Prescient scout to thank for Jeter in pinstripes

    Thursday, February 20, 2014, 5:45 PM [General]

    Even the most ardent Yankees fan wouldn't consider April 8, 1992 an important date in the team's successful history. The Yankees didn't even play a game on that day, which meant it was as benign a day as a franchise could experience. But something memorable did happen on that seemingly sleepy day.

    Dick Groch, a Yankees' scout, was busy that day, busy completing his scouting report on a high school shortstop from Kalamazoo, Michigan named Derek Jeter. Almost 22 years later, it is surreal to analyze how accurate Groch was in forecasting the future for a 17-year-old player. Groch filed the report on April 8, 1992, which is why that innocuous day is actually a relevant date in Yankees' history.

    When Jeter discusses his decision to retire after the 2014 season at a press conference on Wednesday, he will explain why this is the end. There will also be questions about how Jeter, the kid who told his parents and everyone else that he would play for the Yankees, started his career with the organization. While Jeter was drafted in the first round by the Yankees on June 1, 1992, don't overlook the importance of Groch's report from two months earlier.

    After receiving Groch's report, the Yankees were more committed than ever to selecting Jeter with the sixth pick overall. Scouts routinely use a 20 to 80 scale to rate the different skills of a player, with a score of 50 considered to be an average Major Leaguer. A 60 means a player is above average and a 70 means a player is among the best of the best. Groch rated Jeter's overall future potential as a 64, meaning he believed that Jeter would be a well above average player and an All-Star.

    While Groch's numerical ratings of Jeter's hitting, running and throwing were revealing, his comments about Jeter were more intriguing. As I read Groch's report, it was eerie to realize how precisely he had predicted Jeter's career.

    Under the section of the reported entitled, "Summation and Signability," Groch wrote, "A Yankee!" A five-tool player. He will be a M.L. star times five!!."

    In the section for "Abilities," Groch wrote, "Above average arm, quick release. Accurate throws with outstanding carry. Soft hands, good range, active feet. Very good runner. Flow on the bases. Shows power potential. Quick bat."

    In the section for "Weaknesses," Groch wrote, "Anxious hitter. Needs to learn to be more patient at the plate. Swing slightly long."

    When Groch had to give a "Physical Description," for Jeter, he wrote, "Long, lean, sinewy body. Long arms, long legs, narrow waist, thin ankles. Live, electric movements."

    In Groch's report, he graded Jeter's in intangibles. He rated Jeter as "excellent" in dedication, emotional maturity and agility, "good" in habits, aptitude and coachability and "fair" in physical maturity since the shortstop was still a skinny kid. Although the report listed Jeter as 175 pounds, Jeter has said he was 156 when the Yankees drafted him. Groch was prescient enough to give Jeter the highest ranking for dedication and emotional maturity, traits that have been hallmarks of his career, on and off the field.

    Groch's report also used the 20-80 scale to give Jeter a present rating and a future rating for 10 different skills. Jeter's future scores included one 70 (for running speed), one 65 (for fielding), five 60s (for base running, arm strength, arm accuracy, baseball instinct and range), one 55 (for aggressiveness) and and two 50s (for hitting ability and power). Merely giving Jeter, who has 3,316 hits and counting, a 50 for hitting ability was one blemish in the report.

    When Jeter was being scouted, teams knew there was a slight possibility that he could go to Michigan to play baseball. Groch scoffed at the notion and said the only place Jeter was going was to the Hall of Fame. So Groch will eventually be right with that prediction, too. The scout was right about most things with Jeter, which is why the report he filed on April 8, 1992 made that day a memorable one for the Yankees.

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    Family prepared Jeter for life as a Yankee

    Thursday, February 13, 2014, 2:22 PM [General]

    When I collaborated with Derek Jeter on a book in 2000, he let me into his private world a little more than he ever does with reporters. In order to accurately tell Jeter's story in "The Life You Imagine," I told him that he needed to treat me as a co-author and not like the sportswriter from The New York Times, which I was at the time.

    "That sounds good to me," Jeter said simply, after I spent five minutes describing why that distinction was important.

