Tagged: American League Division Series

2015 Yanks Likely Will Extend Playoff Drought

Welcome back to one of the best New York Yankees team blogs available on the web. Because of some circumstances beyond our control this site was non-operational for the past eight months. There was a thought of suspending the site entirely. But because of some 52 years devoted to the best franchise in sports history we felt we owed our fans the ability to stay up to date with the team on a daily basis. It is with that renewed commitment we will embark at looking at the team’s prospects for 2015.

The New York Yankees have faced two significant championship droughts in their most recent history.

The first was the end of the so-called Mickey Mantle Era in 1965 that lasted until Billy Martin managed the team to a loss to the Big Red Machine in the 1976 World Series. The 10 intervening years saw the team flounder with players such as Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Horace Clarke and Mel Stottlemyre.

George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973 and he immediately rebuilt the front office with general manager Gabe Paul, who wrangled trades for players such as Lou Piniella, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss and Mickey Rivers. The Steinbrenner money brought in free agents such as Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter, which was added to a minor-league system that had already produced Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry.

The teams of 1977 and 1978 battled to consecutive World Series titles over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, restoring the Yankees back to the pinnacle of baseball’s elite that they had not experienced since 1962. But this success proved to be short-lived.

During the strike-shortened 1981 season the Yankees qualified for the playoffs and faced the Dodgers again in the World Series. But they lost and the team soon again drifted into mediocrity. The team was unable to make the playoffs again until 1996 – a playoff drought of an astounding 15 years.

Through a parade of managers and general managers and an even longer list of failed free agents and personnel mistakes the Yankees rebuilt in the early 1990s through a farm system that very quickly produced Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.

Meanwhile the team was bolstered by the trade of Roberto Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for Paul O’Neill, the acquisition of first baseman Tino Martinez from the Seattle Mariners and the signings of players like Wade Boggs, David Cone, David Wells and Cuban star Orlando Hernandez.

Steinbrenner fired manager Buck Showalter after a very painful 1995 loss to the Seattle Mariners in the American League Division Series and hired Joe Torre. The rest was history as the Yankees managed to win four World Series over the next five seasons, a run of titles that has been unmatched in the modern era of baseball. In fact, Torre took the Yankees to the playoffs from 1996 until his firing after the 2007 loss to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series.

Though the Yankees returned to prominence under manager Joe Girardi in the 2009 season with a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, the team has steadily declined. Age forced the retirements of all the “Core Four” (Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and Rivera) and the performance declined from such former stars as CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

The team that enters the 2015 season is one that has age, long-term money commitments to fading players and a new mix of players that had to be procured on the cheap because of those commitments. The farm system has not produced a regular starter since Brett Gardner came up six years ago. The pitching staff has question marks all over the starting staff and the bullpen has lost its closer from from the past three seasons: 2012 (Rafael Soriano), 2013 (Rivera) and 2014 (David Robertson).

How did this happen?

Well, one reason is the declining health and eventual death of Steinbrenner. “The Boss” ran this club with a tough determination to make the franchise a jewel of Major League Baseball. The team had to win or managers or general managers went. Players had to perform or they would be discarded for better players. It was not always a successful process but the Yankees largely have been contenders for so long it is hard for fans to remember the bad stretches that began in 1965 and 1982.

The 4-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 American League Division Series may have marked an end of another chapter of success and the beginning of another long series of bad seasons.

It appears that the 2013 season may be one of those years like 1965 and 1982 and 2015 could be an extension of that futility. Transition with the Yankees is never pretty.

Another reason the Yankees are in this position is because Steinbrenner’s hand-picked successor Steve Swindal got caught up in a messy DUI incident in 2008 and then later a divorce from Steinbrenner’s daughter Jennifer. Swindal was bought out from the team and Steinbrenner’s sons Hank and Hal took the reins.

There was a very good reason that the elder Steinbrenner had selected Swindal instead of his own sons to run the team. Swindal was the most knowledgeable baseball man and conformed to Steinbrenner’s desire for excellence at all costs. The Steinbrenner sons did not have that same ability and the result has been obvious after the 2009 season.

After the team had invested millions in free agents such as Teixeira, Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the team decided to hold general manager Brian Cashman to an austere budget to pare the Yankees payroll under the MLB’s salary cap limit that forced the Yankees to have to pay a tax.

From 2010 through the 2013 free-agent signing seasons the Yankees allowed all major free agents to go without much of an effort. Even Cuban and Japanese imports such as Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish barely got a cursory look. The team was determined to either trade, use farm talent or sign cheap free-agent bargains. The team has fallen under the heft of its expensive guaranteed contracts and there is one in particular that has weighed on this team like an albatross.

That was the misguided decision in 2007 to re-sign then free-agent third baseman Rodriguez to a 10-year contract. The team still owes Rodriguez $60 million over the next three seasons despite the fact that age 39 he has not played more than 137 games in a season since 2007. Injuries, controversies and dabbling with performance enhancing drugs has basically reduced A-Rod to a mere shell of what he once was.

The Yankees have to hope he can regain some semblance of that magic because they are on the hook for his contract for three more seasons. Though Rodriguez may be planning to apologize to Yankee fans for his season-long suspension in 2014, he owes the fans an awful lot more.

If this team really does perform as badly as it looks as if they will in 2015 it will mostly be the fault of the Steinbrenner brothers, Cashman and him. It hard to see the sense of providing 10 years of big guaranteed money to someone who has always felt he is above baseball and the rules that govern it.

But here the Yankees are and no one expects Rodriguez to retire with $60 million coming his way. He will gladly hit .210 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs as long as those paychecks keep rolling in. His presence also poisons the clubhouse for the other 24 players on the roster. It is pretty obvious that A-Rod will not be out having beers with Sabathia or Teixiera. More likely he and his entourage will move in its own circles.

