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.
YANKEES 15, RED SOX 9
Fenway Park turned 100 years and one day old on Saturday and the Red Sox honored the occasion by providing their fans with one of their worst meltdowns in their history.
Trailing 9-0 in the sixth inning, the Yankees came back to strike for 15 unanswered runs over the next three innings to leave embattled skipper Bobby Valentine, a depleted Bosox roster and an incredibly ineffective and shellshocked bullpen in tatters amid an embarrassing a five-game losing streak that is rapidly angering the Fenway faithful.
Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher led the comeback for the Yankees, combining for three home runs and 12 RBIs against a Red Sox pitching staff that has earned its position as the worst in baseball.
It was Teixeira who innocently began the rally with a two-out solo home run to left off Red Sox starter Felix Doubront in the sixth inning. Doubront left the game with a 9-1 lead having given up four hits and two walks and fanning seven batters. Little did he know his bullpen would not be able to hold an eight-run lead.
The Yankees got back into the game in the seventh inning against journeyman right-hander Vicente Padilla.
With one out, Russell Martin blooped a single to right and Eduardo Nunez followed with a slow roller to third in which third baseman Nate Spears could not get Nunez at first. Derek Jeter walked to load the bases and Swisher cut the lead to 9-5 on one swing by smashing a grand slam home run into the Green Monster seats in left.
After Robinson Cano singled, Valentine – serenaded with a cascade of loud boos – brought in Matt Albers to replace Padilla.
Albers induced Alex Rodriguez to hit a infield grounder but shortstop Mike Aviles misplayed it and Granderson advanced to third. Teixeira then delivered his second home run of the game, another opposite-field blast to left to bring the Yankees to within one run at 9-8.
A stunned Fenway Park crowd of 36, 770 sat in deafening silence. That silence would not last when the Yankees’ half of the eighth began with Franklin Morales on the mound.
Nunez opened the frame with a single to left and Valentine then publicly alerted the Yankees and Red Sox Nation that he was officially panicking. He elected to bring in closer Alfredo Aceves with six outs to hold a one-run lead.
Jeter immediately worked a walk from Aceves and Swisher then crushed a 2-1 pitch off the center-field wall to score Nunez and Jeter, giving the Yankees an improbable 10-9 lead.
Valentine ordered Aceves to walk Cano intentionally, but Aceves made things worse by walking Rodriguez to load the bases again. Teixeira made him pay with a ground-rule double down into the right-field corner to make it 12-9.
After Aceves walked Granderson intentionally, Valentine – fielding even more boos – removed him for lefty Justin Thomas.
Thomas was able to get an unassisted double play by Adrian Gonzalez off the bat of pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez. However, Martin stroked a two-run single to center. Nunez then reached on an infield single to Aviles.
Jeter made the Red Sox pay with a grounder to Aviles in which he slipped and could not throw Jeter out at first, which scored Martin and pushed the Yankee lead to 15-9. Fortunately for the Red Sox it was not worse.
The Yankee bullpen closed it out and the Red Sox left the field with some embarrassed faces in front of a national television audience on FOX Sports.
Rafael Soriano (2-0) pitched a scoreless seventh to get credit for the victory. Aceves (0-1) gave up five runs on two hits and four walks without recording a single out to take the loss.
The Red Sox bullpen combined to give up 15 runs on 12 hits and five walks in just three innings.
It overshadowed an absolutely horrible third start of the season for 35-year-old right-hander Freddy Garcia. He was hammered for five runs on seven hits in just 1 2/3 innings. Fortunately for him, that was forgotten hours later with the complete ineptitude of the Red Sox bullpen to get nine outs and hold what looked to be a very comfortable lead.
With the victory, the Yankees improved to 9-6 and claimed first place in the American League East for the first time this season. The reeling Red Sox – or shall we say Dead Sox – are now 4-10 and they are five games back in last place in the division.
- Swisher had a week in basically two at-bats. His six RBIs are a career high. He was 3-for-6 with a grand-slam, a two-run double and a single. he also scored two runs and he now leads the American League in RBIs with 20. He raised his average to .283 and it looks as if he is making a huge push for a new contract at the end of the 2012 season.