    For several months, I shadowed Jeter and interviewed him anywhere and everywhere. We did an interview over lunch at an Italian restaurant. At least we tried to do it. Once the fans spotted Jeter, I had no chance to get my questions answered. The autograph seekers won. We did interviews in Jeter's home in Tampa. Those were much more productive, but I should have asked him to lower the volume on ESPN. We did an interview on a private plane, which ended up being the most useful session we had. It was just me and Jeter for three straight hours in the four-seat plane. He even reached into the mini-fridge to serve both of us lunch.

    What I learned in the book process reinforced what I had already known about Jeter. He is devoted to his parents, Charles and Dorothy, and his sister, Sharlee. That's not a charade. He had an obsession about becoming a Yankee, a dream that he had chased from the time he was eight years old. That's no charade, either. I read the elementary school yearbook in which Jeter predicted he would be a Yankee. He didn't complicate matters. There was nothing in Jeter's life, from personal to business relationships, that he didn't want there. If there was clutter, he would eliminate it.

    After interviewing Jeter, his parents, his sister, his grandmother and his closest friends, I concluded that the Jeter who took over as the Yankees' shortstop in 1996 had essentially been that responsible since he was the shortstop at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan. Obviously, the 22-year old Jeter who helped the Yankees win the 1996 World Series title was more mature than the 15-year old Jeter that wanted to beat Portage Central. But I truly believe that Jeter was so motivated to achieve his goal of playing in the Major Leagues that he started acting like a big leaguer before he had a driver's license.

    As revered as Jeter is these days, he and his family experienced bigotry (Dorothy is white and Charles is African-American) and that caused Jeter to be even more guarded. When Jeter was a kid, he said there "was something different about the way some people treated us." Some kids called Jeter a Zebra or Oreo Cookie or Black and White. When those unfortunate incidents happen, any person would be more selective about who they trust, how they act and what they say.

    While Jeter's parents helped prepare him for a world that wasn't always going to be fair because of the color of his skin, I think that preparation helped him navigate the turbulence that can come with playing baseball in New York. Has any superstar in New York had as spotless an off-the-field reputation as Jeter? No one. Even as Jeter has dated super models, beauty queens and pop stars, his image has remained pristine.

    When I asked Jeter about how he has led his life on and off the field, he explained what has guided his actions. Jeter said that he never wanted to do anything that would "embarrass" his parents. Imagine that? It's a simple, but profound statement. If we all made decisions based on not wanting to embarrass our parents, we'd make safer and smarter choices.

    Now Jeter is retiring after the 2014 season, ending a career that has been exhilarating for him, his family and the generation of fans that don't know the Yankees without him. On the same day that Jeter announced his retirement, Jeff Idelson, the President of the Hall of Fame, noted that the induction ceremony for the 2020 class is on July 26. As cool and classy as ever, Jeter will undoubtedly be enshrined that day. I'm sure he'd say, "That sounds good to me."  

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    Jeter to put finishing touch on a spotless career

    Thursday, February 13, 2014, 9:50 AM [General]

    When Derek Jeter was a rookie shortstop with the Yankees in 1996, the veteran players scrutinized him. They were waiting for Jeter to do something that was immature, something that would require them to scold Jeter. It was all part of the clubhouse culture and was a way for the older players to teach some lessons. Eventually, every young player needed to be reprimanded, even playfully, for something.      

    So the veterans waited. They waited for Jeter to wear a garish outfit on the team plane, speak at the wrong time during a team meeting or miss a sign during a game. They studied the new kid on the block. He was 21 years old when the season started. Soon, they thought, he will do something goofy.

    "We were waiting for him to make a mistake, like a cop with a radar gun," said David Cone. "He never did. Derek handled himself as well as anyone could."

    That snapshot of Jeter's behavior during his first full season was the same picture that could be taken during every season of his career, a tremendous career that will end after 2014. Jeter announced on Wednesday that he would play this season with the Yankees and then will retire. So the man whose career was highlighted by making the right decisions, on and off the field, is making the right decision again.

    While I think Jeter is making the correct decision by retiring, I was still surprised by it. When I interviewed Jeter last spring, before his ankle injury had recurred, I asked him whether he could duplicate his superb 2012 season of 216 hits and how high he could climb up the all-time hits list.