It is shame that a fine manager like Girardi will likely lose his job if this team plummets in the standings because none of this is his fault. For the past two seasons he has been patching this lineup with duct tape when it lost players like Rodriguez, Teixeira, Jeter and Sabathia for long stretches of time. It is miracle the team has contended at all the past two seasons given their weakened roster.

Though Girardi is virtually blameless the same can’t be said for Cashman, who is the longest serving GM in Yankee history.

He was given permission to sign free agents last season even at the risk of busting past the salary cap limits. But the whole key to Yankees 2014 season was the re-signing of second baseman Robinson Cano, who was the heir apparent to Jeter’s mantle as team leader and was the best player on this aging team. But Cashman chose to play hardball with Cano instead of treating him as a respected player.

When the Dodgers and Detroit Tigers looked elsewhere for help at second base last winter, Cashman figured that the market for Cano had dried up. So instead of negotiating Cano off his 10-year, $325 million request he went out an signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $275 million deal. Cano was livid because placing his numbers next to Ellsbury’s was an obvious mismatch weighted towards Cano. He felt he was easily worth $325 million in comparison.

He also was right. Ellsbury is a fine player but he is not in the same league with Cano.

So Cano shopped himself to the Mariners and they felt he was worth the price.

Cashman’s answer to Cano’s signing: He opted to cave in to Carlos Betran’s demand for a three-year deal and he filled Cano’s spot at second with former Baltimore Orioles star Brian Roberts.

The result was very ugly. The 37-year-old Beltran developed a painful bone spur in his right elbow in spring training and he ended up playing 109 games, hitting .233 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Roberts played in 91 games and never could get even close to what he used to be. He ended up being released in midseason after hitting a woeful .237 with five homers and 21 RBIs.

Cano, meanwhile, hit .314 for  a Mariners club that nearly made the playoffs.

Cashman’s miscalculation has placed the Yankees in a position where they enter the 2015 season with 31-year-old Stephen Drew as their starting second baseman after he hit .162 with seven homers and 26 RBIs with the Yankees and Red Sox last season.

So when the Yankees begin their complete fall off the cliff in 2015 it actually should be Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner who go and not Girardi. But I am not sure that is the way it likely will play out. I can see Steinbrenner firing Girardi and keeping Cashman. That is how those long championship droughts are born. Bad choices and bad luck equal bad results. (Did Casey Stengel say that?)

There will be some bright spots on this team. After all, the team is not completely devoid of talent.

It appears that Dellin Betances could be the real deal if he can maintain his control as a full-time closer. The signing of left-hander Andrew Miller gives the Yankees a second option as a closer and fills the void the team felt when they let Boone Logan walk in 2014.

The signing of Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka proved to be a very good decision. He was exactly what the Yankees hoped he would be in the United States until a small ligament tear was found in his right elbow in July. The Yankees are hoping rest and rehabilitation will prevent him from a more serious tear that will basically shelve him for two seasons. They are rolling the dice on it anyway.

It also was apparent that if Michael Pineda had not missed most of the season with a shoulder muscle injury that he would have established himself as a rising young right-hander.

But the rest of the rotation is a litany of question marks, hopes and prayers. The bullpen has been completely reshuffled and it is not clear what pitchers Girardi will have pitching ahead of Miller and Betances.

The offense? Don’t ask.

Recently a composite ranking of fantasy baseball players came out. Ellsbury was ranked No. 22, which makes him a third-round selection. The next highest Yankee position player on that list was Gardner at 109, which is an 11th-round choice. That is an grim indicator of how much the Yankees offense has fallen on hard times.

They require bounce back seasons from Teixeira, Rodriguez and Beltran as well as for second-year starting catcher Brian McCann, who stumbled his way through a 2014 season in which he batted .232 with 23 homers and 75 RBIs.

The biggest news of all is that for the first time since the 1995 season the Yankees will be without Jeter at shortstop. Because there was no one in the system groomed to replace him (Cashman again), the Yankees acquired 25-year-old Didi Gregorius.

His reputation is that he has a great glove, great range and a developing bat. His big weakness is left-hand pitching so he likely will have to share the position with great-field and no-hit Brendan Ryan, yet another player over 30.

The Yankees also have to hope Drew can recapture his magic at the plate and that third baseman Chase Headley is better than a .243 hitter that he was with the Padres and Yankees last season.

The bench has some veterans, of course.

Former Pirate Garrett Jones has been added as a backup first baseman, right-fielder and designated hitter. The Yankees also retained Chris Young, who is a poor man’s version of Alfonso Soriano with even more strikeouts.

If you think this sounds bad I am actually trying to sugarcoat some of it.

But, hey, the Kansas City Royals made the World Series last season and who could have predicted that? Of course, they did it with a team full of young players and an exceptional bullpen. They Yankees currently have neither of those two ingredients.

But I can say that Girardi will select the best 25 players this spring. He also will put out the best lineup he can on a daily basis. You can also count on him getting the team to outperform expectations as they have the past two seasons.

Whether it will be enough to win the American League East or qualify as a wild card is an open question.

In the coming days I will examine the players more in depth and take a look forward at spring training to go over who the Yankees will likely keep on the roster and what young players are poised to make a splash for the team in coming years.

I hope you enjoy the analysis. All I can say is I am glad to be back and let’s get ready to play ball!

 

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Mission Possible: Mr. Phelps Holds A’s At Bay

GAME 66

YANKEES 7, ATHLETICS 0

In his previous four starts, David Phelps was 0-4 with a 6.57 ERA and he was shelled for 13 earned runs in 11 2/3 innings in his last two starts. Despite facing the first-place team in the American League West and their ace, Phelps on Friday posted one of the best starts of his career.