- The slow-starting Teixeira hit two home runs – one of them to the opposite field in left, which is one more than he hit in all of 2011. He added a huge two-run double in the eighth to give him six RBIs in the game also. Tex was 3-for-6 in the game and raised his batting average to .288. Hey, Mark, it’s April. What gives?
- Jeter quietly had another sensational game, though Swisher and Teixeira overshadowed him. He was 3-for-4 with two walks, three singles, two runs and an RBI. He raised his average to a ridiculously hot .382. The Captain is not looking like he will be retiring anytime soon.
- Simply put, Garcia has to go. After three starts, Garcia has given up 14 runs (13 earned) on 20 hits and three walks in 12 innings. His ERA is 9.75 and he is looking like he is unable to put away hitters with his splitter any more. At times it looked as if the Red Sox were taking batting practice. Perhaps David Phelps should take the No. 5 spot until Andy Pettitte is ready.
- Phelps was knocked around a bit for the first time this season. He was tagged for three runs on six hits and one walk in four innings. The big blow off him was a two-run home run to center by Cody Ross in the fifth. But he actually did not pitch as bad the numbers indicate and he could be given a start soon.
- Although the Yankees scored 15 runs and pounded out 16 hits, Rodriguez was 0-for-5 with a walk and he did not get a ball out of the infield. The 0-for-5 day lowered his batting average to .241.
There is one bit of very bad news for Yankee fans and Yankee fans who loved Jesus Montero. Michael Pineda had to end his bullpen session in Tampa, FL., after 15 pitches with discomfort in the back of his right shoulder. Manager Joe Girardi said Pineda will see a physician on Monday and there is no immediate timetable for his return. Pineda, 23, was placed in the disabled list at the start of the season after being diagnosed with right shoulder tendinitis. . . . Pettitte is scheduled to make a start on Wednesday for Double-A Trenton as part of his return to the major leagues scheduled for early May. Pettitte is expected to throw about 80 to 85 pitches. The Yankees obviously will be glad to see him the way Garcia has been pitching.
The Yankees can complete a sweep of the Red Sox on Sunday and if it happens I would not want to be Valentine on Monday.
Ace left-hander CC Sabathia (1-0, 5.99 ERA) is coming off his first victory of the season. He gave up three runs in six innings to beat the Twins. He is 7-9 with a 4.14 ERA in his career against the Bosox.
Boston will counter with right-hander Daniel Bard (0-2, 4.63 ERA). Bard gave up one run but walked seven against the Rays in his last start, which he lost. He is 2-1 with a 4.13 ERA against the Yankees but all those numbers came from the bullpen.
Game-time will be 8:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by ESPN.
Retirement is a one-way trip to insignificance.
When I first heard the news Andy Pettitte had decided to come out of retirement to pitch for the Yankees this season I thought it was a hoax. When Andy walked away from a $12 million contract offer after the 2010 season I thought the next time we would see him pitch was in an Old-Timer’s game at Yankee Stadium. But now that I know he did, indeed, sign a $2.5 million minor-league contract on Friday, I could not wipe the smile off my face.
The immediate thought is what manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild are going to do to sort out a sudden glut of seven starting pitchers with only five spots available. As it is without Pettitte in the mix, you have Ivan Nova (16 wins), Michael Pineda (promising sophomore right-hander), Freddy Garcia (crafty veteran) and Phil Hughes (18 wins in 2010) vying for the three spots behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda.
It is a good thing the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett and Mike Mussina has not planned a comeback or it could be a real mess.
But Pettitte obviously will need time to get into “game shape” and build his arm strength for the 2012 season and he will not be able to start with the Yankees by Opening Day. Yankee general manager Brian Cashman estimated it might take about seven weeks.
So at age 39, Pettitte will embark on an extended spring training and then he will likely venture to Triple-A Empire State (formerly Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) for a series of starts until the Yankees decide he is ready to join the Yankees. That could be mid-May or later.
So Girardi’s immediate plan is to just sort out the six starters he has now and wait to see what happens with Pettitte later.
If the decision were mine to make now I would give Nova a spot because he earned it with the 16 games he won as a rookie last season. He also has a very high upside in potential and the Yankees could use a young pitcher in their rotation.
