METS 7, YANKEES 2
Juan Lagares stroked a two-run homer and John Mayberry Jr. added a solo shot of his own as the Mets completed a sweep of their home-and-away with the Yankees on Wednesday at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL.
Right-hander Rafael Montero (1-0) held the Yankees to one run on three hits and no walks while he struck out four in four innings of work to get credit for the victory.
Masahiro Tanaka (1-1) took the loss yielding three runs (two earned) on four hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. He threw 49 of his 57 pitches for strikes.
Of more concern to the Yankees was that the two pitchers being considered as the team’s closer, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, combined to give up two runs on three hits in two-thirds of an inning.
With the loss the Yankees’ spring record dropped to 13-10.
At one time, Andrew Bailey, 30, was considered as one of the best young relievers in baseball.
He burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Oakland Athletics recording 26 saves in 30 opportunities with a 1.84 ERA. As a result, Bailey was named American League Rookie of the Year.
In his three seasons with Oakland, he saved 75 games and it looked as if Bailey would join the elite club of good young closers like Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves.
However, injuries have plagued the 6-foot-3, 240-pound right-hander since the Boston Red Sox traded for him as a their choice to replace Jonathan Papelbon as the team’s closer.
He had surgery on his right thumb before the 2012 season and ended up a disappointing 1-1 with a 7.04 ERA. Bailey was a bit better in 2013. He was 3-1 with a 3.77 ERA but he was only able to save six out of 13 chances before succumbing to major right shoulder surgery in July.
The Red Sox decided rather than pay him in 2014 they opted not to tender him an offer and released him.
The Yankees signed him last winter to a one-year deal with a option, knowing Bailey would not be able to pitch at all in 2014. Now perhaps the Yankees’ patience with Bailey will pay off.
Held back early in the spring, the Voorhees, New Jersey native has made three appearances, including a scoreless inning of work against the Mets on Wednesday.
Bailey has no record with 0.00 ERA in those outings. He has given up two hits and a walk with four strikeouts in three innings. If Bailey continues to look good the Yankees might have found some experienced bullpen help.
Given the struggles of Betances and Miller, Bailey also possibly could be shifted back into a closer’s role down the road. Of course, the Yankees could also allow him to build up his arm strength and stamina at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
If Bailey continues to progress he possibly could make a big impact on the team’s bullpen in 2015. the only question is what his role might be.
- Despite the fact he got knocked around a bit Tanaka was still impressive in outing on Wednesday. Tanaka told reporters through an interpreter after the game that he was working on throwing his two-seam fast ball more. That pitch was the one the Mets were whacking all over the park. His splitter and slider were devastating enough to strike out seven. So give Tanaka a mulligan for this outing.
- While a lot of the regulars have been struggling at the plate, Chase Headley has not been one of them. Headley had another good day at the plate – going 2-for-3 and driving in one of the Yankees’ two runs with a two-out RBI double in the third inning. Headley is now 12-for-38 (.316) overall with two homers and four RBIs. He has been a real surprise this spring.
- Betances, 26, has been plagued all spring with reduced velocity on his fastball and he has been paying a dear price for it. In his past four outings, Betances has yielded single runs in each on six hits and two walks in just 3 1/3 innings. Even more telling is that he has only four strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings this spring. It is looking more and more that Betances will not be named as the team’s closer.
- Miller, 29, has been slightly better although he was ineffective on Wednesday. Miller is 0-0 with a 2.84 ERA and he has fanned eight in 6 1/3 innings. If the decision had to be made today, manager Joe Girardi likely would name Miller as the closer. But keep in mind that Miller has never been closer either and has just one career save.
- It is one step forward and two steps back for Brett Gardner this spring. He was 0-3 with two strikeouts against the Mets and he is batting a woeful .140 this spring. With Jacoby Ellsbury out Gardner has been batting leadoff and he has not succeeded in getting on consistently at all.
