YANKEES 7, BLUE JAYS 3
With the crush of American and Japanese media on hand and an unfriendly sellout crowd at Rogers Centre on Friday it was understandable if Masahiro Tanaka was a little nervous making his major-league regular season debut.
After Melky Cabrera deposited his third offering over the center-field wall reality set in. But Tanaka gradually overcame his nerves and settled in to win his first game in the United States as New York pounded out 16 hits to defeat Toronto in front of paid crowd of 48.187.
Tanaka (1-0) actually lost a 2-1 lead in the second inning when two hits and an error loaded the bases and Jonathan Diaz touched him for a two-run single. But after that hit, the 25-year-old right-hander retired 16 of the next 18 batters he faced, striking out six of them to allow the Yankees to come back and win the game.
Tanaka’s final line was excellent. He allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits and no walks and he struck out eight batters in seven innings.
“I was missing some spots earlier in the game, but as the game progressed, I think I was getting better out there,” Tanaka told reporters through an interpreter. “Obviously I’m happy. I think No. 1 is that I’m relieved.”
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ offense was once again sparked by rookie infielder Yangervis Solarte, who was 3-for-3 with two runs scored and an RBI in his major-league debut against Houston Astros on Thursday.
With the Yankees trailing 3-2 in the third inning, Brian Roberts drew a one-out walk from Blue Jays right-hander Dustin McGowan (0-1) and stole second. One out later, Ichiro Suzuki bound a ground ball to Ryan Goins at second base and Suzuki was called out on a close play at first.
However, manager Joe Girardi successfully overturned first-base umpire Dana Demuth’s call through a instant-replay challenge, which put Roberts at third and Suzuki at first for Solarte.
The 26-year-old switch-hitter Solarte then laced a two-run double to right-center to give the Yankees a lead they would never relinquish.
That hit also ended McGowan’s evening. The 32-year-old right-hander, who was making his first major-league start since 2011, was charged with four runs on eight hits and a walk while he struck out three in 2 2/3 innings.
The Yankees took an early 2-0 lead against McGowan in the first inning as Jacoby Ellsbury, who was 3-for-4 with a walk, stole two bases and scored two runs in the game, cranked a double to deep center. Brett Gardner advanced him to third on a hard-hit single to left.
Carlos Beltran then scored Ellsbury with a bloop single to left-center and Mark Teixeira scored Gardner with a single to right.
The Yankees only bad news of the evening came in the third inning as the Blue Jays took the lead against Tanaka. Teixiera injured his right hamstring while moving to field a foul ball. He was forced to leave the game and his immediate status is unclear.
The Yankees padded their lead in the fourth when Brian McCann scored Ellsbury with a one-out RBI single off left-hander Aaron Loup after the Blue Jays elected to intentionally walk Beltran to face the lefty swinging McCann.
They added single runs in the eighth on Gardner’s RBI single off right-hander Steve Delabar and in the ninth on another RBI double by Solarte off right-hander Jarred Jeffress.
With the victory, the Yankees evened their season record to 2-2. The Blue Jays fell to 2-3.
- Tanaka’s ability to recover from the mistakes he made pitching to Cabrera and Diaz are a testament to the fact he is not just a thrower. Tanaka knows how to pitch and make adjustments at a very young age. That attribute actually may be just as valuable as his split-finger fastball. The $155 million the Yankees invested in him may end up being a bargain. He is that good.
- After two games, Solarte is 5-for-10 (.500) with three doubles and two runs scored. He also leads the team in RBIs with four. If Teixeira is sidelined for any length of time it is a pretty good bet that Kelly Johnson will move from third base to play first and Solarte will become the starting third baseman. The Yankees may have found a real gem in this youngster.
- Ellsbury showed what he can do from the leadoff spot on Friday. His two doubles, two stolen bases and two runs scored really set the tone for the evening. To top it all off, Ellsbury also made a nice sliding catch of Dioner Navarro’s sinking line drive in the sixth inning.
- Teixeira’s injury exposes the weakest area on the Yankees’ roster. Johnson is not an experienced first baseman and he will be asked to fill in while Teixiera is out. The Yankees do have corner infielder Russ Canzler at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but he is not anywhere close to Teixeira in offense or defense. he also is not on the 40-man roster. The Yankees have to hope Teixiera is not sidelined for an extended period of time.
