Tagged: A.J. Pierzynski

Tanaka Cruises Again As Yankee Bats Bash Braves

GAME 17

YANKEES 12, BRAVES 5

LAKE BUENA VISTA  –  Masahiro Tanaka continued his dominance by tossing 3 2/3 shutout innings and Stephen Drew and Brian McCann led a 12-run, 14-hit attack with a pair of two-run homers as New York hammered Atlanta at Champion Field on Wednesday.

Tanaka (1-0), making his second start of the spring, retired 16 of the 18 batters he faced while striking out three to get credit for the victory. The right-hander only gave up a single to A.J. Pierzynski in the second inning and a double to Freddie Freeman in the fourth.

The Yankees, meanwhile, took an early 1-0 lead in the third inning on Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz (0-1) on a two-out RBI single by Chase Headley to score Didi Gregorius, who was 3-for-3 on the night including an RBI triple in the fifth.

But the Yankees really teed off on Braves left-hander James Russell, scoring six runs on seven hits in the fourth and fifth innings that included Drew’s deep two-run blast in the fourth and McCann’s nearly identically longball in the fifth.

It was the most runs the Yankees have scored this spring in a game since they defeated the Houston Astros 9-4 on March 7 in Kissimmee, FL.

With the victory, the Yankees improved their Grapefruit League record to 10-6.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Tanaka, 26, followed up his sensational two-inning debut against the Braves on March 12 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL, with another dominant performance on Wednesday. Now maybe the media and fans will shut up about his right elbow and just admit that Tanaka is just fine. He is primed for another great season.
  • I have been on Drew’s case all spring so I have to admit that he is beginning to come around with the bat. Drew was 1-for-3 against the Braves and is 2-for-5 with three RBIs in his past two games, raising his spring average from what was a low of .077 on March 12 to .167.
  • McCann has been struggling this spring also. But he returned to what was his spring home field for nine seasons and raked big time. He was 2-for-2 with a walk, a single and a home run and that raised his spring average to .217. He came in hitting .143.
  • Gregorius is quickly making a name for himself as an exceptional fielder and tonight he showed that he is capable of swinging the bat. He was 3-for-3 with two singles, a triple, a stolen base and one RBI. He is hitting a solid .273 so far and he seems to have won over Yankee fans with his range and cannon arm.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The only big negative of the evening was a pair of two-out errors. The first was Garrett Jones on a ball off the bat of Alberto Callaspo in the fifth inning. Former Yankee Zoilo Almonte followed with a single and fellow former Yankee Kelly Johnson then hit a three-run home run off right-hander Jose Ramirez, who deserved a better fate.
  • The following inning Rob Refsnyder’s errant throw allowed Jesus Flores to reach first. Andrelton Simmons then singled and Callaspo followed with an RBI single off right-hander Andrew Bailey, who was making his first appearance in a game in 19 months when he pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 2013. That means that four of the five runs the Braves scored were unearned.

BOMBER BANTER

Once again, the Yankees soft-pedaled an injury to the media that turns out to be more serious. The Yankees announced on Wednesday that starting center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury will cease all baseball-related activities for a week due to what is being called a mild oblique strain. After the Yankees said Ellsbury would not require an MRI, he was sent for one and it revealed the strain. Ellsbury said he felt the injury before Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Manager Joe Girardi said that he still thinks Ellsbury will have enough time to be ready for Opening Day. “I thought he was in a pretty good place, as far as being in shape and playing multiple days,” Girardi told reporters “There’ll be plenty of time for him.”  . . .  Yankees left-hander Jose de Paula is scheduled to undergo an MRI on his left shoulder on Thursday.  De Paula has felt some lingering soreness for the past few days but had to stop throwing when the pain returned on Wednesday.

ON DECK

The Yankees return to Tampa to play host again to the Phillies.

The competition for the fifth starter’s spot heats up with right-hander Emil Rogers scheduled tho start for the Yankees. Rogers has no record and a 0.00 ERA in four games (two starts). He is one of the front-runners to replace the injured Chris Capuano in the rotation.

The Phillies will counter with veteran right-hander Aaron Harang, who is making only his second appearance of the spring. He is penciled in as the team’s No. 2 starter now that Cliff Lee has been placed on the 60-day disabled list with a left forearm strain.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by ESPN and locally by the YES Network.

 

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Ellsbury Returns To Fenway As Yanks Pester Lester

“The bad boy’s back
The bad boy’s back in town, oh yeah
The bad boy’s back
Don’t you shoot him down”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          – Asia

GAME 20

YANKEES 9, RED SOX 3

To Red Sox Nation, leaving the fold to play for the Yankees is tantamount to Benedict Arnold’s treachery during the Revolutionary War. They let Jacoby Ellsbury know it as he stepped into the batter’s box for his first at-bat. But Ellsbury quickly showed the Fenway Park faithful what they are missing in the leadoff spot and in centerfield.

Ellsbury was 2-for-5 with a double and a triple, scored two runs, drove in two runs and made a sensational sliding catch in center while Masahiro Tanaka pitched into the eighth inning as New York bedeviled Boston in front of a crowd of 37,041 and national television audience.

The Yankees frustrated and unnerved Jon Lester (2-3) for 4 2/3 innings, scoring eight runs (three earned) on 11 hits and four walks while Lester struck out seven.

Tanaka (3-0), in contrast, was cool, calm and in command as he held the Red Sox to two runs  –  on a pair of back-to-back homers by David Ortiz and Mike Napoli with one out in the fourth  –  on seven hits, no walks and he fanned seven to remain undefeated after posting a 24-0 record in his final season in Japan.

The Yankees rattled Lester from the beginning when Ellsbury ignored the boos  –  and a few cheers  –  to lace a ball to the wall in deep center that a fan reached into the field play to deflect and the umpires awarded Ellsbury a triple. Derek Jeter followed with an RBI single and the undoing of Lester began.

A combination of an A.J. Pierzynski passed ball and a Pierzynski throwing error allowed Jeter to advance to third. Jeter then scored on an RBI single by Carlos Beltran.

The Yankees added a pair of runs in the third when Alfonso Soriano slapped a double off the Green Monster and Mark Teixeira followed with a bloop single to right that scored Soriano. Brian McCann then scored Teixeira with a RBI double off the Monster that made it 4-0.

After Ortiz and Napoli homered to fool the fans into thinking they were actually back in the game, the Yankees chased Lester in the fifth with four unearned runs.

With Teixeira on second after he was walked and McCann on first with a single, Lester struck out Yangervis Solarte and Ichiro Suzuki. However, Napoli was unable to hold Brian Roberts’ lined drive in his glove at first base for the third out and Teixeira scored when the ball rolled into rightfield.

The Red Sox had an opportunity to end the inning if Grady Sizemore had thrown the ball to second base because McCann did not see Napoli lose the ball and he was walking off the field. But Sizemore threw home to try to get Teixeira as McCann scrambled back to second.

It was that kind of night for Lester and the Red Sox. Leave it to Ellsbury to make the his old team pay for the mistake.

