Tagged: Desmond Jennings

Tanaka Shuts Up Critics By Silencing Rays’ Bats

GAME 11

YANKEES 9, RAYS 0

“I’ve been there. I know that (Masahiro) Tanaka is probably at 65 percent. He might be better than a young kid rushed up from the minor leagues, but in the end, it’s going to come back to bite them. I think Tanaka is not committed to his pitches. Tanaka is a guy who’s aggressive in the strike zone and attacks the strike zone. He doesn’t look like he’s attacking the strike zone.”

                                                                    –  Supreme pitching expert Pedro Martinez on April 10

Flash forward to Saturday and I think Martinez may want to season his steaming plate of crow liberally with some salsa because he is going to have to eat his words.

Tanaka held the Rays to just two hits in a brilliant seven-inning performance to outduel Jake Odorizzi as New York went on to score seven runs in the seventh inning to thoroughly humiliate Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.

So dominant was Tanaka (2-1) that after he allowed a leadoff single to David DeJesus in the first inning, he did not allow another hit until Logan Forsythe led off the sixth inning with a double. In retiring 15 batters in a row, Tanaka struck out six of them and only three balls made it into the outfield.

Oh, by the way, after Forsythe’s double, Tanaka fanned Rene Rivera and DeJesus and retired Steven Souza Jr. on a groundout.

Tanaka walked none and ended up with eight strikeouts on only 85 pitches (60 of them were strikes). It was as if the Japanese right-hander was telling Martinez that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

By the looks of Tanaka on this evening, he looks as dominant as he ever was in his rookie season last year when he was 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA.

Odorizzi (2-1) entered the game with a 0.61 ERA in 14 2/3 innings over two starts and he pitched that way for the first five innings of the game. He matched Tanaka pitch-by-by-pitch in allowing only three hits and fanning seven in that span.

However, the sixth inning proved to be his undoing when he issued back-to-back one-out walks to Brett Gardner and Alex Rodriguez. One batter later, Brian McCann, who entered the game 5-for-10 with two homers off Odorizzi and was 2-for-2 against him at that point, spanked a hanging change-up to deep right-field.

The ball caromed off the very top of the yellow home-run line and rolled back into shallow right-field for a two-run triple for McCann, only the fourth triple of his career.

Buoyed by the 2-0 lead, the Yankees opened the seventh with a single by Chase Headley, which promptly chased Odorizzi.

Stephen Drew greeted left-hander C.J. Riefenhauser with a fly ball that fell out of the glove of Souza for a double. Gregorio Petit scored Headley with a sacrifice fly. Jacob Ellsbury singled and Gardner scored Drew with an opposite-field single to make it 4-0.

Right-hander Grant Balfour replaced Riefenhauser and he immediately issued a walk to Rodriguez to load the bases and Mark Teixeira scored Ellsbury with a sacrifice fly.

Balfour then hit McCann with a pitch to reload the bases and Chris Young ripped a 2-2 slider into the left-field bleachers for a grand slam home run, his third homer of the season, which put the game out of reach at 9-0.

Odorizzi was charged with three runs on five hits and two walks while he struck out nine in 6-plus innings.

With the victory the Yankees already clinched the three-game series and improved to 5-6. The Rays dropped to 6-6.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Tanaka’s velocity was there. The command was there. He looked like, well, Tanaka. Perhaps this will finally shut up all the critics and naysayers who have been dogging out the Yankees all season like FOX Sports play-by-play man Joe Buck and everybody who works for the Red Sox Sports Network in Bristol, CT, also known as ESPN. Tanaka got advice not to have Tommy John surgery by FOUR of the best orthopedic experts in the country and he is fine. Now please shut up about him being one pitch away from oblivion. Please!
  • McCann’s dominance over Odorizzi is just amazing. He is now 8-for-13 with two homers, a triple and two doubles. McCann ended up 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored. He came into the game batting .179 and ended up raising his average to .250. I said it many times but the Yankees need production from Teixeira, McCann, Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. It appears after a slow start they may be getting it.
  • Young was only in the lineup because Beltran was benched with a bad head cold and he ended up with the big blast that put the icing on drubbing of the Rays. In limited play, Young is batting .276 with three home runs and eight RBIs. The 31-year-old veteran was practically run out of Citi Field by the front office of the New York Mets last season but he has resurrected what was a pretty promising career with the Yankees. Young also made a fine running catch in right-field in the fifth inning on a drive off the bat of Desmond Jennings.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

What is there to complain about? I could say that the Yankees failed to score 10 runs or they did not get to Odorizzi soon enough. But the fact is Tanaka pitched like the ace he is and the Yankees got a shutout to win their first season series. They are making the Rays look like the old Devil Rays they used to beat up on for all those years.

BOMBER BANTER

Beltran, 37, likely will sit out the weekend with that bad cold, Girardi said on Saturday. “He’s got that bad congestion, a bad cold that’s kind of been going around our team,” Girardi told reporters. “He sounds really bad. He was bad yesterday and he’s worse today.” Young started for him in right-field and he did a great job of filling in for him.   . . .  As I predicted in Friday’s post, Girardi opted to move the red-hot Rodriguez into the No. 3 spot in the order on Saturday and he ended up with a no-contact evening. A-Rod walked twice and struck out three times. Rodriguez was 3-for-4 with two homers and four RBIs while batting seventh against the Rays on Friday.  . . .  Also as predicted, Girardi decided to sit struggling shortstop Didi Gregorius on Saturday. Girardi shifted Stephen Drew to shortstop and started Petit at second base. Petit, 30, was 0-for-3 with a sac fly RBI. Gregorius, 25, is batting .152 and has been somewhat shaky in the field and on the bases.

ON DECK

The Yankees will look to sweep the shell-shocked Rays on Sunday.