The Yankees will travel to Port Charlotte, FL, on Thursday to take on the Tampa Bay Rays.
Right-hander Adam Warren (2-0 with a 2.77 ERA in his four starts) will have a chance to lock up the No. 5 starting spot with a good outing.
The Rays will counter with right-handed reliever Kevin Jepsen, who has no record and a 1.80 ERA in five relief appearances this spring.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast on a delayed basis by MLB Network on Friday at 9 a.m.
YANKEES 3, ASTROS 2
The hallmark of the spring has been the play of what manager Joe Girardi calls the “Baby Bombers.” On Saturday, they struck again and this time the Astros paid the price.
Jake Cave lofted a sacrifice fly to deep right-field to score pinch-runner Slade Heathcott as New York rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to down Houston at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL.
Nick Noonan opened the ninth inning with a ground single to right off right-hander Will Harris (0-1) and Aaron Judge followed with a lined single to left.
One out later, Eddy Rodriguez doubled in Noonan and Judge and advanced to third on a throwing error by left-fielder Andrew Aplin. Heathcott came off the bench to run for Rodriguez and later scored on Cave’s game-winning sac fly.
Left-hander Jacob Lindgren (1-0) pitched a scoreless ninth to earn the victory.
The Yankees trailed from the first inning when George Springer launched a one-out triple and Chris Carter followed with a two-run home run off right-hander Michael Pineda. It was the first runs Pineda had allowed this spring.
Pineda later settled in and finished up by yielding just the two runs on four hits and no walks with six strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings of work.
With the victory the Yankees improved their Grapefruit League record to 12-7.
- It is no accident that the young Yankees like Cave, Judge and Heathcott are leading late rallies. Cave, 23, is 5-for-12 (.417) with a home run and five RBIs. Cave’s spring average is the highest of any Yankee player with 10 or more at-bats. Heathcott, 24, is next on that list. He is 7-for-17 (.412) with a homer an four RBIs. Judge, 23, is 4-for-14 (.286) with a homer and three RBIs. Remember these names because they all could be playing in Yankee Stadium in a few years.
- Even though Pineda, 26, was rocked by a double, a triple and a home run in his outing on Saturday, he did throw well. He struck out five of the last 10 batters he faced. He also ended up throwing 42 of his 56 pitches for strikes. “I’m happy because today is a good outing. I’m feeling good,” Pineda told reporters. “This is very important for me. I’m feeling great.”
- Give a lot of credit also to the bullpen for holding the Astros scoreless. Justin Wilson, Andrew Miller, Andrew Bailey, Nick Rumbelow and Lindgren combined to pitch 5 1/3 innings, yielding only one hit and one walk with eight strikeouts. Yankee pitchers combined to strike out 14 Astros. That is awesome.
- The regulars continue to struggle at home. Mark Teixeira was 2-for-3 and Carlos Beltran, Didi Gregorius and Brian McCann picked up a hit apiece. But Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Chris Young and Stephen Drew combined to go 0-for-10.
- Gardner, 31, is having a particularly bad spring so far. He is 5-for-34 (.147) with no homers and two RBIs. He also leads the team in strikeouts with 10. With just 13 exhibition games remaining it would be nice to see the speedy outfielder pick it up a little.
- Austin Romine, 26, started as the designated hitter and was 0-for-2. He is now 4-for-20 (.200) on the spring. Romine is battling John Ryan Murphy to be McCann’s backup behind the plate. But Murphy, 23, is doing even worse at the plate. He is 2-for-22 (.091), the lowest Yankee average among players with 10 or more at-bats. Romine is out of options so he could end up making the 25-man roster so that Murphy could catch full-time and get regular at-bats at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Gardner gave the crowd something to cheer and laugh about in the first inning. But it was no laughing matter to Girardi. When Young reached the wall on Carter’s blast he leaped to get it and lost his glove over the fence in the process. Gardner took it upon himself to scale the 8-foot fence to retrieve both Young’s glove and Carter’s home run ball. He then climbed back over the fence. Most of the crowd of 9.914 gave Gardner a standing ovation. Girardi, however, was not pleased. “We’ve seen guys hit a home run, jump up and land on the plate and break an ankle,” Girardi told reporters. “I told him, ‘This isn’t Little League.’ Gardy thought he was in the movie The Sandlot or something.”
