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.
- It appears that Bartolo Colon has pitched his way into a rotation spot with the Yankees based upon his effort on Monday. Colon was brilliant through six innings, only giving up a one-out solo home run to Kelly Shoppach in the sixth inning. He was touched for only one other hit, he did not walk a batter and he fanned five. He lowered his spring ERA to 2.40.
- With Brett Gardner leading off the Yankees manufactured their only run without the benefit of a hit. Gardner led off with a walk, stole second and moved to third on Derek Jeter’s slow bouncing grounder to third. After Jorge Posada was walked on four pitches, Gardner scored when Rays’ second baseman Sean Rodriguez dropped the ball on what would have been an easy double play on an Alex Rodriguez grounder.
- Rodriguez got credit for the RBI on the botched double play and it gives him a team-high 12 on the spring. Rodriguez is primed for what could be a big comeback season based on his .410 batting average this spring and five home runs.
- It is a shame that the Yankees managed only one run on three hits and four walks in the six innings that Colon was on the mound. They managed only one hit the rest of the game and they were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
- Banuelos, 20, showed some nervousness and a lack of command in his two innings. He was touched for two runs on three hits and a walk. He had a hard time locating his fastball and his breaking pitches were not as sharp as they were in earlier outings.
- The Yankees are in midseason form in grounding into double plays. They grounded into two double plays on the night with Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson on the mound. Russell Martin did it in the second inning and Robinson Cano followed suit in the fourth.