Right-hander Michael Pineda (1-0, 5.11 ERA) will pitch for the Yankees. He is coming off a victory on Monday against the Baltimore Orioles despite yielding five runs on nine hits with nine strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings.

Pineda will be opposed by rookie right-hander Matt Andriese (0-0, 3.86 ERA). Andriese, 25, gave up two runs on five hits and one walk in 3 2/3 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday.

Game-time will be 1:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by WPIX.

 

A-Rod’s MVP Throwback Evening Shocks Rays

GAME 10

YANKEES 5, RAYS 4

In 2007, Alex Rodriguez hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs in leading the Yankees to the playoffs in what was his third season as the American League’s Most Valuable Player. On Friday, the Rays got a glimpse of what that A-Rod could do.

Rodriguez homered twice and drove in the go-ahead run with a single in the eighth as New York came from behind to defeat Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.

Losing pitcher Kevin Jepsen (0-1) said it best after the game: “That guy just killed us tonight.”

Right-hander Dellin Betances and left-hander Andrew Miller combined to pitch 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to close out the Rays. Betances (2-0) earned the victory while Miller notched his third save in three opportunities.

Rodriguez, 39, staked the Yankees to an early lead with a 471-foot blast into left-center off starter Nathan Karns to lead off the third inning. Two innings later, Stephen Drew touched Karns for a two-out home run to right-center.

However, Yankees starter Adam Warren was unable to hold the 2-0 lead for long.

Evan Longoria started a rally in the fourth inning with an infield single and Desmond Jennings followed with a walk. Rookie Allan Dykstra then launched a high-arcing blast that hit the foul pole in right for a three-run homer, the first of his career.

Four pitches later Logan Forsythe lined a solo shot into left to give the Rays a lightning-quick 4-2 lead.

But Rodriguez was just getting started.

Right-hander Ernesto Frieri entered the game in the sixth and he issued a one-out walk to Brian McCann. Rodriguez then followed with a line-drive rocket into the stands in left for the 558th home run of his career, his 49th against the Rays and his fourth of the season.

Carlos Beltran opened the eighth against Jepsen by singling against the shift into left-center. Manager Joe Girardi sent Brett Gardner in to pinch-run for Beltran.

With two out and Rodriguez at the plate, Gardner stole his first base of the season. Rodriguez followed it with a lined single to center that scored Gardner with what proved to be the game-winning run.

The Yankees managed only five hits in the game. Rodriguez collected three of them and three of them were home runs.

“He was really good. Without Alex, we’re going to lose that ballgame,” Girardi told reporters. “Four RBIs, two home runs, a big hit in the eighth inning to put us ahead. Just a great night for Alex.”

With the victory the Yankees are 4-6 on the season. The Rays dropped to 6-5.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • It looks as if Girardi might have to move Rodriguez up in the batting order. With his 3-for-4 night, he is now leading the Yankees in batting (.344), home runs (4) and RBIs (11). After the hip surgeries and the suspension it was not clear what the Yankees had in A-Rod. I think we have a good idea now. He looks like the three-time MVP he always has been.
  • After the bullpen’s meltdown at Camden Yards in Baltimore on Wednesday it was good to see both Betances and Miller come in and combine for 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. Miller looked especially sharp after giving up a leadoff infield single to Forsythe. He struck out the side to earn his third save.
  • Drew is only hitting .167 but he does have three homers and seven RBIs. His home run in the fourth inning was the 100th of his career and it is starting to look as if he will be able to contribute offensively at the low end of the batting order.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Warren started off well but hit a brick wall in the fourth inning. Girardi yanked him after he allowed four runs on six hits and two walks with two strikeouts in four innings. In his two starts, Warren has yielded six runs (five earned) on 11 hits and four walks in 9 1/3 innings. After pitching so brilliantly this spring, Warren appears lost as a starter. If he continues to struggle look for Esmil Rogers to make another bid to be the No. 5 starter that he lost to Warren this spring.
  • Chase Headley had a night at the plate he would love to put behind him. He was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts (two of them looking) and in his final at-bat he laced a hard-hit ground ball that shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera turned into a double play. Headley is batting .204 on the season.
  • The Yankees are not saying anything publicly, but they are concerned that Didi Gregorius is putting too much pressure on himself. His base-running gaffes, some shaky fielding and his slow start with the bat have them worried. Gregorius, 25, was 0-for-4 on Friday and he is now hitting .152.

BOMBER BANTER

Girardi told reporters on Friday that because the Yankees have started a stretch of 30 games in the next 31 days they are considering using a sixth starter to take some strain off their rotation. Girardi said that Rogers and right-handers Chase Whitley and Bryan Mitchell, who are at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, are viable options as starters. “I wouldn’t really call it a six-man rotation. I’d call it more of inserting a sixth man one time through, and my guess is you might see it,” Girardi told reporters. “Weather could play a role, so you just have to wait and see, but it’s something that’s in the back of our minds. We’ve kind of prepared ourselves for it.”

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their weekend road series with the Rays on Saturday.

Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (1-1, 7.00 ERA) will make his third start of the season for the Yankees. His is coming off a 14-4 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Sunday, when he gave up four runs in 5 innings.

The Rays will start right-hander Jake Odorizzi (2-0, 0.61 ERA), who has given up just one run in 14 2/3 innings this season. He held the Toronto Blue Jays to one run on two hits in 8 innings on Monday.

Game-time will be 7:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by Fox Sports 1.

 

Yankees Poised To Finish Third In A.L. East

With spring training in their rear-view mirror and the 2015 season about to start, the question is where will the New York Yankees finish in the American League East. The Yankees have failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons and many experts believe it will be three. But with the additions the Yankees made could they possibly have a surprise in store. Here is how I project it.

NEW YORK YANKEES

First of all, let’s admit that this is not your father’s A.L. East. There is NO dominant team in the division and there is not much separation between any of the five teams in terms of talent.

