Tagged: Hank Steinbrenner

2015 Yanks Likely Will Extend Playoff Drought

Welcome back to one of the best New York Yankees team blogs available on the web. Because of some circumstances beyond our control this site was non-operational for the past eight months. There was a thought of suspending the site entirely. But because of some 52 years devoted to the best franchise in sports history we felt we owed our fans the ability to stay up to date with the team on a daily basis. It is with that renewed commitment we will embark at looking at the team’s prospects for 2015.

The New York Yankees have faced two significant championship droughts in their most recent history.

The first was the end of the so-called Mickey Mantle Era in 1965 that lasted until Billy Martin managed the team to a loss to the Big Red Machine in the 1976 World Series. The 10 intervening years saw the team flounder with players such as Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Horace Clarke and Mel Stottlemyre.

George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973 and he immediately rebuilt the front office with general manager Gabe Paul, who wrangled trades for players such as Lou Piniella, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss and Mickey Rivers. The Steinbrenner money brought in free agents such as Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter, which was added to a minor-league system that had already produced Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry.

The teams of 1977 and 1978 battled to consecutive World Series titles over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, restoring the Yankees back to the pinnacle of baseball’s elite that they had not experienced since 1962. But this success proved to be short-lived.

During the strike-shortened 1981 season the Yankees qualified for the playoffs and faced the Dodgers again in the World Series. But they lost and the team soon again drifted into mediocrity. The team was unable to make the playoffs again until 1996 – a playoff drought of an astounding 15 years.

Through a parade of managers and general managers and an even longer list of failed free agents and personnel mistakes the Yankees rebuilt in the early 1990s through a farm system that very quickly produced Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.

Meanwhile the team was bolstered by the trade of Roberto Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for Paul O’Neill, the acquisition of first baseman Tino Martinez from the Seattle Mariners and the signings of players like Wade Boggs, David Cone, David Wells and Cuban star Orlando Hernandez.

Steinbrenner fired manager Buck Showalter after a very painful 1995 loss to the Seattle Mariners in the American League Division Series and hired Joe Torre. The rest was history as the Yankees managed to win four World Series over the next five seasons, a run of titles that has been unmatched in the modern era of baseball. In fact, Torre took the Yankees to the playoffs from 1996 until his firing after the 2007 loss to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series.

Though the Yankees returned to prominence under manager Joe Girardi in the 2009 season with a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, the team has steadily declined. Age forced the retirements of all the “Core Four” (Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and Rivera) and the performance declined from such former stars as CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

The team that enters the 2015 season is one that has age, long-term money commitments to fading players and a new mix of players that had to be procured on the cheap because of those commitments. The farm system has not produced a regular starter since Brett Gardner came up six years ago. The pitching staff has question marks all over the starting staff and the bullpen has lost its closer from from the past three seasons: 2012 (Rafael Soriano), 2013 (Rivera) and 2014 (David Robertson).

How did this happen?

Well, one reason is the declining health and eventual death of Steinbrenner. “The Boss” ran this club with a tough determination to make the franchise a jewel of Major League Baseball. The team had to win or managers or general managers went. Players had to perform or they would be discarded for better players. It was not always a successful process but the Yankees largely have been contenders for so long it is hard for fans to remember the bad stretches that began in 1965 and 1982.

The 4-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 American League Division Series may have marked an end of another chapter of success and the beginning of another long series of bad seasons.

It appears that the 2013 season may be one of those years like 1965 and 1982 and 2015 could be an extension of that futility. Transition with the Yankees is never pretty.

Another reason the Yankees are in this position is because Steinbrenner’s hand-picked successor Steve Swindal got caught up in a messy DUI incident in 2008 and then later a divorce from Steinbrenner’s daughter Jennifer. Swindal was bought out from the team and Steinbrenner’s sons Hank and Hal took the reins.

There was a very good reason that the elder Steinbrenner had selected Swindal instead of his own sons to run the team. Swindal was the most knowledgeable baseball man and conformed to Steinbrenner’s desire for excellence at all costs. The Steinbrenner sons did not have that same ability and the result has been obvious after the 2009 season.

After the team had invested millions in free agents such as Teixeira, Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the team decided to hold general manager Brian Cashman to an austere budget to pare the Yankees payroll under the MLB’s salary cap limit that forced the Yankees to have to pay a tax.

From 2010 through the 2013 free-agent signing seasons the Yankees allowed all major free agents to go without much of an effort. Even Cuban and Japanese imports such as Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish barely got a cursory look. The team was determined to either trade, use farm talent or sign cheap free-agent bargains. The team has fallen under the heft of its expensive guaranteed contracts and there is one in particular that has weighed on this team like an albatross.

That was the misguided decision in 2007 to re-sign then free-agent third baseman Rodriguez to a 10-year contract. The team still owes Rodriguez $60 million over the next three seasons despite the fact that age 39 he has not played more than 137 games in a season since 2007. Injuries, controversies and dabbling with performance enhancing drugs has basically reduced A-Rod to a mere shell of what he once was.

The Yankees have to hope he can regain some semblance of that magic because they are on the hook for his contract for three more seasons. Though Rodriguez may be planning to apologize to Yankee fans for his season-long suspension in 2014, he owes the fans an awful lot more.

If this team really does perform as badly as it looks as if they will in 2015 it will mostly be the fault of the Steinbrenner brothers, Cashman and him. It hard to see the sense of providing 10 years of big guaranteed money to someone who has always felt he is above baseball and the rules that govern it.

But here the Yankees are and no one expects Rodriguez to retire with $60 million coming his way. He will gladly hit .210 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs as long as those paychecks keep rolling in. His presence also poisons the clubhouse for the other 24 players on the roster. It is pretty obvious that A-Rod will not be out having beers with Sabathia or Teixiera. More likely he and his entourage will move in its own circles.

It is shame that a fine manager like Girardi will likely lose his job if this team plummets in the standings because none of this is his fault. For the past two seasons he has been patching this lineup with duct tape when it lost players like Rodriguez, Teixeira, Jeter and Sabathia for long stretches of time. It is miracle the team has contended at all the past two seasons given their weakened roster.

Though Girardi is virtually blameless the same can’t be said for Cashman, who is the longest serving GM in Yankee history.

He was given permission to sign free agents last season even at the risk of busting past the salary cap limits. But the whole key to Yankees 2014 season was the re-signing of second baseman Robinson Cano, who was the heir apparent to Jeter’s mantle as team leader and was the best player on this aging team. But Cashman chose to play hardball with Cano instead of treating him as a respected player.

When the Dodgers and Detroit Tigers looked elsewhere for help at second base last winter, Cashman figured that the market for Cano had dried up. So instead of negotiating Cano off his 10-year, $325 million request he went out an signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $275 million deal. Cano was livid because placing his numbers next to Ellsbury’s was an obvious mismatch weighted towards Cano. He felt he was easily worth $325 million in comparison.

He also was right. Ellsbury is a fine player but he is not in the same league with Cano.

So Cano shopped himself to the Mariners and they felt he was worth the price.