He followed with a two-run double on Lester’s 118th and final pitch of the evening.

Jeter then greeted left-hander Chris Capuano with an RBI single into center and Ellsbury crossed the plate to make a 8-2 laugher.

Beltran capped the scoring in the eighth by blasting his fifth home run of the season with one out in the eight inning off right-hander Edward Mujica.

The Red Sox scored an “oh-by-the way” run in the ninth off Dellin Betances on a one-out double by Jonny Gomes and and two-out double off the bat of Xander Bogaerts that scored Gomes.

The 11 hits the Yankees nicked Lester with were the most hits he has given up to them in his career. Every Yankee starter with the exception of Solarte had at least one hit in the game.

The Yankees have won four of the first five meetings against the Red Sox this season.

With the victory the Yankees improved their record to 12-8 and the lead the American League East by one game over the Toronto Blue Jays. The Red Sox are 9-12 and in last place in the division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Ellsbury, 30, proved to his former team he was worth the seven-year, $153-million contract he received from the Yankees. His hitting (.342), speed (leads American League with eight steals) and Gold-Glove defense in center are worth rewarding. The Red Sox two biggest weaknesses are their leadoff spot and the fact that centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .228. The fans can boo him all they want but as Bob Costas said on his call of the game for the MLB Network, “They are booing the laundry and not the player.”
  • Tanaka was a great contrast to his mound opponent Lester. While Lester fumed about hits that dropped in, hard-hit balls off the Monster and the strike zone of home-plate umpire Quinn Wolcott, Tanaka did not show any emotion at all and looked to be in command at all times. For all his hype, Lester’s career ERA is 3.73 and his WHIP is a staggeringly high 1.30. He also showed the Yankees you can rattle him. Tanaka proved pretty much the opposite.
  • Want to hear a stunning stat about Jeter? In the past 11 games that he has played he has at least one hit in all of them. In fact, he has only failed to get a hit in two of the 14 games in which played this season. His 2-for-4 night raised his season average to .298. Anybody really think he is washed up at age 39?

NAGGING NEGATIVES

On a night where the Red Sox had their ace pounded for 11 hits, the Yankees’ imported free agent from Japan made them look silly on his split-finger fastball and Ellsbury laid it on his former club there is nothing that I can say that would be close to being negative. The world is just a better place when the Yankees put the Red Sox in their place  –  last.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees activated closer David Robertson from the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday and outrighted left-hander Cesar Cabral to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make room on the roster. Robertson has been sidelined sidelined since April 6 with a strain in his left groin. With Robertson’s reinstatement, Shawn Kelley will move back into the eighth inning setup role after saving four games in four chances filling in as the closer.  . . .  An MRI on Tuesday indicated that right-hander Ivan Nova has a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and he likely will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. The recommendation for surgery came from Dr. Christopher Ahmad, the team’s physician. The recovery time for the surgery is 12 to 18 months.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their three-game road series with the Red Sox on Wednesday.

Right-hander Michael Pineda (2-1, 1.00 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Pineda is coming off six innings of shutout baseball to defeat the Chicago Cubs last Wednesday. He gave up four hits and one walk while he struck out three. Pineda also defeated the Red Sox on April 10, yielding just one run on six hits in six innings.

Pineda will be opposed by veteran right-hander John Lackey (2-2, 5.15 ERA). Lackey has been pounded for 12 runs on 20 hits and four walks in 11 innings in his past two starts against the Yankees (April 12) and the Baltimore Orioles on Friday. It is the first time in his career he has given up as many as 10 hits and six earned runs in two consecutive starts.

Game-time will be 7:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by ESPN and locally by the YES Network.

Beltran Boosts Yankees As They Limp Past Red Sox

GAME 13

YANKEES 3, RED SOX 2

Carlos Beltran has wanted to be a Yankee for a long time. At age 36, he is finally getting the chance to wear pinstripes and he is loving every minute of it.

Beltran slugged a two-run home run and collected three hits overall to back the solid pitching of Ivan Nova as New York held on to beat Boston on Sunday to win the home weekend series three games to one.

As rivalries go, this one is the greatest in sports. There have been many memorable games over the years and this one  –  played in front of a paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 46,081 and a national television audience –  was pretty eventful for an early April contest.

Nova (2-1) entered the game with a 8.68 ERA but he weathered some early problems to pitch into the eighth inning.

His mound opponent, Felix Doubront, posted an ERA of 9.00 and he did not make it out of the third inning of his last start. Yet, Doubront pitched into the seventh inning.

How this pair of starters made it that far was a testament to their toughness and some very odd things, which usually occur when these two teams meet.

Doubront started out as if he would not last the first inning after Beltran laced a one-out single to left and Jacoby Ellsbury lined a double into the right-field corner. Alfonso Soriano then lofted a sure-fire sacrifice fly into center.

But Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. fired the ball to third base and Ryan Roberts tagged a sliding Ellsbury before Beltran could cross the plate with the run.

The Red Sox then literally took aim at Nova with two out in the second inning.

Roberts singled and Bradley followed with ball that caromed off Nova’s foot for a single. Jonathan Herrera then scored Roberts with a lined single that narrowly missed Nova’s head. Grady Sizemore then came through with the fourth straight single off Nova but left-fielder Brett Gardner threw Bradley out at the plate.

The Yankees then took the lead in the third inning when Gardner stroked a one-out single and Beltran followed with the 361st home run of his career, a lined shot that landed in the first row in the left-field bleachers.

The Yankees padded their lead in the fourth when Doubront opened the frame by walking Brian McCann and Yangervis Solarte. After Solarte was retired on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Kelly Johnson, Francisco Cervelli hit a ball to Roberts that he turned into a double play.

Cervelli stumbled through about a half-dozen steps past first base and fell holding the back of his right leg.

Manager Joe Girardi challenged the out call at first base by umpire Bob Davidson as Cervelli was helped off the field with an obviously severe pull in his right hamstring.

Meanwhile, television replays indicated Cervelli touched first base before the ball hit first baseman Mike Napoli’s glove, which allowed McCann to score the Yankees’ third run without the benefit of a hit. The umpires reversed the out call.

Red Sox manager John Farrell stormed out onto the field to protest the reversal and immediately was ejected from the game by Davidson. Managers are not allowed to argue calls that have been overturned.

Nova, meanwhile, settled in and pitched well. He only allowed a leadoff home run in the sixth inning to Napoli, which drew the Bosox to within a run at 3-2. He exited with one out in the eighth having given up two runs on eight hits, no walks and four strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings.

The Yankee bullpen then turned the game into an adventure.

Matt Thornton replaced Nova to face David Ortiz and Ortiz laced a deep drive that would have hit the top of the auxiliary scoreboard for a sure double. However, Ichiro Suzuki, who only entered the game as the right-fielder when Cervelli left the game, leapt and caught the ball before it reached the wall.

