YANKEES 5, BRAVES 5 (10 INNINGS)
LAKE BUENA VISTA – Just when it looks like the Yankees are going to coast to a win in a Grapefruit League game something happens to snatch a tie out of the jaws of victory. That played out for the third time this spring on Wednesday.
George Kontos was called upon to pitch the ninth inning with a 5-3 lead. However, Kontos issued a one-out walk to Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward made him pay with a two-run home run as Atlanta rallied to earn a tie with New York in 10 innings at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, FL.
Heyward’s home run spoiled an excellent outing from Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda, who gave up two runs on six hits and no walks and he struck out a half-dozen in seven innings. For the 37-year-old right-hander, who was named the team’s No. 2 starter on Tuesday, it was his best outing of the spring.
The Yankees got a huge offensive boost from Eric Chavez, who had a pair of two-out RBIs singles in the first and third innings and added a two-out RBI double in the eighth as the Yankees built their lead from 3-0 in the third to 5-2 in the eighth.
The Yankees tagged Braves starter Brandon Beachy for three runs (two earned) on six hits and no walks in five innings. They added a pair of runs in the eighth off reliever Eric O’Flaherty in the eighth.
The Yankees’ spring record remains 13-10. The Braves are 9-14.
- You had to be directly behind home plate like I was on Wednesday to appreciate how smart Kuroda is as a pitcher. He mixed all of his pitches, varied speeds and locations to keep the Braves off-balance all day. His wild pitch with Heyward on third in the fifth allowed one run to score. Freeman touched him for a solo home run to right-center (his third home run in two games) in the seventh was Kuroda’s only other blemish in what otherwise was a masterful performance.
- Chavez was hitting .120 as of March 20 but he is 5-for-10 in his last three games and he has raised his spring average to .235. Chavez, 34, was 3-for-4 with a double, two singles and three RBIs in the game. Chavez has already locked down the backup corner infield spot for the Yankees. Their only concern with the six-time Gold Glove winner is keeping him healthy for a full season.
- Raul Ibanez was 1-for-3 with a single in the game. You are likely wondering why I mention him. Well, Ibanez also hit what would have been a two-run home run to right in the third inning but Heyward ran to the wall, leaped and brought it back into the ballpark with a spectacular catch. Ibanez, 39, may be hitting .089 but he is making much better contact of late. He may be showing signs of life – finally.
- Failing to win three games that ended up in ties in the past seven games may seem like something that would concern Yankee fans. But look at the pitchers who were on the mound and who was in the lineup when those games were tied. Against the Red Sox on March 22, Juan Cedeno and Kontos combined to give up the lead in the bottom of the ninth. On March 25 against the Tigers, the Yankees stranded 10 runners over 10 innings after Derek Jeter led off the first inning with a solo home run. Then on Wednesday, Kontos was victimized by Heyward’s home run. Those two pitchers will not make the Yankees’ 25-man roster and the Yankees pulled most of their starters against the Tigers in the sixth and seventh innings. That would not happen in regular-season game.
- Cory Wade continues to struggle of late. He has been scored upon in his last three appearances, including Wednesday against the Braves. Wade, 28, gave up a run on two hits in the eighth inning on Wednesday. He has now given up five runs on nine hits over three innings of work. His spring ERA is 7.27.
- Francisco Cervelli was 0-for-4 in the game and his spring average dipped to .176. I doubt, however, that the Yankees really care how much their backup catcher hits.
A MRI taken on Curtis Granderson’s sore right elbow showed no structural damage but the outfielder remains day-to-day. Meanwhile, fellow starting outfielder Nick Swisher had 10 at-bats in a minor-league game on Wednesday and he is expected to both hit and play the outfield in another minor=league game on Thursday. Swisher is nursing a sore right groin. . . . Manager Joe Girardi confirmed that there is a “decent” chance that a second lefty reliever could make the 12-man pitching staff to start the season. Girardi is also pretty sure that the Yankees will lose either 30-year-old Clay Rapada (0.00 ERA) or 23-year-old Cesar Cabral (1.74 ERA) if they do not make the roster. . . . The Yankees on Wednesday claimed veteran catcher Craig Tatum off waivers from Arizona Diamondbacks because Austin Romine has suffered a setback in his recovery from lower-back inflammation. Romine, 23, likely will not be able to start the 2012 season in order to continue his rehab from the injury. Tatum is former catcher with the Baltimore Orioles and came up out of the Cincinnati Reds’ organization.