Cashman’s answer to Cano’s signing: He opted to cave in to Carlos Betran’s demand for a three-year deal and he filled Cano’s spot at second with former Baltimore Orioles star Brian Roberts.

The result was very ugly. The 37-year-old Beltran developed a painful bone spur in his right elbow in spring training and he ended up playing 109 games, hitting .233 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Roberts played in 91 games and never could get even close to what he used to be. He ended up being released in midseason after hitting a woeful .237 with five homers and 21 RBIs.

Cano, meanwhile, hit .314 for  a Mariners club that nearly made the playoffs.

Cashman’s miscalculation has placed the Yankees in a position where they enter the 2015 season with 31-year-old Stephen Drew as their starting second baseman after he hit .162 with seven homers and 26 RBIs with the Yankees and Red Sox last season.

So when the Yankees begin their complete fall off the cliff in 2015 it actually should be Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner who go and not Girardi. But I am not sure that is the way it likely will play out. I can see Steinbrenner firing Girardi and keeping Cashman. That is how those long championship droughts are born. Bad choices and bad luck equal bad results. (Did Casey Stengel say that?)

There will be some bright spots on this team. After all, the team is not completely devoid of talent.

It appears that Dellin Betances could be the real deal if he can maintain his control as a full-time closer. The signing of left-hander Andrew Miller gives the Yankees a second option as a closer and fills the void the team felt when they let Boone Logan walk in 2014.

The signing of Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka proved to be a very good decision. He was exactly what the Yankees hoped he would be in the United States until a small ligament tear was found in his right elbow in July. The Yankees are hoping rest and rehabilitation will prevent him from a more serious tear that will basically shelve him for two seasons. They are rolling the dice on it anyway.

It also was apparent that if Michael Pineda had not missed most of the season with a shoulder muscle injury that he would have established himself as a rising young right-hander.

But the rest of the rotation is a litany of question marks, hopes and prayers. The bullpen has been completely reshuffled and it is not clear what pitchers Girardi will have pitching ahead of Miller and Betances.

The offense? Don’t ask.

Recently a composite ranking of fantasy baseball players came out. Ellsbury was ranked No. 22, which makes him a third-round selection. The next highest Yankee position player on that list was Gardner at 109, which is an 11th-round choice. That is an grim indicator of how much the Yankees offense has fallen on hard times.

They require bounce back seasons from Teixeira, Rodriguez and Beltran as well as for second-year starting catcher Brian McCann, who stumbled his way through a 2014 season in which he batted .232 with 23 homers and 75 RBIs.

The biggest news of all is that for the first time since the 1995 season the Yankees will be without Jeter at shortstop. Because there was no one in the system groomed to replace him (Cashman again), the Yankees acquired 25-year-old Didi Gregorius.

His reputation is that he has a great glove, great range and a developing bat. His big weakness is left-hand pitching so he likely will have to share the position with great-field and no-hit Brendan Ryan, yet another player over 30.

The Yankees also have to hope Drew can recapture his magic at the plate and that third baseman Chase Headley is better than a .243 hitter that he was with the Padres and Yankees last season.

The bench has some veterans, of course.

Former Pirate Garrett Jones has been added as a backup first baseman, right-fielder and designated hitter. The Yankees also retained Chris Young, who is a poor man’s version of Alfonso Soriano with even more strikeouts.

If you think this sounds bad I am actually trying to sugarcoat some of it.

But, hey, the Kansas City Royals made the World Series last season and who could have predicted that? Of course, they did it with a team full of young players and an exceptional bullpen. They Yankees currently have neither of those two ingredients.

But I can say that Girardi will select the best 25 players this spring. He also will put out the best lineup he can on a daily basis. You can also count on him getting the team to outperform expectations as they have the past two seasons.

Whether it will be enough to win the American League East or qualify as a wild card is an open question.

In the coming days I will examine the players more in depth and take a look forward at spring training to go over who the Yankees will likely keep on the roster and what young players are poised to make a splash for the team in coming years.

I hope you enjoy the analysis. All I can say is I am glad to be back and let’s get ready to play ball!

 

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Yankees’ Frugal Ways Can Be Traced To 2007 DUI

On Feb. 15, 2007, the course of history for the New York Yankees took a huge turn and the current state of the team begs the question: What if it did not happen?

Though the Yankees were still be operated ostensibly by managing general partner George Steinbrenner, the actual day-to-day operations were being run by Steinbrenner’s son-in-law, Steve Swindal, who was named the successor to Steinbrenner in June 2005.

Swindal was chosen over Steinbrenner’s two sons, Hal and Hank, because Steinbrenner felt more comfortable with Swindal’s leadership and his vast baseball knowledge.

However, while the Yankees were in the midst of spring training in 2007, Swindal’s vehicle unfortunately cut off in traffic a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office cruiser driven by a female deputy. A chase ensued in which Swindal’s vehicle was clocked at 61 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone before he was stopped by St. Petersburg police.

Swindal declined to take a Breathalyzer test but failed a field sobriety test and was charged with driving while under the influence.

Swindal’s wife, Jennifer, later that year filed for divorce from her husband and Swindal’s stake as a general partner and chairman of the Yankees’ parent company was bought back by the Steinbrenner family in November of that year. Hal was shifted into Swindal’s role with the club and the history of this franchise was forever changed.

The Yankees were known in the Wild West days of early free agency as the major-league team with the largest saddlebags. Under George Steinbrenner’s regime from when he purchased the team in 1973 through November 2007 the Yankees tossed around millions like pennies in a fountain to lure the free agents they coveted.

In some cases, the elder Steinbrenner would be so ruthless in negotiations with free agents he would even increase a bid that already was more than any rival team was offering – actually bidding against himself.

Of course, that led to such signings as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage and Dave Winfield. Between free agent signings and some shrewd trades the Yankees won a pair of World Series in 1978 and 1979 and Steinbrenner and the Yankees were being cursed all around baseball for “buying their way” to prosperity.

Though Steinbrenner’s money did re-establish the Yankees in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Yankees actually failed to make the playoffs from 1982 through 1994. A combination of some poor signings and trades doomed the Yankees until their minor-league system began turning out a solid of corps of young stars such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.

Those players along with the acquisition of Paul O’Neill and the signings of pitchers such as Jimmy Key, David Wells and David Cone pushed the Yankees into an amazing run in which they won four world championships from 1996 through 2000.

Since then the team has only failed to make the playoffs in one season – 2008. They won their 27th world title in 2009 after dipping heavy into the free-agent market in signing pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira.

But in 2003, Major League Baseball instituted its first luxury tax, which was supposed to operate alongside revenue sharing to allow small-market teams to draw money from teams who were over a threshold payroll limit, which was set at $178 million in 2011. All teams shared the remaining revenue.

Only four teams have ever exceeded the established luxury tax limit: the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Angels and the Detroit Tigers. However, only the Yankees and Red Sox have ever exceeded it twice and the Yankees have paid in 95 percent of all the luxury tax since its inception.

When Hal Steinbrenner took control of the team he decided that the Yankees’ philosophy of paying top dollar and ignoring the luxury tax would have to come to an end.

