him to every first step.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Red Sox must 'grind' to stay in AL East race

    Friday, May 7, 2010, 10:29 AM [General]

    BOSTON – Unintelligent, undisciplined and uninspired baseball. That was the way Theo Epstein described the Boston Red Sox’s style of play last Sunday. It was a candid critique from a general manager who had grown fatigued by seeing the Red Sox slog through the first month of the season.

    When Epstein spoke to John Tomase of The Boston Herald, he added that the situation had “to change.” Epstein surmised that the sluggish play “would change itself or we do something to change it.” It sounded like a threat. It sounded like a call to WEEI, which is the sports talk radio station that can also serve as a panic hotline here. Epstein added he was not referring to personnel moves when he mentioned the possibility of changes.

    If Epstein was that honest with a reporter, what was he saying about the state of the Red Sox during meetings with ownership and with manager Terry Francona? Surely, the assessment was even more withering. The Red Sox watched the Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees rumble ahead of them in the American League East, which was painful to an organization that expects to reach the postseason.

    Unintelligent, undisciplined and uninspired baseball was unacceptable.

    “I don’t think there’s a single player in that clubhouse that would disagree with me,” said Epstein, while sitting in the first base dugout at Fenway Park on Thursday. “I didn’t call anyone out. I didn’t call our players out. We’re all in this together. The fact of the matter is we were not playing good baseball. We all know that. And we weren’t playing the kind of baseball we were capable of.”

    Maybe Epstein, who seemed disappointed that his comments were being analyzed, should publicly critique the Red Sox more often. After Epstein’s assessment and Francona’s team meeting on Monday, the Red Sox have not lost. The recuperating Red Sox rallied from a 4-0 deficit to squash the Angels, 11-6, and sweep a four-game series on Thursday.  

    So, as the Yankees invade Fenway for the second time in 30 days on Friday, the Red Sox, a team that has looked disjointed, is 15-14. It is the first time the Red Sox have been above the .500 mark since they stopped the Yankees in the season opener. Dustin Pedroia said the Red Sox have to keep “grinding” so they don’t tumble any lower in the standings.

    The Red Sox have a designated hitter whose bat speed has disappeared in David Ortiz, another DH who is unhappy that he isn’t playing every day in Mike Lowell, a catcher who would be better off as a DH in Victor Martinez, an ace pitcher who has a 6.31 earned run average in Josh Beckett and a bullpen that has blown five of 14 save opportunities and has a 4.45 ERA.

    For the Red Sox to continue climbing out of their funk, their current players must experience a revival. Despite the speculation about releasing Ortiz, one Red Sox official said the team is not close to making any moves. But that doesn’t mean Ortiz is guaranteed to get at-bats consistently and it doesn’t mean he will be with the team all season. Epstein dismissed the idea of making personnel moves right now and called them purely “symbolic” in early May.

    “I don’t really believe in change for change sake,” Epstein said.

    As the Red Sox search for reasons why they can rebound this season, they have dug deep into statistics. After 27 games, which is one-sixth of the season, the Red Sox were 13-14. Since 2003, Epstein said the Red Sox have had only one season (2005) in which they did not go 13-14 or worse during a 27-game stretch. Epstein emphasized that he was referring to records through 27 games, from games 28 to 54, from games 55 to 81, from games 82 to 108 and so on. The 27-game chunks weren’t cherry picked in each season, Epstein said.

    Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, said it would be illogical to dismiss the Red Sox and that he expects them to challenge for a postseason berth. The Red Sox trail the first-place Rays by 6 1/2 games, which is a modest gap with five months left in the regular season. Cashman recalled how the Yankees opened with a 15-17 record in 2009 and regrouped to win a World Series title.

    While I think Boston’s reliable rotation will enable the Red Sox to hang around in the AL East race, the Rays and the Yankees are superior clubs. Francona insisted that he still believes his team will succeed. When I asked Francona if the Red Sox could match what the Yankees did last year, something that could require a lot of intelligent, inspired and disciplined baseball, he paused for several seconds.  

    “We’ll see,” he said.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Smiling Cervelli wears passion on his sleeve

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010, 10:12 AM [General]

    We should all do our jobs the way Francisco Cervelli does his: with the same passion, the same energy and the same joy. Even if we could only do it for one day, we should all be as happy at work as Cervelli is when he is playing for the Yankees.

    “My mom always said, ‘Have fun because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,’” Cervelli said.

    Cervelli has fun, endless and unbridled fun. His giddy disposition is not an act. Cervelli really is an affable guy who is thrilled to have a locker in the same clubhouse as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia. If Cervelli plays for another decade, let’s hope he remains this innocent and this excitable. It is a significant part of why he is such a charming story.

    As A.J. Burnett pitched powerfully into the eighth inning of a 4-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night, Cervelli made several plays, some big, some small and some daring, that helped make him as pivotal as any player at Yankee Stadium. Cervelli has a happy, reckless approach that Burnett called infectious.

    Cervelli’s starry night began with a triple to right center field in the third inning. When Cervelli reached third base, he clapped his hands three times. He scored the Yankees’ first run. One inning later, Cervelli scooted toward the first base dugout, reached over the railing and then tumbled over it to make a superb catch. Cervelli added two more singles, including one on a beautiful bunt.

    “He did all the little things you expect him to do,” said manager Joe Girardi, “and did them as well as you can do them.”

