Face Reality, A-Rod, CC Are Yankees’ Pujols, Lee

You are a Yankee fan and you are not happy now.

The reason: General manager Brian Cashman has not made a major splash with a big free-agent signing or a blockbuster trade.

To Yankee fans standing pat is like surrendering to teams like the Marlins and Angels, who tossed around cash this week as if it was only Monopoly money. Some fans are yearning for the days when George Steinbrenner would go after free agents he wanted with the ruthlessness of a pit-bull, never letting go.

However, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner seem to be a lot more pragmatic about spending too much for negligible return. They were willing to spend $150 million for Cliff Lee but they were not going to spend close to $80 million for C.J. Wilson or about $60 million for Mark Buerhle.

There are a lot of reasons the Yankees sat idly by while some teams played “Let’s Make a Deal.”

But perhaps the biggest reason is the Yankees have already lavished their riches on their “Pujols” and their “Lee.” Those are the 10-year, $275 million deal the Yankees committed to Alex Rodriguez in 2007 and the $186 million the team is paying CC Sabathia to be the ace the staff through at least the 2016 season.

Those two contracts are largely why the Yankees are the only team in the major leagues who are subject to the luxury tax. The Steinbrenner family would like for the team to remain competitive and successful while Cashman tries to reduce the annual payroll below the $178 million level where the tax kicks in. or, at the very least, the Steinbrenners would like it to remain steady and not push higher.

That is the reason Christmas ornaments like Pujols, Wilson, Buerhle, Jose Reyes and Prince Fielder will be dangling on other teams’ trees this December.

So Yankee fans will have to realize that a team that won 97 games last season is still an excellent one even if adds no one of significance this winter. Rodriguez will just have to be our Pujols and Sabathia will just have to pitch like Lee in 2012 to make Yankee fans forget that this free-agent shopping spree was just too pricey for a team already above the $200 million mark in annual payroll.

Rodriguez is the biggest key to the Yankees’ success in 2012. You just have to face the fact that Rodriguez is being paid the most because he is expected to be the best player in pinstripes, period.

Last season, he was anything but that. Oh, he showed a lot of promise in the spring when he showed up lighter and quicker in the field. He also had a spring that portended a monster 2011 season. But, as the previous three seasons proved, Rodriguez was beset by a series of injuries that kept him off the field for 63 games and a shadow of what he was in the other 99.

Rodriguez, 36, hit .276 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs. If this is the level of performance the Yankees will get from Rodriguez in 2012 they are doomed to fail. Oh, they are talented enough to make the playoffs. But they will not go very far or do very well in the playoffs without what was the most feared hitter in the American League when he is healthy.

But balky shoulders, unsteady knees and painful thumbs can reduce a great player to just a pretty good one real quick. That is what happened to Rodriguez in 2011 and why he needs to arrive in Tampa in Florida fit and ready to go to war to restore his reputation as that most feared hitter.

 

To steal a Reggie Jackson line, A-Rod “stirs the drink.” His health will determine if that drink is a classy Manhattan or just another slow gin fizzle.

 

There is no doubt that Rodriguez is on a slight decline. He has not played in more than 138 games since the 2007 season. From 2004 through 2007, Rodriguez averaged 43 home runs and 128 RBIs. From 2008 through 2010 he has averaged 32 home runs and 109 RBIs. In 2009, Rodriguez barely reached 30 home runs and 100 RBIs on the final day against the Rays but he was healthy at the right time to lead the Yankees through the playoffs and into the World Series as the Yankees won their 27th championship.

So the point is that Rodriguez can average 32 home runs and 109 RBIs and be in decline and still lead the Yankees into a World Series. He just has to be healthy when the playoffs begin. That was not the case last season and the Yankees paid dearly for it in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. They only trailed by a run but it may as well have been 10 runs the way the offense just seemed to sputter with runners in scoring position.

With a healthy and “locked in” A-Rod would the result have been the same? I doubt it.

For all the talk of Robinson Cano and how he has become the best hitter and best player on the Yankees, it is still Rodriguez who can turn a game with his bat that can strike fear into opposing pitchers, managers and teams. Besides the fact is that his ability to hit makes Cano, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner better.

To steal a Reggie Jackson line, A-Rod “stirs the drink.”

His health will determine if that drink is a classy Manhattan or just another slow gin fizzle.

The same can be said of Sabathia. He is, after all, the unquestioned ace.

When he is really dealing he is among the best pitchers in baseball. He is 59-23 in his 101 starts in pinstripes. The Yankees have reached the postseason in the past three seasons largely because of his work in the regular season.

But the past two seasons, his work in the postseason has been not worthy of the status of the one of the best pitchers in baseball. In the past two postseasons he is 2-0 but his ERA in his six appearances (five starts) is 5.84. That stands in stark contrast to his 3-1 record and 1.98 ERA in the 2009 postseason.

In the 2010 playoffs, Sabathia pitched with an injured left knee that required offseason surgery. Sabathia rehabbed the knee and showed up at spring training in February 30 pounds lighter. It helped him get off to unusually quick start and by the All-Star break Sabathia was on the top of his game.

He was 13-4 with a 2.72 ERA at the break. He finished the season 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA. So in his last 12 starts, Sabathia was a very ordinary 6-4 with a 3.66 ERA before imploding the playoffs. Why?

Much of that was was blamed on Sabathia’s noticeable and significant weight gain down the stretch. The heavier he got the worse he pitched.

But the Yankees chose not to allow Sabathia to opt out of his contract and leave via free agency. Considering the things Sabathia has done for the Yankees it was a very wise decision. After all, Wilson. Buerhle, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda were not going to replace Sabathia.

In order to find another ace like Sabathia would have cost the Yankees prize prospects like Jesus Monetro, Eduardo Nunez, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. So getting a younger pitcher like Felix Hernandez would have pretty much raped the impressive farm system Cashman has gradually rebuilt the past five years.

So Sabathia will remain a Yankee through at least 2016 (the Yankees have an option for 2017) and the Yankees do not have to bid on overpriced free agents or trade their great young prospects. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Now the Yankees just have to make sure Sabathia stays off the Cap’n Crunch cereal he loves and eats a lot more salad throughout the 2012 season. At age 31, Sabathia is going to have to realize that to extend his career he is going to have to take care of that large frame going forward.

The Yankees could easily add a starting pitcher or two to their roster to improve the rotation. I fully expect Cashman to continue to his efforts to do just that this winter. But the real key to this staff is making sure Sabathia is able to hit the 2012 playoffs in shape and healthy enough to be the ace he is supposed to be.

Without that, and the health of A-Rod, the whole journey to the 2012 playoffs will be just as wasted as the effort in 2011 was.

Like I said Yankee fans, A-Rod and CC are our free agent pickups and we will live or die in 2012 with them.

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