    As always, Jeter was amazingly confident. He didn't want to just repeat 2012. He talked about being even better in 2013. I mentioned that Jeter, who now has 3,316 hits, was two solid seasons away from vaulting into fourth-place on the hits list, behind Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. Jeter didn't sprint away from that possibility, didn't sound like a man who was less than a year from retiring.

    But Jeter's mindset changed because of a 2013 season that he called a nightmare, a campaign that was limited to 17 games. In Jeter's statement, he said, "Some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel like a job, it would be time to move forward."

    Five months ago, Jeter chided reporters that asked about the future and wondered why there were so many questions about "the end." Now Jeter has answered the question about the end before it could even be asked this spring. This is it. This is the end for one of the greatest Yankees ever, a player with a .312 lifetime average, five World Series rings, five Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year Award and three top-three M.V.P. finishes.

    Scan the crowd at Yankees game. You see all those kids wearing No. 2 jerseys, who root for Jeter and dream that they could be just like him? Jeter was one was of those dreaming kids. When Jeter was eight, he told his parents he would play for the Yankees. But Jeter didn't just have a dream. We all have dreams. He worked to make it a reality. From taking thousands of swings in his garage during frigid Michigan winters, to bypassing summer parties so he could play in tournaments, to abiding by the strict contracts that he signed with his parents -- Jeter was relentless in pursuing his dream.

    "I was always serious about what I was doing," Jeter said. "I knew what I wanted to do."

    In four months, Jeter will turn 40. I remember when he was 18 and the Yankees played host to their first-round draft choice at Yankee Stadium. He weighed 156 pounds. A year later, Jeter made 56 errors in the minor leagues, cried a lot and thought about quitting. But Charles and Dorothy, his parents, reminded him that he had a goal, a very difficult goal, and that he could attain it. Of course, he did.

    A few days before Christmas in 1997, Jeter visited children in a hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich. Before the visit, Jeter conceded that he hated being in hospitals and was uncomfortable. During the visit, Jeter was at ease and was a magnet to the kids. He crouched down to play in a miniature kitchen with a little girl and teased an 11-year-old boy about being a Dallas Cowboys fan.

    As I watched Jeter interact with those kids, I realized how smooth he was. He was as comfortable with them as he would be in lashing a fastball to right field with his familiar inside-out swing. Like Cone said, Jeter handled himself as well as someone could. At the time, Jeter had only been the Yankee shortstop for two years, but he said, "I have the best job in the world."

    For one more year, he still does. Enjoy the final moments of a memorable career, a spotless career.

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    JCTV: Best of Baseball Cards

    Tuesday, February 4, 2014, 11:52 AM [General]

    At the end of each episode of JCTV, host Jack Curry opens a pack of baseball cards with his guest. Watch as Jack compares decks with Adam Sandler, Brian Williams, David Cone, Regis Philbin and more.

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    JCTV, Episode 28: Chris Wragge

    Tuesday, February 4, 2014, 11:47 AM [General]

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    Yankees sold on Tanaka's competitive spirit

    Thursday, January 23, 2014, 1:55 PM [General]

    When Masahiro Tanaka was 18 years old, the Yankees began scouting him in Japan. The Yankees were already scouting Yu Darvish in Japan in 2007, but they were also intrigued enough with Tanaka's talents that they monitored him, too. By 2009, the Yankees were drooling over Tanaka and imagining what it would be like to have him in their rotation.

    What the Yankees imagined about Tanaka has become a reality after they signed the pitcher to a 7-year, $155 million contract on Wednesday. Since the Yankees also must pay a $20 million posting fee to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka's former team, they have now invested $175 million in someone that has never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues. But the Yankees believe the 25-year-old will be a linchpin in their rotation for years to come.

    Across the last few seasons, the Yankees have studied Tanaka's impressive exploits on the mound and have seen a fierce competitor, someone that reminds them of CC Sabathia. The Yankees interviewed Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee and Darrell Rasner, former Yankees who all were teammates with Tanaka, and heard superb reports about his demeanor and toughness. By the time the Yankees made their offer to Tanaka, they had 11 different scouting evaluations from members of their organization.

