As weeks go you would have to say this week for the New York Yankees was not a good one and that is putting it mildly. It was disastrous.
The loss of the greatest closer to ever walk the planet is a pretty steep price to pay for any team. But it was just the tip of the iceberg.
It all started on April 29 when Nick Swisher left a game against the Tigers in the bottom of the third inning with a strained hamstring. At the time Brett Gardner was on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right elbow he sustained making a diving catch on a ball on April 17.
Swisher has been unable to play since and Gardner, who was expected to return on Thursday, had his return delayed for four days.
That means the Yankees have been playing Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, Eduardo Nunez and now Jayson Nix in the outfield in place of their two injured starters.
That has led some pretty bad outfield play in the past week, especially by “Eduardo Scissorhands” in left-field against the Orioles.
Though the Yankees may have had some laughs when Nunez slipped and slid his way through his first start in left on Monday, it was no laughing matter the next night when he allowed a fly ball off the bat of Nick Johnson fall and two runs to score.
It was initially scored as a two-base error. But MLB Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre on Friday reversed the call into a double. However, whether it was scored an error or a double, it still cost the Yankees two runs in three-run inning that ended up in a 7-1 defeat. The point is that the ball should have been caught and it wasn’t.
This outfield roulette the Yankees are playing does not even take into account how the offense has been hurt by losing Gardner and Swisher for this long a period of time.
At the time of his injury, Gardner was hitting .321. Swisher was even better. He was hitting .284 with six home runs and he was leading the American League in RBIs with 23. You can’t expect to replace 67 percent of your starting outfield with older veterans and young neophytes and expect the offense and defense to be there. Just ask the Boston Red Sox.
The loss of Gardner has allowed manager Joe Girardi to use his platoon designated hitters, Jones and Ibanez, in the field and give Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez half-days off as the DH. That means Scissorhands plays shortstop and Eric Chavez plays third base.
Nunez promptly goes into a 0-for-19 slide this week and the preciously delicate exoskeleton and inner body linings and muscles of Chavez again reared its ugly head – literally – on Wednesday night.
Chavez dove for a ball off the bat of J.J. Hardy and his head slammed the infield dirt at Yankee Stadium pretty hard. The next thing you know Chavez is on the seven-day disabled list with a concussion. If this anything like the fractured bone in his foot he injured at about the same time last season, we should see Chavez back in a Yankee uniform during the 2016 Yankee Old-Timers’ Day celebration and I hope Eric brings a football helmet and pads to play in the game.
This does not even address the starting pitching problems Girardi is already faced and with which he is still dealing.
While CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda seem to be settling into their roles as the ace and No.2 starter of the staff, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia seem to be playing a contest amongst themselves of who could give up the most hits and runs in the shortest stretch of innings.
Well, Garcia won that contest hands down and he was banished to the bullpen and rookie David Phelps made his first major-league start on Thursday.
This was not the way it was supposed to be with Andy Pettitte on the verge of coming back and when the Yankees were counting on getting Michael Pineda back from his sore right shoulder problems in May. Now Pineda is lost for the season with shoulder surgery and Pettitte can’t get back to the Yankees soon enough to suit Yankee fans.
The loss of Mariano Rivera makes it even harder to decipher.
For now, it looks as if David Robertson and Rafael Soriano will share the closer’s role. But with Joba Chamberlain still recovering from both Tommy John and Chuckie Cheez ankle surgeries the bullpen suddenly looks a whole lot thinner than it did before Mo collapsed in pain on the Kauffman Stadium warning track on Thursday.
Perhaps there could be a silver lining if Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman are open to see their way clear of this mess. Some good could come of it if they play it correctly.
First, they have to allow Phelps to continue to pitch in the rotation and give him a chance to show what he can do. It is only fair they do that to what looks to be a promising 25-year-old right-hander. Nova’s 15-game winning streak is over but he certainly is capable of pitching better than he did this week. So you have to continue to roll with him.
But when Pettitte returns you have to make a move to take one person out of the rotation and there is no better candidate than Hughes.
If you look at the period of time Hughes was most successful it was when he was the setup man for Rivera during the Yankees second-half push to the playoffs and the world championship in 2009. His bullpen numbers were even better than Rivera’s numbers that season.
In 2010, he was needed as a starter and he won 18 games. However, after the second half of 2010 it was obvious he was not the same pitcher he was before the All-Star break that season. His year-long struggles with weakness in his right shoulder in 2011 bore that out.
So far in 2012, Hughes has not struggled with velocity. He is back to throwing an average of 92 mph and getting up to 94 and 95 with ease. But he also has been victimized by the longball and he is carrying a 1-4 record with a 7.48 ERA after five starts.