Phelps pitched 6 2/3 innings of two-hit baseball and the Yankees were able to get three runs on the board in the first two innings against Sonny Gray as New York broke a seven-game road losing streak against Oakland in front of a sellout crowd of 36,067 at O.co Coliseum.

Phelps (2-4) set the tone early by retiring the first 10 batters he faced until he walked John Jaso in the fourth inning. He only allowed a one-out bloop single to Derek Norris in the fifth inning and a two-out double to Jed Lowrie in the seventh before being replaced by Dellin Betances.

Phelps ended up walking three batters and striking out four in his 6 2/3 innings of work.

He got all the support he really needed in the first inning when the Yankees jumped on Gray (6-3) for three consecutive singles by Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Ellsbury’s single not only extended his major-league-leading hitting streak to 17 games, it also drove in Gardner with the game’s first run. Mark Teixeira followed with a sacrifice fly to deep center to score Jeter.

In the second inning, Brian Roberts reached first on an infield single, Kelly Johnson drew a walk and Gardner slapped an opposite-field single to left to score Roberts.

Jeter then singled to load the bases but Gray escaped further trouble by getting Ellsbury on a fielder’s choice in which Johnson was cut down at home plate and Teixeira flew out to left.

Ellsbury and Teixeira began a run of 13 consecutive batters Gray was able to retire until Ichiro Suzuki reached on an infield single with two out in the sixth. The final five outs Gray recorded were on swinging strikeouts.

But Gray was charged with loss after yielding three runs on seven hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in six innings.

The Yankees were able to turn the game into a rout by scoring four runs in the eighth inning off veteran left-hander Jeff Francis  –  all of them scoring with two outs.

After Teixeira and Brian McCann hit back-to-back one-out singles, Suzuki, Roberts and Johnson all stroked two-out RBI singles. On Roberts’ single Suzuki was able to score from first when the throw from right-fielder Brandon Moss caromed off Norris’ glove at the plate for an error on Norris.

Betances retired all four batters he faced, two of them by strikeout. Fellow rookie right-hander Jose Ramirez pitched a perfect ninth to allow the Yankees to claim their fourth straight victory.

The Yankees improved their season record to 35-30 and they are in second place in the American League East, 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. The A’s fell to 40-27.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Phelps had been a major disappointment as a replacement starter when Michael Pineda was placed on the disabled list and his past two starts were dreadful. But on Friday he was very good despite the fact he walked three and threw 45 balls among his 102 pitches. Phelps used his cutter and his slider to keep the A’s hitters off balance. His only “stress” inning came in the fifth when he walked Lowrie and gave up the bloop single to Norris. But he got out of the inning by getting Andy Parrino to fly out and he struck out Kyle Blanks.
  • Ellsbury continues to roll along on his hitting streak. He was 1-for-4 with a walk and he drove in a run on Friday. He is now 25-for-67 (.373) during the streak with two home runs an 12 RBIs. Ellsbury is now hitting .290 with four home runs and 30 RBIs and he leads the team in stolen bases with 18. He has been the Yankees’ most consistent player on offense and, if you add his excellent defense, he has been the team’s best all-around player.
  • Jeter returned for the last time to the field where he made his iconic “flip play” in the American League Division Series in 2001 and he celebrated it by going 2-for-4 with a run scored. Jeter is red hot at the plate in his past four games. He is 9-for-18 (.500) with two RBIs and five runs scored in that span. That has raised the 39-year-old team captain’s season average to .275.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

In their past four games the starters have yielded only five runs in 29 innings for an ERA of 1.55 and the team has scored 20 runs. The defense has also been exceptional. The Yankees need to start piling up victories if they want to be contenders and they doing just that.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees signed veteran right-hander Heath Bell to a minor-league contract and he was assigned to Triple-A Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre. Bell, 36, compiled a 1-1 mark with a 7.27 ERA in 13 games with the Tampa Bay Rays this season. After being released by the Rays, Bell signed with the Baltimore Orioles. However, he opted out of his minor-league deal with them after posting a 4.22 ERA in 10 2/3 innings. Bell has recorded 168 saves in 590 games with the New York Mets, San Diego Padres, the then-Florida Marlins, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Rays.   . . .  Pineda, 25, has not resumed throwing and manager Joe Girardi told reporters on Friday that the right-hander likely will not return until August. Pineda is on the 60-day disabled list with strain of the teres major muscle in his right shoulder. He had to be scratched from a June 1 start in an intrasquad game after feeling soreness in the shoulder muscle.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their three-game weekend series with the A’s on Saturday.

Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (4-4, 4.12 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda held the Kansas City Royals to two runs in seven innings on Sunday but ended up taking the loss because the Yankees offense snoozed to the tune of going 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

Left-hander Scott Kazmir (7-2, 2.20 ERA) will pitch for the Athletics. Kazmir threw seven shutout innings to defeat the Orioles on Sunday. He beat both Kuroda and the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 3, giving up two runs and striking out 10 in 6 1/3 innings.

Game-time will be 10:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

Rain Washes Away Yankees-Blue Jays Series Finale

GAME 44

BLUE JAYS AT YANKEES (Postponed – Rain)

The finale of the three-game weekend series between Toronto and New York at Yankees Stadium was washed away by a deluge of morning rain on Sunday.

The Yankees had won the first two games of the series and they were poised for a sweep of the last-place Blue Jays.

