With spring training in their rear-view mirror and the 2015 season about to start, the question is where will the New York Yankees finish in the American League East. The Yankees have failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons and many experts believe it will be three. But with the additions the Yankees made could they possibly have a surprise in store. Here is how I project it.
NEW YORK YANKEES
First of all, let’s admit that this is not your father’s A.L. East. There is NO dominant team in the division and there is not much separation between any of the five teams in terms of talent.
That said, the Yankees come into 2015 building around the foundation they began with their half-billion dollar investment last winter with the signings of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
Those free agents were added to the holdovers in shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Mark Teixeira, outfielder Brett Gardner and left-hander CC Sabathia.
General manager Brian Cashman actually started the rebuilding process for 2015 last summer by retaining a number of players they acquired around the trade deadline or later such as third baseman Chase Headley, second baseman Stephen Drew, outfielder Chris Young and left-hander Chris Capuano.
With the retirement of Jeter, the loss of free-agent closer David Robertson and right-hander’s Hiroki Kuroda’s decision to end his career pitching in his native Japan, Cashman was forced to shuffle the deck by using young pitchers like right-handers David Phelps and Shane Greene and left-hander Manny Banuelos to bring in right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, backup first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones, starting shortstop Didi Gregorius and relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve.
Cashman also used cash to lure free-agent left-hander Andrew Miller to bolster the bullpen around rookie sensation Dellin Betances.
The result is a team that features a starting lineup of eight players ranging in age from 31 to Alex Rodriguez at 39. The former starting third baseman is returning from a year-long performance-enhancing drug suspension to become the team’s designated hitter.
Only Gregarious at age 25 is considered young.
However, the rotation features a 26-year-old in Tanaka, a 26-year-old in Michael Pineda and a 25-year-old in Eovaldi. A spring injury to 36-year-old Capuano has thrust 27-year-old Adam Warren into the No. 5 slot. So the only pitcher over 27 in the Yankees rotation is Sabathia, who is 34. When is the last time you could say that about the Yankees’ rotation?
The bullpen will center around Betances, 26, and Miller, 28, who are – at least for now – going share the closing duties. If both pitch as they have up to now, it will be a very good shutdown pair because neither have been hit hard by righties or lefties.
The concern will be with the setup spots. Warren is in the rotation so the Yankees will be counting on the right-handed Carpenter, 29, and left-handed Justin Wilson, 27, who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates with Cashman using the team’s catching surplus to deal away Francisco Cervelli.
If Carpenter and Wilson are successful, the bullpen will have a chance to be very good. If they fail, it could be a long season. Warren’s shift back to the bullpen with the return of both Capuano and right-hander Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery in June can only be a big plus for the group.
Esmil Rogers, 29, will handle long relief. Shreve, 24, gives Girardi a third left-hander and 6-foot-8 right-hander Chris Martin has 95-mile-per-hour stuff that moves on an extreme downward plane. This trio looks solid and give Girardi credit for being a master of managing bullpens.
All spring long the Yankees struggled to score runs. It was not too much different from the way the offense struggled last season.
A pair of speed demons – Ellsbury and Gardner – are stacked on top of the lineup. The idea is to get them on base as much as possible and let them use their speed to get into scoring position for the middle of the lineup.
Both combined to steal 60 bases in what both players admittedly could call an off year. So they hope they can top 80 this season.
The whole strategy rests upon the middle of the order bouncing back from injuries and off years in 2015.
The third batter, Beltran, incurred painful bone chips in his right elbow and ended up posting the worst numbers of his career.
The cleanup hitter, Teixiera, was still limited by a sore right wrist and other injuries and posted only 22 home runs.
Although the fifth hitter, McCann, did crack 23 home runs and drive 78 runs, he only batted .232. So the Yankees would like him to hit closer to his career .272 average this season.
That is plenty of firepower but it seems like a fragile situation counting on Beltran, who will be 38 on April 24 and Teixeira, who will be 35 on April 11.
Behind McCann may be the one diamond-in-the-rough player who is primed for huge season in Headley, 30, who hit 31 homers and drove in 115 runs for the San Diego Padres in 2012. Back issues have hampered him for the past two seasons but he seems healthy now.
He batted .305 with three homers and eight RBIs this spring and the former Gold Glove winner has been flashing some serious leather at third base.
It is unclear how much A-Rod will contribute from the DH spot. Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since his Most Valuable Player season in 2007. Hip surgeries, nagging other ailments and the drug suspension have teamed with Father Time to make him an unknown quantity.
This spring, Rodriguez batted .267 with three homers and four RBIs and he did not look overmatched at the plate. But it is hard to know what A-Rod will provide until the bells rings on the regular season.
Nowhere did the Yankees look more vulnerable last season than at second base. After Robinson Cano took his power, his .300 average and his Gold Glove defensive skills to Seattle, the Yankees tried veteran Brian Roberts at the position.
But his batting and fielding skills eroded over four seasons of injuries and the Yankees cut him loose in July in favor of Drew, who had never played second base in the pro baseball. Drew also was dealing with a season-long hitting slump that saw him bat only .162 between the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees.
Drew started this spring very slowly but emerged to bat over .470 in the final three weeks with three home runs. Drew has been working with the Yankees’ new hitting coach Jeff Petland and it seems to have been paying some dividends. The Yankees would settle for Drew batting .250 or so with 15 homers and 65 RBIs this season. Those had been norms for Drew in his previous seasons.
Though it was sad to see the 20-year era of Jeter’s career at shortstop come to an end, the Yankees are very hopeful they have an emerging star in the making in Gregorius.
What fans immediately saw this spring is that Gregorius has outstanding range, great hands and an powerful and accurate arm. The Yankees believe his defense will be upgrade since Jeter’s range had been so limited the past several years.
Jeter batted .256 in his final season and the Yankees hope that Gregorius can possibly top that average this season largely batting ninth. When Gregorius was in Arizona, manager Kirk Gibson benched him against left-handers because he has batted only .150 in his career against them.
But the Yankees allowed him to hit against left-handers this spring and Gregorius did not seem to look bad against them. So, for now, Girardi is content with playing his young shortstop every day.
The bench is solid and features power-hitting right-hander Young and power-hitting left-hander Jones. Young, 31, had an exceptional spring and he brings athleticism to all three outfield spots he plays and a potential deadly bat against left-handed pitching.
Jones, 33, hit 15 homers for the Miami Marlins last season and he seems to have the perfect swing for Yankee Stadium. Jones will primarily back up Teixeira at first and he can also play the corner outfield spots, if needed.
Backup infielder Brendan Ryan, 33, had a spring he would rather forget. First, he was delayed at the start with a back injury he sustained lifting weights. After he returned, Ryan ended up pulling a right calf muscle last week and he will start the season on the disabled list.
Ryan brings a slick glove to second, shortstop and third base – although short is where he really shines in the field. But he can’t hit a lick. He has no power and he is a career .234 hitter.
The Yankees obtained infielder Gregorio Petit from the Houston Astros in exchange for cash in the last week of the spring. So Petit, 30, will assume Ryan’s role despite having played on only 62 major-league games with the Oakland Athletics and the Astros. He has batted .278 in just 151 at-bats. He will be a stopgap until Ryan is healthy again.