    What those 22 experienced baseball eyes saw was enough evidence for the Yankees to invest heavily in Tanaka. And, as much as the Yankees were chasing Tanaka, he was chasing the Major League dream. Between starts in Japan, Tanaka used a Major League baseball, which is considered slicker than the ball that is used in Japan, to help him get acclimated for 2014. The Yankees had scouts at 15 of Tanaka's starts in 2013, a season in which he was 24-0 with a 1.27 earned run average, 183 strikeouts and 32 walks in 212 innings.

    By signing Tanaka, the Yankees culminated a frenetic offseason shopping spree. After not reaching the postseason in 2013, the Yankees have invested over a half billion dollars by reaching agreements with Tanaka ($175 million, including the posting fee), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million), Brian McCann ($85 million), Carlos Beltran ($45 million), Hiroki Kuroda ($16 million), Derek Jeter ($12 million), Matt Thornton ($7 million), Brendan Ryan ($5 million), Kelly Johnson ($3 million) and Brian Roberts ($2 million). For those without calculators, that's a cool $503 million.

    As the Yankees prepared for 2014, Hal Steinbrenner, the managing general partner, repeatedly said that it was a goal, not a mandate, to have a payroll under $189 million. If the Yankees accomplished that feat, they would have reaped some major financial rewards. But Tanaka's addition validated Steinbrenner's remarks about $189 million being a goal because Tanaka's deal, which averages $22.1 million per season, will catapult the Yankees over that threshold. Tanaka's contract includes an opt out after the fourth year and was first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.

    If Tanaka is as talented and effective as the Yankees think he can be, he will give them another elite pitcher to join Sabathia at the top of the rotation. As expensive as young pitching can be (see Kershaw, Clayton and $215 million) and with no obvious prospects to slide into the rotation, the Yankees felt it was essential to secure Tanaka. With Tanaka, Sabathia, Kuroda and Ivan Nova, the Yankees have a solid front four in their rotation. Michael Pineda, Adam Warren, David Phelps and Vidal Nuno will be in the hunt for the fifth spot. The losers in that battle could land in the bullpen and add depth, meaning Tanaka's signing should have a trickle down effect.  

    For the Yankees, this pursuit stretched back several years. After seeing Tanaka pitch in relief in the 2009 World Baseball Classic with a Major League ball, against Major League hitters and in Major League Stadiums, the Yankees were sold. Even though it was a small sample size, the Yankees were smitten with Tanaka. In 2014, the Yankees don't have to imagine what it's like to have Tanaka in their rotation. It's a reality. The Yankees have their man.  

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    JCTV, Episode 27: Peter Scolari

    Wednesday, January 15, 2014, 3:41 PM [General]

    In the latest episode of JCTV, host Jack Curry chats with actor Peter Scolari about the challenge of playing a real-life legend, as Scolari prepares to play Yogi Berra in "The Bronx Bombers" on Broadway.

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    JCTV, Episode 26: Brian Williams, part 2

    Thursday, January 9, 2014, 1:09 PM [General]

    In the second part of Jack Curry's interview with Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor talks about finding outlets for his sense of humor, his most harrowing moment as a journalist and much more.

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    JCTV, Episode 25: Brian Williams

    Friday, January 3, 2014, 12:00 PM [General]

    In the latest episode of JCTV, NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams joins Jack Curry to talk about the anchor's admiration for Walter Cronkite, his passion for television and his life-long love of sports.

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    Torre credits 'The Boss' with changing his career

    Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 11:38 AM [General]

    LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA - It's not supposed to unfold like this, not in baseball. A man is not supposed to experience his greatest job triumphs after his 55th birthday. Baseball doesn't work that way. But that's what happened with Joe Torre, who was hired as Yankees manager by George Steinbrenner and watched his career skyrocket into an unfathomable place, into the Hall of Fame.

    When Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa were unanimously voted into the Hall by the 16-member Expansion Era committee on Monday, the managers were naturally emotional. Torre said the delirious news, which he knew had a strong possibility of happening, "hits you like a sledgehammer." Torre cut his acceptance speech short because he was worried about crying.