The Yankees will make a 2 1/2-hour trip south to Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, FL, on Sunday to face the New York Mets.
Left-hander CC Sabathia (0-1) will make the start for the Yankees. Sabathia’s first start on Tuesday against the Blue Jays was a bit shaky. Toronto scored two runs on four hits in two innings. He is scheduled to throw 45 to 50 pitches on Sunday.
Right-hander Matt Harvey, who is on the comeback trail after undergoing Tommy John surgery, will start for the Mets. Harvey is 0-0 with a 2.08 ERA in three starts.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them.
Co-closers: Dellin Betances, 26 (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 1 save, 70 games), Andrew Miller, 29 (5-5, 2.02 ERA, 1 save, 73 games)
Set-up man: David Carpenter, 29 (6-4, 3.54 ERA, 3 saves, 65 games)
Lefty specialist: Justin Wilson, 27 (3-4, 4.20 ERA, 70 games)
The Yankees have had somewhat of a revolving door at the closer position for the past three seasons and 2015 will the fourth consecutive season they will be featuring a new closer or closers.
In 2012, an early-season injury to Mariano Rivera forced the Yankees to use Rafael Soriano as the team’s closer. In 2013, Rivera returned to health to complete a great final chapter to Hall-of-Fame career. And in 2014, David Robertson assumed the closer’s role and all he did was go 4-5 with a 3.08 ERA and convert 39 of his 44 save opportunities.
However, Robertson was unhappy that the Yankees did not look to extend his contract. So he declined their qualifying offer and signed a four-year, $46-million deal with the Chicago White Sox on Dec. 9.
Once again the Yankees will be auditioning another new closer in 2015.
The obvious choice is Betances after his meteoric rise from a spring training curiosity to the devastating setup weapon he became in 2014. The numbers speak for themselves.
He allowed only 46 hits and 24 walks in 90 innings. Batters hit an anemic .149 against him. He fanned 135 batters. The 6-foot-8, 265-pound right-hander dominated hitters from Opening Day to the end of the season.
The question then becomes could he do what he did last season in the ninth inning in 2015?
Manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild believe that he can but they are not going to leave that question to chance without a Plan B.
On Dec. 5, the Yankees signed left-hander Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36-million contract with the intention of making him a setup man for what was Robertson at the time. Miller struck out 14.87 batters per nine innings and held opponents to a .153 batting average for the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles last season.
For now, Girardi says that although the Yankees would prefer to have one set closer when they begin the season, they are not averse to having Betances and Miller work as co-closers.
“I’m sure we’ll have a lot of meetings about that,” Girardi told reporters last Sunday. “We’ll decide what’s best. We want to see how they’re both throwing the baseball at the end of spring training. There will be just a lot of discussion of how we feel our team is built. Could they be interchangeable? Yeah.”
There is no doubt that however they are used both Betances and Miller have great stuff and are nearly impossible to hit consistently. That gives the Yankees two powerful weapons at the back end of the bullpen.
Betances was originally drafted as a starting pitcher out of New York City and his high-octane fastball seemed to have him on a fast track to the Yankees’ starting rotation. But control problems plagued him and got worse as he progressed through the minor-league system
His status as a top prospect diminished until the Yankees decided to try him in the bullpen in 2013. That turned everything around. Betances found a delivery that he could repeat and that devastating fastball and slider combination left batters baffled.