Manager Joe Girardi announced that Sunday’s scheduled starter, left-hander CC Sabathia, will open the Yankees’ three-game road series in Baltimore on Monday against the Orioles. Right-hander Phil Hughes will pitch the second game on Tuesday and right-hander Hiroki Kuroda will pitch in the finale on Wednesday.

Vidal Nuno, who had been scheduled to replace Andy Pettitte in the rotation with a start on Tuesday, will pitch out of the bullpen for the next few days and instead will make a start on Saturday in St. Petersburg, FL, against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Blue Jays are scheduled to return to Yankee Stadium to play the Yankees in the three-gamer series that begins on Aug. 20 and both teams do have an open date on Aug. 19. However, no official makeup date has been announced.

The Yankees remain 27-16 and in first place in the American League East. However, the Boston Red Sox were able to climb within a half-game of the Yankees in second place.

BOMBER BANTER

First baseman Mark Teixeira has been able to participate in tee-and-toss batting practice but he not been given clearance to begin taking live batting practice or playing in simulated games. Teixeira, who has been on the 60-day disabled list with a partially torn sheath in his right wrist, is eligible to reinstated to the active roster on June 1. But that date is looking a bit murky right now.

ON DECK

The Yankees will make their first visit this season to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore on Monday for a three-game series with the Orioles.

Sabathia (4-3, 3.19 ERA) will get the start coming off a no-decision against the Seattle Mariners last Tuesday in which he gave up three-runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 innings. Of all the teams in the American League, Sabathia has had more success against the O’s. He is 17-4 with a 3.03 ERA lifetime against them and that does not include two victories in the 2012 American League Division Series.

Sabathia will be opposed by former Yankee right-hander Freddy Garcia (0-2, 5.51 ERA). Garcia surrendered four runs on seven hits and two walks in just 2 2/3 innings Wednesday in a loss to the San Diego Padres. Garcia is 5-4 with a 4.09 ERA in the past 10 seasons against the Yankees.

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

 

Rain Again Forces Postponement Of Yanks-Indians

GAME 9

YANKEES VS. INDIANS (POSTPONED)

For the second consecutive evening, heavy rain in the metropolitan Cleveland area has forced a postponement of the series finale on Thursday between New York and Cleveland at Progressive Field.

No makeup date has ben announced for the two games that were washed away. However, manager Joe Girardi did tell reporters that he expects the games will be made up as part of a day-night doubleheader scheduled for May 13.

The Indians will remain in Cleveland and open a weekend series against divisional-rival Chicago on Friday. The Yankees will return home to open a weekend series against division-rival Baltimore.

Girardi said he has elected to skip Thursday’s scheduled starter, Phil Hughes, in order to keep ace left-hander CC Sabathia pitching on schedule. Hughes  –  as well as Wednesday’s scheduled starter, Ivan Nova  –  will be available to pitch out of the bullpen for the next few days.

BOMBER BANTER

First baseman Mark Teixeira will have his right wrist examined on Friday and he told reporters that he expects to be able to begin swinging a fungo bat soon. Teixeira, who turned 33 on Thursday, has been sidelined with a partially torn sheath in his wrist and he is still targeting a return to action around May 1.  . . .  The protective brace was removed from Curtis Granderson’s right wrist on Thursday and he has been cleared to begin resume throwing. Granderson has been out with a fractured right forearm he suffered in his first at-bat in spring training on Feb.24. Granderson soon will progress to begin taking swings with a bat and he is hoping to return around May 1 as well.

ON DECK

The Yankees return to Yankee Stadium to open a weekend series with the Orioles.

Sabathia (1-1, 3.00 ERA) will pitch for the Yankees coming off an excellent seven innings of shutout baseball against the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. Sabathia used his fastball and changeup to limit the Tigers to just four hits. In his career Sabathia is 16-4 with a 3.12 ERA against the Orioles. That does not include his American League Division Series-clinching victory in Game 5 against the Orioles last October.

The O’s will counter with left-hander Miguel Gonzalez (1-0, 2.84 ERA). Gonzalez gave up two runs in 6 1/3 innings on Sunday in a victory against the Tampa Bay Rays. He was 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA last season against the Yankees.

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

 

Yankees Will Prevail In 2013’s ‘Game Of Thrones’

The New York Yankees open defense of their American League East championship on Monday against the Boston Red Sox with pundits and even their own fans criticizing them for their many injuries and their reluctance over the past few years for opening their wallets to get quality young players. I will try to examine how I believe the division race stacks up and predict how it might go. You may be surprised by my conclusion.

REAL LIFE GAME OF THRONES

If you are a fan of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones” you might notice that the American League East is a lot like the many kingdoms in the show.

The Yankees, with their money and dominance, are a lot like the Lannisters. The Boston Red Sox are a lot like the Starks, highly principled and loyal folk who fight the good fight only to suffer myriad indignities and failures. Of course, you also have those teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles who also are swirling around the periphery of Kings Landing believing they have a rightful claim to wear the crown.

The 2013 season will play out a lot like the television series and I can tell you why I believe that.

A DOMINANT KING

Since 1995 the Yankees have only missed the American League playoffs once (in 2008) and they have won the division championship in 16 of the past 17 seasons. If that is not dominance than what is? Like the Lannisters, the Steinbrenner family has lavished riches of the kingdom on the best knights to defend the realm and their loyal subjects have been a fairly happy lot for the most part.

But their knights have grown old and their battle wounds have been severe. Some are ready for the fight in 2013 but others are not. Their apparent weakness has given their rivals confidence they take the crown away and you saw that play out this spring.

THE KING NORTH OF THE WALL

The Blue Jays had a legendary team in the early 1990s and they won two world championships during that period. But since then they have fallen into a barren abyss of failure. But their general manager Alex Anthropoulos engineered a winter campaign to load his roster with the best players the Miami Marlins and New York Mets could offer him.