That said, the Yankees come into 2015 building around the foundation they began with their half-billion dollar investment last winter with the signings of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

Those free agents were added to the holdovers in shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Mark Teixeira, outfielder Brett Gardner and left-hander CC Sabathia.

General manager Brian Cashman actually started the rebuilding process for 2015 last summer by retaining a number of players they acquired around the trade deadline or later such as third baseman Chase Headley, second baseman Stephen Drew, outfielder Chris Young and left-hander Chris Capuano.

With the retirement of Jeter, the loss of free-agent closer David Robertson and right-hander’s Hiroki Kuroda’s decision to end his career pitching in his native Japan, Cashman was forced to shuffle the deck by using young pitchers like right-handers David Phelps and Shane Greene and left-hander Manny Banuelos to bring in right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, backup first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones, starting shortstop Didi Gregorius and relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve.

Cashman also used cash to lure free-agent left-hander Andrew Miller to bolster the bullpen around rookie sensation Dellin Betances.

The result is a team that features a starting lineup of eight players ranging in age from 31 to Alex Rodriguez at 39. The former starting third baseman is returning from a year-long performance-enhancing drug suspension to become the team’s designated hitter.

Only Gregarious at age 25 is considered young.

However, the rotation features a 26-year-old in Tanaka, a 26-year-old in Michael Pineda and a 25-year-old in Eovaldi. A spring injury to 36-year-old Capuano has thrust 27-year-old Adam Warren into the No. 5 slot. So the only pitcher over 27 in the Yankees rotation is Sabathia, who is 34. When is the last time you could say that about the Yankees’ rotation?

The bullpen will center around Betances, 26, and Miller, 28, who are  –  at least for now  –  going share the closing duties. If both pitch as they have up to now, it will be a very good shutdown pair because neither have been hit hard by righties or lefties.

The concern will be with the setup spots. Warren is in the rotation so the Yankees will be counting on the right-handed Carpenter, 29, and left-handed Justin Wilson, 27, who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates with Cashman using the team’s catching surplus to deal away Francisco Cervelli.

If Carpenter and Wilson are successful, the bullpen will have a chance to be very good. If they fail, it could be a long season. Warren’s shift back to the bullpen with the return of both Capuano and right-hander Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery in June can only be a big plus for the group.

Esmil Rogers, 29, will handle long relief. Shreve, 24, gives Girardi a third left-hander and 6-foot-8 right-hander Chris Martin has 95-mile-per-hour stuff that moves on an extreme downward plane. This trio looks solid and give Girardi credit for being a master of managing bullpens.

All spring long the Yankees struggled to score runs. It was not too much different from the way the offense struggled last season.

A pair of speed demons  –  Ellsbury and Gardner  –  are stacked on top of the lineup. The idea is to get them on base as much as possible and let them use their speed to get into scoring position for the middle of the lineup.

Both combined to steal 60 bases in what both players admittedly could call an off year. So they hope they can top 80 this season.

The whole strategy rests upon the middle of the order bouncing back from injuries and off years in 2015.

The third batter, Beltran, incurred painful bone chips in his right elbow and ended up posting the worst numbers of his career.

The cleanup hitter, Teixiera, was still limited by a sore right wrist and other injuries and posted only 22 home runs.

Although the fifth hitter, McCann, did crack 23 home runs and drive 78 runs, he only batted .232. So the Yankees would like him to hit closer to his career .272 average this season.

That is plenty of firepower but it seems like a fragile situation counting on Beltran, who will be 38 on April 24 and Teixeira, who will be 35 on April 11.

Behind McCann may be the one diamond-in-the-rough player who is primed for  huge season in Headley, 30, who hit 31 homers and drove in 115 runs for the San Diego Padres in 2012. Back issues have hampered him for the past two seasons but he seems healthy now.

He batted .305 with three homers and eight RBIs this spring and the former Gold Glove winner has been flashing some serious leather at third base.

It is unclear how much A-Rod will contribute from the DH spot. Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since his Most Valuable Player season in 2007. Hip surgeries, nagging other ailments and the drug suspension have teamed with Father Time to make him an unknown quantity.

This spring, Rodriguez batted .267 with three homers and four RBIs and he did not look overmatched at the plate. But it is hard to know what A-Rod will provide until the bells rings on the regular season.

Nowhere did the Yankees look more vulnerable last season than at second base. After Robinson Cano took his power, his .300 average and his Gold Glove defensive skills to Seattle, the Yankees tried veteran Brian Roberts at the position.

But his batting and fielding skills eroded over four seasons of injuries and the Yankees cut him loose in July in favor of Drew, who had never played second base in the pro baseball. Drew also was dealing with a season-long hitting slump that saw him bat only .162 between the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees.

Drew started this spring very slowly but emerged to bat over .470 in the final three weeks with three home runs. Drew has been working with the Yankees’ new hitting coach Jeff Petland and it seems to have been paying some dividends. The Yankees would settle for Drew batting .250 or so with 15 homers and 65 RBIs this season. Those had been norms for Drew in his previous seasons.

Though it was sad to see the 20-year era of Jeter’s career at shortstop come to an end, the Yankees are very hopeful they have an emerging star in the making in Gregorius.

What fans immediately saw this spring is that Gregorius has outstanding range, great hands and an powerful and accurate arm. The Yankees believe his defense will be upgrade since Jeter’s range had been so limited the past several years.

Jeter batted .256 in his final season and the Yankees hope that Gregorius can possibly top that average this season largely batting ninth. When Gregorius was in Arizona, manager Kirk Gibson benched him against left-handers because he has batted only .150 in his career against them.

But the Yankees allowed him to hit against left-handers this spring and Gregorius did not seem to look bad against them. So, for now, Girardi is content with playing his young shortstop every day.