He impressed Girardi in a spring game when he faced Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion of the Blue Jays with the bases loaded and retired both of them to get out of the jam unscathed. It was inevitable Betances would make the roster as a reliever from that point on.
That led to Betances’ impressive first season with the big club and his reward could be eventually becoming the team’s closer.
Ironically, Miller’s career path was very similar.
Miller was a former No. 1 draft pick of the Detroit Tigers who just could not harness his control as a starter. After a short and unsuccessful stop with the then-Florida Marlins, Miller reached rock bottom when he was 6-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 12 starts with the Boston Red Sox in 2011.
Miller walked 41 batters in just 65 innings.
Then the Red Sox shifted him to the bullpen and he has not looked back. From 2012 through 2014, Miller has developed into what could be considered the most devastating left-handed relievers in all of baseball.
His walks have dropped, his strikeouts have increased and Miller is now in line to perhaps share a closers role – a job he also has never had before.
The Yankees are obviously thrilled they have both of these pitchers available for the ninth inning.
A curious thing happened after the 2014 season. For the first time in a very long time, the Yankees basically reshuffled the deck on the rest of the bullpen. David Phelps, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton and Preston Claiborne are gone.
Phelps was dealt to the Marlins in the trade where the Yankees acquired starting right-hander Nathan Eovaldi and first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones. Kelley was shipped to the San Diego Padres for minor-league right-hander Johnny Barbato. Thornton was waived last August and is now with the Washington Nationals. Claiborne was released and signed with the Marlins.
So behind Miller and Betances will be a whole new cast of characters.
The team’s primary setup man will be Carpenter, who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves along with left-hander Chasen Shreve for left-hander Manny Banuelos, who was once considered the best pitching prospect in the Yankees’ organization.
Carpenter comes to the Yankees highly recommended by Brian McCann, who was his primary catcher in 2013 when Carpenter was 4-1 with a 1.78 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 65 innings over 56 appearances.
Carpenter’s numbers slipped considerably last season but he is very excited to be reunited with his former battery mate.
“B-Mac is the kind of guy that you love going to battle with,” Carpenter told reporters. “He’s a team guy, he busts his butt out there, he’s everything you could ask for in a leader, especially a catcher. To be reunited with him, it’s going to be really, really special.”
The Yankees also made a deal for a second left-hander by trading veteran catcher Francisco Cervelli to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Wilson, who like Carpenter had a sensational 2013 season.
Wilson, a converted starter, was 6-1 with 2.08 ERA in 58 games with the Pirates in 2013. Last season his numbers slipped a bit but general manager Brian Cashman said Wilson will remind Yankee fans of Boone Logan, who had a very successful stint with the Yankees as their primary left-hander.
Beyond these four, the makeup of the rest of the bullpen will be up for grabs this spring, although Adam Warren eventually will be part of it. It is just unclear when that will be because Warren is slated to pitch as a starter in spring training.
The Yankees are looking to possibly use Warren as a sixth starter in the first six weeks of the season because several Yankee starters are coming off injuries and the Yankees face a stretch in late April and early May in which they are scheduled to play 30 games in 31 days.
Warren, 27, is coming off a sensational year in the bullpen. He was 3-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 69 games, all in relief. Between Warren’s ability to pitch in almost in any role, including that of a starter, and the fact that he pitches effectively in those roles, it is easy to see why he was one of the few relievers the Yankees opted to keep for 2015.
Warren will be a big help either in the middle or late innings when he finally is shifted back in mid-May.
Right-handers Chase Whitley (25), Esmil Rogers (29) and Bryan Mitchell (23) also will get opportunities to start this spring. All three have started in the past but Whitley is better suited to be a relief pitcher. Rogers has not fully developed as a starter or a reliever but he has been better in the bullpen. Mitchell is a capable starter but the Yankees will evaluate him for both roles this spring.
Mitchell likely will be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre so that he could be available as a emergency starter this season. The Yankees really like his ability.