They boast a starting lineup with the speedy Jose Reyes and a line-drive hitting machine in Melky Cabrera to add to their long-ball threats Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They also pried away National League Cy Young Award-winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets to add to right-hander Josh Johnson and left-hander Mark Buerhle from the Marlins to form a strong rotation with their own holdover Brandon Morrow.

The kings of North think they now have a team that storm the wall protecting the kingdoms that lie s to the south such as Kings Landing in 2013.

But there are some warning signs that could give them pause before they are able to proclaim victory.

One is the Blue Jays’ bullpen. I was listening to their broadcasters this spring lamenting about how weak this group appears to be.

Closer Casey Janssen is coming off shoulder surgery and they HOPE he will available for Opening Day. Behind him is failed closer Sergio Santos and his awful 7.88 spring ERA and Esmil Rogers and his 6.39 ERA.

Of all the teams in the A.L. East, this bullpen projects to be the worst in the division, especially if Janssen is unable to capture lightning in a bottle and return as the closer he was last season when he saved 22 of 25 games. The Blue Jays may have to cover there bullpen weakness by asking their starters to go longer than they should.

That tends to weaken the starters and it also could be discouraging when the offense builds a 6-1 lead after six innings and they end up losing the game 7-6. That will get mighty old for the Rogers Centre faithful this summer.

The offense has its own issues.

Third baseman Brett Lawrie plays the game all out and he also tends to get hurt a lot. He enters the season banged up and there are questions about how good centerfielder Colby Rasmus, catcher J.P. Arencibia and designated hitter Adam Lind really are. They have yet to establish themselves as quality major-league players.

There also is a major questions about whether Reyes, whose talents in the past have been held back by leg issues, will be able to play a full season on the hard artificial surface of Rogers Centre without issues at age 29.

So instead of automatically installing them as the kings of this division, you may want to look deeper into these drawbacks. Teams do not win championships on paper. Just ask the 2012 Marlins.

THE LORDS OF BALTIMORE

The Orioles remind me of the twisted and tortured King Stannis, who attacked Kings Landing in season two of the “Game of Thrones” only to be turned back at the gates by the eldest of the Lannisters and his men just as if seemed they were winning.

Stannis had a magical sorceress behind him convincing him that he could win the battle, but he failed in the end. She later told him he still could prevail even as he was licking his wounds in defeat. Manager Buck Showalter is much like this sorceress. His skill of masking weaknesses and enhancing strengths of a ballclub made the Orioles seem much stronger than they appeared to be in 2012.

They won such a ridiculous amount of one-run and extra-inning games that they qualified for the playoffs as a wild card only to be dispatched in Game 5 of the American League Division Series by the CC of Sabathia. They were at the gates of the kingdom of The Bronx only to be turned away by their elders, Prince Derek Jeter and the eldest of Lannisters, Raul of of the House Ibanez.

Showalter still believes his charges can storm the gates of the castle and take the throne in 2013. But, unlike most teams in this division, he did not add much of anything to this team. He is largely counting on the same black magic of 2012, which rarely happens.

Those one-run victories in 2012 can easily turn into one-run losses in 2013. Those extra-inning miracles can become extra-inning nightmares a year later.

Their rotation of Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Jake Arrieta really scares no one. Nobody is going to get up out of bed at the hotel and say “Oh no, we have no chance of winning because Arrieta is pitching tonight!”

The bullpen with closer Jim Johnson is solid but hardly merits superlatives.

The team largely returns the same cast in 2012 minus Mark Reynolds and with the return of second baseman Brian Roberts, who has not played a full season in the majors since 2009.

Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are marvelous talents and Nick Markakis is healthy after missing the stretch run. But I have to wonder if all the magic Showalter spun in 2012 really will return in 2013. Teams like this usually fall back to the pack and that is what I see for the Birds.

DRAGONS AT THE PORT CITY

The Tampa Bay Rays remind of the Targaryens, who once sat upon the throne in 2008 when they faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series but have been unable to mount the offensive to get back there.

They have been trapped wandering in a hot climate in Florida and they have been restricted by the lack of soldiers and a lack of money to really win it all.

One year they lose Carl Crawford and Matt Garza. Another year they lose B.J. Upton and James Shields. They try to compensate with their own farm system because they lack money to compete with the Lannisters or the Starks of this division.

They only have the fire of their small but growing dragons who someday might destroy the mightier armies they have to face. For now, it appears the dragons are way too small and too inexperienced to go the entire distance.

The Rays rely on a pitching staff led by the American League Cy Young Award-winner David Price. How ironic that a team that has to pinch its pennies would be beholden to man named Price.

Behind him on promising youngsters like Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. But there are problems here.

Hellickson spent most of the spring throwing much less than fire at opposing batters. He was rocked often and ended up with a 6.75 ERA. Moore did not fare much better. His velocity was way off and his command was even worse. He finished the spring much better but his once-high promise has faded some.

The Rays have to rely on these pitchers and their bullpen led by reclamation project Fernando Rodney and his 48 saves because the offense leaves a lot to be desired.

Without Upton, the Rays will have to rely on Evan Longoria even more for power. Longoria himself has a problem staying healthy and, if he is missing for any portion of the season, the Rays can kiss their hopes bye-bye.

They have a semblance of an offense with Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and new shortstop Yunel Escobar. But they also are starting guys like Matt Joyce and Luke Scott, who have not proven they can establish careers for themselves and help a team win.

They also are still counting on Jose Molina to do a bulk of the catching at age 37.