The bench is solid and features power-hitting right-hander Young and power-hitting left-hander Jones. Young, 31, had an exceptional spring and he brings athleticism to all three outfield spots he plays and a potential deadly bat against left-handed pitching.

Jones, 33, hit 15 homers for the Miami Marlins last season and he seems to have the perfect swing for Yankee Stadium. Jones will primarily back up Teixeira at first and he can also play the corner outfield spots, if needed.

Backup infielder Brendan Ryan, 33, had a spring he would rather forget. First, he was delayed at the start with a back injury he sustained lifting weights. After he returned, Ryan ended up pulling a right calf muscle last week and he will start the season on the disabled list.

Ryan brings a slick glove to second, shortstop and third base  –  although short is where he really shines in the field. But he can’t hit a lick. He has no power and he is a career .234 hitter.

The Yankees obtained infielder Gregorio Petit from the Houston Astros in exchange for cash in the last week of the spring. So Petit, 30, will assume Ryan’s role despite having played on only 62 major-league games with the Oakland Athletics and the Astros. He has batted .278 in just 151 at-bats. He will be a stopgap until Ryan is healthy again.

John Ryan Murphy, 23, managed to hold off a challenge from veteran Austin Romine this spring to remain the backup to McCann. Murphy batted .284 with a homer and nine RBIs in 32 games last season and the Yankees rave about his defense behind the plate.

But the biggest secret the Yankees are carrying with them now lies in the young players they were able to showcase this spring. For the first time in a very long time the Yankees have a number of very good prospects and some positional depth at the minor-league level that could be factors this season.

But the promise is even brighter longer term.

Right-handed starters Luis Severino and Domingo German (obtained in the trade for Phelps and Martin Prado) and left-handed starter Ian Clarkin along with left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren and right-handed relievers Nick Rumbelow and Jose Ramirez are in the pipeline and moving quickly to the majors.

Second basemen Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela tore the cover off the ball this spring and their presence at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is just a taste of what is the horizon with outfielders Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores also knocking on the door.

Right-hander Chase Whitley, 25, had a 1.17 ERA this spring and he still not crack the bullpen. You have to figure he is going to get a call-up to the 25-man roster at some point. Keep an eye also on Bryan Mitchell, who will be 24 this month. Mitchell drew rave reviews when he fanned Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez back-to-back in a five-inning effort in a split-squad game in Lakeland, FL, on April 2.

At Double-A Trenton will be prospects such as outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Greg Bird, both of whom looked undaunted by major-league pitching this spring.

Catching prospect Gary Sanchez, 23, is also not too far away from contributing in the major leagues.

Though Yankee fans and the Yankee front office never has shown much patience with its young prospects in the past, this group might just force the front office to use them and perhaps the revolving door of signing aging free agents will finally end.

Should the Yankees falter as what so many experts are predicting this season. The young players who are on the way could be a foundation to build around, It is there to see. It is just up to Cashman and the Yankee front office not to screw it up.

Here now is my brief assessment of the other four teams in the division and my prediction for the order of finish in 2015.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

This is a team that ran away with this division last season. But it is hard to see them as a “great” team.

Their ace is a very pedestrian Chris Tillman. Their offense lost outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. They also are likely to be without Matt Wieters to start the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Ditto for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has left shoulder injury.

With all that they still have Adam Jones, Manny Machado and they are really hoping that Chris Davis recovers his home-run stroke.

Though Tillman is not a true ace they do have Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzales and Bud Norris to form a solid foursome. The bullpen with closer Zach Britton and setup guys Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is top notch.

They also have one of the best managers in baseball in Buck Showalter. So in Baltimore there is hope the O’s can repeat.

A lot depends on how new outfielders Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider do to make up for the losses of Cruz and Markakis.

BOSTON RED SOX

This team flopped in 2014 and yet many are picking them to win the title in 2015.

Most of that is based on their offense. To Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, the Red Sox have added Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts and Pablo Sandoval.

They are also hoping for better seasons and health from Xander Bogaerts and Shane Victorino.

However, it is hard to look at the rotation and see anything but potential disaster.

Clay Buchholz was 8-11 with a 6.34 ERA and is considered the ace. Rick Porcello did have a 15-13 record and a 3.43 ERA with the Tigers. But Justin Masterson was 7-9 with a 5.88 with the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Lefty Wade Miley was 8-12 with a 4.34 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks. A better offense will help him but he is not anything close to Jon Lester, who the Red Sox traded last season and were unable to re-sign as a free agent.

No. 5 starter Joe Kelly (6-4, 4.20 ERA with the Cardinals) starts the season on the disabled list with right bicep injury. In addition, closer Koji Uehara, who just turned 40, is also on the disabled list with a hamstring injury so Edward Mujica and his 49 career saves are it for now.

There is no doubt that the Red Sox will be capable of scoring runs. The question is will it be enough runs to cover a pitching staff and an underbelly of a bullpen that could really exploited?

Add that up to the fact that catcher Christian Vazquez is out for the season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and you have enough doubts about the Red Sox to make it unlikely they are a good choice to win this division.

The Toronto Blue Jays tried this approach last season and it did not work.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

This team seemingly lost everything so quickly that their home radio station, WDAE, is not very enthusiastic about them.

Manager Joe Maddon and his screwy ideas that seem to work on shifting is gone. General manager Andrew Friedman, who introduced sabermetrics and advanced scouting techniques to the organization that built this team, is also gone.

The team’s best pitcher in David Price was traded last season and now is pitching for the Detroit Tigers. Their second-best pitcher, Matt Moore, is not expected back until June because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

This spring they incurred injuries to their best remaining pitcher Alex Cobb. Their closer, Jake McGee, will miss the first month.

They also traded away offensive contributors such as Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce.

The team’s offense can be wrapped up in third baseman Evan Longoria and a lot of hope and praying.