There are several relievers on the 40-man roster who will get a look this spring including Danny Burawa, Jose De Paula, Branden Pinder and Shreve.
Burawa, 26, is a right-hander who was 3-1 with a 4.70 between Double-A Trenton and Scranton last season. De Paula, 27, was signed out of the San Francisco Giants system and the left-hander was 4-3 with a 4.21 ERA at Triple-A Fresno in 2014. Pinder, 26, is a right-hander who was 3-0 with 2.04 ERA in three minor-league stops last season, ending with a stint in Scranton. Shreve, 24, was acquired along with Carpenter in the Banuelos trade and was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA at stops in Double-A and Triple-A in 2014.
Most of the time non-roster pitchers are invited into camp for a look but they don’t make the team. But the Yankees invited a veteran right-hander reliever to camp who was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2009 and a two-time All-Star with the Oakland Athletics.
He is 30-year-old Andrew Bailey, who saved 75 games in 84 opportunities for the A’s from 2009 through 2011, but has suffered through a series of injuries that have hindered his effectiveness and kept him off the field.
Bailey was released by the Red Sox in July 2013 after posting a 3-1 record with 3.77 ERA in 30 games. Bailey suffered a torn capsule and labrum in his right shoulder and underwent surgery in 2013. The Yankees signed him to a minor-league contract in 2014 knowing he would be unavailable to pitch until 2015.
The Yankees extended him an invitation this spring and Bailey will have an opportunity to test where he is in his rehab. If he is healthy, Bailey could be a valuable addition to the bullpen. Though his closing days are over he could land a spot to pitch in the middle innings. If he is anywhere close to the pitcher he was in Oakland the Yankee bullpen will be even more formidable.
Another intriguing pitcher to watch this spring will be former starting prospect Jose A. Ramirez, 25, who was converted to relief because of recurring oblique injuries.
Ramirez was once a very highly touted prospect as a starter and he did make his major-league debut with the Yankees as a reliever last season. He was 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA in eight appearances in relief.
At Scranton, the Dominican right-hander was 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA in nine appearances after spending an early part of the season on the disabled list with an oblique strain.
The Yankees see their 13th-ranked prospect as a full-time reliever and they hope it does for Ramirez what it did for Betances. Ramirez just maybe could make a leap to the majors this season because of his change-up, which is the best in the organization – including those in the majors now.
He also features a plus fastball though he lacks overall command and he is working hard to develop his slider. Because he has struggled to work more than 115 innings the Yankees believe keeping in the bullpen will lessen his injury issues and keep his arm fresh for a full season.
Another young pitcher to watch is 21-year-old right-hander Jacob Lindgren, who pitched Mississippi State to the 2013 College World Series title as a starter and then was shifted to the bullpen by the Yankees last summer.
The Yankees selected him with their first pick of the 2014 draft in the second round and he immediately paid dividends by advancing all the way to Trenton. In his four minor-league stops he combined to go 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA He struck out 48 batters in 25 innings.
Lindgren was able to increase his fastball speed up to 95 mph and his slider (82-84 mph) has enough bite on it to make it a wipeout pitch. It is very possible that Lindgren could make the Yankees’ bullpen in 2015 if he shows that he can throw strikes consistently in the minors.
He is ranked as the team’s No. 9 prospect.
OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: EXCELLENT
The bullpen has been the strength of the team for the past two seasons, though the team as a whole has not had much success. Even with the reshuffling of a lot of new faces and new roles in the bullpen, it remains one of the team’s strengths.
Another reason is that Girardi has been a master at selecting the best organization arms and utilizing a bullpen to the team’s advantage. No one gets overworked because Girardi is strict about not using pitchers three days in a row if he can help it.
This season the big test will be if Betances can take the reins as the team’s closer. The odds are that he is capable and he should be successful. If he isn’t Miller is there back him up. Whether they work as setup man and closer or as co-closers, the fact remains they are two very nasty hombres that hitters do not feel comfortable hitting against.