Pineda deserves a spot based on his great showing last season but there is a big problem: His velocity on the fastball is down and the Yankees are concerned though they are not voicing it publicly. Perhaps the Yankees open the season allowing Pineda to try to recapture it in the major leagues, as they did with Hughes last season.
But they would be able to place him on the disabled list or just send him to Empire State to build arm strength at some point. It is a possibility.
Hughes looks like he is back from his arm woes. He threw four shutout innings on Friday and in his previous start at Ft. Myers, FL., against the Twins he was registering 92 miles per hour on the radar gun.
If Hughes wins the No. 5 spot, then Garcia would be in the bullpen ready to fill in if Pineda struggles or there is an injury.
Garcia’s stuff translates well to the bullpen because he throws strikes and mixes his pitches well. A team could do worse that to have a pitcher who was 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA in the bullpen.
As for when Pettitte is ready to join the 25-man roster, that is one of those “cross the bridge when we get it to it” deals for Girardi. A lot can happen in a 162-game schedule with injuries and ineffectiveness. As to who do you bump from the rotation for Pettitte, i have no idea how to answer that question now.
But what I do know is that this turn of events is very bad news for the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.
The Red Sox have three very good starters (Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz), a big question mark (Daniel Bard) and a fifth starter to be selected out of a grab bags of misfits and free-agent sludge.
The Rays thought the y had the best rotation in the division with the likes of James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and rookie lefty Matt Moore. To tell you the truth they still could. However, the addition of Pettitte makes the difference between the two staffs somewhat insignificant.
Think of what Pettitte was able to do in 2010.
He was 11-3 with a 3.26 ERA and he was headed for a great season when a groin injury shelved him during the home stretch of the pennant race. In his two starts in the postseason Pettitte was 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA. Then he walked away thinking his calling was at home with his family.
But coming to training camp this spring as a guest instructor apparently got Andy to thinking there was still something left in the tank. Of course, we all saw that. It wasn’t like Andy’s record was 4-14 with a 5.42 ERA and we all knew we could stick a fork in him because he was done.
No, Andy walked away when he was still one of the better left-handers in the American League and he is still the all-time leader in postseason wins (19), starts (42) and innings pitched (263). Pettitte is also third on the Yankees all-time win list (203) behind Hall-of-Famers Whitey Ford (236) and Red Ruffing (231).
What better way to spend a summer for Andy than joining Derek Jeter to get an up close and personal view of what could be fellow “Core Four” veteran Mariano Rivera in what could be his last season?
This is an historic and monumental day in Yankee history. One of the most successful pitchers from their golden era (1996 through 2000) is coming back to don No. 46 and reprrise that famous steel-eyed glare over the glove Pettitte made famous.
Yep, the Pettitte family’s temporary loss of their beloved father is certainly Yankee Universe’s gain. Welcome back, Andy!
As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.
PART 4 – BOSTON RED SOX
A fellow Yankee fan once called the Red Sox the Red Flops because of their penchant for running out to big leads in the American League East and fading badly in the second half. After the famous “Collapse of 2011” the term seems apropos.
On Sept. 3, they were 84-54, a half game behind the Yankees and nine games up on the Tampa Bay Rays. They finished the season with a dreadful 6-18 record and missed the playoffs by a game. In Boston that is not an oops, it is an eruption and it cost manager Terry Francona his job and general manager Theo Epstein fled to the Chicago Cubs.
Looking to 2012 the Red Flops hired ego-driven Bobby Valentine as manager. Ben Cherington, an Epstein assistant, took over as GM. They even dismissed first-year pitching coach Curt Young in favor of Bob McClure to keep their starting pitchers from getting bagged in the clubhouse on Samuel Adams.
Of course, that is odd because McClure pitched most of his career with the beer capital of the world in Milwaukee.
There is no doubt the starting pitching let the Red Sox down in 2011. They scored runs and the bullpen was good until it got overtaxed. But has this team addressed the areas of weakness enough to win the division in 2012?
Well, it does not look good.
The Red Sox were unable to acquire any starter of significance this winter because they had to re-sign free agent David Ortiz and the team was already perilously close to the salary mark that would incur the luxury tax.
So they return to the field with two of the pitchers who aided in the collapse (Josh Beckett and Jon Lester), one pitcher who was hurt most of the 2011 season (Clay Buchholz) and two big question marks behind them. That seems hardly like a recipe for success.