In 2014, the payroll threshold will be increased to $189 million. By a complicated formula set up by the teams, there would be refunded revenue sharing streams for teams who remain under the luxury tax threshold. That gives the Yankees an added incentive to cut payroll below $189 million in 2014.

Not only will the team save money by trimming payroll; they would receive a considerable sum of refunded revenues as well. This explains why the Steinbrenner family informed general manager Brian Cashman that he will have to pass on high-priced free agents and he will have to pass on trading for players with huge long-term contracts.

So Yankee fans have watched a stream of free agents like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jose Reyes, Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes sign with other teams instead of with the Yankees. The Yankees are already on the hook for long-term deals to Alex Rodriguez, Sabathia and Teixeira.

Those three contracts alone are worth $73,875,000 plus player benefits worth an additional $10.8 million, which will also count against the $189 million.

That leaves a remainder of a little less than $105,000,000 to pay the remainder of the team’s 40-man roster in 2014.

That is why the Yankees have let Nick Swisher and Russell Martin go this offseason and it is likely that Curtis Granderson will follow them out the door sometime within the next year.

The team will also have another group of expiring contracts such as one of Robinson Cano. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte are working this season under one-year contracts.

The question is will the Yankees make an effort to offer Cano a lucrative multiyear contract to remain a Yankee? Can they afford to do it? What will they do with Jeter, who is a significantly aging commodity at shortstop?

Some Yankee fans were quick to point out that if Rodriguez is found to have taken performance enhancing drugs past the 2003 date he previously claimed that the Yankees could easily just void his contract and dump him. But that may be a pipe dream.

First, Major League Baseball must have proof that he did it and then mete out a 50-game suspension. But Rodriguez can appeal the procedure and delay its effect. He also could have the suspension tossed out.

The Yankees would find it very difficult to find relevant clauses in his contract to escape from the $114,000,000 they owe Rodriguez through the 2017 season. The Players’ Association and his agent would certainly fight it and that could lead to a prolonged court battle with no guarantee the Yankees could win.

In addition, should the Yankees lose they would still have to pay Rodriguez and play him. He may not be in any mood to produce much for them either. He gets paid no matter how bad he is. So any thought of voiding his contract is going to have to be very carefully weighed.

The long-term effect of what has been an austerity program the Yankees have been under since the 2009 season ended is that the balance of power in baseball is widening out to teams who have lots of money to spend under the current salary threshold like the Tigers, the Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Texas Rangers.

These are the teams that have been active in the free-agent market and teams like the Toronto Blue Jays have benefitted from what was a talent fire-sale by the New York Mets and the Miami Marlins.

The Red Sox traded most of their high-priced players like Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez away last season to the Dodgers to restock their 2013 roster while keeping well below the looming $189 million limit.

That is why the Yankees’ prospects for the 2013 season are not as bright as they might have been under the old George Steinbrenner regime or the short-lived rule of Swindal.

Would old George or Swindal have allowed the Yankees to wither on the vine for the past three seasons and basically pinch pennies and risk the team missing the playoffs in 2013?

Hal Steinbrenner has already stated quite clearly that he expects the 2013 club to remain a top-quality team within the confines placed upon Cashman and the team’s scouts. The result is the current Yankee roster is full of 40-year-olds like Rivera and Pettitte and players in their late 30s such as Rodriguez, Jeter, Kuroda, Ichiro Suzuki and the newly signed DH Travis Hafner.

Cashman spent a lot of time and effort stocking the minor-league system with talented young players over the past five years and Phil Hughes, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain and Brett Gardner have provided some support to an aging corps of veterans.

However, the two best minor-league prospects the Yankees have produced in that time, Austin Jackson and Jesus Montero, were both packaged in trades. Jackson was sent out in three-player swap between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tigers that yielded Granderson for the Yankees. Montero was sent along with two other players to the Seattle Mariners in return for right-handed pitchers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.

While Jackson is thriving with the defending American League champions, Granderson has provided the Yankees with two consecutive seasons of 40-plus home runs and a lot of strikeouts. And though Montero has proven to be lackluster on defense as a catcher, his power in Yankee Stadium will be missed in a season in which the Yankees are choosing between singles-hitting catchers Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart.

In addition, both Pineda, 25, and Campos, 20, suffered injuries and had their 2012 seasons cut short. Pineda is recovering from right shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and he could miss a portion of the 2013 season and may not be 100 percent until the 2014 season. Campos was shut down with a right elbow injury that did not require surgery.

The Yankees have a number of very good prospects within their minor-league system, including a catcher who hits as well as Montero and has better defensive skills in Gary Sanchez, 20. They also have a pair of good-looking outfielders in Mason Williams and Tyler Austin and an up-and-coming star reliever in Mark Montgomery.

But the question is will the Yankees allow these players to develop long enough to make the roster or will they package and ship them out as they have done with Jackson and Montero?

The problem with young players – most especially pitchers – as they develop in the minors is that they need to be promoted to learn at the major-league level. Too often the Yankees pull a player back and ship them back to the minors when they initially fail.

The Yankees did that with Hughes and right-handed pitcher Ian Kennedy in 2008. They both got off to shaky starts (a combined 0-7 record) and the Yankees believed they could not afford to keep them on the roster.

Anyone want to guess what the records of Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were in their first full season with the Atlanta Braves?

Glavine was 7-17 with a 4.56 ERA in 1988 and Smoltz was 2-7 with a 5.48 ERA in 12 starts the same season.

If Glavine and Smoltz were with the Yankees in 1988 they would have been sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for another season and their major-league development would have been stilted. In 1989, Glavine was 14-8 with a 3.68 and Smoltz was 12-11 with a 2.94 ERA.

The point is that players have to learn at the major-league level and when you are constantly shipping them back out they will never learn how to succeed in the major leagues. A good case in point is when the Yankees elected to ship right-hander Ivan Nova back to Scranton in the middle of the 2011 season despite the fact he ended up the season with a 16-4 record.

The Yankees are pretty rough on their prospects. If they are not ready to contribute on Day One they get sent back down. Sometimes players in the late 20s like Colin Curtis find themselves drifting in the Yankees’ system but never even given the chance to play in the majors much.

Then there are the Monteros and Jacksons who succeed just enough in the minors to be traded. Then there are the Kennedys, who are traded and ended up going 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA for the Diamondbacks in 2011. So the Yankees show patience with players like Curtis, who never made it in the majors, and a lack of patience with players like Kennedy, who succeeds with another team.

If the Yankees are to adhere to this stringent luxury tax threshold in 2014 they are going to have to stop making the mistake of trading their great prospects away or, at the least, if they are going to trade them they better get something of real value back for it. They also could benefit by being a bit more patient with their young players when they call them up.

The Montero-Pineda deal is but one example of those mistakes. Cashman can’t afford to do that much going forward.

The Yankees are going to need good young athletes and skilled pitchers coming out of their system on a regular basis to retool this franchise through the end of the decade. It will certainly lower payroll, make the team better-suited for healthy runs at championships and may prove – ultimately – that Hal Steinbrenner had the right approach.