John Ryan Murphy, 23, managed to hold off a challenge from veteran Austin Romine this spring to remain the backup to McCann. Murphy batted .284 with a homer and nine RBIs in 32 games last season and the Yankees rave about his defense behind the plate.
But the biggest secret the Yankees are carrying with them now lies in the young players they were able to showcase this spring. For the first time in a very long time the Yankees have a number of very good prospects and some positional depth at the minor-league level that could be factors this season.
But the promise is even brighter longer term.
Right-handed starters Luis Severino and Domingo German (obtained in the trade for Phelps and Martin Prado) and left-handed starter Ian Clarkin along with left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren and right-handed relievers Nick Rumbelow and Jose Ramirez are in the pipeline and moving quickly to the majors.
Second basemen Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela tore the cover off the ball this spring and their presence at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is just a taste of what is the horizon with outfielders Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores also knocking on the door.
Right-hander Chase Whitley, 25, had a 1.17 ERA this spring and he still not crack the bullpen. You have to figure he is going to get a call-up to the 25-man roster at some point. Keep an eye also on Bryan Mitchell, who will be 24 this month. Mitchell drew rave reviews when he fanned Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez back-to-back in a five-inning effort in a split-squad game in Lakeland, FL, on April 2.
At Double-A Trenton will be prospects such as outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Greg Bird, both of whom looked undaunted by major-league pitching this spring.
Catching prospect Gary Sanchez, 23, is also not too far away from contributing in the major leagues.
Though Yankee fans and the Yankee front office never has shown much patience with its young prospects in the past, this group might just force the front office to use them and perhaps the revolving door of signing aging free agents will finally end.
Should the Yankees falter as what so many experts are predicting this season. The young players who are on the way could be a foundation to build around, It is there to see. It is just up to Cashman and the Yankee front office not to screw it up.
Here now is my brief assessment of the other four teams in the division and my prediction for the order of finish in 2015.
This is a team that ran away with this division last season. But it is hard to see them as a “great” team.
Their ace is a very pedestrian Chris Tillman. Their offense lost outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. They also are likely to be without Matt Wieters to start the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Ditto for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has left shoulder injury.
With all that they still have Adam Jones, Manny Machado and they are really hoping that Chris Davis recovers his home-run stroke.
Though Tillman is not a true ace they do have Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzales and Bud Norris to form a solid foursome. The bullpen with closer Zach Britton and setup guys Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is top notch.
They also have one of the best managers in baseball in Buck Showalter. So in Baltimore there is hope the O’s can repeat.
A lot depends on how new outfielders Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider do to make up for the losses of Cruz and Markakis.
BOSTON RED SOX
This team flopped in 2014 and yet many are picking them to win the title in 2015.
Most of that is based on their offense. To Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, the Red Sox have added Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts and Pablo Sandoval.
They are also hoping for better seasons and health from Xander Bogaerts and Shane Victorino.
However, it is hard to look at the rotation and see anything but potential disaster.
Clay Buchholz was 8-11 with a 6.34 ERA and is considered the ace. Rick Porcello did have a 15-13 record and a 3.43 ERA with the Tigers. But Justin Masterson was 7-9 with a 5.88 with the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Lefty Wade Miley was 8-12 with a 4.34 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks. A better offense will help him but he is not anything close to Jon Lester, who the Red Sox traded last season and were unable to re-sign as a free agent.
No. 5 starter Joe Kelly (6-4, 4.20 ERA with the Cardinals) starts the season on the disabled list with right bicep injury. In addition, closer Koji Uehara, who just turned 40, is also on the disabled list with a hamstring injury so Edward Mujica and his 49 career saves are it for now.
There is no doubt that the Red Sox will be capable of scoring runs. The question is will it be enough runs to cover a pitching staff and an underbelly of a bullpen that could really exploited?
Add that up to the fact that catcher Christian Vazquez is out for the season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and you have enough doubts about the Red Sox to make it unlikely they are a good choice to win this division.
The Toronto Blue Jays tried this approach last season and it did not work.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
This team seemingly lost everything so quickly that their home radio station, WDAE, is not very enthusiastic about them.
Manager Joe Maddon and his screwy ideas that seem to work on shifting is gone. General manager Andrew Friedman, who introduced sabermetrics and advanced scouting techniques to the organization that built this team, is also gone.
The team’s best pitcher in David Price was traded last season and now is pitching for the Detroit Tigers. Their second-best pitcher, Matt Moore, is not expected back until June because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
This spring they incurred injuries to their best remaining pitcher Alex Cobb. Their closer, Jake McGee, will miss the first month.
They also traded away offensive contributors such as Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce.
The team’s offense can be wrapped up in third baseman Evan Longoria and a lot of hope and praying.
They are counting on production out of rookie outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who batted .130 this spring and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who the Indians discarded saying he could not play shortstop and he was not the hitter he was in 2011 (25 home runs and 92 RBIs).
They are still hoping that Desmond Jennings just shows one little spark of the long-departed Carl Crawford. But it is not looking like it will happen.
This could amount to one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball in 2015 and it could be worse without Maddon running the show.
Granted, Cobb, Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi could form a solid rotation when they are all healthy. The question is can the Rays tread water long enough to see that happen?
Though McGee, Grant Balfour and Brad Boxberger form a solid trio at the back of the bullpen, the Rays are counting on a pair of former failed relievers in Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri to help out in the middle innings.
They also do not have a decent lefty beyond McGee. Ouch!
After many years of dealing with their obnoxious cowbell-ringing fans – all of about 7,000 of them a game – it appears that the bloom is off the rose and the cowbells will eventually fall silent this season unless there is some sort of miracle new manager Kevin Cash can create.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
This was the sexy choice to win the division in 2014. Funny thing is, I would have selected them to win this season if young right-hander Marcus Stroman did suffer knee injury that will force him to miss the entire season.
Stroman would have formed a nice 1-2 punch with right-hander Drew Hutchison, who at 24 has progressed so much as a pitcher he is starting on Opening Day ahead of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and veteran Mark Buehrle.
To that they have added a pair of young pitchers in left-hander Daniel Norris and right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who looked to be the team’s closer in waiting until the team opted to use him as a starter instead.
The bullpen is untested but it has closer Brett Cecil. There is a lot untested pitchers in the mix behind him but 20-year-old Miguel Castro may end being something special as he gets his feet wet in the majors.
Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays never have to worry about scoring runs. Add to the thundering power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion the bat of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 98 runs for the Athletics in their cavernous ballpark.
You would think Donaldson will love the Rogers Centre.
Though the Jays will miss line-drive machine Melky Cabrera, they still have Jose Reyes and they have also added catcher Russell Martin, who can hit 20 homers and run a pitching staff like a pitching coach.
So there is a lot to like.
The question is after losing Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus the Blue Jays are trotting a pair of young outfielders in Dalton Pompey (center) and Kevin Pillar (left). Much of what the Blue Jays do will revolve around what they do.
They also have a new second baseman in Devon Travis.