Beckett, 31, returns as the team ace after a season in which he was 13-7 with a 2.89 ERA. But an ankle injury late in the season forced him to fade like a typical Red Flop in September. He posted a 5.48 ERA in September. He also was in the center of the beer issue that drew the ire of teammates and the front office.
If Beckett wants to remain the ace he better start showing some leadership by example.
Lester, 28, is starting to look like the Red Sox version of Mike Mussina. He has all the talent and the pitches to be successful but he never takes that big step forward to be an elite pitcher. He was 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA but he also slid in September. He had only two quality starts from Aug. 27 to the season finale and was 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in the final month.
Buchholz, 27, made only 14 starts last season before ending up on the disabled list with what was eventually diagnosed as a stress fracture in his back. He finished with a record of 6-3 and a 3.48 ERA. There is no doubt he was sorely missed last season because Epstein failed to stock the Red Sox with any depth and the team floundered after he was shelved on June 16.
The Red Sox other two starters were veteran right-handers John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
If Lester is like Mussina then Lackey is looking like the Red Sox version of A.J. Burnett. Signed as free agent before the 2010 season, Lackey has done nothing but disappoint Red Sox Nation with bad pitching. He was 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA in 2010 but he got much worse in 2011 with a 12-12 mark and 6.41 ERA.
Red Sox fans have taken to calling him “Lacking.”
But there is good news for RSN, Lackey, 33, will not pitch at all in 2012 because he had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. There is no real guarantee Lackey will be any better in 2013, which will be the final year of his four-year contract. His days in Beantown look to be limited at this point.
Speaking of that, Red Sox fans also would like to see Matsuzaka, 31, gone after three injury-filled seasons in which he was a combined 16-15 with a plus 5.00 ERA in only 44 starts. Last season, he was shelved in June with a 3-3 record and a 5.30 ERA. Like Lackey he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
He possibly could return late in the season but there is no one banking on him coming back pitching like in he did in 2008 when he was 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. He is in the final year of lucrative six-year contract and the Red Sox seem to be counting the days they can part with him.
With Lackey and Dice-K on the shelf, the Red Sox have to come up with two starters and one of them is Daniel Bard, the team’s setup man the past two seasons. Bard, 26, does throw hard and he has two breaking pitches to mix in his arsenal.
But Bard also was the poster boy for the Red Sox collapse. Forced to pitch a lot to cover for weak starting pitching, Bard got hit hard and often in September, finishing the season 2-9 with a 3.33 ERA and five blown saves. Only July 31, Bard had a 1.76 ERA.
Now the question is can he be an effective starter? It has not worked for relievers lately. It did not work for Joba Chamberlain and Brandon Morrow of the Blue Jays has struggled to get past the fifth inning with the Blue Jays. Usually it works better when a starter becomes a reliever as it did with former Red Sox right-hander Dennis Eckersley.
Until Bard proves he can pitch deep into games consistently and does not fade late in the season as the innings pile up, he is big question mark in 2012.
For the fifth spot, the Red Sox issued an open casting call much like the Yankees did in 2011 with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.
They are looking at holdovers Alfredo Aceves and Andrew Miller as possible candidates. Aceves, 29, was 10-2 with a 2.61 ERA but made only four starts. He is better suited as a reliever, as he proved with the Yankees. Miller, a 26-year-old left-hander, was 6-3 but he had a horrible 5.54 ERA in 12 starts.
The Red Sox also signed former Yankee right-hander Ross Ohlendorf and three other right-handers including Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva to compete for the job this spring.
None of these candidates are going to impress the Red Sox faithful. They all have a lot of mileage on them and they all have not had much success in recent years.
This might be one of the weakest Red Sox rotations in many years and the lack of depth in it is the major problem. If Beckett, Lester or Buchholz are hurt, who steps up to replace them?
The Red Sox allowed Jonathan Papelbon leave for the Philadelphia Phillies rather than pay him what he was worth as a closer for them over the past six seasons. The conventional wisdom was Bard would take over as the closer.
But the Red Sox made him a starter instead and opened up the job. They decided to fill it with 27-year-old right-hander Andrew Bailey, who was acquired in a trade with the Oakland Athletics.