Otherwise, there will be hell to pay and old George will be have cigar smoke coming out of his ears as he rolls around in his grave. If a ghost could ever fire a son, old George will figure out a way to get that done.

 

Ibanez Joins List Of Possible Yankee DH Targets

With the end of the holidays and the beginning of the new year, the Yankees got busy after sitting out a good portion of the offseason bidding and dealing. Here are some bits and pieces of information and some analysis on what it all means:

THE DH ‘RAUL’

Apparently former Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez is on the New York Yankees’ short list of players they might want to sign to take over as the team’s designated hitter, the New York Post reported.

Ibanez, 39, was allowed to walk as a free agent by the Phiilies after a 2011 season in which he hit a career-low .245 but still managed to hit 20 home runs and drive in 84 runs in 144 games. Ibanez is career .280 hitter with 252 home runs and 1,054 RBIs in 16 major-league seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Kansas City Royals and the Phillies.

The right-handed-hitting Ibanez was an All-Star selection in 2009 with the National League-champion Phillies.

With the four-player trade that sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for pitchers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos, the Yankees seem to have an obvious opening for a primary DH in their 2011 lineup. Jorge Posada held the role at the start of the 2011 season.

With one possible candidate, Carlos Pena, re-signed as free agent by the Tampa Bay Rays, it appears the Yankees are looking at free agents including Ibanez and former Yankees Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui.

Damon, 38, played last season with the Rays and wanted to return to the team. However, the signing of Pena likely means the Rays are not interested in keeping Damon after he hit .261 with 16 home runs, 73 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 150 games in 2011.

Matsui, 37, played last season with Oakland and hit a career-low .251 with 12 home runs and 72 RBIs in 141 games. The Athletics, who are retooling with younger players, seem to be uninterested in bringing Matsui back for a second season as the team’s DH.

The Yankees have not commented publicly about Ibanez, Damon or Matsui. They have said they are interested in looking at 29-year-old former Mexican League star Jorge Vazquez this spring as a potential DH.

Vazquez, who can play either first or third base, hit .262 with 32 home runs and 93 RBIs in only 118 games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season. The right-handed slugger is not consider to be a very good defender but the Yankees have been impressed with his hitting potential.

At this point, it comes down to payroll economics. If the Yankees feel a pressing need to have a professional hitter at the DH spot and they are willing to shell out about $5 million to $8 million to get one of the three free agents, they will certainly do it. But if they feel they can’t afford it, Vazquez will get a shot this spring.

Odds are the Yankees are definitely looking outside the organization. That is why Ibanez’s name surfaced. So look for a free-agent signing real soon to fill the role.

OKIE DOKEY, HIROKI

The Yankees officially announced the signing of right-handed starter Hiroki Kuroda this week.

The former Dodger signed a one-year deal worth a reported $10 million. He left the Dodgers as a free agent after going 13-16 with a 3.07 ERA in 2011. In his five seasons with the Dodgers, the 37-year-old Kuroda was 41-46 with a 3.45 ERA in 115 major-league games, all with the Dodgers.

Kuroda will join Pineda in a revamped Yankee rotation for 2012. With CC Sabathia the unquestioned ace, Pineda figures to open the season as the team’s No. 2 starter and Kuroda likely will be the No. 3 starter. Ivan Nova, 25, after a sparkling 16-7 record and a 3.70 ERA as a rookie, figures to have a starting job locked up also.

That leaves Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett to battle it out this spring for the final starting spot.

The signing of Kuroda was a fallback position by the Yankees’ front office. Both general manager Brian Cashman and managing general partner Hank Steinbrenner felt the price of top free-agent pitchers like C.J. Wilson, Edwin Jackson, Mark Buerhle and Japanese import Yu Darvish was too high.

They also felt the asking price in trade for starters such as John Danks, Jair Jurrgens, Matt Garza and Gio Gonzalez was also too pricey.

As it is, Cashman needed Steinbrenner’s assent to pay Kuroda the $10 million he was seeking. That is one reason why the Yankees do not wish to overpay for a DH and add much more money to the payroll.

Kuroda, like a number of other National League pitchers who have been signed or acquired by the Yankees, will be under the microscope when he faces much tougher hitters in the American League, and those particularly in the East.

Pitchers such as Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and, even to some degree, Randy Johnson have found it difficult to put up good numbers in the A.L. Kuroda, however, is in a somewhat better position than some of those previous pitchers because the Yankees have one of the deepest and best bullpens in baseball heading into the 2012 season.

Kuroda could have his ERA jump a run and he still could win 15 games for the Yankees in 2012.

PRAISE JESUS

The Montero-Pineda trade was made official this week when Montero passed his physical with the Mariners.

There has still been a major flood of angry comments from Yankee fans who are upset the Yankees traded a 21-year-old catcher who looked to be the best power prospect the Yankees have had in their minor-league system since Mickey Mantle was promoted to the major leagues in 1951.

Yankee fans also have pointed out that Pineda faded badly in the second half of 2011 and he has had a history of elbow problems stemming from a very violent follow-through in his motion. That does not bode well for the 23-year-old right-hander’s long-term prospects.

However, just about every analysis of the trade by experienced sports writers such as Peter Gammons and Ken Rosenthal have praised Cashman for making the deal.

What do they know that Yankee fans don’t?

For one reason, Montero’s work behind the plate is in question and will remain in question throughout his development in the major leagues. Though he has made vast progress, the Yankees were concerned they could NOT compete with teams that run a lot like the Rays and the Los Angeles Angels with Montero behind the plate.

They also saw a move to right-field or first base as impossible. Montero would really struggle in the outfield and Mark Teixeira is entrenched at first base and simply is the best-fielding first baseman in the game.

So Montero’s long-term future would have to have been as a DH and part-time catcher. That would limit his impact because manager Joe Girardi would still have Russell Martin as a starter with either Francisco Cervelli and rookie Austin Romine backing him up. Plus, Girardi would have to give veterans like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher some time off at DH during the season.

Also figure that 19-year-old catcher Gary Sanchez is considered the No. 4 catching prospect in baseball. The Yankees and scouts see him as the whole package behind the plate. He is excellent on defense and he has the ability to become a very good major-league hitter. He won’t hit for the prodigious power Montero might. But he will hit for average and power, scouts say.

So the Yankees felt with Montero’s defensive liabilities and the limited nature as a DH and part-time catcher, they could use Montero’s high value to get a pitcher, who not only figures to improve on his 9-10 record and 3.74 ERA in his rookie season, but could eventually become the ace of the staff in a few years.

Pineda projects as a potential No. 1 starter now. With he and Sabathia at the top of the rotation they figure to dominate any three-game series in which they pitch. If you are talking a potential playoff series the possibilities are even better. That is why the Yankees chose to make the deal.

They gave up a potential superstar but they may have got one in return also. What’s done is done. So let’s wait to evaluate the trade five years from now.

JONES REDUX

The Yankees also made it official this week they have re-signed Andruw Jones to a one-year contract for  a reported $2 million plus $1.4 million in incentives.