Neither pitcher also has a decided bias pitching against right-handed or left-handed batters. They are equal-opportunity strikeout artists. That will make it awful difficult for teams who are behind come the eighth inning.
Carpenter will likely ease into what was Kelley’s role last season. He will set up for Miller and Betances. Though Carpenter struggled a bit last season, he still is considered a good young pitcher with a very good arm.
Once Warren finishes his role as a starter in the early part of the season he will join Carpenter in a setup role. Though Warren came out of the minors as a starter, he has had great success pitching out of the bullpen and he can pitch multiple innings if needed.
The Yankees also traded Cervelli for a second left-hander in Wilson and he provides a great opportunity for Girardi to match him up against a tough left-handed hitter in the middle innings.
With these five players set in their roles, the other three spots are up for grabs this spring.
Whitley and Rogers have a great shot at winning two of those spots because they both are former starters. Whitley is ideal for the long-relief and spot-start role Phelps once had. Rogers has not harnessed his ability yet and time is running out. But he is veteran with a good arm.
The last spot will be decided in spring training with a lot of potential candidates.
One good thing is that a lot of those candidates such as Burawa, Pinder and Shreve are young, Behind them are a pair of up-and-coming prospects like Ramirez and Lindgren.
There is good chance you may see both Ramirez and Lindgren on the 25-man roster this season. The Yankees have developed a lot of great depth here.
END OF SERIES
With the first exhibition a day away the New York Yankees pretty much have answered all their roster questions.
By investing $475 million on free agents this winter they have turned a team that was ravaged by injury in 2013 into a possible contender in 2014.
The rotation is almost set with C.C. Sabathia heading up a group that includes a Japanese sensation in Masahiro Tanaka and holdovers Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda.
The starting lineup is set with shortstop Derek Jeter returning from injury along with first baseman Mark Teixeira. Free agents Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson will primarily play second and third base, respectively. Fellow free agent Brian McCann gives the Yankees the best hitting catcher they have had since Jorge Posada retired.
The outfield was strengthened with the free-agent signings of Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carlos Beltran in right. Brett Gardner, fresh off signing a new four-year extension, will move back to left and last year’s key acquisition, Alfonso Soriano, will be the primary designated hitter.
The bullpen is pretty set with David Robertson being asked to fill the mighty big cleats of the best closer the game as ever seen in Mariano Rivera.
With him are free agent left-hander Matt Thornton, who will assume the role of the departed Boone Logan. Shawn Kelley will also try to build on what was a fairly good first season with the team.
The Yankees even added to the bullpen with the signing of oft-injured former closer Andrew Bailey, who could easily slip into Robertson’s setup role if he is sound.
The bench already will have backup middle infielder Brendan Ryan and catcher Francisco Cervelli. Ichiro Suzuki, who suddenly became the odd man out of a job with the new outfielders looks to have the backup outfield spot assured unless he is traded.
So there are few jobs left to fill. But here they are and the players who are competing for them:
NO. 5 STARTER
The Candidates: Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno.
Pineda, 25, has missed two complete seasons following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in 2012. The Yankees hope and Pineda believes it is time for him to resume what was once a promising career. The velocity may not be what it was in his rookie season in 2011 when he was an American League All-Star and he had nine victories, 173 strikeouts and a 3.73 ERA with the Seattle Mariners. But the Yankees hope that his stuff is still effective enough to get out major-league hitters. If Pineda proves that this spring the job is really his. That is why they traded Jesus Montero for him. Now it is time for results.