The Yankees return home on Thursday to play host to the Orioles.
Ivan Nova was originally scheduled to make the start but Girardi said that Nova will pitch in a minor-league game instead. Right-hander D.J. Mitchell will start that game. Veteran right-hander Jason Hammel will start for the Orioles.
Game-time will be at 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network on tape delay and locally by the YES Network.
With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.
PART 2 – Relief Pitching
PRIORITY NO. 1 – Finding a second left-hander or two
NOTE: As I predicted, the New York Yankees were able to keep CC Sabathia off the free-agent market by signing him an one-year contract extension that will pay him $122 million over the next five seasons and the Yankees will control an option to bring him back in 2017. This means the Yankees can turn their sights to Priority No. 2 (Fixing A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes) and Priority No. 3 (signing or trading for another starting pitcher). Sabathia’s signing is double bad news for the Texas Rangers. They were looking to add Sabathia to their rotation and now they face the prospect of losing C.J. Wilson to the Yankees. That would be enough to send Rangers manager Ron Washington back on drugs.
The Yankees, simply stated, had the best bullpen in the major leagues in 2011.
The proof is in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series with the Tigers. The only run given up after Ivan Nova left the game with an injury after the first inning was off of Sabathia. The bullpen itself kept the Tigers within striking distance for a comeback that never came.
Looking at 2012, the Yankees can again point to their bullpen as being the strongest part of this team.
At age 41, Mariano Rivera showed no real signs of aging by saving 44 of 49 games and becoming the major-league leader in all-time saves with 603. For the fourth straight season and the eighth season out of the last nine, Rivera recorded an ERA under 2.00. Rivera is under contract for another season and that is just fine with the Yankees because having the greatest reliever in major-league history in your bullpen is a huge plus.
The Yankees also have managed to shorten games by the use of their setup men.
Nobody did that better than David Robertson last season. With injuries shelving both Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain, Robertson, 26, stepped up his game to go 4-0 with a 1.90 ERA and strike out 100 batters in 66 2/3 innings. He also tied Daniel Bard of the Red Sox for the American League in holds with 34 and he earned a selection to pitch in the 2011 All-Star Game.
Robertson’s best work, though, came in pressure situations – either ones he inherited or those messes he created for himself. Robertson was able to wriggle out of bases-loaded situations with amazing regularity.
The Yankees also will have 32-year-old right-hander Rafael Soriano back for the 2012 season. Soriano has elected not to opt out of his three-year contract and remain with the Yankees for $11 million this coming season and $14 million for 2013.
Soriano, who led the major leagues with 45 saves in 2010, was 2-3 with a 4.12 ERA and two saves in a season plagued by elbow soreness. Soriano pitched exceptionally well after he returned from the disabled list in July. He was 1-2 with a 3.33 ERA and he ended up with 23 holds.
The only question is will Soriano regain his eighth inning role from Robertson in 2012? Either way the Yankees know that most teams will have to obtain the lead by the sixth inning or face the prospect of losing the game because Robertson, Soriano and Rivera are pretty tough to beat when they are all healthy and pitching well.
The Yankees also possibly may have Joba Chamberlain back healthy again.
Chamberlain, 26, missed most of the 2011 season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He was effective in the 27 games he pitched. He was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA and he recorded 12 holds.
Reports indicate Chamberlain is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation and he hopes to be ready to go once spring training begins in February. But with Robertson and Soriano filling the setup roles in the bullpen, the Yankees can afford to be cautious with Chamberlain. They will gladly start the season with Chamberlain on the disabled list and bring him along slowly to make sure he is 100 percent.