Jones, 34, batted .247 with 13 home runs and 33 RBIs in 77 games for the Yankees last season. Jones appeared as a DH, outfielder and pinch-hitter, but his calling card was his ability to hit left-handers. He hit lefties to the tune of .286.

Jones can play both corner outfield spots, DH and pinch hit. Because Brett Gardner struggled against left-handers last season, Jones could also be used to replace Gardner against some left-handers next season.

The Yankees have also managed to sign most of their arbitration eligible players in the past weeks including Gardner, Martin, David Robertson and Boone Logan.

The result is the Yankees have managed to improve the team while at the same time being able to hold the line on spending, which Steinbrenner is determined to do.

The Yankees would seem to only looking to add a bench infielder and a DH to the team before spring training.

Eric Chavez, who played first and third base for the Yankees last season is still available to be re-signed if the Yankees wish. We have already discussed the potential free agents available to DH.

ADIOS, JORGE!

Jorge Posada also made it official this week that he was retiring after all 17 seasons with the Yankees.

Posada, 40, thought about offers from other teams such as the Rays and the Mets, but ultimately chose to end his career as a Yankee.

Now the discussion starts as to whether he has the credentials to be inducted into the Hall Of Fame. The fact that he is the only catcher among the group of catchers already in the Hall except the great Yogi Berra, who has either more home runs, RBIs or a better batting average than all of them gives him some standing.

In addition, he has four World Series rings and he was one of the best hitting catchers of his generation.

It will be close, but Jorge stands in Yankee history among legendary catchers such as Berra, Bill Dickey and Thurman Munson. So he has a good chance of having his No. 20 retired by the Yankees at some point.

That would be a fitting tribute to a man who was a leader among the best Yankee teams in a generation. Thank you, Jorge!

 


Get Real, Yankee Fans, Pineda Is Not Ken Phelps

Remember George Steinbrenner ‘s appearance on the “Seinfeld” episode where George’s father lights into him for trading Jay Buhner to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Ken Phelps?

For the last 24 hours the ghost of that ill-fated Buhner-for-Phelps trade has cast a pall around the reported most recent Yankees-Mariners swap of mega-prospect Jesus Montero for pitcher Michael Pineda. Yankee fans are unclear how the Yankees would think that trading their best young hitter for a young right-hander with a history of arm trouble and inconsistent mechanics helps the Yankees in the long run.

They are looking at the so-called “Big Picture,” You know that is the vast uncharted future when Robinson Cano is on a downward slide and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are living a life of luxury in retirement. Yankee fans saw Montero as the centerpiece of the Yankees’ 2018 world championship team, hitting .330 with 42 home runs and driving in 130 runs batting fourth in pinstripes.

But mean, old general manager Brian Cashman took that comforting pipe dream away by dealing Montero for a pitcher who could blow out his arm in a bar fight tomorrow. (Yep, a Yankee fan never forgets what could have been with Brien Taylor.)

Nevermind that Montero’s career could come to an end with the next horrific home-plate collision. Yankee fans want to vent so let them vent.

But when have the Yankees ever looked way out to 2018?

I do not think they were thinking of 2018 when they made this trade. I think they were looking at 2012.

That is the Yankee tradition after all. You lose in the playoffs and fall short of your goal in 2011 so you immediately look to improving your team in 2012. That is Cashman’s job.

Cashman, along with Hank and Hal Steinbrenner and any scout in baseball will tell you that the magical 97 wins the Yankees got out of a rotation that included 38-year-old Bartolo Colon and 35-year-old Freddy Garcia was seen as a miracle that could not be duplicated.

The fact remains that besides CC Sabathia and his annual flirtation with 20 wins and a Cy Young Award there is not much to distinguish the Yankees’ rotation. That, keep in mind, is aware that Phil Hughes did win 18 games in 2010 and rookie Ivan Nova was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA last season.

What troubled the Yankees’ front office is that the Tampa Bay Rays made the playoffs in 2011 with a popgun offense and very good rotation of young pitchers behind James Shields, including lefty David Price, Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and the rookie lefty who blanked the Rangers in the playoffs, Matt Moore.

Despite the fact that the Yankees spent most of Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers down one run and their vaunted offense could not produce it, the Yankees felt they had to bolster the starting staff without adding much to their $200 million payroll.

That is a tough task because free agents like C.J. Wilson, Mark Buerhle and Yu Darvish were so tempting. Trade offers for Gio Gonzalez, Jair Jurrgens, John Danks and Matt Garza held promise but proved, in the end, to be pretty pricey. Heck, even the new president of the Cubs, Theo Epstein, thought Garza was worth Montero and left-hander Manny Banuelos and right-hander Dellin Betances!

Epstein may think of himself as the Lord’s holy gift to baseball but mere mortals like Cashman know the First Commandment of the National Pastime: Though shall not deal the best lambs in the stable for a .500 pitcher who is no better than a No. 3 in your rotation.

So give Cashman credit for not allowing Epstein to pull the wool over his eyes. Baaaaaad!!!!

With this trade, however, Cashman has acquired a pitcher who is 22 years old. (OK, he turns 23 on Wednesday if you want to get technical.)

When the Yankees traded for Phelps during the 1988 season he was 34 years old and Buhner was almost exactly 10 years his junior. Of course, history will show that Phelps would hit a whopping 13 home runs for the Yankees from the middle of the 1988 season to the middle of the 1989 season when he was traded away in disgrace to the Oakland Athletics.

Meanwhile, Buhner – beginning in 1991 – started a series of 10 seasons with the Mariners in which in eight of them he hit 21 or more home runs. In fact, from 1995 through 1997, Buhner had three seasons in which he hit 40, 44 and 40 home runs for the Mariners. He ended up with  310 major-league dingers, a total of three came when he was wearing pinstripes.

Now you can understand why Frank Constanza (played by actor Jerry Stiller) was so angry with George in that hilarious “Seinfeld” episode.

It may be why so many Yankee fans might be angry now. It is the ghost of Jay Buhner rearing his ugly head. (Check out Buhner’s baseball card. He was ugly.)

But Pineda is not Ken Phelps. Far from it.

There were times last season that scouts would have told you that Pineda looked better than Felix Hernandez himself. Pineda was rolling through lineups looking like a 6-foot-7, 260-pound Gulliver against a helpless band Lilliputians with matchsticks for bats.

In his first 11 starts he was 6-2 with a 2.30 ERA and 73 K’s in 70 1/3 innings and batters were hitting a woeful .190 off him and he had a WHIP of 1.00. That was pitching for arguably the weakest offense in baseball in the Mariners.

Granted, in his next six starts, Pineda came back to Earth some. He was 2-3 with 3.10 ERA. But he was chosen to represent the American League in the 2011 All-Star Game and he had earned it.

What many rookie pitchers have to contend with is how to continue to pitch well as the innings mount and your team continues to play poorly. The Mariners were simply awful as they ditched the second half in order to play their young prospects over their overpriced veterans like Chone Figgins.