- Dellin Betances was brought in to the game in the eighth to face Jose Bautista with two out and a four-run lead. He walked him. Although he got out of the inning by retiring Edwin Encarnacion, he opened the ninth by walking Adam Lind on four pitches that were nowhere near the strike zone. Girardi then summoned David Robertson to close out a game in which he should not have had to appear. Betances has had control issues in the past so he bears watching.
Teixeira will be re-evaluated on Saturday but it is highly unlikely he will play. The strain is is considered mild but Teixeira is scheduled to have an MRI on the right hamstring in New York on Monday. Teixeira played in only 15 games last season before having to undergo surgery to repair a torn sheath in his right wrist. . . . After Solarte got his first major-league hit in his debut on Thursday, Dean Anna singled in the ninth inning in his first major-league start on Saturday. Anna, 27, was in the lineup at shortstop to give Derek Jeter a rest. Anna was 1-for-4 with a walk and scored a run.
The Yankees wil continue their three-game series with the Blue Jays on Saturday.
After trading top prospect Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners before the 2012 season the Yankees will finally see Michael Pineda on the mound for them in a major-league game. Pineda, 25, was 2-1 with a 1.20 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 15 innings this spring after missing almost two seasons due to shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.
He will be opposed by right-handed knuckleball specialist R.A. Dickey (0-1, 10.80 ERA), who was out of sync in his 2014 debut against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday. Dickey walked six batters and ended up surrendering six runs on five hits in five innings.
Game-time will be 1:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.
YANKEES 4, ASTROS 2
There was a popular TV game show in the 1950s and 1960s called “To Tell the Truth” in which two impostors would join a real guest to try an fool a panel. At the end of some probing questions the host Bud Collyer would say “Would the real (name) please stand up.”
After the first two games of the season where they looked like impostors, the real New York Yankees decided to stand up on Thursday.
Rookie infielder Yangervis Solarte, who was making his first major-league start, sparked the victory by going 3-for-3 and Ivan Nova and the Yankees bullpen held the Astros without a hit after the fifth inning as New York finally defeated Houston in front of a paid crowd of 26,348 at Minute Maid Park.
Solarte, 26, had a hit in all three innings in which the Yankees scored.
With one out in the third inning and the Yankees trailing 1-0, Solarte followed an Ichiro Suzki single with his first major-league hit – a single – to advance Suzuki to third. Brett Gardner then tied the game with an RBI single.
After Derek Jeter walked to load the bases, the Yankees took their first lead of the game and the three-game series when Carlos Beltran scored Solarte on a sacrifice fly.
The Yankees padded their lead in the fifth when Solarte delivered a one-out double and Jeter scored him on a two-out single to right in which Astros first baseman Marc Krauss chose to cut off a throw from Alex Presley in right that appeared it might get Solarte at the plate in order to tag out Jeter rounding first base too far.
The Yankees took a 3-2 lead into the seventh when with two out Suzuki doubled to the wall in left-center off right-hander Brad Peacock and Solarte lofted a towering popup between the mound and home plate. Astros catcher Carlos Corporan allowed the ball to drop to score Suzuki and give Solarte his first major-league RBI.
Nova (1-0) was credited with the victory, although he did not have much command of any of his pitches.
The Astros scored a run in the first inning off Nova on a back-to-back singles by Dexter Fowler and Robbie Grossman and Nova hit Jason Castro with an 0-2 pitch to load the bases with no outs.
Jose Altuve then plated Fowler on a groundout.
After the Yankees took a 3-1 lead off left-hander Brett Oberholtzer (0-1) in the fifth, the Astros added another run off Nova after a leadoff double by Jonathan Villar and an RBI single by Fowler, who was 6-for-12 with a home run, five runs scored and two RBIs in the series.
Fowler’s RBI single would end up as the Astros’ final hit of the evening, however.
Nova left in the sixth having been charged with two runs on six hits and five walks while he struck out one in 5 2/3 innings. He also hit two batters.
Nova managed to limit the damage by recording 12 groundball outs, including four double plays.