Phelps, 27, has spent the past two seasons as the Yankees’ long man and spot starter out of the bullpen. He has done the job pretty well. He is 10-9 with 4.11 ERA in 55 games (23 of them starts) the past two seasons. But Phelps had his 2013 season interrupted by a right forearm strain that sidelined him for two months. But he is 100 percent this spring and he will get a chance to win the final spot in the rotation. However, he likely won’t get it if Pineda shines. The reason is that Phelps’ numbers the past two seasons have been better out of the bullpen than as a starter. Phelps actually might move into a short relief role, where he could even end up setting up Robertson at some point. Phelps, barring injury, will leave spring training with a role. The only question is what role.
Warren, 26, surprisingly made the team out of spring training last season and he was the team’s long reliever. Warren also pitched very well. He was 3-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 34 games (two starts). Warren is excellent insurance if Pineda is not ready because Warren is actually better suited as a starter than Phelps. But his value as a long reliever is excellent. So a likely scenario is that Pineda becomes the starter, Warren keeps his long man and spot starting gig and Phelps shifts to the bullpen again. It is hard for Warren not to want to start. Obviously he does. He will get a lot of chances to do it. Do not be surprised if you see very little of Sabathia, Tanaka and Kuroda early this spring. The reason is you will be seeing a lot of these four pitchers instead.
Nuno, 26, won the James P. Dawson Award last spring as the team’s most impressive rookie after going 1-1 with a 0.61 ERA in 14 2/3 innings over seven games. That does not even include the five shutout innings he tossed against the Yankees when he was offered to the Dominican Republic for an exhibition game before the World Baseball Classic. Nuno was sent out to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he was 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA in five games before he was summoned to fill a spot in the bullpen. In five games with the Yankees (three of them starts), Nuno was 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA over 20 innings. Nuno subsequently had his season ended by a groin injury. Nuno is the real wildcard in this equation. His fastball barely reaches 88 miles per hour yet he keeps hitters off-balance and doesn’t walk many either. But if Nuno loses out to any of the other three he likely will be returned to Scranton, where he will be available should an injury occur. Nuno is not as experienced pitching out the bullpen and the Yankees prefer he remain stretched out as a starter.
The Candidates: Eduardo Nunez, Dean Anna, Scott Sizemore and Russ Canzler.
Nunez, 26, has had huge opportunities after he batted .265 with 22 steals in 112 games in 2011. In the past two seasons, Nunez has blown those chances. In 2012, his inconsistent fielding got him sent to Scranton and Nunez injured his right hand and missed a huge chunk of the summer. In 2013, the Yankees lost Jeter for most of the season as he battled to get back from a severe ankle injury. Nunez was handed the job early but it went downhill in a hurry after he got injured himself. Nunez hit .260 in 90 games but he did not have that same fire he had in 2011. It was a shame because Nunez worked on a new throwing motion and cut down on his errors. The Yankees sealed Nunez’s fate by deciding to keep Ryan, who can also play second base. That means the only way Nunez can make the team is as a right-handed portion of a platoon with Johnson at third base. This is Nunez’s last shot with the Yankees and he could very well be dealt away before the spring is over.
Anna is a year OLDER than Nunez but has never received a single at-bat in the majors. Yet, Anna chances of making the team may be better than Nunez. Anna was traded to the Yankees by the San Diego Padres in return for right-hander Ben Paulus. The reason Anna is intriguing is that he led the Pacific Coast League in batting in 2o13 with a .331 average with nine homers and 73 RBIs. Anna also bats left-handed and he can play second, third, shortstop and the two corner outfield spots. He lacks speed and range in the field but his fielding is above average. So a good spring could catapult Anna into a backup spot with the Yankees. He could be valuable in that Roberts has spent the past four seasons battling injuries. He also could win the primary starting spot over Johnson at third. The Yankees can’t wait to see what Anna can do this spring.