The Targaryens in the television series did not have enough money to purchase the ships to ford the sea leading back to Kings Landing. That kind of jives with the subjects who live in Tampa, FL, who are unwilling to lay down their riches or mount their horses to ford the bridge that leads to the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

The low attendance puts even more stringent strains on the team’s coffers to keep players like Price in the kingdom for their entire careers.

The Rays, with their young dragons, should remain afloat long enough to mount a serious challenge to take the throne. But the rich Lannisters in the Bronx still have the wisdom and wherewithal to stem the tide. Like in the series, men do not blindly follow the bravest warriors but remain loyal to the men with the gold.

The gold remains in the Bronx.

THE STARKS OF BOSTON

In Season Two of “Game of Thrones” the elder Stark loses his head, the eldest daughter is enslaved to the Lannister king, the youngest daughter is lost in the hinterlands, the two youngest boys have their home burned while the man’s widow and the eldest son plot to overthrow and vanquish the Lanisters to avenge the patriarch’s death.

That pretty much wraps up the Red Sox of 2012. Winterfell befell Landsdowne.

Their king (Bobby Valentine) had his head lopped off and served to the media, they abandoned their home fans and cast adrift a lot of their high-priced talent in order to restock and rebuild to defeat their arch-enemy in the rich Bronx. It was indeed a completely lost season for the Red Sox and the Starks.

They hold out hope that a new manager (Jon Farrell) and a team built around Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury will help get them back to the promised land they have failed to reach since 2007. In fact, they have failed to make the playoffs in the last three seasons.

They want left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Clay Buccholz to pitch better while young Felix Doubront develops and they pray retreads Ryan Dempster and John Lackey (all kingdoms must have their lackeys) have something left. The problem is that this was the division’s worst pitching staff in 2012 and no swordsmanship will make it much better in 2013.

The bullpen has undergone a two purges since Jonathan Papelbon rode off for the riches of the Phillies. They are now hoping a Pirate can plug the leaks in the hull of the bullpen. Joel Hanrahan has come over from Pittsburgh to be the closer while former closer Andrew Bailey and lost child Daniel Bard try to figure out what happened to their talent.

Bailey is the team’s setup man while the Bard (in true Shakespearean fashion) has been cast into the dungeons of the minor leagues. For shame, for shame!

It also appears that the kingdom’s version of Hodor, David Ortiz, is finally showing signs that those seasons of carrying excess weight have a price. He has a bad heel and he can’t even trot, let alone run. Without Ortiz, most of the power and production will fall upon first baseman Mike Napoli.

There are lots of weaknesses everywhere, including shortstop (Stephen Drew, really?) and catcher, where Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits home runs in small bunches and strikes out in major droves.

Though young outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. promises to give the Fenway faithful something to cheer about when the team is dredging the bottom depths of the division, the ponderous weight of the anchor of this foundering team will keep them from even getting a whiff of the roses near the Iron Throne.

THE RICHES OF KINGS LANDING

The Evil Empire in the Bronx has paid its knights Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Mark Teixeira handsomely over the years. Along with the reward of titles and championships, the team has also fallen short of its goals of late due to injury and the age of these players.

It actually started last season when spring injuries to Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain was just a mere hint of what 2012 would bring. Rodriguez missed time, CC pitched with a sore elbow, Pettitte was lost for a time, Jeter hobbled until he broke in the playoffs,

Speedy outfielder Brett Gardner played in only 18 games.

So why should 2013 be any different?

The rich Lannisters are already missing Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones because payroll concerns were such they were ordered to cut back on their excesses.

Injuries to Teixera, Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes and a slow recovery by Jeter this spring heightened the concerns of fans who have loyally followed this team over the years. The town criers, the scribes and pundits all denounced this team and said it was dead. They would not win the title in 2013.

They may even finish last.

STARK REALITY

But an odd thing happened on Friday. The team that was battered all spring played a Washington Nationals team that many say will win the world championship in 2013 fell to the Yankees. Oh, it was just an exhibition game. I know it did not count.

But what you saw in the Yankees was a semblance of a very good team. Pettitte pitched well and the bullpen proved to be as strong as ever.

The major surprise was the offense with Robinson Cano, Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez and Vernon Wells seemed to respond and it all seemed to come together in one cohesive package.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said earlier this spring that he fails to believe that the Yankees will be bad in 2013. He said he thinks they will be as difficult to beat as they always have been. I agree.

You see injuries do heal. The Yankees will get Jeter, Hughes, Granderson and Teixeira back at some point this season. They also might get Rodriguez back.

They are a team that has always gotten off to slow starts and got better as the season moved along. I see the same scenario this season.

The pitching with Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps is deep. They have Rivera in the bullpen for one last season and David Robertson, Chamberlain and Boone Logan form a strong setup group for the King of Closing.

The offense features the two best singles hitters of their generation in Ichiro Suzuki and Jeter along with the speedy Gardner. Cano, who is due to become a very rich free agent signing after the 2013 season, is poised for breakout season of offense and defense. He could very well win the Most Valuable Player award this season.

Youkilis looks like the Youkilis of 2007, when he led the rival Red Sox to their last championship. You add Granderson and Teixera to that and you have a good offense to go along with strong pitching.

The “new guys” Wells, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco and Travis Hafner will have pressure on them to keep the team afloat until the stars come back. They might fail but they can’t be any worse than last season’s Yankees that failed to hit with runners in scoring position.

It also behooves manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman that the Yankees are looked upon as dead meat awaiting a fork to be thrust into them. Perhaps lower expectations is a good thing for the Yankees after always being the team expected to win.

Girardi has a chance to really manage this season and Cashman has staked his reputation by finding these veteran pieces to fill in while the wounded heal in the tent.

That is why I truly believe that some how, some way the Yankees, the rich Lannisters of the Bronx, will have just enough to win this division again.