Pineda won only one game the rest of the season. Of course, that game was against the Rays on July 30. But he ended the season 1-5 in his last 11 starts with an ERA of 5.71. The Mariners, seeing that Pineda was a valuable commodity, did not pitch him much in the month of September to protect his arm.

He finished 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings. Batters hit .211 off him and his WHIP was an amazing 1.10. He was right behind Hellickson as the second-best rookie pitcher in baseball in 2011.

But his second-half slide and the fact that Pineda had to be shut down by the Mariners back in 2009 due forearm and elbow stiffness has Yankee fans concerned about this trade. It is true that while a position player can fashion a long career despite injuries, a starting pitcher can be wrecked for an entire career with a severe elbow or shoulder injury.

But, Pineda seems as if he is a reasonable risk at this point because, Yankee fans, Betances at 6-foot-8 and age 23 is in the same boat as Pineda. The only difference is that Betances has already experienced elbow problems and had surgery to repair the damage. So if you are crying because the Pineda was acquired then, in that same breath, you must have to demand that Cashman get rid of Betances immediately because he is another elbow injury waiting to happen.

I guess the foot is in the other shoe, now, Yankee fans!

All I am saying is that perhaps it is better to allow the careers of Pineda and Montero to play out about five years before we say the Mariners have won this trade. After all, it took Buhner until 1991, three long seasons after the trade, to become the player the Yankees wished they had back.

Pineda will begin the 2012 season as the Yankees’ No. 2 starter behind the equally tall Sabathia. That is about as an imposing pair of starters a team can face to open a series. The Yankees can follow that up with Nova, who was the third best rookie pitcher in 2011 and Hughes, who did win 18 games for the Yankees when he was healthy.

And for good measure, Cashman added 37-year-old right-hander Hiroki Kuroda to the mix and Kuroda was 13-16 with a 3.07 ERA for a very mediocre Dodgers team in 2011.

That is not a bad starting five. It figures to better than the Sabathia, Nova, Colon, Garcia and A.J. Burnett quintet with which the Yankees won 97 games last season. Speaking of Burnett and Garcia, neither figures to make the rotation unless there are a few injuries in the spring.

Burnett figures to be on his way out of town if the Yankees can find a buyer for him and Garcia looks to be simply insurance for the injury-plagued Hughes and the other four starters.

So losing Montero for a significantly better rotation does not seem so bad.

His offense will be missed, for sure. I had no doubt that as a designated hitter and part-time catcher Montero could easily hit 30 home runs and drive in 75 or more runs in 2011. But the Yankees have been either number one or number two in runs scored the past three seasons without Montero. It seems they can manage to make it four in 2012 without Montero.

Also remember this important point. The Yankees got younger in their rotation and still have Banuelos, Betances, Adam Warren, David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell at the Triple-A level. Oh, and reports indicate this 6-foot-4 right-hander Jose Campos thrown into the Montero deal, at age 19, is an excellent pitching prospect with a live arm and great control. They also still have the defensively proficient Austin Romine bidding to be the backup to catcher Russell Martin this spring.

And, lo and behold, the Yankees’ No. 1 catching prospect Gary Sanchez turned 19 in December and he is considered to be every bit as good as Montero as a hitter and he is a defensive gem as well. He was ranked as the third-best catching prospect in 2011. Montero was No. 1.

So while you are crying about what Montero will do for Seattle, Sanchez is getting closer to an arrival date in 2014 and he may be very much the ultimate catcher for which Yankee fans have been waiting. Montero with his defensive deficiencies may eventually be the DH or first baseman for which the Mariners have been waiting.

So dry your eyes and let’s wait to see how Pineda develops before we get too emotional. Somewhere Ken Phelps is thinking you are all acting like idiots.

 

Yankees’ Actions Show Desire To Stand Pat In 2012

With the clock finally having run out on the Yankees in their effort to sign Japanese infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima it is now becoming obvious the the team will enter the 2012 season with virtually their entire roster from 2011 back.

The Yankees seemed shocked when their $2.5 million bid for Nakajima was the winning bid and they dealt with the 29-year-old Seibu Lions star as if he were just going to be paid as a backup infielder, which is, of course, what he was going to be.

But Nakajima was not happy with that offer and the 5 p.m. deadline came and went without a contract. As a result, the Yankees keep their $2.5 million posting and Nakajima returns to play out his contract with Seibu in Japan.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are now free to make an offer to bring back backup first and third baseman Eric Chavez, who hit .263 with two home runs and 26 RBIs in 58 games with the Yankees last season. Chavez, who has been hampered by injuries for the past five seasons, missed just over two months of the 2011 season due to a fractured bone in his left foot.

But the Yankees can use Chavez, 34, and his left-handed bat as a backup to Alex Rodriguez at third base, to Mark Teixeira at first base and as possible designated hitter or a power bat off the bench.

If Chavez does re-sign with the Yankees he will join outfielder Andrew Jones, infielder Eduardo Nunez and catcher Francisco Cervelli as the same members of the Yankees’ 2011 bench. However, Cervelli would have to win the backup catching job he has held for the past two seasons from rookie Austin Romine in spring training.

The only change in the Yankees’ 13 position players appears to be rookie Jesus Montero, who figures to be the primary DH and third catcher, replacing longtime veteran Jorge Posada.

The Yankees also re-signed Freddy Garcia to a contract this winter, which means the Yankees rotation of CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and Garcia figures to return in 2012. Of course, the Yankees are in pursuit of one additional starting pitcher that would allow the team to perhaps unload Burnett and the two years and $33 million owed on his contract.

The Yankees have avoided getting into a bidding war for free-agent pitchers C.J. Wilson and Mark Buerhle and they only made a token bid for Japanese star Yu Darvish. They also have balked at trades for pitchers such as John Danks, Gio Gonzalez, Jair Jurrgens and Matt Garza because teams have asked for top prospects such as Montero, pitchers Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances and outfielder Mason Williams in return.

The Yankees have had discussions with Scott Boras, the agent for right-hander Edwin Jackson, who was 12-9 with a 3.79 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 32 games (31 starts) for the world-champion St. Louis Cardinals last season. However, the Yankees are not likely to pay the $15 million to $17 million per season over four years that Boras is seeking for the 28-year-old right-hander.

The Yankees are looking to bring Jackson’s price down some or they may take a pass on him as well. General manager Brian Cashman said he would like to avoid making a long-term commitment to a pitcher like he did with Burnett, a pitcher who may end up being a mistake in the long run.

The Yankees also might have interest in free-agent left-hander Hiroki Kuroda.

The bullpen, with Rafael Soriano opting to stay with the Yankees, also will return pretty much the same nucleus from last season. Soriano and David Robertson will set up the legend of all closers in Mariano Rivera in 2012. Left-hander Boone Logan and right-hander Corey Wade also are back.

Joba Chamberlain is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and he hopes to be ready when spring training begins. However, the Yankees intend to bring the 26-year-old right-hander along slowly and he may not see action until July.