They are counting on production out of rookie outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who batted .130 this spring and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who the Indians discarded saying he could not play shortstop and he was not the hitter he was in 2011 (25 home runs and 92 RBIs).

They are still hoping that Desmond Jennings just shows one little spark of the long-departed Carl Crawford. But it is not looking like it will happen.

This could amount to one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball in 2015 and it could be worse without Maddon running the show.

Granted, Cobb, Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi could form a solid rotation when they are all healthy. The question is can the Rays tread water long enough to see that happen?

Though McGee, Grant Balfour and Brad Boxberger form a solid trio at the back of the bullpen, the Rays are counting on a pair of former failed relievers in Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri to help out in the middle innings.

They also do not have a decent lefty beyond McGee. Ouch!

After many years of dealing with their obnoxious cowbell-ringing fans  –  all of about 7,000 of them a game  –  it appears that the bloom is off the rose and the cowbells will eventually fall silent this season unless there is some sort of miracle new manager Kevin Cash can create.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

This was the sexy choice to win the division in 2014. Funny thing is, I would have selected them to win this season if young right-hander Marcus Stroman did suffer knee injury that will force him to miss the entire season.

Stroman would have formed a nice 1-2 punch with right-hander Drew Hutchison, who at 24 has progressed so much as a pitcher he is starting on Opening Day ahead of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and veteran Mark Buehrle.

To that they have added a pair of young pitchers in left-hander Daniel Norris and right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who looked to be the team’s closer in waiting until the team opted to use him as a starter instead.

The bullpen is untested but it has closer Brett Cecil. There is a lot untested pitchers in the mix behind him but 20-year-old Miguel Castro may end being something special as he gets his feet wet in the majors.

Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays never have to worry about scoring runs. Add to the thundering power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion the bat of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 98 runs for the Athletics in their cavernous ballpark.

You would think Donaldson will love the Rogers Centre.

Though the Jays will miss line-drive machine Melky Cabrera, they still have Jose Reyes and they have also added catcher Russell Martin, who can hit 20 homers and run a pitching staff like a pitching coach.

So there is a lot to like.

The question is after losing Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus the Blue Jays are trotting a pair of young outfielders in Dalton Pompey (center) and Kevin Pillar (left). Much of what the Blue Jays do will revolve around what they do.

They also have a new second baseman in Devon Travis.

It is hard to pick a team to win with so many new players in the lineup like Pillar, Pompey and Travis. This team is carrying six rookies!

But the real test of how the Blue Jays do in 2015 will hinge on its pitching staff. Stroman was a much bigger loss than I think the Blue Jays can overcome.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1) BALTIMORE ORIOLES (92-70)

2) TORONTO BLUE JAYS (86-76)

3) NEW YORK YANKEES (84-78)

4) BOSTON RED SOX (80-82)

5) TAMPA BAY RAYS (76-86)  Hello Montreal!

The Orioles will fall back to the pack but not enough to make much difference. The Blue Jays actually could have won it with Stroman, but now they will fall short and they will not win the wildcard either. I was tempted to pick the Yankees for second because Tanaka, Pineda and Eovaldi are all primed for excellent seasons. But the offense this spring was woefully lacking and it looks as if they will lose a lot of 4-3 and 3-2 games unless make a deal for a young slugger like Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees just do not have that stud in the middle of the order and it will hurt. The Red Sox will be the Red Flops mainly because their pitching is not as good as people believe it is. Their bullpen also is much weaker without Miller. About all that the “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval is good for is twining with Ortiz to advertise for a doughnut shop. Ramirez is talented but he also is moody and can give up when things are not going well. Ask the Marlins and Dodgers. As for the Rays, their collapse could not have come at a worse time for them when attendance and TV viewership is dropping. The owner wants to have a new stadium built despite the fact that they are tied to dumpy and ugly Tropicana Field for many more years. That is why it is inevitable that the team will be sold and shifted to another city like Montreal soon. Tre bien!

Jennings’ Homer Allows Rays To Shade Yankees

GAME 25

RAYS 6, YANKEES 5

Desmond Jennings led off the sixth inning with a home run and the Rays later added a run that frame on a wild pitch uncorked by right-hander Chris Martin as Tampa rolled to victory over New York on Thursday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, FL.

Right-hander Brad Boxberger (1-1) yielded a run in seventh inning on an RBI double off the bat of Didi Gregorius but still got credit for the victory. Khan Martinez also yielded a run in his two-thirds of an inning in the ninth but was credited with the save.

Martin (0-1) took the loss.

The Yankees’ Grapefruit League record dropped to 13-11.

FIELD FOCUS

Going into Thursday’s contest Yankees starter Adam Warren had the No. 5 starting job pretty much locked up.

It is always a good think to have the team’s general manager say as much.

“I think there’s a predictable favorite. I guess that’s as far as I can go on that one,” Brian Cashman told reporters on Wednesday. “Right now, if we had to make a decision today, I think we all know what that decision would be. There’s a Secretariat right now in this race for me that’s got a number of lengths ahead of the field.”

Cashman, without saying it, was actually saying that Warren was the clear favorite. After Thursday’s start that has not changed.

Warren surrendered a run on four hits and a walk with five strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings against the Rays. The lone blemish was a solo home run off the bat of Evan Longoria.

The 27-year-old right-hander entered the spring having started only three major-league games and none of them were last season as he was 3-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 69 relief appearances.

But the former University of North Carolina star pitched as a starter in all 90 of his minor-league games and was 28-25 with a 3.71 ERA. The Yankees merely shifted one of the better minor-league starters to the bullpen out of necessity in 2013 and Warren helped solidify the bullpen last season.

Circumstances changed on March 11 when No. 5 starter Chris Capuano, 36, strained his right quad covering first base on the second batter he faced in an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

The Yankees had been auditioning Warren and several others as candidates to be a potential sixth starter because the Yankees play 30 games in 31 days in late April and early May. With Capuano out at least a month and likely more, the audition purpose was altered to become the fifth starter.