David Phelps then replaced Thornton and he ended up yielding a double to Napoli, a walk to Daniel Nava and hit A.J. Pierzynski with a pitch to load the bases. He then got locked into a tense eight-pitch battle with pinch-hitter Mike Carp that  –  luckily for Phelps and the Yankees  –  ended with Carp swinging and missing to end the threat.

Shawn Kelley pitched a perfect ninth, striking out two batters, to earn his third save in three opportunities.

Doubront (2-1) was tagged with loss, giving up three runs on seven hits and three walks while he fanned three in 6 2/3 innings.

The victory gives the Yankees a 7-6 record on the young season. The Red Sox dropped to 5-8.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Beltran has always been a big-stage performer throughout his career and his 3-for-4 night substantiated that reputation. In his past six games, Beltran is 11-for-26 (.423) with three home runs and six RBIs. This is the production the Yankees were expecting when they signed Beltran as free agent to the three-year contract after Robinson Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners.
  • Nova always has been a captive to his pitches working. When they are not working he gets lit up like a roman candle. When they are working he can be very good. His stuff was working on Sunday and he was able to hold the Red Sox to just the one run on three hits over his last 5 1/3 innings.
  • Suzuki’s catch on Ortiz’s deep drive was set up by Cervelli’s injury. Suzuki entered the game as a pinch-runner for Cervelli in fourth and he was placed in right-field. That moved right-fielder Beltran to first base, a position he has never played in 17 major-league seasons. If Beltran had been in right it is likely that drive would have not been caught. It truly was a game saver. For a 40-year-old player, Suzuki can still flash some leather.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • It appears the Yankees’ issues with injuries that beset them in 2013 seem to have cropped up again early in 2014. The Yankees are already without first baseman Mark Teixeira, closer David Robertson and backup infielder Brendan Ryan. All three are on the disabled list. They played Sunday’s game with shortstop Derek Jeter nursing a mild quad injury and second baseman Brian Roberts out with a back injury. The loss of Cervelli left the team with no other bench players and no backup catcher. McCann took a ball off the fingers of his right index finger catching in the eighth inning and Solarte took an inadvertent shot to the groin from Napoli as he was running out a grounder in the sixth. Fortunately, both players were able to stay in the game. The Yankees will need to add some depth to their roster in a hurry.

BOMBER BANTER

Cervelli was taken for an MRI after he left the game but it is certainty that he will be placed on the 15-day disabled list. The Yankees are expected to recall catcher Austin Romine from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to replace Cervelli on the roster.  . . .  Jeter said he felt his right quadriceps tighten up in Friday’s game against the Red Sox. He already was scheduled for a day off on Saturday but Girardi opted to hold Jeter out a second day. Jeter was not scheduled to have any tests and he is expected to play to play on Tuesday.  . . .  Roberts is listed as day-to-day after he experienced some lower-back soreness. A precautionary MRI came back negative but it is not clear when Roberts will be able to play.

ON DECK

The Yankees will finally get their first day off of the season and it is a good thing with all of their walking wounded. They will open a two-game home series with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday.

Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 3.21 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Tanaka struck out 10 batters in seven innings against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday. But he had to settle for a no-decision.

Right-hander Jason Hammel (2-0, 2.63 ERA) will start for the Cubs. Hammel gave up three runs on three hits (all homers) and struck out six in seven innings as he defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by MY9.

 

Yankees, Rays Look To Be Class Of Tough A.L. East

The American League East is a division loaded with talent. It consists of a world champion, a playoff team, the winningest franchise in baseball history and two power-laden clubs with some pitching. Of those five teams it is possible that three teams could claim playoff spots. Let’s look into the magic ball and see what we can predict. In no particular order let’s look at the teams:

NEW YORK YANKEES

After an injury-marred 2013 season managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner loosened the pursestrings and allowed general manager Brian Cashman to throw out nearly $500 million to free agents. That brought in the best available pitching free agent in Masahiro Tanaka, the best in catcher available in Brian McCann, two All-Star outfielders in Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, a left-hander for the bullpen in Matt Thornton and two important infielders in Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts.

Needless to say the Yankees are not planning on winning 85 games and missing the playoffs as they did in 2013.

Added to what the Yankees already had, this team is loaded for a playoff run. The rotation is five deep with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Tanaka and the sensational return of Michael Pineda this spring has the other teams in the division worried. Only the Tampa Bay Rays can boast a rotation close to this and they only have four healthy starters at the moment.

The bullpen is missing Mariano Rivera and no one will tell you that David Robertson will make anyone forget the greatest closer in history. But no one can believe he can’t do as well as Rafael Soriano did in 2012. The rest of the bullpen has undergone a makeover because of the loss of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain. Shawn Kelley and Thornton will handle the late-inning work. The addition of 6-foot-8 rookie Dellin Betances is going to give the bullpen depth because Betances might have the best stuff of the group.

Add to this corps three starting pitchers shifted to the bullpen, David Phelps, Adam Warren and left-hander Vidal Nuno. Phelps and Warren are holdovers from last season and Nuno, 26, gives the Yankees a second lefty to go with Thornton.

The Yankees only need to hope that Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter return to form. They both missed virtually all of the 2013 season and both are being counted upon to help the offense. They also are hoping that Johnson can fill in for the suspended Alex Rodriguez and Roberts can fill the huge hole left by the childish and petulant departure of Robinson Cano. The Yankees issued Cano’s No. 24 to spring training invitee Scott Sizemore. That tells you what they think of Cano after he left.

Ellsbury will combine with Brett Gardner to provide speed and daring on the bases. McCann and Beltran will join Teixeira and last season’s acquisition Alfonso Soriano to give the Yankees a lot of power in the middle of the lineup. Johnson and Roberts can provide double-digits power as well at the bottom of the order.

The bench features the catcher many teams wanted this spring in Francisco Cervelli, All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and a pair of hot-hitting rookie infielders in Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte. Slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan starts the season on the disabled list with an upper-back injury.

Top to bottom the Yankees are loaded with talent, power, speed, a great rotation, a solid bullpen and a versatile bench. They will go a long way in deciding who wins the division and who ends up in the playoffs.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Rays are a product of a similar model that used to keep afloat the small-market Minnesota Twins. You try and keep a small corps of good young players together long enough to win until they start leaving via free agency. Of course, this method requires that you keep all the plates spinning at once for a long, long time.

If you don’t you lose.

The Rays were fortunate to keep left-hander David Price off the open market for a year. He will join left-hander Matt Moore and right-handers Alex Cobb and Chris Archer to provide the only rotation in the division that can rival the Yankees. Jeremy Hellickson begins the season on the disabled list but he has not been real effective when he has been healthy so I am not sure how his season will go.

The Rays dumped Fernando Rodney because he blew too many saves and was shaky in those he did save. Enter former Rays right-hander Grant Balfour, who was not signed by some other teams because of some medical questions. Balfour has only had one season as a closer and there is no guarantee the Rays can get another season out of him.

The rest of the bullpen is good. Balfour’s fellow senior citizen, Joel Peralta, is the setup man. He is joined by lefty Jake McGee and former closer Heath Bell. Right-handers Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes and lefty long man Cesar Ramos round out a pretty solid corps.