It is hard to pick a team to win with so many new players in the lineup like Pillar, Pompey and Travis. This team is carrying six rookies!
But the real test of how the Blue Jays do in 2015 will hinge on its pitching staff. Stroman was a much bigger loss than I think the Blue Jays can overcome.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) BALTIMORE ORIOLES (92-70)
2) TORONTO BLUE JAYS (86-76)
3) NEW YORK YANKEES (84-78)
4) BOSTON RED SOX (80-82)
5) TAMPA BAY RAYS (76-86) Hello Montreal!
The Orioles will fall back to the pack but not enough to make much difference. The Blue Jays actually could have won it with Stroman, but now they will fall short and they will not win the wildcard either. I was tempted to pick the Yankees for second because Tanaka, Pineda and Eovaldi are all primed for excellent seasons. But the offense this spring was woefully lacking and it looks as if they will lose a lot of 4-3 and 3-2 games unless make a deal for a young slugger like Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees just do not have that stud in the middle of the order and it will hurt. The Red Sox will be the Red Flops mainly because their pitching is not as good as people believe it is. Their bullpen also is much weaker without Miller. About all that the “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval is good for is twining with Ortiz to advertise for a doughnut shop. Ramirez is talented but he also is moody and can give up when things are not going well. Ask the Marlins and Dodgers. As for the Rays, their collapse could not have come at a worse time for them when attendance and TV viewership is dropping. The owner wants to have a new stadium built despite the fact that they are tied to dumpy and ugly Tropicana Field for many more years. That is why it is inevitable that the team will be sold and shifted to another city like Montreal soon. Tre bien!
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!
YANKEES 6, RAYS 5
On a day that the Yankees paid tribute to retired icon Hideki Matsui, two of his former teammates provided some spark to what has been a listless offense to deliver a dramatic walk-off victory.
Derek Jeter came of the disabled list for the second time this season to swat the first pitch he saw for his first home run of the season and Alfonso Soriano, playing in only his third game back in pinstripes, was 4-for-5 with a two-run homer and a game-winning RBI single in the ninth as New York salvaged one of three games against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Jeter strode to the plate in the first inning with most of the paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 47,714 on their feet and – just about the time they sat down – the Yankee captain launched a high fastball from Rays left-hander Matt Moore into the first row of the bleachers over the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center to give the Yankees an early 1-0 lead.
The fans remained standing until their All-Star shortstop took a trip back up the dugout steps for a curtain call. It was not so much what Jeter had just done but a feeling from the fans that this team that has suffered so much turmoil from injuries was on the way back to respectability.
It set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
The Yankees added two more runs in the first inning off Moore, who started the day tied for the American League lead with 14 victories.
Robinson Cano reached on an infield single that caromed off the glove of Moore and Soriano rolled a single that shortstop Yunel Escobar kicked into center-field to allow Cano to reach third.
Vernon Wells scored Cano with a sacrifice fly to center and – after a wild pitch allowed Soriano to move up to second – Ichiro Suzuki scored him with a lined single to center as part of a day in which Suzuki was 4-for-4.
Unfortunately, Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes was not able to hold the 3–0 lead he was handed.
The Rays scored a single run in the second inning when Kelly Johnson lashed a one-out RBI double to score Wil Myers.
The following frame Hughes allowed a pair of one-out singles to Evan Longoria and James Loney and Myers followed with a three-run blast to left-field that gave the Rays a 4-3 lead.
But Jeter and Soriano answered in the bottom of the third.
Jeter led off the frame with a single just over the glove of Johnson at second base and Soriano, one out later, blasted a ball just over the glove of Myers in right-field that landed in the bleachers in the short porch in right to give the Yankees a 5-4 lead.
Hughes, however, was not able to hold that lead either.
Myers led off the fifth with an opposite-field home run into the short porch for the rookie outfielder’s first multiple homer game of his career.
The game remained tied after both Moore and Hughes left the game.
Moore, who entered the game having won all six of his previous starts, gave up five runs on eight hits and no walks while he struck out three in five innings. Moore also uncharacteristically uncorked two wild pitches and was called for a balk just before Soriano homered.
Hughes also yielded five runs on nine hits and two walks and he fanned four in 4-plus innings.
But the Yankees’ bullpen corps of Preston Claiborne, Boone Logan, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera held the Rays to just one hit and did not issue a walk over the final five innings. Rivera (2-2) pitched a perfect ninth inning to get credit for the victory.
The Yankees opened the ninth facing Jake McGee (2-3) and the left-hander missed high on a 3-2 pitch to Brett Gardner to start off the frame. With Jeter squared around to bunt, McGee tossed the Rays’ third wild pitch of the day to allow Gardner to reach second. It ended up being extremely costly.
Rays manager Joe Maddon then opted to walk Jeter intentionally to bring up the lefty-swinging Cano and to set up a potential double play.
But Cano struck out and Soriano followed by bouncing the first pitch from McGee to the left of Escobar of shortstop and on into center-field to score Gardner with the game-winner.
Soriano finished the game with a homer, three singles, two runs scored and three RBIs.
Jeter was 2-for-4 with a homer, a single, a walk, an RBI and two runs scored.
Jeter’s home run was the Yankees’ first home run sine the All-Star break and the first home run from a right-handed batter since June 21. Soriano added the second right-handed homer two innings later.
With the victory the Yankees improved to 55-50 and they are 7 1/2 games out in fourth place in the American League East. The Rays dropped to 62-43 and they surrendered first place back to the Boston Red Sox.
- What a difference Jeter made in his first game off the disabled list. Having Jeter’s right-handed bat in the second spot in the order allows manager Joe Girardi to break up the stack of five or six left-handed batters at the top of the lineup. Jeter has always had a flair for the dramatic but his home run in the first inning spoke volumes about how the Yankees suffered after opening the season 30-18 and then recording a 24-32 mark through Sunday. Perhaps a new day is dawning and the Yankees, behind their captain, may be righting the ship.
- Soriano has always been a popular player with Yankee fans and they have not forgotten him after 10 years. The Yankees acquired him for his power from the right side and to provide protection for Cano in the cleanup spot. If his 4-for-5 day is any indication, he will do both. He is doing what Wells did before May 15 and he has not homered since. Soriano is going to be a very important player for the Yankees for the rest of the season.
- Jeter’s presence allowed Girardi to slide Suzuki down to the No. 6 spot in the order and he responded with four singles and a big two-out RBI in the first inning. After going 0-for-7 in the first two games of the series, Suzuki’s perfect day raised his season average to .279.
- Hughes’ start was very disappointing because in his previous five starts, Hughes had a 2.53 ERA, even though was 1-3 over that stretch dating back to June 27. Hughes is nothing if not vexing as a starter. He is a flyball pitcher in a ballpark ill-suited for them and most of his success in the major leagues has come as a reliever. I wish the Yankees would realize that and put him back there before they make a mistake by allowing him to walk as a free agent after this season.
- Though the Yankees field a great lineup one through six now, the seven, eight and nine spots still are an issue. Brett Lillibridge (seven), David Adams (eight) and Chris Stewart (nine) were a combined 0-for-11 with three strikeouts and just one ball hit of the infield. It will be nice to have Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez back in the lineup.