Warren clearly has been the best among Esmil Rogers, Chase Whitley, Scott Baker and Bryan Mitchell. He is now 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in five starts and he has recorded 11 strikeouts while issuing just one walk in 16 2/3 innings.

The Yankees are expected to make a final decision this weekend after manager Joe Girardi discusses it with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and the rest of his staff. But if Warren does not get the nod it would be real shocker.

Now Warren just has endure constant ribbing is he has been getting from his teammates who now insist on calling him Secretariat. For Warren it is minor cross to bear.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Ramon Flores was a hero earlier this week with his walk-off three-run homer in the ninth that defeated the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday. On Thursday, Flores was building on that success. He started in right-field and was 2-for-4 with a single and a double, scored a run and drove in two runs. Flores is only 7-for-33 (.212) but he has made his hits count because he has two home runs and seven RBIs, which leads the team this spring.
  • Gregorius also was 2-for-4 with a single, a double and an RBI. Since March 18, Gregorius has been a real tear, going 9-for-20 (.450) with three doubles, two triples and three RBIs. That has raised his spring average to .308 and that does not even take into account his magnificent defense throughout March. The 25-year-old shortstop is following in the footsteps of a legend but he is handling the pressure very well.
  • Jake Cave, 22, got into the game late and added another RBI single to his spring resume. The young outfielder is leading the Yankee regulars with 10 or more at-bats with a .462 average (6-for-13) with a homer and six RBIs. Cave is ticketed for Double-A Trenton along with fellow prospect Aaron Judge. But you may be hearing more about him very, very soon. He can flat-out hit.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The biggest issue besides the lack of offense out most of the regulars this spring has been some disappointing pitching out of the bullpen. On Thursday, Jose Ramirez was one of the culprits. He was touched for two runs on three hits and a walk in just 1 1/3 innings of work. The 25-year-old former starter now has a 5.40 ERA on the spring. Though the Dominican right-hander has a gifted arm he has dropped from top prospect status because of recurring injuries and inconsistency.
  • Martin, 28, was also tagged pretty good by the Rays, giving up two runs on two hits despite ending up striking out the side in his inning of work. The former Colorado Rockies right-hander has wonderful backstory, having been out of baseball after suffering a severe shoulder injury in college and discovering he could pitch again some years later in a hardware store parking lot. However, he has a 6.14 ERA and he is going to have to improve if he wants a minor-league assignment with the team.
  • Garrett Jones was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts on Thursday and now is in a huge hitting funk. He is 1-for-13 with five strikeouts in his past four games. He is now 7-for-40 (.175) on the spring and likely has lost a chance to claim the primary designated hitter role from Alex Rodriguez, who is batting .290 this spring.

BOMBER BANTER

Jacoby Ellsbury participated in hitting off a tee and took some swings from soft tosses on Thursday at the Yankees spring complex in Tampa, FL. Ellsbury, who has been sidelined since March 15 with a mild right oblique strain, says he believes he will be ready to play on Opening Day. Girardi said that if Ellsbury can play in an exhibition game by March 31 he will start the season in center-field.  . . .  The Yankees on Thursday decided to unconditionally release right-hander Jared Burton. The 33-year-old right-hander had not pitched since March 17 with a strained lat. He allowed no runs on two hits with no walks and two strikeouts in four innings over four appearances.

ON DECK

The Yankees will take the short trip to Bright House Field in Clearwater, FL, for their fifth and final contest this spring against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Right-hander Michael Pineda will start for the Yankees. Pineda is 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in three spring starts. He is slotted to be the Yankees’ No. 2 starter to start the season.

The Phillies will counter with top pitching prospect Aaron Nola. The right-hander was the team’s No. 1 selection in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft and he could possibly end up on the Phillies’ 25-man roster this season.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m EDT and the game will be broadcast on a delayed basis on Saturday at 6 a.m. by the MLB Network.

NOTE: A word of warning if you do plan to attend this game. There is a 50 percent chance of rain in Clearwater during the early-afternoon hours on Friday. 

 

Pineda, Eovaldi Sharp As Yankees Outshine Rays

GAME 8

YANKEES 4, RAYS 3

Right-handed starters Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi held Tampa Bay scoreless through five innings  –  combining to strike out seven batters  –  while Alex Rodriguez was 2-for-3 with his first RBI of spring as New York rolled to victory on Monday at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL.

Pineda, 26, made his first start of the spring and held the Rays to a first-inning single by Desmond Jennings and he fanned two in 25-pitch outing in which he threw 17 strikes.

Eovaldi, 25, entered in the third inning and yielded three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in his second outing in Grapefruit League play.

Pineda (1-0) got credit for the victory and reliever Chris Martin hurled a scoreless eighth inning while fanning two batters to earn a save. Rays starter Nathan Karns (0-1) was tagged for two runs (one earned) on three hits and a walk in three innings to take the loss.

With the victory the Yankees improved their spring record to 5-2.

FIELD FOCUS

Pineda’s major-league career has been a series of giant strides forward with periods of two steps back. He hopes 2015 just moves him forward after having his 2012 and 2013 seasons wiped away after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Last season Pineda was supposed to be healthy and ready to show the Yankees for whom they had traded after Pineda’s rookie season in 2011, when he was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA with the Seattle Mariners.

After a promising 2-2 record with a 1.83 ERA in his first four starts last season, Pineda found himself suspended by Major League Baseball for 10 days after being ejected from a late April game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park with pine tar on his neck.

While Pineda was preparing to return from the suspension he severely tore the teres major muscle in his surgically repaired shoulder. He was shelved until the middle of August. Once again, Pineda showed the Yankees what they missed most of the year.