The Rays are really lacking speed this season. Their only real base-stealing threat is Desmond Jennings, who is been doing a very bad imitation of Carl Crawford since he arrived.

Now the Rays are looking to generate lots of power with Evan Longoria and Will Myers in the middle of the lineup. The problem is Matt Joyce is coming off a disappointing season and he has not lived up to expectations at all. They also have to hope an aging Ben Zobrist can bounce back after a down 2013 campaign.

The additions of James Loney at first base and Yunel Escober at shortstop helped the offense and defense last season. They hope Ryan Hanigan can provide defense and leadership behind the plate this season.

As always, manager Joe Maddon will mix in spare parts like Sean Rodriguez, David DeJesus and Jose Molina. In addition, he will shift his defense to drive opponents nuts, But if the Rays should falter, Price will be on the trading block before the league deadline. If that happens, the Rays season is over.

In any event, this will be Price’s last year with the Rays and the Rays have to roll the dice they win the division this year. Otherwise, it’s lights out at Tropicana Field for their fan base of 7,500. If things don’t pick up at the gate the team could be headed elsewhere.

BOSTON RED SOX

Most Yankee fans forgot what happened in 2013 so we will leave it at that.

The Red Sox prospects for 2014 would seem to be bright. After all, they hope to have the same rotation they finished with back this year.

They are counting on Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront to be just as good in 2014. Problem is Lester is notch below what an ace should be. Look at most fantasy drafts this season and you will find Lester going in the middle rounds because of his high ERA and even higher walks-to-innings-pitched (WHIP) ratio.

Clay Buchholz also is going late in drafts because he has had a hard time staying healthy. His recurring back problems are not going away. He can only treat it to stay on track.

Lackey and Peavy are also on the north side of their usefulness. Both are crafty veteran pitchers and they will win their share on guile. But this group pales in comparison to the Rays and Yankees. That does not even take into account Doubront, who if you look as his 2013 numbers you wonder why the Red Sox like him so much.

To be sure, Koji Uehara was a miracle worker for them after the Bosox tried a number of unsuccessful closers since Jonathan Papelbon left years ago. But Uehara turns 39 on Wednesday and there is no net for him if he fails to do what he did late last season.

Boston does have lefty Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa back and they added Edward Mujica. But they do not have Craig Breslow at the start of the season and this bullpen is just a lot less deep than it was in 2013.

The same can be said for the starting lineup. Instead of bringing Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Daniel Nava off the bench they will have to play to fill holes when Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia left the team.

Grady Sizemore actually beat out Bradley in center but the Red Sox know they can’t just run the oft-injured former All-Star out there every day. Bogarerts at short, Will Middlebrooks at third and center are unsettled positions with unknown quantities in them. A.J. Pierzynski takes over behind the plate and should be an offensive upgrade from Salty but teams are going to run wild on him on the bases.

The Red Sox just hope they can get another year out of fading DH David Ortiz, who at age 38 is well beyond borrowed time. He had a horrible spring and players at 38 do not get better. They fade.

The Red Sox will still revolve around Dustin Pedroia at second and they just hope that Shane Victorino (who begins the season injured), Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp can still do what they did last season. But as we know it is hard to repeat as champion. The last team to do it was, well, the New York Yankees in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Red Sox Nation remembers that period of time.

So I do not think there is going to much in the way of magic at Fenway this season. It just not in the cards.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

The Jays are all about redemption.

They gave a fading infielder out of Pittsburgh Pirates and a disappointing third baseman out of the Cincinnati Reds a place on the team and they were rewarded with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Those two players form the most feared middle-of-the-order pair in baseball. Both could easily hit more than 40 homers apiece.

The Blue Jays even rehired manager John Gibbons even after they fired him three years ago.

So the Blue Jays were the cool team to pick in 2013 after they added Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes to what they already had in Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. But their recipe for success did not count on a complete meltdown of their starting rotation.

Ace R.A. Dickey pitched with a bad back, Brandon Morrow was also hurt and former ace Ricky Romero forgot completely how to pitch successfully. Last season was just not pretty for the Jays.

But they have renewed hope in 2014. Dickey is healthy again and Mark Buehrle can still eat up innings with his soft-tossing junk. Add to that a healthy Morrow and you have the makings of a staff, But the other two spots will go to Drew Hutchison, who at 23 hopes he can establish himself as a starter this year, and an old friend Dustin McGowan, who last pitched as a regular in the Jays rotation in 2008. he is now 32 and he is an expert in rehabs.

Now that is some reclamation project.

Casey Janssen fell into the closer role when Sergio Santos was injured and now both form a nice tandem at the end of the game. Lefty Brett Cecil and hard-throwing righty Steve Delabar make the Jays bullpen one of the best in the division this season.

But bullpens have a way of wearing down when the starters do not succeed and have to be taken out early. In the rough and tumble American League East, the Blue Jays rotation just lacks the ability to hang with the big boys.

There is no doubt their offense is impressive. They will hit their share of home runs. But they also will lose a lot of games by scores of 9-7 and 8-5 because of this shaky rotation.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Cashman pointed out this spring what was painfully obvious. The luck the Orioles used to make the playoffs in 2012 was bound to be paid for in 2013. Orioles manager Buck Showalter took offense. But the truth always hurts, Buck.

The Orioles did not win those one-run and extra-inning games they won in 2012 and they finished with the Yankees in a tie for third place in 2014.

It is hard to see how the Orioles make it much better in 2014 even with the addition of right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Bud Norris and outfielder Nelson Cruz.

The issue with the Orioles is the same as last season. The starters Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Norris are all fine pitchers in their own right but who, for Pete’s sake, is the ace? And is that ace better than the pitchers they face routinely like David Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Clay Buchholz, R.A. Dickey or Matt Moore?

The answer is no and Showalter will learn that quickly.

Jimenez is just a middling starter and Norris just looked good compared to all the awful pitchers the Astros kept running out there. Neither make the Orioles much better.

The addition of Cruz is curious because the Orioles are loaded with offense in mega-power threat Chris Davis added to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. Cruz adds to that power but it is hard to see how that helps keep runs of the board.

The Orioles bullpen also took a major hit when Jim Johnson left for Oakland and took the 101 saves he recorded for the O’s the past two seasons with him. The Orioles are asking journeyman right-hander Tommy Hunter to do a job he has never done before and close games.

They did not add much around him either. They still rely on right-hander Darren O’Day and left-hander Brian Matusz to set up. Getting to them may be an issue because none of the rest of Orioles bullpen is really proven.

So Showalter just has to hope that his team can score runs in droves night after night to cover for a weak pitching staff. The mix of this starting staff and bullpen may be the worst in the division because the Blue Jays actually boast a much stronger bullpen.

Showalter may be an excellent manager but he can’t turn cubic zirconium into diamonds. There just no magic left for the Orioles.