Bailey is coming off two injury-plagued seasons but is pretty darn good when he is healthy. Bailey is 7-10 with a career ERA of 2.07 and 75 saves in 84 chances.
There is no doubt Bailey is an excellent closer. The only question is of the Red Sox can keep him healthy and can Bailey adjust to the very small dimensions of Fenway as opposed to the expansive Coliseum.
The Red Sox also traded with the Houston Astros for yet another former Yankee reliever in Mark Melancon. (Can the signing of Tanyon Sturtze be far behind?). Melancon, 26, was 8-4 with a 2.78 ERA and saved 20 out of 25 games for the lowly Astros last season. Melancon, who was touted years ago as the eventual successor to Mariano Rivera when he was in the Yankees’ minor-league system, will set up Bailey and can close if Bailey should revert to past form and pull up lame.
Speaking of lame, the Red Sox suffered a huge blow to their bullpen before pitchers reported to camp on Sunday because 30-year-old right-hander Bobby Jenks will miss more time when a pulmonary embolism was discovered in his lung. This was discovered after he had two back surgeries after pitching only 19 games last season. He is on the 60-day DL and he will be on a long road back to health.
Aceves also figures in the late innings because he is much more valuable in that spot.
The Red Sox got some use out of 29-year-old right-hander Matt Albers, who was 4-4 with 4.73 ERA in 56 games last season. The lefty specialist was 26-year-old Franklin Morales, who was 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA in 50 appearances. The Red Sox are hoping Rich Hill will come back from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow sometime this season.
The Red Sox think 24-year-old lefty Felix Doubront can take the second left-hander spot in the bullpen. He had no record and 6.10 ERA in 11 appearances last season. Doubront could also get a chance to start and he has some upside.
This bullpen is definitely in a state of flux. New personnel, new roles and there are some pitchers coming off injuries or currently rehabbing injuries. It is not a recipe for success.
Valentine and McClure have a lot of decisions to make in the spring. For the Red Sox to succeed they need an excellent bullpen. For now, it looks just mediocre.
The Red Sox were largely a four-man offense – a very good four-man offense but a four-man offense nonetheless – in 2011.
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez was as advertised. He hit .338 with 27 home runs and 117 RBIs and played Gold Glove defense. The Red Sox hope Gonzalez, 29, is the fulcrum of the Bosox attack for many years to come.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 season to re-establish himself in 2011. He hit .307 with 21 homers and 91 RBIs and also won a Gold Glove. Pedroia, 28, remains the spark-plug in the Red Sox engine. His grit and determination makes him the heart and soul of the team.
Designated hitter David Ortiz followed up a bounce-back 2010 season with another solid campaign in 2011. Ortiz, 36, hit .309 with 29 home runs and 96 RBIs. He is not the same feared hitter he was in his steroid days hitting behind Manny Ramirez but he is still good enough to help the offense.
The big surprise was center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who played only 18 games in 2010 and was accused of milking his rib injury by some teammates. Ellsbury, 28, must have been angry because he came back with a vengeance in 2011. He hit .321 with easily a career-high 32 home runs and 105 RBIs from the leadoff spot. He also stole 39 bases.
To most Red Sox observers, Ellsbury was the team’s MVP and would have won the American League MVP if Justin Verlander of the Tigers had not.
The big disappointments in this lineup were Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford.
Youkilis, who will be 33 when the season starts, still has not played any more than 147 games in a season. Last season, the combination of bursitis in his left hip and a sports hernia limited him to 120 games. He hit a disappointing .258 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs and he did not play third base as well he played first base. Youkilis must stay healthy and return to form if the Red Sox are to make a move in 2012.
Left-fielder Crawford, 30, arrived in Beantown with 409 career steals and .293 career batting average. His seven-year, $142 million contract was the signing that limited the Red Sox from adding pitching this winter. He also proved he did not fit in well at Fenway. He hit .255 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs and only 18 stolen bases. He also proved weak in the field despite having won a Gold Glove with the Rays in 2010.
More bad news about Crawford: Late in the winter Crawford realized his left wrist required surgery and he is not likely to be able to play on Opening Day. Crawford will either turn his game around or become one of the biggest albatross signings in baseball history.
The Red Sox have shuffled the deck in right-field and shortstop this season.