Pineda ended up 3-3 with a 1.91 ERA in those final nine starts. What sets Pineda apart from a lot of pitchers is that he can strike out a lot of batters (8.43 per nine innings) and at the same time his control is so precise (0.83 walks per nine innings). Both marks are Yankee records.

So 2015 begins with Pineda again primed for a big season and the Yankees are holding their breath that he can stay healthy enough to make 33 starts.

His first step on that road was Monday and Pineda looked very sharp in his first game action of the spring.

“This is what I want. I’m working hard everyday to be healthy and make it a good year, and help my team,” Pineda told reporters.

“I thought he looked great,” catcher Brian McCann told reporters. “The ball’s coming out with the same velocity, with some cut. He threw a couple of change-ups that were really nice that had some good action. His slider was there as well.”

So with his first test out of the way, Pineda can now look to take more small incremental steps throughout the rest of the spring. He hopes all is pointing forward because he refuses to takes any more steps back.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Seeing Pineda pitch well and watching Eovaldi record five strikeouts in his outing had to be encouraging for manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. The pair are two important pieces in the Yankees’ rotation plans for the 2015 season. Pineda could pair with staff ace Masahiro Tanaka to form the best tandem in the American League East. Eovaldi somehow only struck out 142 batters in 199 2/3 innings despite having electric stuff. Seeing Eovaldi strike out five means that he is elevating pitches as Rothschild has urged him to do.
  • Rodriguez began his day getting rousing cheers from Yankee fans and derisive jeers from Rays fans as he stepped in for his first at-bat. By the end of the day, Rodriguez was 2-for-3 with an RBI. It was his RBI single in the second inning off Karns that opened the scoring for the Yankees. In the early going, A-Rod is 4-for-9 (.444) with two walks in four games. Though it remains unlikely that Rodriguez will win any job other than as the right-handed part of a platoon designated hitter situation, the 39-year-old three-time American League Most Valuable Player is playing as if he wants to push Girardi into giving him a larger role.
  • Hot-hitting first-base prospect Greg Bird, 22, and outfielder Slade Heathcott added RBI singles off right-hander Kirby Yates in the seventh inning to extend the Yankees lead to 4-1. Bird is 5-for-10 (.500) with three doubles, a homer and four RBIs. Both Bird and 22-year-old outfield Aaron Judge are serving notice to Girardi that they want to play in the majors and soon. Neither will make the team but both are making great impressions with the coaches and their teammates.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Right-hander Diego Moreno, 27, blew the shutout and yielded three runs on two hits and a walk in the eighth inning. Eugenio Velez and Jake Elmore each collected RBI singles in the inning.
  • Carlos Beltran, 37, extended his hitless string this spring after going 0-for-2 with a walk and a strikeout. Beltran is 0-for-7 overall and his swing looks slow and mechanical. The Yankees are counting on Beltran to produce power and production from the No. 3 spot in the order.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees trotted out a lineup that could be a preview of their starting lineup when the season opens. The lineup featured outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury (CF), Brett Gardner (LF) and Beltran (RF) in the top three spots with first baseman Mark Teixeira, McCann (C), Rodriguez (DH) and Chase Headley (3B). It also had Stephen Drew (2B) and Didi Gregorius (SS) in the bottom two spots.  . . .  Right-handed pitcher Luis Severino was diagnosed with strep throat on Monday. The 21-year-old No. 1 prospect in the organization struck out three batters in 1 1/3 innings of work on Saturday. On Sunday he complained of flu-like symptoms and was sent to a local hospital for tests. It is unclear if Severino will miss his next assignment.

ON DECK

The Yankees will travel to Sarasota, FL, for their first meeting of the season with the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium.

Right-hander Chase Whitley, 25, will make his first start and his second appearance for the Yankees. Right-hander Esmil Rogers is also scheduled to pitch. The Yankees plan to send their starting infield of Teixeira, Drew, Gregorius and Headley.

The Orioles plan to counter with left-hander Wei-Yin Chen.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast on a delayed basis by MLB Network at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

 

Tanaka Goes 4-0 As Patient Yankees Hammer Rays

GAME 28

YANKEES 9, RAYS 3

Sometimes you can predict the game’s outcome by looking at how pitchers fare through the second and third time in the batting order. Saturday’s pitchers, Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees and Jake Odorizzi of the Rays came into the game as polar opposites.

The rookie right-hander Odorizzi tends to pitch well early and lose it the second time through the order. Tanaka gets hit early but gets much tougher the second and third times through the order. That is exactly the way Saturday’s game played out.

After the Rays nicked Tanaka for three runs on seven hits,, including two solo home runs, in the first four innings, the 25-year-old Japanese rookie right-hander shut out the Rays on just one hit in his last three innings of work. Meanwhile, after Odorizzi retired the first nine batters he faced, he was hammered for three runs on five hits and two walks by the next 10 batters he faced.

Tanaka (4-0) remained undefeated as a pitcher dating back to Aug. 19, 2012 when he was pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan.

The Yankees got a solo home run from Kelly Johnson off right-hander Josh Lueke (0-2) to lead off the sixth inning that broke a 3-3 tie and the Yankees rallied from an early 3-0 deficit to score nine unanswered runs to defeat Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 43,325 at Yankee Stadium.

Tanaka ended up giving up three runs on eight hits with no walks and five strikeouts in seven innings to earn a victory punctuated by adjustments he made to stop the Rays after their early assault.

“You know what you’re going to get from him,” manager Joe Girardi told reporters. “You’re going to get a guy that’s really going to compete and is going to give you distance and is going to keep you in the game. He’s going to give you every opportunity to win.”

The Rays jumped out early when Desmond Jennings sent Tanaka’s 12th delivery into the bleachers in right-center for a solo home run with one out in the first inning.

They added a run in the second inning on a little bit of luck and some well-placed hits.