 

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

 

1) NEW YORK YANKEES

2) TAMPA BAY RAYS 

3) BOSTON RED SOX

4) TORONTO BLUE JAYS

5) BALTIMORE ORIOLES

 

I see a close race between the Rays and Yankees and both will easily make the playoffs. The Red Sox will not collapse but I do see them fading as the season progresses when their rotation routinely starts breaking down. The Blue Jays will win their share of games with their offense and bullpen. But there will be days when good pitching will beat good hitting. On those days the Blue Jays will lose. The same for the Orioles. If they do not average seven runs a game they are in a heap of trouble. No team can do that consistently enough and no one can in this tough division. They will fall to the basement with a loud thud. Sorry, Buck. The truth hurts, huh!

 

 

Suzuki Shoots Down Rangers With Walk-Off Blast

GAME 76

YANKEES 4, RANGERS 6

Two things pretty much describe what has happened with the 2013 New York Yankees: They rarely hit home runs and they have not won a game in the bottom of the ninth inning all season. Well, the Yankees hit four solo home runs and the last one gave them a walk-off victory on Tuesday.

Ichiro Suzuki connected on a 1-2 fastball from right-hander Tanner Scheppers for a lined shot that easily cleared the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center with two out in the ninth as New York brought a paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 41,674 to its feet by defeating Texas.

Suzuki’s fourth home run of the season was only his second walk-off homer of his career. His first came on April 4, 2012 as a member of the Seattle Mariners against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

Rivera (1-1) pitched a scoreless ninth inning to get credit for his first victory of the season.

Scheppers (5-1) was saddled with his first defeat of the season.

The game started as a battle between a pair of former Japanese baseball stars both born in Osaka. It was only the 11th time in major-league history two Japanese pitchers have faced each other and the second time for the Yankees’ Hiroki Kuroda and the Rangers’ Yu Darvish.

The Rangers struck first in the third inning off Kuroda when Leonys Martin lined a 2-2 pitch into the right-field bleachers with one out in the inning.

They added an unearned run in the fourth when an throwing error by David Adams on a ball off the bat of Adrian Beltre and singles by A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman loaded the bases with one out and Mitch Moreland’s slow-rolling fielder’s choice grounder allowed Beltre to score.

The Yankees halved the lead when Travis Hafner blasted his 12th homer of the season, a high-arcing shot that landed in the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center to lead off the fourth inning.

But the Rangers added a run in the fifth when Martin connected for his second home run of the game and his fifth of season to start the frame.

But the Yankees got that run back when Brett Gardner slammed his season-high tying seventh homer of the season deep into the right-field bleachers to start the bottom of the fifth.

Jayson Nix set up the eventual victory with only second homer of the season into the bleachers in left to lead off the sixth.

Darvish, who was less than sharp, was tagged for three runs on seven hits and two walks while he struck six batters in 5 1/3 innings. It was only his second start of less than six innings this season.

Meanwhile, Kuroda yielded three runs (two earned) on five hits and a walk while fanning six in 6 2/3 innings.

With the dramatic victory, the Yankees improved their season record to 42-34 and they remain percentage points ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in second place in the American League East. They also are just 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox and one game back in the loss column.

The Rangers fell to 44-33.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Hafner was 2-for-4 including his solo home run. He entered the game hitting .217 but he is beginning to come around a bit at the plate. In his past six games he is 6-for-24 (.250) with two home runs and five RBIs. He has at least one hit in five of those six games.
  • Suzuki was 2-for-5 with his walk-off shot and it was his second home run in the past week. He hit a home run and drove in three runs on June 19 against the Los Angeles Angels in 6-4 victory. Suzuki is batting .299 in June and has raised his season average to .270.
  • After Kuroda gave up a second home run to Martin in the fifth, Kuroda and relievers Boone Logan, David Robertson and Rivera retired 14 of the final 17 batters they faced and struck out five. Good starting pitching and a very good bullpen is keeping the Yankees afloat in the division this season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • With the Yankees without the services of third basemen Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Youkilis, Adams is struggling to recapture the stroke that had him hitting .295 with two home runs and five RBIs in his first 11 games. Since then he is 4-for-46 (.087) with no homers and four RBIs. He was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a walk on Tuesday. He is hitting .185.
  • Lyle Overbay had a night to forget. He was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and left a total of five runners on base. He has not delivered a hit in his last nine at-bats and his season average has slipped to .239.
  • Rookie Zoilo Almonte proved he is human. He was 0-for-4, which ended his four-game hitting streak. He is still 7-for-16 (.438) with a home run and four RBIs in his first six games. Manager Joe Girardi has temporarily benched left-fielder Vernon Wells in order to let the rookie play.

BOMBER BANTER

Rodriguez drew the ire of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman after he sent out a Tweet on Tuesday indicating that his hip surgeon had cleared him to begin playing minor-league rehab games. Cashman responded angrily by telling ESPNNewYork.com:  “You know what, when the Yankees want to announce something, [we will]. Alex should just shut the [expletive] up. That’s it. I’m going to call Alex now.”  . . . Meanwhile, the Yankees are fearing the worst in sending first baseman Mark Teixeira to specialist on Tuesday to look at his ailing right wrist. Teixeira’s wrist did not respond as the team had hoped to a cortisone injection last week. Season-ending surgery is a very real possibility. Teixeira has hit .151 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 15 games this season.  . . .  The Yankees elected to keep right-hander Ivan Nova on the roster after his impressive start against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday. They are not sure what his role will be but Nova will stay nonetheless. The Yankees currently have 14 pitchers on the roster, leaving them only three bench players.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their three-game home series with the Rangers on Wednesday.

Andy Pettitte (5-5, 4.20 ERA) will start for the Yankees. The 41-year-old left-hander was raked for nine hits and five runs in 6 2/3 innings against the Rays on Thursday. He is 6-6 with a 4.53 ERA in the past 10 seasons against the Rangers.

The Rangers will counter with right-hander Justin Grimm (6-5, 5.57 ERA). Grimm allowed three runs on three hits in five innings to win his sixth game of the season against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday. The rookie has never faced the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by ESPN2 and locally by the YES Network.

 

Cervelli Tops Quartet Dueling For Catching Role

Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!

CATCHER – POSITION OPEN

When  it comes to catchers, Yankee fans have been pretty spoiled. The position has been manned by such legends as Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.

Of course, there have been years when the position has been filled by less than legends like Rick Cerone, Mike Stanley and Joe Girardi. Yes, him.

It seems that 2013 is one of those years the Yankees will be fielding a catcher who will be even lesser of a legend. The departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates has left this position open with a four candidates vying for it beginning this spring.

None of the four have anywhere near the power Martin provided. But some are just as adept defensively. The Yankees signaled this was the direction they were going when they chose let Martin walk and opted not to sign free agent A.J. Pierzynski.

Pierzynski, 36, hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs with the White Sox last season and he would have loved the short rightfield porch as a left-handed hitter. But the Yankees passed on him because of his defensive shortcomings and he signed with the Texas Rangers.

The Yankees four candidates are: former Posada and Martin backup Francisco Cervelli, 2012’s backup Chris Stewart, rookie prospect Austin Romine and former Los Angeles Angels backup Bobby Wilson.