The Yankees actually offered Matsui a one-day contract with the team on Sunday so that he could retire officially as a Yankee. In a pregame ceremony, Jeter and the Yankees presented the former outfielder with a framed jersey sporting his number 55. Matsui, fondly nicknamed “Godzilla” in his native country, came over from Japan to play nine seasons with the Yankees and he hit .292 with 140 home runs and 597 RBIs during that span. He also was named the Most Valuable Player in the Yankees’ victory in the 2009 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Yankees also marked the occasion by handing out Matsui bobblehead figures to the first 18,000 fans who entered the stadium. . . . After activating Jeter on Sunday the Yankees plan to activate infielder Jayson Nix on Tuesday. Nix, 30, has been on the disabled list for 3 1/2 weeks with a hamstring strain. Adams was optioned back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after Sunday’s game to make room for Nix on the roster. . . . After Granderson was 0-for-4 as a designated hitter with Class-A Tampa on Sunday, Girardi said the veteran outfielder will move up to Double-A Trenton on Tuesday. Girardi also said Granderson could be activated on Saturday when the Yankees are in San Diego to play the Padres. Granderson has been sidelined twice this season with a broken bone in his left arm and a broken left pinkie finger as a result of being hit by pitches.
The Yankee will have Monday off before they open a West Coast road trip with a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Left-hander Andy Pettitte (7-7, 4.39) will open the series for the Yankees. Pettitte, 41, allowed just two runs on hits over six innings on Wednesday against the Texas Rangers but still took his second straight loss. He is 2-0 with a 3.94 ERA in his career against the Dodgers.
Right-hander Zack Greinke (8-3, 3.49 ERA) will start for the Dodgers. Greinke allowed four runs on six hits in seven innings in a loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday. Greinke is 2-4 with a 6.45 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 10:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
YANKEES 7, RAYS 5
Hitters always talk about being patient at the plate, especially when they are mired in a slump. On Saturday the Yankees proved their patience with the Rays’ pitching staff and with slumping outfielder Vernon Wells.
They ended up being handsomely rewarded with a victory.
The Rays issued a season high nine walks to the Yankees and Wells broke an 0-for-11 slide with a pinch-hit two-out bases-clearing double in the seventh inning that rallied New York to a come-from-behind victory over Tampa Bay in front of a paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 46,013.
The Yankees began the bottom the seventh inning trailing 5-3 when reliever Joel Peralta issued a leadoff walk to Robinson Cano and one out later Lyle Overbay stroked a double to advance Cano to third.
Peralta (1-4) then sealed his fate in the game by issuing yet another walk to load the bases to rookie Zoilo Almonte, who had already driven in three runs earlier in the game.
Left-hander Jake McGee replaced Peralta and struck out Jayson Nix. McGee then had David Adams down in the count 1-2 but ended up walking him when his 3-2 pitch sailed outside to allow Cano to score.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi then sent up Wells to pinch-hit for Chris Stewart. Wells laced a 1-2 fastball into the gap in right-center and the ball bounced just short of the warning track and deflected back on the field off the glove of a fan. The umpires awarded Wells second base and waved all three runners in to allow the Yankees to take a 7-5 lead.
The four-run outburst handed the victory to starter CC Sabathia (8-5), who was sailing along with a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning until the Rays forced the Yankees into walking Evan Longoria to load the bases with two out.
But rookie Wil Myers ruined the strategy by lofting a 1-2 pitch that hit the top of the wall in right-center and was knocked into the stands off Brett Gardner’s glove for a grand-slam home run. It was Myers’ first major-league home run.
After Longoria opened the scoring against Sabathia by hitting his 17th home run of the season to lead off the second inning, the Yankees rallied in their half of the third – thanks to some shoddy defense by the Rays.
Gardner led off the frame by slapping an infield roller to James Loney at first but starting pitcher Alex Colome dropped the toss from Loney for an error. After Ichiro Suzuki hit into a fielder’s choice that erased Gardner, Cano slapped a single to left and Travis Hafner hit an infield roller against an exaggerated shift on which shortstop Yunel Escobar could not make a play.
One out later, Almonte followed up his 3-to-4 night on Friday with a two-out a single to center that scored Suzuki and Cano and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead.
The Yankees tacked on another run two innings later thanks to some more sloppy Rays’ defense and Colome’s wildness.
With one out, Cano drew a walk and when Travis Hafner bounced a routine ball to Loney at first, Loney fired the ball wide of second to allow Cano to reach third. Colome then loaded the bases by issuing a walk to Overbay.
Almonte then worked his way into a 3-2 count before Colome missed wide to force in Cano with another run.
Colome was then removed after pitching 4 1/3 innings, yielding three unearned runs on five hits and five walks and he struck out three batters in what was only his second major-league start.
Sabathia, meanwhile, allowed five runs on five hits while he walked two and struck out two in seven innings.
David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Mariano Rivera hurled a scoreless ninth to earn his 26th save in 27 chances this season. Rivera also notched his 65th save out of 67 career save opportunities against the Rays. He has blown only one save against the Rays since the 2005 season.
The victory improved the Yankees’ season ledger to 41-33 and, combined with the loss by the Boston Red Sox to the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees climbed to within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Bosox in the American League East. They trail Boston only two games in the loss column. The Rays fell to 38-37 and they dropped percentage points behind the Toronto Blue Jays in last place in the division.
- The Almonte Legend in the Bronx is reaching epic proportions. He was 1-for-2 with two walks, a run scored and three RBIs on Saturday. In four games (two of them starts), the 24-year-old switch-hitter is 5-for-8 (.625) with a home run and four RBIs. We may not be seeing Wells reclaim left-field just yet. Almonte is looking every bit as impressive as he did when he opened eyes during spring training in 2012. The kid has great awareness of the strike zone, shows patience and the ball just leaps off his bat when he connects.
- Wells deserves a lot of credit for hanging in on a tough at-bat against the hard-throwing McGee. Wells had only nine hits in his past 89 at-bats and he was hitting just .102 in June. His double was his first extra-base hit since May 31. Down quickly on the count 0-2, Wells fouled off a tough fastball and took a ball before he went with a McGee fastball for an opposite-field double. Perhaps Almonte’s success has Wells worried about his future role with the team. It is a great motivator.
- Though Sabathia gave up five runs in seven innings, the two mistakes to Longoria and Myers cost him all five runs. Take those two hits away and Sabathia would have shut out the Rays on three hits and two walks in seven innings. Sabathia drew his career record against the Rays even at 11-11.
- Gardner had a real bad day. He was 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and he did not get a ball out of the infield all day. In addition, his glove actually did tip Myers’ fly ball into the seats for a grand slam. His leap was just a beat late and he perhaps should have tried to tip the ball back into the field of play. It really did cost Sabathia.
- Stewart was 0-for-3, including a strikeout and a double-play ball. Stewart is mired in a bit of tailspin at the plate. He is 0-for-12 in his four starts and his season average has dipped from .277 to .250.