    But, eventually, Torre sat at the end of a stage and talked about the incredible baseball journey he has experienced. Before Steinbrenner called Torre, it was a journey that seemed to have ended for Torre. He had an excellent career as a player, a career that he said wasn't worthy of the Hall, and then managed the Mets, the Braves and the Cardinals to an 894-1003 record. In November of 1995, Torre thought his expiration date as a manager had passed. That's when Steinbrenner called and offered the job

    "George Steinbrenner changed my life," Torre said.

    With Derek Jeter and Torre both assuming full-time roles in 1996, the Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years. Before Torre joined the Yankees, he had managed or played in 4,722 games without making it to the World Series. Once Torre made it to that hallowed place with the Yankees, he helped make it habitual to return there as the Yankees won titles in four of his first five seasons.

    While voters were instructed to judge candidates on the totality of their careers, Torre stressed that he wouldn't have been voted into the Hall if he hadn't managed the Yankees. Although Torre is proud of what he accomplished as a player, he catapulted himself into contention for the Hall based on what he did in the dugout. Torre guided the Yankees to 12 straight post-season appearances and finished with a record of 1,173-767. He had a soothing style, always projecting to his players that he believed in them and that the Yankees were only an inning away from another comeback.

    "On behalf of the Steinbrenner family and our entire organization, I'd like to congratulate Joe Torre on his induction into the Hall of Fame," said Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees' managing general partner, in a statement. "Joe led our team during one of the most successful runs in our storied history, and he did it with a quiet dignity that was true to the Yankee way. Joe's place in history has been secure for quite some time and it is appropriate that he now gets to take his place among the greats in Cooperstown."

    When Torre became the Yankees' manager, I wrote in The New York Times that he was a "respectable, but hardly overwhelming choice." That wasn't as damning as the "Clueless Joe" headline that ran in The New York Daily News, but there was a definite curiosity about why Steinbrenner hired a manager who had failed in three other places. In Torre's first year, he helped proved why Steinbrenner had made the right decision.

    Besides Torre, LaRussa and Cox, no candidates, which included Marvin Miller and Steinbrenner, received the 12 votes that were necessary to be elected into the Hall. In fact, none received more than six votes. Torre lamented that Miller, the former head of the player's union, had been snubbed again. It's ludicrous that Miller isn't in the Hall. Eight of the 16 voters are former players. How did Miller not at least get eight votes?

    And Torre also spoke about Steinbrenner, the man who had changed his life when Torre was 55. Torre said that his old boss deserves to be in the Hall, too.

    Prominent members of the Yankees' organization agree with Torre. Randy Levine, the Yankees' president, congratulated Torre, LaRussa and Cox and said they were superb candidate who deserve to be in the Hall. But Levine added that Steinbrenner should be in there, too.

    I think they made a mistake," Levine said. "There's no one that impacted the game more than George Steinbrenner. He deserves to be in the Hall."

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    Yankees stick to their plan by letting Cano leave

    Friday, December 6, 2013, 4:29 PM [General]

    Two years ago, Robinson Cano stood on the rooftop of a hotel in Taiwan and described how meaningful it was for him to be a superstar. He wanted to be celebrated for his abilities, he wanted to be recognized for his talents and he wanted to be lionized for being the next great Yankee. He seemed to have a script in mind for making this unfold.

    While Cano was in Taiwan for a Major League Baseball exhibition tour, he was adored. And he loved it. Cano embraced every aspect of the attention, even happily marching through the streets with over a hundred people trailing him like a Pied Piper. He was a Yankee and marveled about how fans that lived 8,000 miles from Yankee Stadium were so interested in him.

    As Cano's free agency has evolved, I've thought about what he said at the hotel and the scenes I witnessed in Taiwan. Cano admitted that the love he received in Taiwan was, in part, because he played in New York and because the Yankees' brand traveled around the world. He stressed that he loved being linked with one of the most famous teams in professional sports.

    "When you play in New York," Cano said, "you have fans all over."