The quartet are politely described as “defensive-minded” catchers, which in baseball-speak means they can’t hit a lick. For Yankee fans used to cyclical lineups without a weak link, the 2013 version will have one huge hole in it here. Whoever wins this job will be the opposing pitcher’s “escape hatch” out of big innings.

The leading candidate for the job appears to be Cervelli, 26, who ironically spent all of last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because of the presence of Martin and Stewart.

On the last day of spring training the Yankees swung a last-minute deal with the San Francisco Giants to acquire Stewart, who was out of minor-league options. The Yankees were so in love with Stewart’s defensive work behind the plate they opted to ship Cervelli out and he was not pleased about it – mostly because of the poor timing.

Cervelli went to Scranton determined to show the Yankees he belonged on the roster, but he hit just .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games. That is odd considering Cervelli had hit .271 with five home runs and 71 RBIs in 184 games over three previous seasons in the majors.

Cervelli admits that he was not happy about his demotion and it did affect his game.

Cervelli’s defense is considered pretty good. He sets a good target, he knows the hitters, calls a good game, has the respect of the pitchers and the coaching staff. His weakness lies in a somewhat erratic throwing arm. He has only thrown out 18.3 percent of base-stealers in his major-league career (23 out of 93 attempts).

He also has committed 20 errors in 177 games, most of those on throwing errors.

At Scranton, Cervelli threw out 30 percent of potential base-stealers but committed a whopping 15 passed balls.

So Cervelli’s defense is definite notch below what Martin and Stewart provided in 2012 and Cervelli is going to have to improve if he wants to win the starting job and keep it.

There is no doubt he is the best hitter of the bunch, albeit he lacks power. Cervelli is a spray hitter who is very adept hitting with runners in scoring position. He also is not bad a bunter and will give himself up to advance a runner. Those things should help the Yankees in 2013 since the team does lack power.

One concern with Cervelli is his penchant for injuries. He suffered a broken wrist in a home-plate collision in spring training in 2008. He also has suffered a trio of concussions the past few years and broke a bone in his foot in the spring of 2010 fouling a ball off his foot.

In winter ball in his native Venezuela, he suffered a whiplash injury, which later proved to be minor.

So durability is a definite issue with Cervelli.

Stewart, 30, has been a backup catcher throughout his career. The most games he has played is the 51 he started with Giants in 2011. He started 46 games for the Yankees last season and he batted .241 with one home run and 13 RBIs. Stewart actually improved some with the bat in 2012 because he is a career .217 hitter.

But he does not have a very high ceiling as a hitter.

Stewart enters the catching competition as probably the best defensive option the Yankees have.

This is despite that he set a personal high for himself of with eight passed balls last season. Then again, the Yankees’ pitchers are not the easiest to catch.

Stewart, however, committed only four errors and he cut down 22.8 percent of base-stealers after he threw out an amazing 39.2 percent with the Giants in 2011. Stewart not only has a strong arm, he is also accurate with it. It was obvious that not many teams wanted to challenge him last season.

Though Stewart won’t hit much, he will be an asset against teams that are aggressive on basepaths such as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Angels.

There was all kinds of talk this offseason that Romine, 24, was the organization’s choice to start behind the plate in 2013.

But general manager Brian Cashman recently addressed that issue by saying that it was extremely unlikely Romine would be able to win the job this spring coming off a season in which he was plagued with a serious back injury.

The son of former major-league outfielder Kevin Romine played in only 31 games in three stops last season. Romine batted .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in just 103 at-bats.

Despite playing in the shadow of Jesus Montero throughout his minor-league career, the Yankees have always felt that Romine was far superior to Montero on defense and they have hoped that he would develop as a hitter as he matured.

But the back injury, which a recurrence of a previous back strain, certainly has arrested his development. Romine is considered to have a good enough bat to hit for a decent average in the major leagues with low double-digit power potential.

It is likely that the Yankees will take a more cautious approach with Romine this season. He likely would benefit from playing a full season at Scranton to prove his back problems are over. There is no doubt that Romine’s defense is already major-league quality.

Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, two former catchers, absolutely love Romine’s defensive ability. They each say he is ready to play defense at the major-league level now. But the Yankees are waiting for him to prove himself healthy and they would like to see more improvement with his bat.

Wilson, 29, was a backup catcher with the Angels from 2009 through 2012. But he was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays late last season and he never played a game for them before not being tendered a contract offer this offseason.

The Yankees offered him a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. So he will be in the mix for a spot.

Wilson hit .211 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in 75 games with the Angels last season. He is a career .208 hitter in the majors.

But like Cervelli, Stewart and Romine, Wilson is considered an excellent defensive catcher.

In 2012, Wilson committed only four errors and was charged with just two passed balls. He also threw out 28.6 percent of potential base-stealers and he has a 27.1 percent career mark of nailing runners.

Wilson’s only hope seems to be supplanting Stewart as the backup but Stewart’s defense may be just too good. So the Yankees might ask Wilson to accept a minor-league assignment so he can be recalled if either Cervelli or Stewart are injured. That way the Yankees could keep Romine on track for promotion in 2014.

Two years ago, with Martin as the starter and Montero and Romine in the pipeline, catching looked to the strongest position on the team from a long-range standpoint. But the Yankees were not satisfied with Montero’s defense and they traded him to the Seattle Mariners in return for right-hand starter Michael Pineda.

Now with Martin and Montero gone and Romine on the mend, the position seems to rest with catching prospects in the minors.

J.R. Murphy, 21, regressed a bit last season. In 110 games between Class-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, Murphy hit .248 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs.

Scouts still believe that Murphy will develop power as he progresses because he has a short, powerful right-hand stroke. There are doubts about his long-term progress defensively. But, fortunately for Murphy, he also can play third base and he may eventually end up there.

But the player the Yankees are really salivating over is No. 1-ranked prospect Gary Sanchez, who turned 20 in December. Sanchez hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs between Class-A Charleston and Tampa.

The Yankees look at Sanchez as a Montero with better defensive potential. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Sanchez possesses above-average raw power and the potential to be excellent all-around hitter. He did regress a bit defensively last season, but Sanchez has a plus arm and he has time to develop into a good defensive catcher.

There have been rumors the Yankees might be willing to trade Sanchez but it is hard to see what the justification would be for Cashman. Catchers with good power bats like Sanchez do not come along too often and there are slim pickings in looking for a catcher who can match Posada’s or Martin’s production.

The Yankees may have been weakened by the loss of Martin, but the Yankees seem to be committed to starting a catcher with defensive ability and they will not care what they hit. Cervelli seems to have the inside track on the starting job and Stewart looks like he will be hard to beat as the backup.

That will allow the Yankees to get Romine another season of experience at Scranton and Wilson could be a call away at Scranton.

With Romine, Murphy and Sanchez in the pipeline, the Yankees do have some excellent young catchers on the way – particularly the gifted Sanchez. So if the Yankees can just withstand the short-term problem of having pure defensive catchers, the long-term prospects at this position are good.