Derek Jeter returned to Yankee Stadium on Saturday to take batting practice and be with the team. Before New York’s game against Tampa Bay, Jeter took batting practice and later fielded some ground balls. Jeter will return to Tampa on Sunday. . . . Alex Rodriguez took five simulated at-bats on Friday in Tampa, FL., as he continues to make his way back from hip surgery. Girardi said he isn’t sure when Rodriguez would be able to play in rehab games, but thinks he would need to run the bases more before taking that next step.
The Yankees will have a chance to win the four-game weekend series with Tampa Bay with a victory on Sunday.
The Yankees will recall right-hander Ivan Nova (2-1, 5.16 ERA) from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start the game. Nova was 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA at Scranton. His last start for the Yankees was on April 29. He is 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA in his career against the Rays.
The Rays will counter with rookie right-hander Chris Archer 1-3, 5.03 ERA). Archer allowed three runs on five hits and five walks in 4 2/3 innings in a loss against the Red Sox on Tuesday. In his four starts this season, he has made it past the fifth inning only once. He has never faced the Yankees.
Game-time will be 2:05 p.m. EDT in order to accommodate the 67th Old-Timers’ Day festivities, which will begin at 11:15 a.m. The game will be telecast nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.
YANKEES 5, RAYS 3
So much of life seems to move in circles and Ivan Nova’s path to Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays certainly came full circle.
Nova reached the All-Star break 10-3 with a 3.92 ERA coming off a brilliant rookie season in which he was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA. But then came a surprisingly rapid decline in which he was 1-4 with a 7.28 ERA in his last eight starts and he ended up on the 15-day disabled list on Aug. 22 with inflammation of his right rotator cuff.
Nova, coming off the DL to make his first start in three weeks, was simply brilliant in pitching six-plus innings in front of a national television audience on FOX Sports as New York reclaimed sole possession of first place in the American League East with a clutch victory over Tampa Bay.
Nova (12-7) gave up two runs on just four hits and two walks and he struck out eight batters in an 85-pitch effort that drew a standing ovation from most of the paid crowd of 46,856 at Yankee Stadium as he left in the seventh inning.
The victory for the Yankees, coupled with the 5-2 loss of the Baltimore Orioles to the Oakland Athletics later on Saturday, allowed the Yankees to reclaim a one-game lead over the Orioles in the standings while the Rays dropped to four games back in third place.
The Yankees were able to get to Rays starter James Shields in the second inning.
Raul Ibanez opened the frame by drawing a walk and, one out later, Curtis Granderson timed a change-up and drove it deep into the bleachers in right-field for his 39th home run of the season.
Three pitches later, Eduardo Nunez smacked a high cutter into the stands in left-field to make it 3-0. Nunez, playing his third consecutive game for a hobbling Derek Jeter at shortstop, also had his season come full circle after being sent down to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on May 11 and being recalled on Sept. 1. For Nunez it was his first home run of the season.
The Yankees added a run off Shields (14-9) in the fifth inning with two out. Ichiro Suzuki, batting leadoff for the Yankees for only the second time since he was acquired for the Mariners on May 23, singled to left and stole second base. Jeter then drove in Suzuki with hot smash up the middle.
The Rays were finally able to get to Nova in the bottom of the sixth inning when Evan Longoria was able to launch a two-out solo home run into right-center.
Nova, returning with a very strict pitch count, left in the seventh after giving up a leadoff single to Jeff Keppinger.
Manager Joe Girardi elected to bring in Boone Logan. Logan retired pinch-hitter Ben Francisco on botched bunt attempt in which Logan was able to throw out Keppinger at second. However, Ryan Roberts stroked a double down the left-field line to advance Francisco to third.
Joba Chamberlain replaced Logan and promptly retired pinch-hitter Sam Fuld on a hard-hit ball that Chamberlain snagged on a high bounce and threw out Fuld to save two runs. Nonetheless, Chamberlain was tagged for a two-out, two-run single by pinch-hitter Luke Scott to cut the Yankees’ lead to a single run.
Chamberlain was able to escape further damage by striking out Desmond Jennings on an 0-2 curveball.
David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and the Yankees added an insurance run in their half of the inning on a one-out double by Robinson Cano off lefty reliever Jake McGee and Alex Rodriguez followed with RBI single up the middle.
Rafael Soriano came on in the ninth and he pitched around a Francisco single and walk to Carlos Pena to strike out pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson swinging for his 39th save in 42 opportunities this season.
With the victory the Yankees ran their season record to 82-63. The Rays are 78-67 and are finding their hopes of winning the division looking very bleak.
- Though Nova refused to blame his weak second-half performance on his shoulder injury, it was obvious that something was definitely wrong with him. But 23 days of rest brought back Nova’s velocity and command of the strike zone. The Rays also might have had something to do with it. Nova is 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA in his eight career starts against the Rays.
- Granderson is getting his home-run stroke back after a long slide at the plate. Gramderson has hit five home runs in his past six games. He is 7-for-22 (.318) with five home runs and 11 RBIs in that six-game span. After being benched for a few games against left-handers, it appears Granderson is starting to get hot again.
- Rodriguez was 2-for-4 with a big RBI in the eighth inning. Since coming off the disabled list, Rodriguez is 14-for-47 (.298) with three home runs and nine RBIs. Only five of his 14 hits have been for extra bases but A-Rod appears to concentrating on making contact and hitting the ball where it is pitched rather then swinging for the fences.
- The bullpen was a little leaky on Saturday. Chamberlain had been pitching much sharper of late but he was victimized by Scott’s single that allowed two inherited runners to score. Though Soriano and Roberston have had good seasons in the wake of the loss of future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, the rest of the bullpen has been a bit more inconsistent in the second half. They need to get better with the playoffs looming.
- Eric Chavez was 0-for-3 in the game and he suddenly has fallen into a prolonged slump. Since Aug. 19, Chavez is 10-for-51 (.196) with no home runs and two RBIs. His season average has dropped from .305 t0 .283 in that span.
Girardi said using Suzuki in the leadoff spot had to do with Suzuki’s success against Shields and was not something that will be happen frequently. Suzuki entered the game 14-for-46 (.307) against Shields. The move paid dividends because Suzuki was 1-for-3 off Shields with a stolen base and a run scored. . . . If his rehab continues without any setbacks, outfielder Brett Gardner could be activated from the disabled list next week. Gardner has only played in nine games this season and his return was delayed by surgery on his right elbow in July. Gardner is not able to swing a bat but he could be used as a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement in the outfield.
The Yankees can win the series against the Rays with a victory in the rubber game on Sunday.
In their final regular-season meeting with Rays the Yankees will send Hiroki Kuroda (13-10, 3.17 ERA) to the mound. Kuroda gave up three runs in 6 1/3 innings in a no-decision the Yankees lost to the Red Sox on Tuesday. Kuroda is 1-1 with a 6.17 ERA against the Rays.
The Rays will counter with rookie left-hander Matt Moore (10-10, 3.68 ERA). Moore gave up two runs in four innings in his last start against the Orioles. He is 2-1 with a 3.44 ERA against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.
YANKEES 4, RAYS 3
The Yankees had lost their last nine games at Tropicana Field. Rays starter David Price was throwing near no-hit stuff. The Yankees had to dip into their bullpen early and they were losing 3-1 heading into the eighth inning.
