With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to the Yankees’ spring training complex in a few weeks, it might be a good time to look at the five things that would be good signs the Yankees are on their way to their 28th world championship. They are:
NO. 5 – CC Sabathia reports to camp minus about 30 pounds he was carrying at the end of last season.
Sabathia struggled with a knee injury at the tail end of the 2010 season. He ended up having surgery to repair the damage and actually dropped about 30 pounds before he reported to spring training last year. The result was Sabathia got off to one of the better starts of his career. At the All-Star break he was 13-4 with a 2.72 ERA and he had won 10 of his last 11 starts. Can you figure out what happened next? He finished the season 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA. The reason was he had gained weight during the course of the season and it really showed in his postseason appearances against the Tigers. He was 0-0 with a 6.23 ERA with a WHIP of 2.08 in 8 2/3 innings over three games. Sabathia chose not to opt out of his contract in order to sign a lucrative extension that will keep in pinstripes until the year 2017. The Yankees got in return from Sabathia a pledge that he will take the excess weight off this winter and keep it off during the course of the season. In a few weeks we will see if Sabathia has succeeded in his pledge.
No. 4 – The Yankees find a second left-handed reliever to help Boone Logan.
Logan, 27, is a good enough pitcher. He was 2-0 with a 2.93 ERA in 2010 and 5-3 with a 3.46 ERA in 2011. But he is terribly miscast as a “lefty specialist.” Left-handed hitters batted .260 off him last season while right-handers fared a bit better at .262. That is because Logan is nothing like Damoso Marte or Pedro Feliciano. The Yankees traded with Kansas City for Rule 5 draftee Cesar Cabral from the Red Sox and signed former Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima to compete this spring for a chance to earn a spot in the bullpen. Cabral, 23, was 3-4 with a 2.95 ERA in 36 appearances with Salem in the Carolina League and Portland in Eastern League. He notched 70 strikeouts and walked 21 batters in 55 innings. Okajima, 36, was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket after posting a 1-0 record and a 4.32 ERA in seven appearances with Red Sox. He was 8-1 with a 2.29 ERA in 34 appearances with the Pawsox. With Feliciano recovering from left shoulder surgery and not expected to pitch in 2012, the Yankees have no other left-handers on their 40-man roster. So either Cabral or Okajima take the bull by the horns and win a job or the Yankees will either have to deal for another lefty or be forced to use starter Manny Banuelos in the role at some point during the season. That is something they do not want to do unless they are forced into it.
No. 3 – A.J. Burnett is not on the roster when the season starts.
The Yankees have made it as clear as possible without saying it publicly: They have no confidence that the enigmatic 35-year-old right-hander will recapture the magic of his 2008 season in Toronto when he was 18-10 with 4.07 ERA and 231 strikeouts in 221 1/3 innings. He has gotten worse in his three years with the Yankees, ending up 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA in 2011. He also has lost velocity on his heater and that is a sign he is in a steep decline. The problem is the Yankees are on the hook for two more years and $33 million on his contract. But the Yankees acquired 23-year-old Michael Pineda and signed 36-year-old free agent Hiroki Kuroda to pitch behind Sabathia and the Yankees are saying that Ivan Nova will retain a spot in the rotation he earned with a 16-4 rookie season. That leaves 25-year-old right-hander Phil Hughes, 35-year-old right-hander Freddy Garcia and Burnett to compete for the No. 5 spot. Barring an injury, the Yankees likely will only keep one of the two starters that fail to win a spot for the bullpen. So the odds for Burnett are not good. The Yankees have made it known they have dangled Burnett in a trade. They are offering to pay about $8 million of his contract but, so far, they have had no serious takers. But as the season nears and teams assess their starting staffs, it could be possible that Burnett could be dealt, much like Sergio Mitre was in 2011. That would be a good thing because Burnett has just about tested every last bit of patience out of manager Joe Girarddi and pitching coach Larry Rothscild. Yankee fans are getting sick of trying to guess whether they will see “Good A.J.” or “Bad A.J.” from start to start. They are seeing the bad version more often these days. It also does not really matter what the Yankees get in return. The Yankees would settle for young prospects – a power-hitting young outfielder and a young pitcher would be just fine. Let’s hope general manager Brian Cashman gets it done before the season starts.
No. 2 – The Yankees either acquire or sign a legitimate and experienced DH.
With the trade of Jesus Montero to the Mariners and the retirement of Jorge Posada, the Yankees currently do not have a major-league designated hitter. For the moment they are touting 29-year-old minor-league corner infielder Jorge Vazquez as a potential starter there. Vazquez, a veteran of the Mexican League, did hit .262 with 32 home runs and drove in 93 runs in 118 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But the Yankees might be looking for a more experienced DH from among free agents such as Raul Ibanez, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Pedro Guerrero. Of that mix, Damon appears to be the best fit. He spent four seasons with the Yankees and has shown he can take advantage of the short dimensions in right-field at Yankee Stadium. In 2011 with the Rays, Damon hit .261 with 16 home runs, 73 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 150 games. Damon would be of use as a DH, part-time outfielder (despite his weak arm) and solid veteran pinch-hitter or pinch-runner off the bench. The others are limited in the field and have declined significantly at the plate. Granted, Girardi does like to rotate his veterans at the DH spot to give them rest. But the Yankees need another bat to replace Montero and they can’t wait too long to fill it.
NO. 1 – Alex Rodriguez shows up in Tampa healthy and displaying prodigious power throughout spring training.
Let’s face it, love him or hate him, Rodriguez is the key to the Yankees’ offense in 2012. Since 2007 when he played in 158 games, Rodriguez has been sidelined for significant periods of time by a hip injury, shoulder problems, a knee injury, a calf injury and a sprained finger. In 2011, he was limited to 99 games and he hit .276 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs. He entered the American League Division Series with Detroit at less than 100 percent and it showed. He was 2-for-18 (.111) with six strikeouts in the series. For the Yankees to have any chance of getting back to the World Series, Rodriguez must remain healthy throughout 2012, particularly during the playoffs. Although Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano pretty much carried the team throughout the 2011 season, it is Rodriguez who strikes the most fear in pitchers when he is “locked in” and pounding out home runs. Borrowing a line from Reggie Jackson, A-Rod is the straw that stirs the drink in the Yankees’ lineup. They need him more than any other player and Rodriguez must also prove he is not in a precipitous decline at age 36. The Yankees are paying him through the 2017 season and they can’t afford to be paying $32 million to a player who hits 16 home runs and drive in 62 runs.