The Red Sox released aging outfielder J.D. Drew and they used promising youngster Josh Reddick in the Bailey trade.
The Red Sox did obtain outfielder Ryan Sweeney in the Bailey deal and he is a left-handed hitter like Reddick. However, the 27-year-old has been a huge disappointment in Oakland. He is career .283 hitter but he lacks both power and speed.
Holdover Darnell McDonald, 33, was brought up last season and he hit .236 with six home runs and 24 RBIs in 79 games. He could figure in an early platoon with Sweeney or win the job outright. Ryan Kalish, 23, hit .252 in 53 games and he will get a look also.
The Red Sox also picked up Cody Ross from the Giants. Ross, 31, bats right-handed and he figures to start n left-field until Crawford returns to health. Then he will shift to right in a platoon with either Sweeney or Kalish. Ross hit .240 with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs in 2011.
Shortstop also was shuffled for 2012. Starter Marco Scutaro was shipped to Colorado for right-handed pitcher Clayton Mortensen. Backup infielder Jed Lowrie was used in the Melancon trade with the Astros.
That leaves former Royals infielder Mike Aviles to start at the position. Aviles, 31, is a career .288 hitter but he hit only .255 with seven home runs and 39 RBIs in 91 games with the Royals and Red Sox.
The Jason Varitek era in Boston is officially over. Varitek was not re-signed and Jarrod Saltalamacchia enters his second season as the unquestioned starter for the Red Sox. Saltalamacchia, 26, is coming off a so-so 2011 season. He hit .235 with 16 homers and 56 RBIs. He also struck out 119 times in 358 at-bats so he is not exactly a selective hitter. The Red Sox also wish he would continue to improve his defense and throwing.
The Red Sox will likely keep Ross, McDonald and either Sweeney or Kalish as backup outfielders. McDonald is valuable because he play all three spots and he is better in center.
The Red Sox picked up former Twins infielder Nick Punto as a reserve at second, short and third. Punto, 34, hit .278 with one home run and 20 RBIs with the Cardinals last season. Having Punto means the Red Sox can allow 22-year-old shortstop Jose Inglesias another season to develop at Triple-A. Inglesias can field but has not developed much as a hitter.
The team also picked up former Red Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach from the Rays. Shoppach, 31, hit .176 with 11 homers and 22 RBIs with the Rays and he replaces Varitek as the backup catcher. He is solid defensively.
This is a serviceable bench but I would hardly call it talent-laden or special.
The Epstein-Francona era is over. The main architects of the only two World Series championships in the last 96 years have fled. They left a financial constraint on the team that prevented them from addressing their crisis in starting pitching, the bullpen and in right-field.
The Crawford and Lackey signings along with the trades for since-departed Victor Matinez and Gonzalez left this very dollar-rich team weak in minor-league prospects and unable to find enough wiggle room to sign what they needed without breaking way past the level where the luxury tax kicks in.
This limits what the Red Sox will actually do this season. This is team that already is beset by injuries (Lackey, Dice-K, Crawford, Jenks) and they are severely lacking in depth before spring training has even started. It is hard to see how they find the money to fix what needs fixing if the ship should begin to flounder.
The Red Sox will only go as far their offense and their top three starters take them this season.
With the Rays a bit flawed it is easy to see both the Red Sox and Rays battling for second place behind the Yankees in 2012. Because of what happened to the Red Sox last season it hard to see how it could happen again. But that is what I am predicting.
I just have a sneaking suspicion that the Rays pitching will be the reason the Red Sox will finish third. The only question is can Valentine get out of town before RSN tries to lynch him. Good luck, with this bunch, Bobby. You are going to need it – along with a lot of Maalox.
Just call them the Red Flops.
No. 10 – Adrian Gonzalez is concealing a severe groin injury he suffered clearing out space in his den wall display for his 2012 Most Valuable Player Trophy.
No. 9 – Documents have been uncovered by Boston Globe sports reporters that indicate that Dustin Pedroia is actually a 13-year-old Chinese gymnast.
No. 8 – David Ortiz’s shipment of HGH got screwed up by his supplier and he has been taking huge doses of male menopause drugs instead.