    Now Cano's connection with the Yankees has ended. According to ESPN, Cano has agreed to a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners haven't officially announced the deal, but that should happen after Cano's physical next week. One of Cano's former teammates told me he was "stunned" by Cano's decision. A part of me is surprised that Cano left the Yankees, where he was building a potential Hall of Fame career, for Seattle. The Mariners have averaged 68 wins in the last four seasons. But, of course, the most important number to note is that Seattle's offer was $70 million more than Cano's next best offer.

    I'm not being naïve about Cano's situation. Players wait six years for free agency and they are free to sign with any team they want and for any amount. It's the player's decision, not anyone else's. Last month, general manager Brian Cashman said Cano "loves the money" as he talked about whether the Yankees would sign Cano. Cashman said the Yankees would make a substantial offer, which they did at seven years for about $170 million, but added that another team might outbid them. That's exactly what happened.

    Cano was the best player on the Yankees, a durable second baseman who provided power and who offered Gold Glove caliber defense. From his sweet swing to his stylish plays, Cano will be missed in many ways. But the Yankees were adamant about not giving Cano a 10-year deal or even an eight-year deal. The Yankees were very comfortable giving Cano a seven-year contract with an average annual value of almost $25 million. After the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $275 million that they ended up regretting, they refused to extend that lengthy an offer to Cano.

    As difficult as it was for the Yankees to lose a talent like Cano, they have an offseason plan for improving their club and they are executing that plan. They have invested over a quarter billion dollars to sign Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kelly Johnson and Brendan Ryan and to re-sign Derek Jeter. Cano could have remained in New York, but he would have had to accept the Yankees' terms. He didn't. That's his prerogative. The Mariners offered the most money, by far. So the player that loved being a Yankee must learn to love being a Mariner.  

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    Ellsbury deal part of bold offseason for the Yankees

    Thursday, December 5, 2013, 10:02 AM [General]

    When the 2013 season ended without a postseason spot for the Yankees, they had internal discussions about being aggressive shoppers in the offseason. The Yankees wanted to move smartly and quickly to address the issues that loomed over them. So far, they are following that plan.

    By signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a 7-year, $153 million contract, the Yankees continued to show that they don't want 2014 to be a repeat of 2013. The agreement with the former Red Sox center fielder came a few hours after the official announcement that the Yankees had signed catcher Brian McCann to a 5-year, $85 million deal.

    So the Yankees signed two marquee players for $238 million in contracts and they aren't done adding players. The Yankees believe they can still sign Robinson Cano, although they are firm about not stretching their offer beyond the 7-year, $170 million range. If Cano wants to bolt to Seattle because the Mariners make a superior offer, the Yankees have told him they won't engage in a bidding war.

    As the Cano situation evolves, the Yankees will stay busy. The Yankees are close to signing Kelly Johnson, a second baseman and left fielder, to a one-year deal for about $3 million. While Johnson isn't a solid defensive player, he gives the Yankees some insurance if Cano signs elsewhere. Again, the Yankees would love to have Cano in their lineup. But they want to do that at their number, something they have said again and again.

    If the Yankees sign Cano, they could field a lineup of Ellsbury, Derek Jeter, Cano, Mark Teixeira, McCann, Alfonso Soriano, a third baseman to be determined, Johnson or Brendan Ryan (depending on whether Jeter is the designated hitter that day) and Brett Gardner. That is a vast improvement from the team that managed 650 runs last season, a season in which the bottom three in the order were often black holes.

    But, as impressive as that lineup would be, the Yankees also need to strengthen their starting rotation. Manager Joe Girardi has said his only certainties in the rotation are CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. The Yankees have made a one-year offer to Hiroki Kuroda and are optimistic that he will return. If Major League Baseball officials and Japanese baseball officials agree on revamping the posting system, the Yankees would be major players for Masuhiro Tanaka, too. Michael Pineda, David Phelps and Adam Warren will likely compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.

    In an offseason that has featured discussions about Alex Rodriguez's arbitration case and more chatter about how the Yankees will keep their payroll under $189 million, the attention switched to Ellsbury on Tuesday. The Yankees have raved about Ellsbury's speed, defense and ability to get on base and they also think he will hit more homers at Yankee Stadium. Ellsbury was an important name on the Yankees' shopping list, a player they feel will help make sure 2014 ends differently than 2013.

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