They may stumble in the playoffs. That is almost as much expected by their fans. But I do see victory here.

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. YANKEES
  2. BLUE JAYS
  3. RAYS
  4. ORIOLES
  5. RED SOX

For fans of the show “King of Thrones” I must add a note that Season Three premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO. If you liked this analogy to the A.L. East please pause a moment miladies and milords to send me a raven. 

 

Nova Seeks To Rekindle His Lofty Orbit In 2013

The New York Yankees will enter spring training with a virtually set starting rotation. That is a luxury among major-league clubs but there are some concerns about the staff and how effective it will be. Let’s examine each starter individually in a five-part series.

PART 5

IVAN NOVA (12-8, 5.02 ERA)

Entering the 2012 season it was not surprising that the Yankees believed they had something special in right-hander Ivan Nova. After all, Nova was nothing short of sensational in his rookie season, going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA.

Despite the fact he was demoted for a month in midseason, Nova came back and refused to lose another game for the rest of the season. At age 25, Nova seemed to have past fellow minor leaguers like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, David Phelps and Hector Noesi and even was outshining older Yankee young pitchers like Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.

However, Nova’s path to stardom took a long detour in 2012 and he enters 2013 with no guarantee he will even be able to keep his job as the team’s fifth starter.

Nova, now 26, struggled mightily in spring training last season, posting a 1-2 record with a 8.06 ERA in six starts and it did not get much better as the 2012 season unfolded.

In June, Nova posted a 3-0 mark with a 1.26 ERA. But in the other five months his ERAs were: 5.18 in April, 5.87 in May, 5.97 in July, 7.03 in August and 6.23 in September. Nova was so bad that manager Joe Girardi took him out of the rotation entirely in September and inserted the rookie right-hander Phelps in his place.

Command of Nova’s pitches was his undoing in 2012.

At times Nova’s curve would desert him and at other times it was his normally electric slider. On occasion he could not throw either for strikes. So Nova was forced to use his fastball when he was behind in the count and hitters took advantage by blasting him for 28 home runs in just 170 1/3 innings (a home run every 6.1 innings).

For Nova it was a stunning reversal and the doubts about his ability to rebound are swirling even before he reports to spring camp in Tampa, FL. Phelps, 26, who was 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts) last season, is coming into the spring with the expressed intent of taking Nova’s job away from him.

Competition is a healthy thing but Nova has never shied away from it since he came up as cocky youngster at the tail end of the 2011 season and posted 1-2 record with a 4.50 ERA in seven starts.

Truth be told, Nova – scouts will tell you – may actually have the best stuff of any starter on the Yankees’ roster, including CC Sabathia.

Some in Nova’s camp point out that a number of rookie pitchers tend to regress a bit in their second seasons. Tampa Bay Rays rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson beat out Nova for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2011 by going 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA.

Last season, Hellickson was below .500 with a 10-11 ledger.

The previous two A.L. Rookie of the Year winners were relievers Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers in 2010 and Andrew Bailey of the Oakland Athletics in 2009 and neither have had smooth sailing in their years since. The last National League rookie starting pitcher to win the award was Dontrelle Willis of the then Florida Marlins in 2003 and how did his career turn out?

So Nova enters 2013 with some lingering doubts surrounding him but he also has a chance to return to his 2011 form. Spring training will be a pivotal time for him to prove the problems with his command are over and he can be trusted to pitch consistently every fifth day for the Yankees.

In addition, the Yankees would be foolish to give up on Nova so soon. Nova can be downright untouchable when he is on. Who can forget his heroic “relief” performance in the rain-delayed Game 1 in the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers in 2011?

Nova throws a mid-90s fastball and compliments it with an excellent curve. When he was demoted in 2011 he added a devastating slider to the mix and he was unbeatable when he returned. He was the Yankees best pitcher this side of Sabathia.

That is probably why Nova’s 2012 travails were so baffling to Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Physically there was nothing wrong with Nova. But the command of his pitches seemed to elude him throughout the season.

The fact Nova turned in a 12-8 record was a testimony to his competitiveness, which has always been a hallmark for him. Nova is simply not afraid of hitters and he does not back down even when he is getting hit hard. Who can forget after Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays took him deep in his first September 2010 start that Nova buzzed Bautista inside his next time up?

Nope, fear is not in Nova’s lexicon.

That just might serve him well when he battles Phelps for the fifth starter job this spring. Nova ceratinly has to be better simply because it hard to believe he can be any worse than he was last season.

Nova also has a lot of things in his favor. He simply has better stuff than Phelps. His fastball is better and his breaking pitches have more bite. The question will simply come down to that command issue that plagued him.

Phelps is not exactly a marginal starter just trying to hang onto a major-league job either.

After four seasons in the minors in which Phelps was 38-15 and the highest ERA he recorded was the 2.99 mark he posted in 2011, Phelps entered the 2012 season behind Nova, Banuelos, Betances, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell despite the fact he was named the organization’s Pitcher of the Year in 2011.

The ex-Notre Dame star was 0-1 with a sparkling 2.08 ERA in seven appearances last spring, which earned him a surprise spot on the roster in the bullpen.

Phelps immediately impressed Girardi with his ability to attack the strike zone when he was called into games. Though Phelps is considered to have a rather pedestrian assortment of pitches, he proved early on that he was still able to get major-league hitters out using nearly pinpoint control.

He struck out 96 batters in 99 2/3 innings last season and Girardi had no qualms about using him as a spot starter, including his stint replacing Nova in late September.

So if Nova thinks that Phelps is just going to cede that No. 5 spot to him he is in for a big surprise. Phelps has always dealt with scouts doubting his abilities to pitch in the major leagues. That has fueled Phelps and he would love nothing more than to prove those scouts wrong.