Sizemore, 29, was a hot minor leaguer like Anna in 2009 when he batted .308 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs at two stops in the Detroit Tigers’ minor-league system. He was handed the starting second base job for the Tigers in 2010 and he promptly handed it back by hitting .224 in 48 games. He did not fare much better by hitting .245 in 110 games for the Tigers in 2011. For the past two seasons Sizemore has had two separate surgeries for a torn ACL in his left knee. He reinjured the ACL just 10 days into the 2013 season with the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. Sizemore is working out with the Yankees but he is not going all-out just yet. Sizemore has hopes of winning a job as a backup at second and third base. As a right-handed hitter, Sizemore could be of use if he could recapture his old form. The odds are not in his favor but Sizemore is not one to give up that easily.
Canzler, 28, is different from the other three because he can play first base. With Teixeira coming off surgery to repair the sheath in his right wrist, having someone on the roster who can first would be a plus. The current depth chart lists Johnson as the backup there but Johnson has started only two games in his career there. That was why the Yankees re-signed Canzler to a minor-league contract after they cut him loose from the 40-man roster when the team signed designated hitter Tracis Hafner last February. Canzler spent the 2013 season at Triple A, first with the Baltimore Orioles and later with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He batted a combined .252 with 12 homers and 62 RBIs in 125 games. Canzler’s real value is that he can play both corner infield and both corner outfield spots. That means if the right-handed slugger is impressive he could end up in a platoon with Johnson at third and back up for Teixiera at first. That is why Canzler bears watching so closely this spring.
FOUR BULLPEN SPOTS
The Candidates: Cesar Cabral, Preston Claiborne, Bailey, Phelps, Warren, Nuno and Dellin Betances
Robertson is a lock at closer. Thornton and Kelly seem to safe as late-inning options. The Yankees are also very high on the first two names on the candidate list, Cabral and Claiborne. Both made their major-league debuts last season and both impressed manager Joe Girardi. Cabral, 25, missed all of the 2012 season and most of 2013 after fracturing his left elbow in his final spring appearance in 2012. The big left-hander is deadly to left-handed hitters and the Yankees covet a specialist as they had in Clay Rapada in 2012. Something they did not have in 2013. That why it is almost certain that Cabral will make the team, barring injury.
Claiborne, 26, did not walk his first major-league batter until his 15th appearance. He also carried a 2.13 ERA into August before he was shuttled from Scranton to New York five times. His control left him and he got shelled hard in his final 11 games. But the Yankees think very highly of Claiborne. With Logan and Joba Chamberlain gone, the Yankees have a need for Claiborne in their bullpen. Girardi only wants to see the youngster attacking the strike zone consistently this spring to add him to the roster.
Bailey, 29, is the former closer for the A’s and the Boston Red Sox. However, a series of injuries have derailed his once-promising career. After saving 75 games for the A’s from 2009 through 2011, Bailey was acquired by the Red Sox but he endured an injury-plagued 2012 season, pitching in only 19 games and recording a 7.04 ERA. He began 2013 well but ended up having right shoulder surgery in July. The Bosox opted to cut him from the roster by not tendering him a contract. He will not be ready to pitch to start the season. But the Yankees are hoping he may be able to bolster the bullpen later. If he comes back healthy he could very well become the team’s setup man.
The other two bullpen spots likely will go to the losers of the No. 5 starter competition – with the exception of Pineda. If Pineda is not ready to pitch in the majors the Yankees likely will keep him for some while in extended spring training in Tampa, FL. They then would ship him to some rehab assignments before they choose to bring him up later in the season.
That leaves Phelps, Warren and Nuno to fight for the last two spots in addition to a former top-rated starting prospect in Dellin Betances. Betances, 25, was shifted into a bullpen role last season after he struggled with his command as a starter. The result is that Betances is on the verge of becoming a dominant relief pitcher with much better control. He made his major-league debut in September after posting a 6-4 record and a 2.68 ERA with five saves at Scranton. Betances struck out 108 while walking 42 over 84 innings in 38 (six starts) games . Betances looks to be a budding future closer candidate and the Yankees could have him up sometime in 2014 if he does not make the team this spring.
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.
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.
- BLUE JAYS
- 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.
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.
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.