Obervoltaer also pitched 5 2/3 innings, yielding three runs on five hits and one walk. He fanned five batters.
The Yankees’ bullpen trio of Adam Warren, Shawn Kelley and David Robertson preserved the victory by retiring all 10 hitters they faced, five of them on strikeouts.
Robertson pitched a perfect ninth inning to earn his first save of the season as the new Yankees closer replacing the legendary Mariano Rivera.
- The legend of Solarte was already the talk of the spring after he was 18-for-42 (.429) with two homers and nine RBIs. The 26-year-old Venezuelan claimed the final roster spot over veteran Eduardo Nunez and he very quickly made an impression in his first start. I would say that he can relax now that he has his first hit and RBI out of the way but the kid has shown no nerves at all. Can we call him “Never Nervous” Yangervis?
- Suzuki drew a start in right-field despite the fact there was a left-hander starting and he took advantage by going 2-for-4 and scored a pair of runs. Suzuki got hot at the tail end of the spring, going 9-for-26 (.346) in his final nine starts. It seems like it is carrying over to the regular season.
- Jeter’s RBI single in the fifth gave him 3,318 hits of this career, which puts him just one behind Paul Molitor in eighth place on the all-time hits list.
- Nova was erratic all evening with his command. His fastball was riding up in the strike zone and his curve had catcher Francisco Cervelli diving all over for it. He threw only 47 of his 88 pitches for strikes. But Nova survived with his ability to induce ground balls and the four double plays behind him really saved his victory.
- Gardner, Jeter, Suzuki and Solarte combined for all of the Yankees seven hits. That means the batters hitting in the No. 3 spot through the No. 7 spot (Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Cervelli and Brian Roberts) were a combined 0-for-18 in the game.
- Teixeira and Soriano followed up on their combined 0-for-8 game on Wednesday with another 0-for-8 night on Thursday. Soriano was 0-for-12 in the series with four strikeouts.
With a left-hander on the mound in Oberholtzer, manager Joe Girardi elected to sit left-handed hitters Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson and shift Gardner to center and the leadoff spot. He inserted Suzuki in right, made Beltran the designated hitter and played Soriano in left. He also used Cervelli behind the plate and put Solarte in at third. Girardi said the day off for Ellsbury was planned because of his abbreviated spring nursing a sore right calf. . . . The Yankees announced on Thursday that the “Core Four” will take part in the ceremonial first pitch for the team’s home opener on Monday against the Baltimore Orioles. Pitchers Andy Pettitte and Rivera will throw the opening pitches to catcher Jorge Posada and Jeter.
The Yankees travel to Toronto to open a three-game weekend series with the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre beginning on Friday.
There also will be a bevy of Japanese media on hand as Masahiro Tanaka (2-0, 2.14 ERA) will be making his major-league debut with the Yankees. Tanaka, 25, struck out 26 batters in 21 innings this spring, most of them with his world-class split-finger fastball.
The Blue Jays will start right-hander Dustin McGowan (0-0, 3.86 ERA), who will be making his first major-league start since Sept. 26, 2011. McGowan, 32, missed all of the 2012 season and he pitched in 25 games in relief for the Blue Jays last season.
Game-time will be 7:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
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.
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!
Today marks the beginning of the 2012 season for the New York Yankees. After a 33-game spring schedule, the team took shape. How will they finish in the American League East? What about the other teams in the division? How will they do this season? Let’s take a look.
Last season marked a titanic shift in the division.
After the Boston Red Sox recorded the biggest implosion in major-league history in September, they are no longer looked upon as an elite in this division. The loss of general manager Theo Epstein and the decision to blame Terry Francona for the team’s demise were bad enough.
But the real shock was to watch the Red Sox take a different approach to trying to fix the team this winter. Instead of just going out and aggressively signing the best free agents available and making bold trades to infuse new blood, the Bosox actually started a coupon-clipping method of solving their problems.
The big names that could have helped them went elsewhere and the Red Sox found that their once-vaunted minor-league system was bereft of immediate-impact talent.
They begin the 2012 season with one of the most important positions on the team left n the hands of someone inexperienced.