The Yankees were, indeed, facing long odds.
But former Bronx fans punching bag Kyle Farnsworth and hotter than a Fourth of July firecracker Robinson Cano provided the Yankees just what they needed to put the frustration of the last two days behind them and win a game late.
Farnsworth (0-1) walked four of the five batters he faced and Cano delivered a game-winning two-run single with the bases loaded off reliever Jake McGee in the eighth as New York rallied for three runs to down Tampa Bay in front of a holiday crowd of 28,033 on Wednesday.
Boone Logan (3-0), who gave up a two-run home run from Carlos Pena in the seventh inning, was credited with the victory.
Rafael Soriano pitched a perfect ninth to record his 19th save in 20 opportunities.
Rays fans seemed to ready to set off firecrackers and bottle rockets to celebrate their 10th straight home victory over the Yankees after Logan gave up a leadoff single to Elliot Johnson and Pena followed one out later by launching Logan’s first offering into the right-field bleachers for his 13th home run of the season.
But the Yankees opened the eighth inning with a very patient approach and Farnsworth, as he did so often when he was wearing pinstripes, obliged by handing the game over to the opponents.
Pinch-hitter Eric Chavez drew a leadoff walk. Derek Jeter then struck out. But Farnsworth dug his own grave deeper by walking, in succession, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira (on four pitches) and Alex Rodriguez. The walk to Rodriguez scored Chavez and brought the Yankees to within a run at 3-2.
Rays manager Joe Maddon then summoned the lefty McGee to face the lefty-swinging Cano. But Cano can hit a pitcher throwing with his left foot as hot as he has been the past month. He proved it to Maddon and McGee.
He laced a 2-2 fastball on a line into center-field to score Granderson and Teixeira and the Yankees took a 4-3 lead they would not relinquish.
Price, an All-Star selection who entered the game 11-4 with a 2.92 ERA, did not allow a baserunner until there was one out in the fourth inning when Granderson drew a walk in a contentious 10-pitch at-bat. The Yankees did not get their first hit off Price until the next inning when Cano led off with an opposite-field single to left.
The Yankees finally broke through in the top of the seventh against Price when led off Teixeira by slapping a 2-1 fastball into the bleachers in left-center to tie the game at 1-1.
The Yankees faced even longer odds against Price by having to start rookie right-hander David Phelps in place of the injured Andy Pettitte. However, Phelps pitched exceptional baseball until conditioning and a high pitch count forced him out of the game in the fifth inning.
But Price no-hit the Rays over the first 3 2/3 innings and struck out eight batters over that span.
Unfortunately for Phelps, Ben Zobrist turned a leadoff walk into a “walking double” by stealing second base. Phelps did strike out Luke Scott and Jose Lobaton looking. However, weak-hitting Sean Rodriguez got the Rays’ first hit by singling into right to score Zobrist to stake the Rays to a 1-0 lead.
With the victory, the Yankees salvaged one game of the three-game series and improved their season record to 49-32. The Yankees remain five games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. The Rays are 43-39 and they are 6 1/2 games back in the third place in the division.
- Cano was 2-for-5 in the game with the two big RBIs. Cano is not only a tear with his batting average. He also has been on an unbelievable RBI tear as well. On June 16, Cano had 27 RBIs. In his last 17 games, Cano has driven in 23 runs. His two RBIs on Wednesday also gave him the team lead in RBIs this season with 50. Granderson is second with 48.
- Phelps was matching Price pitch-for-pitch and strikeout-by-strikeout. Entering the fifth, Phelps had thrown 78 pitches. Since he had been sent down by the Yankees he had not built his arm back up to 100 pitches to allow him pitch further in the game. But this start proved he could be very effective. He gave up only two hits, three walks and hit two batters in 4 1/3 innings. If he pitches like this, Freddy Garcia may go back to the bullpen when CC Sabathia returns after the All-Star break.
- Teixeira’s home run off Price – his 14th of the season – was a huge factor in getting Price out of the game. Entering the seventh, Price had given up two hits and one walk and struck out eight. Teixeira is showing a little life with his bat in going 3-for-6 in last two games.
- Logan is perhaps showing some fatigue after pitching in 41 of the Yankees’ first 81 games. In June, Logan gave up only two earned runs the entire month. In his first two appearances in July he has been scored upon in both outings, giving up three runs on two hits and a walk in 1 1/3 innings. If anybody needs rest during the All-Star break it is Logan.
- Andruw Jones and Russell Martin failed to deliver in the seventh inning with the game tied and runners at first and third with one out. Jones flew out to right (I will have more on this later) and Martin grounded out. The Yankees also left the bases loaded in the eighth when Martin hit a routine fly ball to right. Martin is now hitting .178 this season. Ouch!
- Granderson had another no contact day with two walks and three strikeouts. Granderson is on a pace to strike out a career-worst 192 times this season. His previous season high was 174 in 2006 when he was playing for the Detroit Tigers.
An obscure ground rule cost the Yankees another run in the seventh inning. With Rodriguez on second and Nick Swisher on first and one out, Rodriguez attempted a steal with Andruw Jones at the plate with a 1-2 count. Price delivered the pitch and home plate umpire Mike Estabrook called it a ball. As Lobaton drew his right hand back to throw to third base, Estabrook’s mask came in contact with the ball and the throw to third was late. However, Estabrook ruled that his interference prevented the throw and ordered Rodriguez back to second. On the next pitch, Jones lofted a fly ball to deep right that would have scored Rodriguez easily. If that is a correct rule it needs to be changed. Why if a ball strikes an umpire in the field of play isn’t the hitter made to hit again? The same logic applies, right? . . . The Yankees announced on Wednesday that they have claimed outfielder Darnell McDonald off waivers from the Red Sox and he will be placed on the 25-man roster before the Yankees’ game on Friday. The Yankees will be facing three left-handed starters this weekend and McDonald is a right-handed hitter who is hitting .214 this season with two home runs and nine RBIs.
The Yankees will have a day off at the actual halfway point of the season before beginning a four-game weekend series at Fenway Park with the Boston Red Sox starting on Friday.
The Yankees hottest pitcher, Hiroki Kuroda (8-7, 3.17 ERA), will open the series for the Yankees. Kuroda tied a career high with 11 strikeouts as he blanked the Chicago White Sox over seven innings on Saturday. Kuroda is 0-1 with a 2.57 ERA against the Red Sox lifetime.
Kuroda will be opposed by Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.06 ERA). Beckett gave up two runs in six innings in his first start back from right shoulder soreness. In his career, Beckett is 14-7 with a 5.36 ERA against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
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 3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS
Last season was supposed to be the time that the Tampa Bay Rays dropped from contention in the American League East. After all, they lost their star outfielder in Carl Crawford, their slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, their league-leading closer in Rafael Soriano and almost all the elements of what was a very good bullpen in 2010.
Yet, the Rays made the playoffs with a miracle finish that overtook a Boston Red Sox team that choked its way to the finish line. The Rays qualified with a 91-71 record but they lost in the first round of the A.L. Division Series against the Texas Rangers.