The rest of the Yankees’ bullpen in 2011 was pretty good. The Yankees got good work out of right-handers Cory Wade and Luis Ayala.
Wade, 28, was 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA after being acquired off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays in June. Ayala, 33, made the team out of spring training after being signed as free agent and was 2-2 with a 2.09 ERA.
Wade is likely to be retained for 2012 as insurance policy on Chamberlain but Ayala likely will not return.
That leaves the only left-hander the Yankees had in 2011, Boone Logan. Next to A.J. Burnett, the 27-year-old Logan is the pitcher Yankee fans love to the hate the most.
At times, Logan can be brilliant. Other times, Logan can be awful. Overall, Logan was 5-3 with a 3.46 ERA for the Yankees. However, he is terribly miscast as “lefty specialist.” It is sort of like asking Owen Wilson to play the part of Tony Soprano in the “The Sopranos.” It just doesn’t work.
Left-handed hitters hit .260 off of Logan while right-handers hit .262 off him.
That points up the Yankees’ biggest need in 2012: Looking for a reliable and effective lefty specialist.
The Yankees ignored my pleas to go all out to sign free-agent lefty Scott Downs last off-season. Downs ended up signing a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels and he was 6-3 with a 1.34 ERA with 26 holds for the Angels. Instead, the Yankees overpaid Soriano to accept a setup role.
The Yankees did sign left-hander Pedro Feliciano from the New York Mets. But the 35-year-old free agent developed a shoulder soreness in spring training and ended up undergoing rotator cuff surgery without ever throwing a pitch for the Yankees in 2011. He likely won’t pitch in 2012 and his two-year contract with Yankees will end with him very much a question mark as a free agent in 2013.
The Mets abused Feliciano by pitching him in a major-league high of 344 appearances over the four previous seasons, including 92 in 2010. Feliciano paid the price for it and he likely will never be the same pitcher he was.
The Yankees also hoped to have veteran left-hander Damaso Marte back in 2011. But the 36-year-old hero of the 2009 postseason championship run for the Yankees has not be able to recover from left shoulder surgery he underwent in 2010. The Yankees have since declined an option on him and released him.
So the Yankees are in the market for a lefty specialist in 2012 who can either augment or replace Logan.
There are no other left-handers listed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster. There no lefties who would be of much help in the bullpen in the minor leagues. So general manager Brian Cashman must look to acquire several candidates to audition in spring training.
One pitcher the Yankees would love to have is Rafael Perez of the Indians. Perez, 29, was 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA and 12 holds with the Indians in 2011. Perez was replaced as the primary lefty in the bullpen by 28-year-old Tony Sipp.
But Perez can still get out left-handed batters. They batted only .237 against him last season.
The Yankees also might be interested in Eric O’Flaherty, 26, of the Braves and Sean Marshall, 29, of the Cubs. Both of them had excellent 2011 seasons. But they would cost dearly in a trade.
Guillermo Mota, 38, could be a big free-agent target. He was 2-2 with a 3.81 ERA in 52 appearances with the Giants. More impressive was his 77 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. Lefties hit just .234 off him in 2011. His age might be a concern but, given the strength of the Yankees’ bullpen, he might be worth an offer.
Look for the Yankees to bring in at least two left-handed relievers to compete for a spot in the bullpen in spring training.
Of course, the Yankees’ right-handers do have an ability to get out lefties.
Left-handers hit only .240 off Rivera, .156 off Robertson, .250 off Chamberlain, .246 off Wade and .250 off Ayala. They only feasted on Soriano, who was hit for a .302 by left-handers last season. The effectiveness of the right-handers against left-handers is one reason why the bullpen was such a strength in 2011.
Given the depth here, it looks like the bullpen – barring injury – looks to be just as strong in 2012.
NEXT: PART 3 – STARTING LINEUP
PRIORITY NO. 1 – Who will the Yankees keep at catcher?