No. 7 – The Rays have had a secret deal with free agent Carl Crawford to sabotage the Red Sox’s chances by acting as of he never played the game before.
No. 6 – Daniel Bard has been reading the book “How I Became A Better Relief Pitcher” authored by Byun-Hyun Kim.
No. 5 – A number of the current Red Sox have been too busy lately negotiating deals to become ESPN TV analysts when they decide to retire.
No. 4 – In retrospect, Curt Young’s advice to Jon Lester to drink a six-pack of Samuel Adams on the days he starts was ill-advised.
No. 3 – Kevin Youkilis paid a steep price with that hip injury in trying out for “Dancing With The Stars.”
No. 2 – Tito Francona has it all figured out now. He is now going to ply the bench with Xanax-laced Gatorade.
And the Number 1 reason why the Red Sox are choking . . .
. . . The players told Francona “The heck with infield and batting practice we have a world championship parade to plan!”
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
– William Shakespeare from Macbeth
YANKEES 4, RED SOX 2
It looked like Thursday night series finale against the Red Sox was going to be one of those games where the Yankees put runner after runner on base only to be denied a run. That is until the seventh inning, when Russell Martin came to the plate with two on and one out.
Up to that point, the Yankees were trailing 2-1 because the Yankees could not parlay nine hits, four walks and a hit batter into any runs after the first inning and had left 12 runners on base in the first six innings.
But Martin greeted The Bard, the reliever Daniel and not the famous playwright, with a two-run double to right-center and closer Mariano Rivera weathered a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the ninth to strike out Adrian Gonzalez looking to preserve a very important victory for New York in front of a mostly hostile crowd of 38,074 at Fenway Park.
With the victory the Yankees pulled to within a slim half game of the Red Sox in the American League East race and the two teams are tied in the loss column at 53 apiece.
The Yankees had trailed since the bottom of the fourth inning, when Dustin Pedroia followed a four-pitch walk to Gonzalez with a two-run home run to center off Yankee starter A.J. Burnett.
But the Yankees got busy with one out in the seventh inning with an incredible at-bat by Andruw Jones against former Yankee reliever Alfredo Aceves. Jones worked Aceves to a 2-2 count, fouled off three pitches, took ball three, fouled off five more pitches and drew ball four.
Aceves’ night then came to an end when he hit designated hitter Jesus Montero, who was just called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and was playing in his first major-league game, with a 2-2 pitch.
Manager Terry Francona summoned his ace setup man,Bard, to get the Red Sox out the jam. However, Martin was able to drive 3-2 Bard fastball into the gap in right-center to score pinch-runner Chris Dickerson, who also was recalled from Scranton on Thursday, and Montero to allow the Yankees to reclaim the lead. Martin moved to third on the play at the plate.
Pinch-hitter Eric Chavez then added an important insurance run by slapping a 1-0 fastball to right that scored Martin.
The Yankees again turned to their troika of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and Rivera to close out the game.
Soriano tossed a scoreless seventh and Robertson followed suit in the eighth.
But Rivera opened the ninth by walking Jed Lowrie. After Josh Reddick flew out to deep right and Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out swinging, Jacoby Ellsbury drew a walk. Rivera entered the game having walked only five batters in 51 innings.
Marco Scutaro then singled sharply to right to load the bases and bring to the plate Gonzalez, who entered the game leading major-league baseball with a .341 average.
Rivera, using his cutter to Gonzalez on the inside corner for the first four pitches, was ahead on the count 1-2 when he threw a cutter to the outside corner at the knees and Gonzalez watched as it nestled right into Martin’s glove and home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez raised his right arm to call Gonzalez out on strikes.
The game was somewhat bittersweet redemption for Burnett, who has been lit up like a roman candle since June 29. Signed as a free agent before the 2009 season expressly because he came off a 18-10 season in which he beat the Red Sox four times, Burnett entered Thursday’s game having never beaten the Red Sox while wearing a Yankee uniform. Burnett also was in real danger of losing his spot in the starting rotation.
But Burnett pitched well. He gave up only the two runs on five hits and two walks and he fanned four batters over 5 1/3 innings.
Meanwhile, the Yankee hitters were keeping Boston left-hander Jon Lester busy throwing pitches from the first toss four hours and 21 minutes before this marathon ended.