What is in store for the Rays in 2012? Do they have another miracle or two left in them?
It is real easy to see what the Rays strategy is for 2012. Run out the best five starters you have and keep them in the game as long as you can to cover up a weak middle of the bullpen and hope the offense can muster enough stolen bases and home runs to eke out a victory.
Right-hander James Shields was the poster boy for this team. In 2010, he was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. Last season, he was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games. The question is will Shields pitch like he did in 2010 or 2011? As the dean of the staff at age 30, his fortunes will set the tone for the rest of the staff.
The ace of this staff was supposed to have been David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010. Price, 26, fell from his perch with a 12-13 mark and a 3.49 ERA. The problem is that Price is basically a one-pitch pitcher: his fastball. His breaking stuff was inconsistent and as a result he was a .500 pitcher. Price needs to harness control of his slider and develop even a decent change-up in order to be successful.
Many people were stunned the Rays dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. But the Rays knew they had rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson ready to jump into the rotation. Heliickson, 24, pitched as the Rays hoped with a 13-10 record and a 2.95 ERA. While Price is still searching for a change-up, Hellickson uses his as a weapon and the Rays hope he gets even better.
The Rays used right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots last season. But both pitchers struggled with command and injuries in 2011.
Davis, 26, was 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts and Niemann was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 23 starts.
One of these two pitchers is likely to lose their starting spot this spring. The Rays believe 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore may be ready for prime time in 2012. Moore made one start during the regular season, a five-inning shutout of the Yankees. Then he threw a gem to defeat the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Moore is a consensus pick to follow Hellickson as A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Though this is the best rotation in the division, there are still concerns. If Shields and Price do not pitch well and Hellickson and Moore do not follow up on their success, the Rays are in big trouble. This is a team that does not have much of Plan B behind its five starters.
The Rays luck in 2011 even extended to their bullpen in 2011.
They replaced Soriano with former Yankee scapegoat Kyle Farnsworth as their closer and Farnsworth ended up pitching well. (Yankee fans may let out a primal scream now). Yep, Farnsworth, was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA and he saved 25 games out of 31 chances.
Journeyman right-hander Joel Peralta also did a nice job replacing Joaquin Benoit, who left to sign with Detroit. Peralta, 35, was 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA and he added six saves. Veteran right-hander Juan Cruz also helped tighten up the bullpen in the late innings but he was allowed to leave as a free agent.
So the Rays will be building their bullpen around Farnsworth and Peralta in 2012.
The Rays did pick up former closer Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels. Rodney, 34, has good stuff but has been bothered with back problems. He was 3-4 with 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011.
The Rays are hoping left-hander J.P. Howell will get over his arm problems and pitch like he did in 2009 when he was 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, Howell struggled and was 2-3 with 6.16 ERA in 46 games.
The Rays bullpen likely will be rounded out by disappointing left-hander Jake McGee, right-hander Brandon Gomes and the loser of the battle between Davis and Niemann for the final spot in the rotation.
There is no guarantee Farnsworth and Peralta will pitch like they did in 2011. There also is some real soft spots in middle relief and the lack of an effective left-hander may really hurt in a division filled with lefty hitters like Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira.
That means manager Joe Maddon might be forced to leave his starters in the game longer than he might like to cover up the deficiencies and that takes its toll on those starters late in the season. The bullpen is an area of some concern.
The Rays have always been a running team who like to bunt, take extra bases and force opponents into making errors. The loss of Crawford did not change that in 2011. However, the Rays newest emphasis is on the home run.
The Rays had five players hit 16 or more home runs in 2011 and they re-signed first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent and he hit 28 for the Cubs last season.
The team still revolves around third baseman Evan Longoria, who shook off another season of injuries to hit .244 with 31 home runs and 99 RBIs. The batting average has to be worrisome but Longoria is the team’s only real all-around threat as a hitter and power source.
The Rays also was boosted by a comeback season from Ben Zobrist, who hit .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs. He will likely play a lot at second base and some in right-field as he did last season.
The Rays also rely on the power and speed of centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.
Rookie Desmond Jennings arrived and he played well in 63 games. He hit .259 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs as the team’s leadoff hitter. The Rays have high hopes he will surpass Crawford as an athlete and player.
The Rays also caught a bit of luck when Matt Joyce finally began to live up to the promise he showed with the Detroit Tigers. Joyce started off hot but collapsed badly after the All-Star break. He finished with a .277 batting average with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs as a platoon right-fielder and DH.
Sean Rodriguez figures to be the primary shortstop in 2012 though he hit just .223 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. That is because incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac was worse, hitting .193 with one home run and 15 RBIs.
The Rays also reshuffled their catchers for 2012 and they are looking to start former Yankee backup Jose Molina as a starter after he hit .281 with the Blue Jays. Molina, 36, was signed because the Rays were getting beat at their own game. Teams like the Yankees and Rangers were stealing on them at will.
Molina figures to end that with his defensive abilities and arm. However, an offense that relies on the stolen base will be slowed considerably with Molina on base. That is the big tradeoff.
To show how much more the Rays are valuing power, look no further than the signing of left-hander Luke Scott as the team’s primary DH. Scott averaged 28 home runs from 2008 through 2010 with the Orioles before injuries short-circuited his 2011 season. Scott and Joyce will certainly slow down any running game. But the Rays will hit their share of home runs in 2012.
Maddon uses his bench a lot and he will again in 2012.
Brignac will battle career backup Eliot Johnson for the backup middle infield job. Johnson is the better hitter but Brignac is a bit better on defense.
For a while it looked Sam Fuld was going to be the next Pete Rose. Instead, reality set in and he ended up being the next Reggie Willits. But Fuld does provide speed and effort off the bench as an occasional outfield starter and pinch-runner.
Rookie Jose Lobaton will likely back up Molina. Lobaton hit .118 in 34 at-bats last season. The Rays do have a hitting catcher in Robinson Chirinos, however, his inability to throw base-stealers make him a project behind the plate for right now.
This bench is merely adequate. Maddon will use it a lot but there is not much of substance to it.
The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers may be most interesting world championship team in history. They beat the Yankees in four straight games to win the World Series despite having one power hitter in Frank Howard, who led the team with 28 home runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the team with 88 RBIs.
How did they win? Well, they had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres combine to win 58 games and they had Maury Wills and Davis’ brother, Willie, combine to steal 65 bases.
So they relied on pitching, defense, line-drive hitters and speed and athleticism to win. This is similar to what the Rays would like to build in 2012.
They will go as far as their rotation will allow them to go. Maddon will have to rely on them a lot.
As far as offense goes, Maddon is actually counting more on the home run than the stolen base because only Jennings, Upton and Zobrist are consistent base stealers. Maddon will use his other players like Longoria and Rodriguez to steal in certain situations.
But this team did need the Red Sox to go through a monumental collapse to make it 2011. I do not think their luck extends to 2012. They will not fall precipitously as they should have last season. But I do not see them winning the division. They look to be a contender for second place with the Red Sox. Nothing more and nothing less.