So that means the Yankees will be looking for two pitchers for the bullpen. One likely will be a left-hander to replace Logan as the lefty specialist. The Yankees signed for former Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima to a minor-league contract. He will compete this spring with Cesar Cabral, who the Royals sent to the Yankees for cash considerations after they selected him from the Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft in December.

The other spot could go to Hector Noesi, who filled that role for portions of last season. But the Yankees have said they consider him a starter and they do not want to use him a long man in 2012 if they can help it.

But, here again, the stand-pat nature of the Yankees may be reaffirmed. The Yankees also have said they would not mind having 38-year-old right-hander Bartolo Colon back as a long man out of the bullpen. Colon was 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA but actually pitched much better than the his record indicated.

Colon was actually 8-6 with a 3.31 on Aug. 11 before going 0-4 with four no-decisions and an ERA of 4.93 down the stretch. He was not even placed on the team’s postseason roster for the American League Division Series. The Yankees believe Colon is better suited as a long man and spot starter and they would offer him a contract to return to the team only in that role because they no longer think he can make 33 starts at his age.

Should the Yankees re-sign Colon that means the only change in the pen could be Okajima or Cabral as a second left-hander replacing right-hander Luis Ayala, who was allowed to become a free agent after going 2-2 with a 2.09 ERA last season.

I can’t recall a season in which the Yankees had less turnover on their roster. It is very odd, indeed, for a team that has prided itself in having the winning tradition, the facilities and the cash to get just about any player they could want in the George Steinbrenner era.

However, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner are at the helm of the ship now and they seem to have a tighter lid on the cash flow. Cashman has been forced to do more with less since the Yankees made their huge splash in 2009 with the free-agent signings of Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira, which led to their 27th world championship that October.

Of course, the team did win 97 games in 2o11 and had the best record in the American League. They did it without significant contributions from Rodriguez, Chamberlain and Hughes and off years from players like Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher.

Perhaps the addition of the powerful bat of Montero, a second lefty in the bullpen and healthy seasons from A-Rod, Joba and Hughes will be enough to carry the Yankees to another A.L. East title and the playoffs. The concern then turns to how well the starting pitchers stack up heading into the playoffs.

Do not forget that there are a few very good pitchers who will be free agents in 2013 and teams might be looking to unload them before the July 31 trade deadline. One is right-hander Matt Cain of the Giants and another is lefty Cole Hamels of the Phillies. Cashman has the patience and the dearth of young prospects to pull off a deal to bolster the staff at any point this season.

So maybe this lack of turnover is not such a bad thing. The team stays strong without adding much in the way of payroll and remains flexible enough to pull off some deals to make a push in the playoffs.

I see nothing wrong with that. Some of the best deals are the ones you don’t make.

 

Face Reality, A-Rod, CC Are Yankees’ Pujols, Lee

You are a Yankee fan and you are not happy now.

The reason: General manager Brian Cashman has not made a major splash with a big free-agent signing or a blockbuster trade.

To Yankee fans standing pat is like surrendering to teams like the Marlins and Angels, who tossed around cash this week as if it was only Monopoly money. Some fans are yearning for the days when George Steinbrenner would go after free agents he wanted with the ruthlessness of a pit-bull, never letting go.

However, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner seem to be a lot more pragmatic about spending too much for negligible return. They were willing to spend $150 million for Cliff Lee but they were not going to spend close to $80 million for C.J. Wilson or about $60 million for Mark Buerhle.

There are a lot of reasons the Yankees sat idly by while some teams played “Let’s Make a Deal.”

But perhaps the biggest reason is the Yankees have already lavished their riches on their “Pujols” and their “Lee.” Those are the 10-year, $275 million deal the Yankees committed to Alex Rodriguez in 2007 and the $186 million the team is paying CC Sabathia to be the ace the staff through at least the 2016 season.

Those two contracts are largely why the Yankees are the only team in the major leagues who are subject to the luxury tax. The Steinbrenner family would like for the team to remain competitive and successful while Cashman tries to reduce the annual payroll below the $178 million level where the tax kicks in. or, at the very least, the Steinbrenners would like it to remain steady and not push higher.

That is the reason Christmas ornaments like Pujols, Wilson, Buerhle, Jose Reyes and Prince Fielder will be dangling on other teams’ trees this December.

So Yankee fans will have to realize that a team that won 97 games last season is still an excellent one even if adds no one of significance this winter. Rodriguez will just have to be our Pujols and Sabathia will just have to pitch like Lee in 2012 to make Yankee fans forget that this free-agent shopping spree was just too pricey for a team already above the $200 million mark in annual payroll.

Rodriguez is the biggest key to the Yankees’ success in 2012. You just have to face the fact that Rodriguez is being paid the most because he is expected to be the best player in pinstripes, period.

Last season, he was anything but that. Oh, he showed a lot of promise in the spring when he showed up lighter and quicker in the field. He also had a spring that portended a monster 2011 season. But, as the previous three seasons proved, Rodriguez was beset by a series of injuries that kept him off the field for 63 games and a shadow of what he was in the other 99.

Rodriguez, 36, hit .276 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs. If this is the level of performance the Yankees will get from Rodriguez in 2012 they are doomed to fail. Oh, they are talented enough to make the playoffs. But they will not go very far or do very well in the playoffs without what was the most feared hitter in the American League when he is healthy.

But balky shoulders, unsteady knees and painful thumbs can reduce a great player to just a pretty good one real quick. That is what happened to Rodriguez in 2011 and why he needs to arrive in Tampa in Florida fit and ready to go to war to restore his reputation as that most feared hitter.

 

To steal a Reggie Jackson line, A-Rod “stirs the drink.” His health will determine if that drink is a classy Manhattan or just another slow gin fizzle.

 

There is no doubt that Rodriguez is on a slight decline. He has not played in more than 138 games since the 2007 season. From 2004 through 2007, Rodriguez averaged 43 home runs and 128 RBIs. From 2008 through 2010 he has averaged 32 home runs and 109 RBIs. In 2009, Rodriguez barely reached 30 home runs and 100 RBIs on the final day against the Rays but he was healthy at the right time to lead the Yankees through the playoffs and into the World Series as the Yankees won their 27th championship.

So the point is that Rodriguez can average 32 home runs and 109 RBIs and be in decline and still lead the Yankees into a World Series. He just has to be healthy when the playoffs begin. That was not the case last season and the Yankees paid dearly for it in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. They only trailed by a run but it may as well have been 10 runs the way the offense just seemed to sputter with runners in scoring position.

With a healthy and “locked in” A-Rod would the result have been the same? I doubt it.

For all the talk of Robinson Cano and how he has become the best hitter and best player on the Yankees, it is still Rodriguez who can turn a game with his bat that can strike fear into opposing pitchers, managers and teams. Besides the fact is that his ability to hit makes Cano, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner better.

To steal a Reggie Jackson line, A-Rod “stirs the drink.”

His health will determine if that drink is a classy Manhattan or just another slow gin fizzle.

The same can be said of Sabathia. He is, after all, the unquestioned ace.

When he is really dealing he is among the best pitchers in baseball. He is 59-23 in his 101 starts in pinstripes. The Yankees have reached the postseason in the past three seasons largely because of his work in the regular season.