James Loney singled to left against the shift to start the inning. One batter later, David DeJesus hit a line drive that deflected off Tanaka and rolled into left to advance Loney to third. After retiring Sean Rodriguez on a popup for the second out, Ryan Hanigan rolled a ball that just squirted through Johnson and Yangervis Solarte.

Wil Myers gave the Rays their 3-0 lead when he slapped Tanaka’s first pitch to the opposite field and in the corner of the right-field porch for  home run.

True to form, Odorizzi fell apart in the fourth when Jacoby Ellsbury led off the frame with a lined single to left. After Brett Gardner forced out Ellsbury on a fielder’s choice groundout, Mark Teixeira launched a mammoth blast into the second deck in right field for his fifth home run and his fourth in his past five games.

The Yankees then chased Odorizzi in the fifth when Ichiro Suzki led off with a double to the wall in left-center and Solarte drew a four-pitch walk. After Ellsbury tied the game with a ground-rule double to left-center, Rays manager Joe Maddon pulled Odorizzi in favor of left-hander Cesar Ramos.

Odorizzi left after giving up three runs on five hits and two walks while striking out four in four-plus innings.

But after Johnson deposited his fourth home run of the season into the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center, the floodgates opened as the Yankees blasted Lueke and right-hander Heath Bell for six runs on seven hits and one walk over the final three innings.

Teixeira added an RBI single and Alfonso Soriano scored another run with a sacrifice fly off Lueke in the seventh. That Yankees tagged Bell for three runs in the eighth, keyed by an RBI single by Brian Roberts and two-run single by Gardner.

With the victory, the Yankees broke a three-game skid and they reclaimed the lead in the American League East with a 16-12 record. They lead the second-place Baltimore Orioles by a half game. The Rays fell to 14-17 and they are three games back in fourth place in the tightly bunched division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Tananka, by all rights, should have lost. By his own admission, he did not have good stuff. “All my pitches weren’t there today,” he said through his interpreter. “As for the split, it was more like a changeup, I feel. Everything wasn’t crisp today.” Yet he was able to win because he did not panic and he found a way to shut down the Rays to allow the Yankees’ offense to get into the game. It shows that Tanaka, on a day when he was not as his best, can still win a game. That makes him special.
  • It is May so that means that it is time for Teixeira to wake up and he has. He was 2-for-4 in the game with a single, a homer, he was intentionally walked and he scored a run while driving in three. In his past five games, Teixeira is 7-for-19 (.368) with four home runs and six RBIs. That has raised Teixeira’s season average from .212 to .269. For those pundits who doubted Teixeira’s recovery from wrist surgery have some Tabasco to put on your steaming plate of crow.
  • You think the Boston Red Sox would not want Ellsbury back. Think again! In his two games against the Rays, Ellsbury is 7-for-10 with two walks and he has scored two runs and driven in a pair. That has raised Ellsbury’s season average from .309 to .346, which is second to Matt Wieters (.354) of the Orioles in the American League.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Despite the victory there were some moments that the Yankees did not deliver with runners in scoring position. Brian McCann was 1-for-5 with a double but Ramos struck him out with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth after the Rays elected to walk Teixeira to load the bases. He then lined out to Rodriguez in shallow right in the seventh with two on and nobody out. He ended his day flying out to end the eighth with one on and two out. So he stranded six runners. McCann is still struggling, hitting just .228 on the season.
  • Soriano, despite his sac fly in the seventh, was not much better than McCann. He was 0-for-3 and he followed McCann in the fifth by grounding out to short to leave the bases loaded. Despite going 3-for-7 with a home run and an RBI on Friday, Soriano is 4-for-22 (.182) in his past five games with six strikeouts. He is hitting .252 with five home runs and 12 RBIs on the season.
  • Solarte’s magic touch appears to be waning quickly. He was 0-for-3 and he is 7-for-35 (.200) in his past nine games. It appears the league is catching up to him because pitchers are feeding him a steady diet of breaking pitches and Solarte seems to be expanding his strike zone instead of being patient. He has drawn only four walks this season.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees optioned right-hander Chris Leroux to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Saturday and recalled veteran right-hander Alfredo Aceves from the same club. Aceves, 31, had no record with a 1.98 ERA in three games (two of them starts) with the RailRiders. Aceves pitched for the Yankees from 2008 through 2010, compiling a 14-1 record and a 3.21 ERA in 59 games (five of them starts). Aceves has pitched as a starter, long reliever, middle innings pitcher and as a closer in his career and he gives the Yankees some flexibility in how he can be used. Leroux, 30, was hammered for five runs on five hits in the 14th inning of Friday’s game against the Rays and he was charged with the loss.  . . .  Because of the 14-inning game on Friday, Girardi elected to rest shortstop Derek Jeter and outfielder Carlos Beltran. Solarte started in place of Jeter and Suzuki drew the start in right-field in place of Beltran.

ON DECK

The Yankees can claim the three-game series over the Rays with a victory on Sunday.

Left-hander CC Sabathia (3-3, 5.11 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Sabathia gave up four runs on nine hits in five innings a loss to the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday. Sabathia held the Rays to one earned run on seven hits in seven innings at Tropicana Field on April 17.

Veteran left-hander Erik Bedard (0-1 5.52 ERA) draws the start for the Rays. Bedard gave up one run on seven hits and three walks before having to leave due to a high pitch count after five innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday. He gave up four runs on six hits in just 3 2/3 innings to the Yankees at home on April 18.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

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

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

NEW YORK YANKEES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAMPA BAY RAYS

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

If you don’t you lose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOSTON RED SOX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

The Jays are all about redemption.

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

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

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

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

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

Now that is some reclamation project.

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

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

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

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

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

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

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

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

The answer is no and Showalter will learn that quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

 

1) NEW YORK YANKEES

2) TAMPA BAY RAYS 

3) BOSTON RED SOX

4) TORONTO BLUE JAYS

5) BALTIMORE ORIOLES

 

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