But Yankee fans might be missing Martin’s power a lot this season.

NOTE: The only position I have not reviewed in this series is designated hitter. There is a good reason for that. The position has not been filled and may not be until spring exhibition games are under way. So this is the last part of the series. I hope it helped set the stage for how the team will fare this spring.

 

A-Rod’s Injury Clouds Yanks’ 2013 Pennant Hopes

PART 3: THE STARTING LINEUP

The New York Yankees enter the 2013 season with more uncertainty in their starting lineup than they have in the past two decades.

A combination of committed contracts to aging veterans, expired contracts to some helpful contributors, injuries and underperformance have left the Yankees in a real bind to fix their problems knowing they have an edict by the boss Hal Steinbrenner to trim payroll to $189 million by 2014.

The most significant issue is the impending January left hip surgery for third baseman Alex Rodriguez which will shelve him for at least half the season. Because Rodriguez has not played a full healthy season of baseball since 2007 it should not be considered that big a deal.

However, it points up the problem with offering lengthy and lucrative contracts to players past the age of 30. Players break down at a rapid rate after that and that is particularly true of players who have dabbled in the use of performance enhancing drugs as A-Rod has.

The plain fact of the matter is that Rodriguez IS NOT nor WILL HE EVER BE AGAIN the impact player he was in 2007 when he hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs for the Yankees. Unfortunately, the Yankees are committed to paying him through the 2017 season.

If you want to look up the definition of the euphemism “albatross around the neck” A-Rod’s picture would be displayed prominently.

Seemingly healthy to begin the 2012 season, Rodriguez neither produced with power or run production. Every day manager Joe Girardi cautioned the media that A-Rod always produced home runs in bunches and it would be any day now. But that day never arrived.

He was struck in the left hand by a pitch from Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on July 24 and the injury sidelined him until the first week of September. At season’s end, Rodriguez had 18 home runs and 57 RBIs and batted .272. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Clutch when he was healthy either.

With runners in scoring position he hit a miserable .230 and with the bases loaded he hit .200.

Unfortunately, the Yankees may be saddled with A-Rod for the remainder of his contract because his skills have eroded so fast no team would be willing to take him and his bloated contract now that he is 37.

So all the Yankees can do is look to find a replacement for him for 2013 because there is no guarantee he will be able to come back in July.

Last year’s insurance policy, Eric Chavez, who hit 16 home runs and drove in 37 runs in 278 at-bats, has signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Eduardo Nunez fielded to so poorly at third base he was demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and the Yankees have vowed to keep him primarily at shortstop.

So the Yankees have signed free-agent Kevin Youkilis.

Youkilis, 33, has had some injury issues of his own. He does not have a season in which he has played more than 147 games. He had not played but one season in which he passed 136 games in four seasons. His all-out style was popular in Boston but it also led to some significant injuries and a decline in production.

After a 2011 season in which he hit only .258 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs, Youkilis ran afoul of then Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine and he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. He ended up hitting a career-low .235 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs.

But the Yankees hope he can help fill the void at third while Rodriguez is out and fall into a right-handed designated hitter and corner infield backup role when Rodriguez returns. Though it may seem odd that the heart and soul of the Red Sox would be wearing pinstripes, Johnny Damon had no trouble adapting to life in the Yankee Universe. Neither did Wade Boggs or Roger Clemens. “Youk” would seem to be in the same mold.

There is an issue at shortstop as well.

Though Derek Jeter vows his broken ankle will be healed and he will be ready to go by Opening Day of 2013, he also is 38 years old. So the Yankees will want their captain and emotional leader to be cautious in spring training.

Jeter’s injury in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers pretty much sounded the death knell for a team that was already reeling in the midst of an horrific team batting slump.

Jeter was one of the few who actually contributed positively to the offense in 2012.

He led the major leagues in hits with 219 and he ended up hitting .316 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. Though this is the not the Jeter who hit .349 with 24 home runs and 102 RBIs in 1999, the Yankees are happy to have this more mature Jeter, who has learned how to adapt to his age and still produce positively to the team.

He simply was the team Most Valuable Player last season and the Yankees seem to have stopped talking nonsense like moving him to center-field or resting him two days a week. He will rest some but he will play a lot in 2013 because the Yankees need him at the top of the lineup.

The Yankees’ best player is also one who poses the most uncertainty heading into 2013. Robinson Cano, 30, is simply the best second baseman in baseball both with his glove and his bat. He also hit a career-high 33 home runs in 2013 while batting over .300 (.308) for the seventh time in his eight major-league seasons.

However, Cano hardly could call 2012 his “breakout” season because he drove in a paltry 94 runs hitting in the heart of baseball’s top run-scoring team. The reason: He hit poorly most of the season with runners in scoring position. Also, in a huge reversal in a trend, Cano hit just .239 against left-handers.

That will have to change in 2013 because he figures to continue to see a steady diet of them.

There is a big incentive for Cano to improve. His contract for 2013 was renewed by the Yankees but he can become a free agent after this season. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll, Cano’s impending free agency presents a huge challenge. Will general manager Brian Cashman have the financial backing to present a package that can keep Cano in pinstripes for the rest of his career?

That is huge question only the Steinbrenner family can answer. But one thing is certain: The Yankees would certainly regress in 2014 without their best player.

Speaking of regression, Mark Teixeira has found out just how fast a career can regress when you follow former Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi’s pull-happy approach at Yankee Stadium.

Teixeira, however, changed his tune about it in 2012. Instead of trying to change back as he did at the start of the 2012 season, he decided to keep the “pull” approach figuring the Yankees pay him to hit home runs and drive in runs. So he hit 24 home runs and drove in 84 runs in a season that was cut to just 123 games due to a calf injury he suffered in August.

He hit just .251 but that is coming off seasons in which he hit .256 (2010) and .248 (2011). So Yankee fans are just going to have to accept lower batting averages and big production out of Teixeira. He more than makes up for it with his glove.

He and Cano both won Gold Gloves in 2012 and they form the best right side of an infield in baseball history from a fielding and production standpoint. Can you name a better pair?

The Yankees will have one huge hole filled in their lineup in left-field with the return of Brett Gardner and having to fill two more at catcher and in right-field.

Gardner’s loss last season proved to be more problematic in hindsight than it was at the time. With Gardner, 29, sidelined and Nunez in the minors the Yankees lost their two best base-stealers for most of the 2012 season. That made the Yankees much more of a station-to-station team and brought to the forefront their reliance on the home run to win games.

It also goes beyond saying that Gardner’s Gold-Glove quality in defense in left was missed, too. The Yankees need Gardner to come back healthy, get on base consistently and be disruptive to the team’s opponents on the bases.

For the past two seasons, the Yankees have reaped the benefit of having a stalwart defensive catcher in Russell Martin, who actually deterred teams who like to run the bases with reckless abandon. Though Martin struggled most of the season hitting under the “Mendoza Line” until he got hot in September, his power will be missed also.

But Martin has signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Yankees are looking for a new catcher in 2013.