With one out in the fist inning, Curtis Granderson singled to right. Mark Teixeira followed with a sinking liner single to center and Robinson Cano scored Granderson with a lined double off the Green Monster in left-center.
The Yankees could have put a real hurting on Lester then. But Nick Swisher struck out, Jones walked and Montero struck out to end the threat. However, Lester threw 43 pitches in the inning. Though the Yankees continued to put pressure on Lester they could not get the big hit to either tie it or take the lead.
Lester threw 114 pitches over five innings and gave up just the lone run on seven hits and three walks.
Burnett left the game with one out in the sixth after giving up a single and a stolen base to Pedroia and a walk to David Ortiz. Boone Logan was called in by manager Joe Girardi and he fanned Carl Crawford.
Cory Wade then was called in to pitch to Lowrie and disaster nearly struck the Yankees.
Lowrie lofted a fast-sinking liner into centerfield but Granderson dove to his right and scooped the ball into his glove just before it hit the ground. The sensational grab not only saved at least one run for sure. It also ended the inning.
Wade (3-0), thanks to Granderson, earned the victory with his one-third inning of relief. Rivera earned his 36th save in 41 chances, albeit he did it the hard way.
Aceves (9-2) took the loss.
The Yankees ended up taking two of three from the Red Sox at Fenway and now are 4-11 with their bitter rival on the season.
- Martin missed the first two games of the series but he made his presence felt with his clutch double in this game. He was 2-for-5 with two RBIs and scored a run. Martin has quietly and steadily raised his season’s average to .240.
- Cano continues to pound Red Sox pitching. He was 2-for-5 with two doubles and an RBI in the game. Cano is now hitting easily a team-best .307 on the season and he now has 98 RBIs.
- Burnett was so bad many Yankee fans cringed when it was announced he would pitch this game. It was with good reason, too. Burnett recorded an astronomical 11.91 ERA in August. But he did pitch well and kept the Yankees in the game until the Yankee hitters finally got tired of leaving runners on base. There is a good chance Burnett will remain a starter and Phil Hughes will be sent to the bullpen after Burnett’s performance because Hughes has experience in the bullpen and Burnett’s wildness may not translate well to the bullpen.
- Granderson’s catch in the sixth inning added a strong defensive note to his resume for a potential Most Valuable Player award. Granderson’s 124 runs, 38 home runs, 107 RBIs, 10 triples and 24 stolen bases has overshadowed his excellent defense in centerfield.
- The Yankees were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position until Martin’s double and Chavez’s single in the three-run seventh. They left the bases loaded twice in the first six innings and left two on in two other innings. The pitching staff holding the Red Sox to six hits and just the two runs allowed the hitters to finally get the big hits when they needed them.
Teixeira was forced to leave the game in the bottom of the seventh inning due to swelling in right knee after he was hit by a pitch batting in the top of the sixth against Aceves. No X-rays were taken but Teixeira had the knee wrapped in ice after the game. He is day-to-day. . . . Along with Dickerson and Montero, the Yankees recalled four other players from their minor-league system. Infielder Brandon Laird and right-handed relief pitchers Lance Pendleton and Scott Proctor were called up from Scranton. Left-handed reliever Raul Valdes was recalled from Double-A Trenton. Proctor, 34, previously spent four seasons with the Yankees from 2004-2007. He posted a 2.57 ERA in seven innings at Scranton. Valdes, 33, had a 3.38 ERA in seven appearances with the Cardinals this season before he was released. Valdes becomes the second left-hander in the bullpen along with Boone Logan. . . . Alex Rodriguez (sprained left thumb) hopes to be able to return to the lineup on Friday.
The Yankees return home after a taxing road trip to host the Toronto Blue Jays for a three-game weekend series.
The Yankees will open the series with their hottest starter, Ivan Nova (14.4, 3.96 ERA). Nova is 6-0 in his six starts after being recalled from Scranton on July 30. He is 1-1 with a 4.24 ERA against the Blue Jays in his short career.
The Blue Jays will counter with right-hander Brandon Morrow (9-9, 4.79 ERA). Morrow has allowed five homers and 11 runs in his last 10 innings over two starts. He lso has lost four of his last five starts. He is 3-1 with a 4.68 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.
Game-time will be at 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.