If ever this was a microcosm of the Red Sox problems this is it. They allowed Jonathan Papelbon to walk away via free agency. Maligned for his foibles and his occasional blown saves, Papelbon was still an important piece of the success of the franchise. The fans and the press treatment of him bit the team in the rear end.
To replace him the Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey of the Oakland A’s, a competent closer who at the same time has had a series of arm ailments that have slowed his development. At the end of spring training, Bailey came up with a thumb injury that will require surgery to repair. He will miss two months – at least.
The Red Sox also traded for Houston Astros closer Mark Melancon. The conventional wisdom was Melanco would replace Bailey. After all, why trade for a closer if he is not going to close? But new manager Bobby Valentine announced that jack-of-all-trades (and master of none) reliever Alfredo Aceves would close instead.
Welcome to Red Sox Nation’s worst nightmare. On Opening Day, Aceves coughed the winning run in a non-save situation.
If there is anyone out there who honestly believes this team can win the A.L. East, I want to know what you are smoking.
There are only two elite teams in this division and they are the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays had an interesting spring where they played a lot like the some of the teams in 1960s like the Dodgers and White Sox, who were so deep in pitching talent they shut out any team. However, at the same time, the offense is so bad that scoring runs is going to take some real effort.
Don’t get me wrong. The Rays and manager Joe Maddon have ways of scoring. Carlos Pena may struggle to keep his average around .190 but he will likely hit 30 home runs. Evan Longoria, surrounded by lightweights, will be pitched around and his average will suffer also. But he will win his share of 2-1 games with home runs.
Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and the rest of Rays also use their feet to create havoc on the bases. That will get them their share of runs at times. But the old adage “You can’t steal first base” comes into play. The Rays have to reach base in order to steal bases. This team also lacks the athleticism past teams had when Carl Crawford was here.
How many bases will catcher Jose Molina steal? I rest my case.
No, the Rays’ sole means of winning comes with their starting rotation. James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Jeff Niemann are the center of the ballclub. The Rays have attempted to build a bullpen around them but they begin the season with their closer, Kyle Farnsworth, on the disabled list with a sore elbow.
That is huge red flag to me.
Could you say that the Yankees would be favored to win a championship with Mariano Rivera on the DL and expected to miss two months like Bailey? How about if Rivera complained he had a sore elbow?
Nope. No matter how stacked your pitching staff is you have to have a closer and Farnsworth is the best the Rays had in 2011. If he is lost for a long period of time, it puts pressure on Maddon to “shorten” his bullpen. That means keeping his starters on the mound longer than most managers would allow.
That exposes them to possibly losing close games because starters do run out of steam at some point. While a manager like Charlie Manuel might take Cliff Lee out after 121 pitches because he has Papelbon and a deep bullpen, Maddon may say let’s let Price get out of this in the eighth because I do not think J.P. Howell has been effective lately.
It becomes a slippery slope and you start lengthening and lengthening your starters until they begin wearing down.
That is my concern with the Rays.
In addition, they do not have the money and means to ever go to a Plan B. What they have on the roster has to work or they fall.
One team that intrigues me is the Blue Jays.
They already have Jose Bautista. You add to that third baseman Brett Lawrie and a bunch of guys who hit the ball hard and you have the makings of a great offense. Too bad the Rays do not have this offense.
The Blue Jays will put a lot of runs on the board. They have a lot of power and line-drive hitters top to bottom in the lineup.
However, their pitching revolves around Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow. Brett Cecil has been sent to the minors and Dustin McGowan’s comeback has been slowed by injury. Their bullpen does have a closer in Sergio Santos they stole from the White Sox and a former closer in Francisco Cordero they signed from the Reds.
If manager Jon Farrell can piece enough starters to go six, the Blue Jays just might have what it take to pass the Red Sox in third place in this division. Stranger things have happened.
The one given in the division is where the Orioles will finish. Mismanagement, bad luck and foolish spending have really derailed this franchise.
Buck Showalter is a good manager but this team is mired with problems. The young pitching the Orioles counted on has failed to take the big leap forward they expected.
They made big bets on players like Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones and they have underwhelmed. They lack a big bopper like a Bautista who can change a game. Instead, they can build around emerging star catcher Matt Wieters.
That just about sums up the Orioles.
Now we come to the Yankees.