ON THURSDAY – PART 4 BOSTON RED SOX
YANKEES 4, RAYS 2
Teams are often measured by their starting lineups, their starting rotation and their bullpens. Rarely are teams judged by their bench.
But the New York Yankees broke a 2-2 tie in the eighth and beat the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday to clinch their 12th American League East title in the last 16 years largely because Jorge Posada came up with a big hit off the bench.
Posada, 40, who entered the 2011 season having lost his job as the team’s starting catcher and during the season lost his job as the team’s designated hitter, came off the bench in the eighth to deliver a one-out, bases-loaded single that scored two runs and won a division crown for a team that was not the media’s choice to do so.
Before the season began, during spring training and as the season unfolded all the Yankees heard was how deficient their starting pitching was and how old their regulars had become. Their rivals in Boston were hailed as the team to beat because they had better hitting, better starters and a tough bullpen.
But the Yankees proved to the media, to the fans and to the Red Sox that they were the superior team.
The only down note for the jubilant Yankees, who celebrated in their clubhouse by showering each other in streams of celebratory champagne, was that CC Sabathia was unable to secure his 20th victory.
The Yankees staked him to an early lead on Jeremy Hellickson and the Rays on the strength of a solo home run by Robinson Cano to open the second inning. The home run, Cano’s 27th of the season, came on a 2-1 pitch that Cano tagged and sent into the bleachers in right-center to the delight of the crowd of 45,586 at Yankee Stadium.
Two innings later, Yankee MVP candidate Curtis Granderson opened the frame with a double to right-center. Hellickson then fell behind and walked Mark Teixeira.
Rays manager Joe Maddon then elected to use some odd strategy that, at the time, seemed to have worked. He ordered Hellickson to walk Cano intentionally to load the bases with no outs so the Rays could challenge rookie DH Jesus Montero.
Montero did what the Rays might have hoped he would. He bounced into a double play. However, Granderson did score from third on the play and the Yankees had built a 2-0 lead.
Unfortunately, even though the Rays are not a power hitting team, they have a habit of breaking out the longball when Sabathia is pitching.
Kelly Shoppach connected for a solo home run deep to left with two in the fifth to halve the lead. With one out in the seventh, Sean Rodriguez clanked his drive down the left-field line off the foul pole to tie the game.
Of the 17 home runs Sabathia has given up this season, eight of them have been surrendered to the Rays.
Girardi, hoping to get Sabathia 20 victories for the second straight season, left Sabathia in for the eighth. But the left-hander ran into trouble with one out.
Desmond Jennings lined a single to center and B.J. Upton followed with a rocket that popped out of Sabathia’s glove and rolled in back of the mound for an infield single. Evan Longoria then drew a walk to load the bases and Girardi could not wait any longer. He removed Sabathia leaving him only one last start to collect No. 20.
Girardi then summoned the pitcher the Yankees call “Houdini” to get out of the mess, David Robertson.
Robertson (4-0), who entered the game with the lowest ERA among all major-league relievers at 1.12, needed only one pitch to force Ben Zobrist into hitting into an inning-ending double play.
The Yankees then mounted their division-clinching rally off reliever Jake McGee (3-2).
With one out, Girardi went to his bench and sent Nick Swisher up to bat for Brett Gardner. Swisher delivered a double into left-center.
One out later, Maddon called on right-hander Juan Cruz to face Teixeira but Cruz walked him on four straight pitches. Exit Cruz.
Left-hander Cesar Ramos came in to face Cano. But Ramos fell behind Cano 3-1 and Cano was walked intentionally to load the bases again with Montero in the on-deck circle. Exit Ramos.
The Rays then called on right-hander Brandon Gomes to pitch to Montero. But Girardi used his bench again by calling the beleaguered veteran Posada, who is in the last year of a four-year contract and likely will not return to the Yankees next season.
Posada laced a 0-1 pitch into right-field that fell in front of right-fielder Brandon Guyer. Greg Golson, who was pinch-running for Swisher scored easily and Teixeira followed him when the Rays were unable to get a relay throw back to the infield in time.
Posada pumped his fist and the Yankee faithful rose to cheer the man they always serenade with “Hip, Hip, Jorge!” every time he steps to the plate.
Because Mariano Rivera was used to save the first game of the day-night doubleheader, Girardi called upon former Rays closer Rafael Soriano to propel the Yankees to another division crown.
Despite giving up a two-out single to Casey Kotchman, Soriano struck out pinch-hitter Matt Joyce swinging to end a scoreless frame for his second save of the season.
The combination of the Yankees two victories over the Rays and the 6-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles by the severely slumping Red Sox handed the Yankees the flag. The Yankees remain five games ahead of Detroit and Texas for the best record in the American League, which assures the Yankees home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Rays were dealt a serious blow. They could not take advantage of the Red Sox careening off a cliff at home to inferior clubs like the Orioles. They have fallen into a tie with the Los Angeles Angels 3 games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race.
- Girardi made three key moves in this game: Replacing Sabathia with Robertson, pinch-hitting Swisher for Gardner and pinch-hitting Posada for Montero. The fact that all three moves worked and led to the Yankees winning the game, Girardi deserves a lot for the credit for this game and leading this team to its second division title in his four years at the helm.
- There have been rumblings that the Yankees were considering keeping Montero on the postseason roster and leaving Posada off of it. But Posada may have redeemed himself with the division-clinching hit. With Francisco Cervelli out due to a concussion, Austin Romine will likely back up Russell Martin in the playoffs and Posada likely will remain on the roster because the Yankees need another lefty hitter off the bench besides Eric Chavez.
- Cano just keeps rolling at the plate. He now has 27 home runs and a career-best 116 RBIs. The 116 RBIs tie him with Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez and Los Angeles’ Steve Kemp for the second in the majors behind Granderson, who has 119.
An aging club of veterans added a 38-year-old and 34-year-old pitcher to their starting rotation because they could not sign Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte retired. They were without 18-game winner Phil Hughes for much of the year and A.J. Burnett and his 10-11 record and 5.28 ERA were a major headache. They lost relievers Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano and Soriano to injury. They lost Alex Rodriguez to a litany of injuries for half the season. But somehow, some way this team managed to win another division title to defy the so-called experts that said they would not. There is nothing negative about that.
An MRI taken on Phil Hughes’ aching back was negative and the Yankees believe he will be able to make one more start before the playoffs begin. Hughes was given an epidural shot to relieve pain thought to be associated with a herniated disc the pitcher suffered in 2004. Hughes felt back spasms after a bullpen session on Friday and had his start on Monday pushed back to Wednesday. But Hughes still was unable to pitch and Hector Noesi started in his place.
The Yankees have clinched a playoff spot and a division title in one day. But they still are playing to keep home field.
They can sweep the Rays on Thursday with Bartolo Colon (8-9, 3.81 ERA) on the mound. Colon gave up six runs in only four innings against the Blue Jays on Saturday. The Yankees later rallied to win the game. Colon is 7-4 with a 3.47 ERA against the Rays in his career.
The Rays are countering with prize prospect lefty Matt Moore (0-0, 6.23 ERA), who will be making his first major-league start. Moore was 12-3 with a 1.93 ERA combined between Double-A and Triple-A this season.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.