The fact that the No. 5 spot comes down to two young right-handers who both came out of the Yankees’ farm system is also a testament to the efforts general manager Brian Cashman has made to invest heavily in scouting, signing the best pitchers he can find and keeping them rather them trading them to other teams.

Teams in the current era have been trying to develop the best young pitching they can find and they try to sign the best of them to long-term deals to retain them up to their 30s. That is why you do not see many young quality pitchers become free agents anymore.

So unless the Yankees either trade for a young pitcher like Michael Pineda or develop a Nova and/or Phelps they are going to have a tough time fielding a pitching staff going forward.

Cashman planned ahead and now Nova and Phelps could both play a big role toward making the Yankees’ 2013 a successful one.

Whoever wins the job will mean the loser more than likely will become the long reliever and spot starter for the team. Nova has much less experience in the bullpen and his command issues could get him sent out to Triple A early of he fails to throw strikes out of the bullpen.

But the smart money is that Nova will keep his role and Phelps will resume his in the bullpen.

Nova has come too far in the Yankees’ minor-league system to let this opportunity slip away from him. Of course, Phelps won’t back down either.

So that means that watching these two compete this spring will be the most fun to watch this spring.

 

Kuroda Looking To Build Upon His 2012 Success

The New York Yankees will enter spring training with a virtually set starting rotation. That is a luxury among major-league clubs but there are some concerns about the staff and how effective it will be. Let’s examine each starter individually in a five-part series.

PART 2

HIROKI KURODA (16-11, 3.32 ERA)

When the Yankees decided to sign right-hander Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million free-agent contract there were a lot of naysayers voicing a litany of concerns about the 37-year-old right-hander.

After all, in his four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kuroda was 41-46 and only posted one season above .500 in victories – an injury-plagued 2009 season when he was 8-7 in just 20 starts. Though he posted excellent ERAs in those four saesons (3.73, 3.376, 3.39 and 3.07) the conventional wisdom was coming over from the National League to the designated hitter in the American League would see his ERA explode.

The skeptics also pointed out that Kuroda would struggle in the competitive A.L. East.

You won’t hear those arguments anymore. Kuroda silenced his critics with his best season since he left Japan in 2008. He was absolutely brilliant from mid-May through August. Even though his ERA took a big hit in September he finished the season after Sept. 1 with a 4-1 record.

Y0u could even make a case that Kuroda’s season was better than CC Sabathia’s because Kuroda was healthy throughout and he even was more consistent than the Yankees’ left-handed ace.

Kuroda ended up setting carer major-league highs in victories, innings pitched and strikeouts. Kuroda emerged as the team’s No. 2 starter and he earned it by pitching deep into games and baffling hitters with a wide assortment of breaking pitches that offset his 90-mph plus fastball.

After getting blasted early and often in the first month, Kuroda made some adjustments and then never looked back. It was really no surprise when general manager Brian Cashman decided to sign Kuroda for another one-year deal but this time for $15 million.

Kuroda certainly earned the raise.

The veteran from Osaka, Japan made two starts in the playoffs for the Yankees and both were brilliant. However, Kuroda did not get any run support in either start and was 0-1 despite a sparkling 2.81 ERA.

In the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles, Kuroda gave up just two runs on five hits and one walk in 8 1/3 innings but did not earn a decision. Then he gave up three runs on five hits and no walks and struck out 11 in 7 2/3 innings against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series but lost because the Yankees did not score him a single run.

There are higher hopes for 2013, which is why Kuroda elected to re-sign with the Yankees.

“I am very grateful for all of the interest and all of the offers that I received from the various teams that courted me,” Kuroda said when he signed. “It was a tough decision for me to make, but at the end of the day, I wanted to try to win a championship with the teammates that I went to battle with last season.”

This season does figure to be a battle for the Yankees because the teams in the A.L. East appear to be stronger while the Yankees lost a lot of offensive firepower when Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones left the team as free agents, taking 94 home runs with them.

Kuroda will have to adjust to a less explosive team that might score a lot fewer runs. Of course, that is not unlike Kuroda’s seasons with the Dodgers when he received very poor run support and was a major reason why his season records there were below .500.

Kuroda gradually earned the trust of manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild by limiting his pitch counts so he could last deeper into games. With a bullpen that was missing Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberalain for most of the season, Kuroda’s stamina in games was very much welcome.

Kuroda also won over skeptical Yankee fans, who were absolutely stunned a National League pitcher could have success with the Yankees after the team had suffered through the likes of Javier Vazquez and Carl Pavano in previous seasons.

Kuroda will have to adjust this season without his favorite catcher in Martin. Martin, who caught Kuroda in his first three seasons with the Dodgers, elected to take his shin guards and his bat to the Pittsburgh Pirates. But that issue does not seem to be too great because both Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli have caught Kuroda since he became a Yankee.

The only real obstacle may be for Kuroda to stay on the mound long enough to allow the Yankees to get a lead for him in the late innings. With less firepower it also figures the Yankees will be in a lot of close games. That could mean a lot more no decisions for Kuroda.

Though Yankee fans would prefer to see a rotation made up of young hard-throwing starters, Kuroda allows the Yankees to buy time to let their young pitchers such as Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps to develop and also allows Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances to rebound from injuries and ineffectiveness.

That is not a bad tradeoff if Kuroda can duplicate his 2012 season. The Yankees will just be hoping for anything close to what he produced for them last season.

One thing is certain: With Kuroda pundits can no longer say the Yankees’ rotation is Sabathia and four other guys. Kuroda is just that good.

NEXT: ANDY PETTITTE