They won 97 games last season despite the fact Alex Rodriguez played in 99 games, only Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano had good seasons with the bat and their rotation contained Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.
How many will they win when they get a healthy season out of Rodriguez, more of their hitters have better seasons with the bat and a rotation that now has Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, a healthy Phil Hughes to go along with ace lefty CC Sabathia?
Their bullpen even without Joba Chamberlain is loaded with Rivera closing like he always has at age 42 and David Robertson and Rafael Soriano shortening games to six innings.
The team has closed the pitching gap with the Rays and their offense is simply the best in the division. Add to that the division’s best bullpen and a veteran bench and you have the makings of another A.L. East title for the team in the Bronx.
I have not seen evidence that would contradict the premise. The only thing that could derail the Yankees is the age of the team. Injuries also are a great equalizer. But, other than a bad spate of injuries there is nothing that will stop this team in 2012.
Here is the predicted order of finish:
1) New York Yankees
2) Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
3) Toronto Blue Jays
4) Boston Red Sox
5) Baltimore Orioles
If this order holds up, look for Valentine to be scanning the help wanted ads in October. He already has the team hating him. If it gets much worse he might be scanning those ads in July.
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 2 – TORONTO BLUE JAYS
When you think of the Blue Jays these days, just one name comes to mind: Jose Bautista. The Blue Jays basically rode Bautista to an 81-81 record last season, the first season for manager John Farrell.
Though Bautista was able to slug his way to 43 home runs and 103 RBIs and a .302 average despite being pitched around and walked 132 times, the Blue Jays offense could not cover up problems in the Jays’ starting rotation and bullpen.
This season Bautista figures to have a lot more help with the offense but the Jays were unable to bid successfully for Japanese League star right-hander Yu Darvish. As a result, their pitching remains a big question mark heading into 2012. If they get some good pitching from their starters they could actually be much better than they were in 2011.
Left-hander Ricky Romero begins the 2012 season as the unquestioned ace of this team after compiling a 15-11 record and a 2.92 ERA with 178 strikeouts in 225 innings. Romero’s deadly change-up is his best pitch and he keeps hitters off-balance working off his low 90s fastball. At age 27, he has made great strides in just two major-league seasons.
Once again, right-hander Brandon Morrow will be the No. 2 starter, though he actually would be more valuable as a closer. Morrow, 27, throws high-octane gas but has a habit of missing the strike zone and getting bogged down in deep counts. That raises his pitch count and Morrow tends to tire quickly. Hence, he was 11-11 with a 4.72 ERA despite striking out 203 batters in 179 1/3 innings.
The big disappointment was left-hander Brett Cecil, who was 15-7 with a 4.22 ERA in 2010 but was 4-11 with a 4.73 ERA in 20 starts last season. Cecil, 25, regressed so badly he was sent back to the minors for a part of the season. Because the Jays have few options for their rotation, Cecil likely will be given another shot to stick in 2012. If he succeeds, as he did in 2010, the Jays will have a solid top three pitchers.
Right-hander Henderson Alvarez came up in the middle of the season and finished with a 1-3 record and a 3.53 ERA in only 10 starts. Alvarez, only 21, is an excellent control pitcher and he could end up making a huge leap forward if he can secure the No. 4 spot this season.
The Blue Jays are also counting on old friend to be their No. 5 starter in Dustin McGowan, who pitched briefly last season for the first time since the 2008 season. Shoulder problems derailed what looked to be a promising pitcher in 2007 when he was 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA for the Jays. The Jays are counting on him bouncing back this season.
The pressure is on McGowan, too. There is little depth behind him.
In short, this Blue Jays rotation looks to be a bit suspect but it has the potential to exceed expectations.
The most signifcant moves the Jays made was the signing 36-year-old right-hander Francisco Cordero as a free agent and acquiring 28-year-old right-hander Sergio Santos from the White Sox.
Leaky middle relief and the lack of a consistent closer cost the Jays dearly last season.
Cordero likely was signed to be a setup man for Santos despite the fact Cordero nailed down 36 saves in 43 chances with the Reds last season. Cordero was 5-3 with 2.45 ERA with the Reds but he still will to defer to Santos.