At the moment, the Yankees list Francisco Cervelli as the heir apparent. Cervelli, 26, was the primary backup for three seasons from 2009 through 2011 until the Yankees acquired San Francisco Giants catcher Chris Stewart in a trade just as spring training drew to a close.

Because Stewart, 30, was out of options, the Yankees elected to keep Stewart as the backup catcher in 2012 and shipped Cervelli to Scranton.

Cervelli hit .246 with two home and 39 RBIs in 99 games at Scranton in 2012. His defense is fine but his throwing can be erratic at times.

Stewart surprisingly hit .241 with a home run and 13 RBIs in 55 games with the Yankees. His defense and throwing are superior to Cervelli but his offense is severely lacking.

The Yankees did sign former Los Angeles Angels catcher Bobby Wilson, 29, to a minor-league contract. Wilson was non-tendered a contract by the Blue Jays after he hit .211 with three home runs and 13 RBIs with the Angels in 2012. Wilson is excellent defensively but is a career .208 hitter in the majors. So it is hard to see how he will figure in as anything but a potential backup and insurance in case the Yankees need to trade a catcher or sustain an injury.

The Yankees do have very high hopes for 24-year-old rookie Austin Romine. They believe his defensive skills make him a major-league ready receiver but his bat and his chronic back issues have been delaying his progess. He missed most all of the 2012 season with a back injury.

He has been cleared to come to spring training and he has a shot at supplanting either Cervelli or Stewart if he can show some improved skills with the bat. But realistically, the team may take a more cautious approach with Romine and he could head back to Scranton to convince the front office his back issues are over.

This area seems ripe for a deal to obtain a free agent. Cashman did have former Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in mind. Pierzynski, 35, would fit in with the Yankees because he hits left-handed and he has some power. He hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBis in 2012.

But Pierzynski elected to sign a contract with the Texas Rangers. So unless the Yankees elect to make a trade they will be choosing between the four catchers they have now.

The biggest hole in the Yankees lineup and perhaps the biggest blow to the bleacher bums in right-field will be the loss of fan favorite Nick Swisher.

Swisher might not have been a superstar but his consistency was his calling card. What you saw was what you got.

Swisher, 32, has played four seasons in pinstripes and did not deviate from between 24 through 29 home runs and between 82 and 93 RBIs. There are not many outfielders who can claim that and the Yankees would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the level, except perhaps the oft-injured star Josh Hamilton.

The Yankees did have an opportunity to sign the former Texas Rangers’ star if they wanted. But they have some restriction to them doing so.

If the Yankees were to sign Hamilton, Cano’s departure would be a foregone conclusion unless there was a major dump of salary after the 2013 season. Hamilton signed with the Angels and the Yankees played it safe.

The Yankees instead decided to bring back Ichiro Suzuki, who came over in a trade in June and sparked the Yankees down the stretch. At age 39, Suzuki is no longer the player he was when he was the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001 but he showed a renewed vigor in the Bronx in 2012, hitting over .300 after the deal.

He ended the season hitting. 283 with nine home runs and 55 RBIs and he stole 29 bases.

It is obvious if the Yankees want to return to a slash and dash attack Girardi favors, Suzuki would be the correct choice.

Center-field is an interesting situation for the Yankees.

The team renewed Curtis Granderson’s contract for 2012 but there are all kinds of rumors swirling around about him.

The Yankees first floated the idea they could move Gardner from left to center and put Granderson in left next season. They also sent Granderson to an eye specialist to check his vision because of his habit of losing balls in flight to the outfield and his penchant for swinging at pitches that bounced in front of home plate.

Granderson struck out a team record 195 times last season. The Yankees can live with the strikeouts for his 43 home runs and 106 RBIs, which were both team highs in 2012. But his .232 average is 30 points below his career average of .262 and he hit just .218 against left-handers last season. Granderson is also in the final year of his contract.

The Yankees also seemed intent on keeping outfielder and left-handed DH Raul Ibanez.

Ibanez, 40, was forced to play more than he was expected in the outfield because of Gardner’s injury. But Ibanez came through with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs while hitting .24o in 384 at-bats. But Ibanez’s biggest impact was the clutch home runs he hit down the stretch against the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox to get the Yankees into the playoffs.

He carried that into the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

His clutch hitting was not lost on the front office and they wanted him back badly in 2013. But Ibanez dealt a blow to the Yankees by electing to sign with his old Mariners team so the Yankees now have a huge hole at the DH spot.

The Yankees made it clear that right-hand DH Andruw Jones would not retained for the 2012 season and Jones shopped himself to a team in Japan. The Yankees likely will use a veteran free agent to fill the role until A-Rod returns in July. Rodriguez figures to DH a lot when he returns and Youkilis can fill the role when A-Rod does play third.

Nunez figures to have an opportunity to win the right-hand DH role until A-Rod returns. The left side of the equation might come down to an offer to Jim Thome or a similar veteran.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, most of their best minor-league hitting prospects are a few years away of making an impact at the major-league level.

The top prospect in the organization, catcher Gary Sanchez, is only 20. But he may be worth the wait because he hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs with Class-A Charleston and High-A Tampa in 2012. Sanchez is being touted as “Jesus Montero with defense.” However, his glovework slipped a notch last season.

But the Yankees still believe he is their future behind the plate.

Outfielder Mason Wiiliams, 21, had a torn labrum ended his season his August. However, Williams was able to flash some five-tool talent by hitting a combined .298 with a 11 home runs and 35 RBIs and stole 20 bases at Charleston and Tampa.

Some are comparing him to another Williams named Bernie. He has a good bat and he is developing power as he progresses through the system. The Yankees absolutely love his high ceiling for improvement.  The lefty swinger looks like a future center-fielder for the Yankees.

Somewhat lost in all the talk about Sanchez and Williams is 21-year-old outfielder Tyler Austin, who hit an organization-best .354 in 2011 and hit .322 in four minor-league stops in 2012. He hit 17 home runs and drove in 80 runs while stealing 23 bases.

Austin played his first two minor-league seasons at the corner infield spots but was moved to right-field last season and the Yankees see him as the real deal as a right-hand hitter.

The Yankees also have a trio of promising outfielders in power-hitting Zoilo Almonte, 23, who hit 21 bombs at Double-A Trenton, and slash-and-dash hitters in 2009 No. 1 draft pick Slade Heathcott, 22, and Ramon Flores, 20.

Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr., 20, the team’s first selection in the 2011 draft, hit only three home runs at Charleston in 2012 but the Yankees believe he will develop into the kind of power hitter his father was. Called up to appear in an exhibition game against the Astros last March, Bichette hit a pair of solo home runs in only two exhibition at-bats. His star is definitely on the rise.

The Yankees also have a trio in promising infielders in Angelo Gumbs, 20; Jose Pirela, 23; and Austin Aune, 19. However, only Pirela has advanced as far as Double A and Gumbs and Aune may eventually be moved to the outfield. For now Gumbs and Pirela are second basemen and Aune is power-hitting shortstop.