    Here is all you need to know about how savvy Cervelli is. When Cervelli was asked what pleased him the most about his stellar game, he referenced Burnett’s three straight strikeouts to finish the third and strand two runners. Cervelli, who is now hitting .387, said he is confident as a hitter, but added, “My job is behind the plate.”

    Since Jorge Posada has a strained right calf, Cervelli will start again on Wednesday. Cervelli’s inspired play could cause Girardi to start Cervelli more than he originally planned. If Girardi planned to start Cervelli in about 45 games, the manager might think about adjusting that amount. The Yankees could start Cervelli, a defensive stalwart, a bit more and shift Posada to designated hitter. Nick Johnson (.134) has slumped in the DH spot, but without a third catcher on the roster, Girardi might be hesitant to start one of his two catchers as a DH.

    The Yankees have always been enamored with Cervelli’s defense, but his offensive exploits and his energetic approach have made him an interesting weapon for Girardi. The manager has long been a fan of Brett Gardner because Gardner’s speed can help change games. Cervelli’s energy and his rapport with pitchers can impact games, too.

    Whatever Girardi decides to do regarding Cervelli’s playing time, Cervelli will probably keep smiling. Cervelli doesn’t see himself as backup catcher. Whenever Cervelli plays, he said he considers himself the No. 1 catcher. As usual, he said it with a smile. Even Posada, who is the No. 1 catcher, would have smiled if he had heard Cervelli say he feels “special” every time he gets the chance to play.

    Before Tuesday night’s game, Cervelli and Ramiro Pena visited a local hospital and hung out with some ailing kids. During the visit, Cervelli said one girl asked him if he could hit a homer for her. Cervelli, who wore a yellow bracelet that the girl had given him, said he would try. Instead, he socked a triple, two singles and made an excellent tumbling catch. To me, that combination was more impressive than one homer.

    After Cervelli reflected on his draining day and night, he said speaking to the sick children had given him “more pleasure than anything else.” That was another part of Cervelli’s job with the Yankees. Yes, we should all do our jobs the way he does.

    4.1 (3 Ratings)

    Alomar: Cano can be the next Jeter

    Monday, May 3, 2010, 10:24 AM [General]

    Roberto Alomar was a talented and stylish second baseman, a player who was enjoyable to watch because of the way he played the game. When Alomar watches Robinson Cano, another talented and stylish second baseman, he sees a player that he enjoys watching. Alomar also sees a player that he believes can and will improve.

    “He’s one of the best second basemen of his generation,” said Alomar in a telephone interview last week. “He can still get better.”

    So far, Cano is having a superb season for the Yankees with a .387 average, nine homers and 21 runs batted in. He has embraced the challenge of batting fifth in the lineup, he is hitting with runners in scoring position and he has been the most dynamic player on a team filled with superstars. He has more homers the combined totals of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson.

    Cano’s ascension has coincided with him being asked to do more as Rodriguez’s protector in the lineup, a challenge that I think has motivated him. While Teixeira and Johnson barely produced in April and Rodriguez and Granderson (now on the disabled list) also had sluggish starts, Cano has been terrific on offense and defense. Cano should be the American League’s Player of the Month.

    “I feel so highly about him,” Alomar said. “If he stays healthy and he stays focused, he can be the next Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.”

    Since Jeter helped the Yankees win four titles in his first five seasons and is the Yankees’ all-time hits leader, being mentioned as the next Jeter is hefty praise. After Alomar linked Cano to Jeter, he added that Jeter worked extremely hard to get to such a lofty level and that Cano had to work at least as hard.

    “It’s up to him now,” Alomar said. “It’s not up to anyone else.”

    Alomar won 10 Gold Glove Awards, the most ever by a second baseman, and said that Cano can be a smarter defensive player by refining his instincts. When Alomar played second, he prepared by expecting that the ball would be hit to him. Little Leaguers are told to prepare the same way. What made Alomar’s approach more advanced was how he studied what type of pitch was about to be thrown and where the catcher wanted it to be thrown. In addition, Alomar also studied hitters and factored their tendencies into determining where he would position himself at second.

    “You can’t play in the same position all of the time,” Alomar said. “It’s a matter of having the knowledge and knowing what to do with it.”

    Cano is more adept at scampering to his right than his left to field grounders. Because of that, Alomar said that Cano should inch to his left whenever he can to help him handle the plays that are the toughest for him. Alomar said it is tougher for a second baseman to go to his right because his back is to everything first base, but Cano moves smoothly in that direction.
     
    Even though Cano only sees 3.31 pitches per at-bat, which is last among the Yankee regulars, Alomar said that Cano is a shrewd hitter who has shown the ability to make the proper adjustments. If Cano sees a juicy pitch early in the count, he should pounce on it. In four at-bats against the Baltimore Orioles last Thursday, Cano had two homers and a double while seeing seven pitches.

    But once Cano’s at-bat is finished, Alomar said he should treat his time in the dugout as if he is in a classroom. Alomar, a lifetime .300 hitter, called baseball “a mind game” and said Cano can learn a lot about a pitcher by concentrating on what happens in front of him. As Cano watches the other team, Alomar, like everyone else, will be watching Cano.
     
    “I see myself when I watch him play,” Alomar said. “He can be one of the best.”

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    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.

    THE CONSTANTS
    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.

    THE CONCERNS
    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)

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