But the past two seasons, his work in the postseason has been not worthy of the status of the one of the best pitchers in baseball. In the past two postseasons he is 2-0 but his ERA in his six appearances (five starts) is 5.84. That stands in stark contrast to his 3-1 record and 1.98 ERA in the 2009 postseason.

In the 2010 playoffs, Sabathia pitched with an injured left knee that required offseason surgery. Sabathia rehabbed the knee and showed up at spring training in February 30 pounds lighter. It helped him get off to unusually quick start and by the All-Star break Sabathia was on the top of his game.

He was 13-4 with a 2.72 ERA at the break. He finished the season 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA. So in his last 12 starts, Sabathia was a very ordinary 6-4 with a 3.66 ERA before imploding the playoffs. Why?

Much of that was was blamed on Sabathia’s noticeable and significant weight gain down the stretch. The heavier he got the worse he pitched.

But the Yankees chose not to allow Sabathia to opt out of his contract and leave via free agency. Considering the things Sabathia has done for the Yankees it was a very wise decision. After all, Wilson. Buerhle, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda were not going to replace Sabathia.

In order to find another ace like Sabathia would have cost the Yankees prize prospects like Jesus Monetro, Eduardo Nunez, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. So getting a younger pitcher like Felix Hernandez would have pretty much raped the impressive farm system Cashman has gradually rebuilt the past five years.

So Sabathia will remain a Yankee through at least 2016 (the Yankees have an option for 2017) and the Yankees do not have to bid on overpriced free agents or trade their great young prospects. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Now the Yankees just have to make sure Sabathia stays off the Cap’n Crunch cereal he loves and eats a lot more salad throughout the 2012 season. At age 31, Sabathia is going to have to realize that to extend his career he is going to have to take care of that large frame going forward.

The Yankees could easily add a starting pitcher or two to their roster to improve the rotation. I fully expect Cashman to continue to his efforts to do just that this winter. But the real key to this staff is making sure Sabathia is able to hit the 2012 playoffs in shape and healthy enough to be the ace he is supposed to be.

Without that, and the health of A-Rod, the whole journey to the 2012 playoffs will be just as wasted as the effort in 2011 was.

Like I said Yankee fans, A-Rod and CC are our free agent pickups and we will live or die in 2012 with them.

Jeter Puts 2010 Aside To Focus On Comeback In 2011

As training camp opens in Tampa, FL, the New York Yankees are looking to return to their 2009 form. We will take a look at each position and see how they stack up for the 2011 season. Just how good are the Yankees? Let’s find out:
SHORTSTOP
It is a good thing that Derek Jeter has two loving parents and his actress girlfriend Minka Kelly. Just about everything else in his life in 2010 and leading into the 2011 season turned sour.
First of all, Jeter’s 2010 was easily his worst statistically. He scored a team-high 111 runs but he hit only 10 home runs, drove in 67 runs and batted an anemic (for him) .270. At age 36 Jeter is fielding questions about whether he is getting too old.
Jeter did win his fifth Gold Glove award but the busy-body world of sabermetricians quickly vilified his selection, citing the fact that he had the range of the Rock of Gibraltar. The fact is Jeter committed only six errors in 553 chances.
So whether Jeter’s range is limited or not, players are asked to record outs on the plays they can make. I would think Jeter’s low error total shows he makes the plays he can. But the controversy was another off-season headache.
It would get worse.
Jeter’s illustrious and rich 10-year contract with the Yankees expired and, technically, Jeter was no longer a Yankee this winter. Jeter hoped the negotiations would go quickly, quietly and happily.
None of those three happened. 
First, Hank Steinbrenner fired off an opening salvo basically previewing the battle by saying he hoped the talks would not get messy. Then the Yankees offered their captain and what Vin Scully would say is “The Prince Valiant of the Yankees” a pay cut.
They also were not too keen on giving their shortstop a lengthy contract either.
Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, called the contract offer and posturing “baffling.”
Yankees general manager Brain Cashman fired back that the Yankees had made Jeter a wealthy man and he should be thankful for it. He also said the contract offer the Yankees were providing was “fair.”
Messy, indeed.
Knowing Jeter did not want to play anywhere else and knowing he would not look elsewhere, the Yankees basically chose to treat their star player rather rudely. Jeter did decide to accept a four-year deal with much less annual coin from the realm.
But the bigger issue was the hurt it inflicted on Jeter and he was not shy about making that hurt very public as his signing ceremony. I haven’t seen so many nervous smiles and tight lips this side of a Lindsay Lohan agent press conference.
Recently Cashman doubted publicly that Jeter could play the four years left on his contract at shortstop. He said a move to center-field may be necessary. 
Awkward to say the least.
But now that Jeter has signed and he has a bad season and contentious off-season over with, the question is will Jeter be able to return to the norms of his career: 110 runs, 15 home runs, 67 RBIs, 24 stolen bases and a .314 average.
To that end, Jeter came to camp early to work on his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long. Jeter refuses to talk about the past and is focused on bringing the Yankees back to the World Series to win their 28th championship and his sixth ring.
Anything less in 2011 will be a failure like 2010 was.
Needing only 74 hits to reach 3,000 in his career, Jeter has a lot riding on this season. He also carries the desire to shut up his detractors, even some in the Yankees’ front office. That can be a powerful motivating tool for a dedicated athlete like Jeter.
To Jeter’s credit, he started 150 games at shortstop last season and he played in 157 games for the Yankees last season. The Yankees will likely need to rest him more in 2011. But with Jorge Posada scheduled to the be the full-time DH, Jeter may not get chances to rest as the DH this season.
Ramiro Pena was Jeter’s primary backup in 2010. Though Pena carries an excellent glove and is a solid defender, his bat went south on him last season.
In his nine starts at shortstop, Pena, 25, made only one error but he hit a meager .227. The Yankees would like to see better offense from him this spring.
The Yankees also have a very athletic and very fast natural shortstop in Eduardo Nunez in camp. Nunez, 23, shows a lot of promise with his bat and and his legs. He hit .280 in only 50 at-bats last season and stole five bases in five attempts.
He has great range at short and he has excellent instincts in the field, but he is not as polished in the field as Pena. Both could possibly make the team as infield reserves, but it also is possible that Pena could lose his backup role to Nunez.
It will be one of the key battles in this camp.
The Yankees also have 30-year-old Doug Bernier in camp. But he is a longshot to make the team this spring.
With Jeter signed to a four-year deal, it is unlikely that the Yankees will need a shortstop anytime soon. However, Nunez has the potential to be an excellent shortstop for some team, if not the Yankees.
The critics of Jeter would like to see Nunez take over the position at some point and Jeter moved to the outfield or become the DH in 2012. That is all possible. But for now Jeter is the shortstop of the present and the Yankees’ 2011 chances of winning a world title come down to Jeter being able to bounce back this season.
Don’t ever count Jeter out on that. He is just a season removed from finishing third in the voting for American League’s Most Valuable Player. It also is not too smart to count out a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.