Santos came out of nowhere last season to become the White Sox closer with 30 saves in 36 tries and a 4-5 record with a 3.55 ERA. Should Santos falter for any reason, Cordero could easily slide into that role by virtue of his 327 career saves.
The Blue Jays also bolstered their bullpen by adding seemingly ageless left-hander Darren Oliver (who is 41) to a bullpen that already includes steady right-handers Jason Frasor and Casey Janssen. Former starter Jesse Litsch and long man Carlos Villanueva add depth to what now looks to be a strong group in 2012.
Bautista will not be shuttling from right-field to third base as he has in the past. The reason is the Jays think they have their third baseman for the forseeable future in Brett Lawrie.
Lawrie came up late in 2011 and showed he was ready for prime time by hitting nine home runs and driving in 25 runs with a .293 batting average in only 150 at bats. Projected over a full season, Lawrie’s numbers would approach Bautista’s. So Lawrie bears watching as a star of the future if he isn’t already.
Adam Lind also helped the Jays by slugging 26 home runs and driving in 87 runs hitting behind Bautiista. Though Lind could stand to hit better than the .251 mark he posted, the Jays have to be encouraged that he hit .243 against left-handers last season.
The Jays gave up on second baseman Aaron Hill and acquired Kelly Johnson from the Diamondbacks in a trade of Hill. However, Johnson and Hill are virtually alike in they are both mid-average power hitters. Johnson hit 21 home runs in 2011 after hitting 26 in 2010. Johnson also can steal bases. He swiped 16 last season.
The Jays also traded for troubled Cardinals outfielder Colby Ramus, who rejected hitting advice from coaches in St. Louis while posting a .225 batting average with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs. Because the Jays have failed in developing prospect Travis Snider into a major-league hitter the team has moved on hoping Ramus fulfills his early promise.
Rounding out the outfield is left-fielder Eric Thames, who hit .282 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs in just over half a season.
The Jays did seem to strike gold by prying shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Braves. Escobar, 29, hit .290 with 11 home runs and 48 RBIs as a leadoff hitter for most of the 2011 season.
The DH spot likely will go mostly to Edwin Encarnacion, who hit .272 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs in 134 games last season.
This Blue Jay offense is laden with power but Farrell introduced the concept of the stolen base to the formerly station-to-station Jays. However, the team leader, Rajai Davis, stole 34 bases but is now cast in a bench role so I am not sure how much stealing this team will do in 2012.
The Jays also developed a young catcher in J.P. Arencibia, who had 23 home runs and 78 RBIs in a his rookie season. But even with all that production, Arencibia hit just .219. He needs some work on defense too but the Jays are hopeful because he is only 26.
Davis, a speedster who had hit .284 with 50 steals for the A’s in 2010 fell off to hit .238 for the Jays in 2011. So he is locked in a battle with former Phillies outfielder Ben Francisco for a backup spot.
Though Snider has been a disappointment for the third straight season, the left-handed slugger just turned 24 and the Jays remain hopeful he someday will put it together. He may land back in Triple-A for the 2012 season, however.
Mike McCoy will be the primary infield reserve. He lacks range but is solid at second, short and third.
Jays backup catcher and defensive wizard Jose Molina left as a free agent for the rival Rays so the Jays acquired former Angels catcher Jeff Mathis to back up Arencibia.
The Jays figure to hit more home runs and still fewer bases in 2012. It is team that you can shut down if you have good stuff. But it also is a team that can destroy a pitcher who continually falls behind in the count and does not have good stuff.
The biggest weakness on the team looks to be in the thin starting rotation. Romero is the only real quality pitcher because Morrow has yet to take the next step in his development into a starter, Cecil is a biq question mark, Alvarez needs to prove he belongs and McGowan is pitching after three mostly inactive seasons rehabbing after major shoulder surgery.
The bullpen should be improved and both Santos and Cordero have experience closing. The Blue Jays have some good relievers besides them in Oliver, Frasor and Janssen.
With some real improvement the Jays could contend for the division this season. But in this division, their starting pitching could prevent them from staying competitive as the season unfolds.
I see the Jays perhaps creeping over the .500 mark but still finishing fourth.
ON WEDNESDAY – PART 3 TAMPA BAY RAYS