In the past the presence of Robertson, Soriano and Chamberlain made it impossible for Hughes to shift back to the bullpen. But with Soriano and Robertson sharing the eighth and ninth innings and Chamberlain likely out for the season it would seem to make sense to try Hughes in the seventh inning role that Chamberlain, Robertson and lately Soriano have made so vital.
I do understand that once you shift Hughes to that role there is no shifting him back to a starting role. But if Phelps eventually falters you can always give Garcia another try and there also is a number options that can made through trades and signing of free agents.
I have heard Roy Oswalt’s name and I hope that is all I hear about him because he has a chronic back condition that makes him risky. However, the Yankees have a farm system rich enough to be able to make trades to acquire 2013 free-agents-to-be like Matt Cain of the Giants and Cole Hamels of the Phillies. Cashman has this option in his back pocket through the end of July and he will have plenty of time to evaluate the need for that trade by that time.
The Yankees also are looking at having former Mariners closer David Aardsma to add to the bullpen. He could perhaps also take the seventh inning role if he is healthy. But I think they need to keep Hughes in mind as a potential player in the bullpen because I still believe he can shine there.
For one thing he can shelve his awful secondary pitches like his change-up and concentrate on his fastball, curve and cutter. His velocity should also move up to the 97 mph mark he used to throw and that wll cover for a lot of mistakes in his location he makes as a starter.
We will see how it plays out but the Yankees just need to get Swisher and Gardner back on the field and hopefully Robinson Cano will stop hitting like Luis Sojo in time for the Yankees make a run at the 2012 playoffs.
They may as well try because they are now finding there are much lower expectations on this team now.
In what has been a quiet, almost somnambulant, off-season the New York Yankees seem to making strides in signing a free-agent pitcher.
CBSSports.com reported on Wednesday that Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner met with agent Scott Boras to discuss 28-year-old right-hander Edwin Jackson.
When Yankee fans first heard this they must have thought back to last winter when the right-hand of the Yankees, general manager Brian Cashman, did not know that the left-hand, Steinbrenner, was signing free-agent reliever Rafael Soriano to the richest contract ever paid to a non-closer.
Despite losing the draft pick for signing a Type-A free agent and the fact Soriano was ineffective and then got hurt, it was a marvelous masterstroke for a team reeling from the failure to sign Cliff Lee.
Soriano is actually a prize piece to a bullpen that lost Joba Chamberlain last season and ended up being the best bullpen in baseball. They enter the 2012 season armed with Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Soriano for what again looks to be the best bullpen in baseball. That can sure cover up for what looks to be an average starting rotation, too.
But Steinbrenner is still a bit worried. (Count me there too if any Yankee starting rotation includes A.J. Burnett.)
“Look, we were concerned about pitching last year, and it ended up working out pretty well,” Steinbrenner said. “But I’m still a little concerned about our rotation.”
The Yankees have been doing their version of kabuki theater this winter. They are going through all the showy motions of looking at free agents, exploring trades and scouting for any live arm that can make the Yankees better than the 97 games they won last season.
But they are finding the price tags of the free agents loaded with some dealer fees and markups they weren’t counting on. They passed on C.J. Wilson and Mark Buerhle and they just made a token bid for Japan’s Yu Darvish.
They also have found that general managers looking to trade arms were looking for bushel basket full of prospects from the Yankees’ tree that included Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Mason Williams. That price was just way too high for Cashman, who said that he could make any trade to get a pitcher but the problem was that if he made the trade he would not be a popular guy with Yankee fans.
But now it seems that the Steinbrenner family is on board with Jackson, who was 12-9 with a 3.79 ERA for the world-champion St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. However, Jackson is just 60-60 with a 4.46 ERA in his career and he reportedly is seeking a five-year deal with an annual salary in the $15 million to $17 million range.
Ouch! Talk about your sticker shock.
Steinbrenner feels that Jackson is too pricey now. But the meeting with Steinbrenner was requested by Boras, which may signal that the agent every general manager loves to hate may be willing to deliver Jackson to the Yankees for something less.
Cashman has been restricted by the Steinbrenner family’s desire to reduce or, at the very least, keep the payroll at around the $200 million range. That is why the Yankees have been so quiet since the 2011 ended and the only moves they have made is to sign back players they had last season (Freddy Garcia, Andruw Jones and maybe Eric Chavez.)
But the fact Steinbrenner took the meeting with Boras is a sign the Yankees are indeed serious about adding a starting pitcher. Should the talks for Jackson break down over price, the Yankees still have two viable options in free agents Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda, who are seeking less years and less money than Jackson.
If the Yankees do add a bona fide starter they will have the ability to seriously shop Burnett and his bloated two-year, $33 million contract. The team offered to pay $7 million of Burnett’s salary but they got no bites on the line. With another starter signed they could increase that salary payment offer to $14 million and still come out ahead on the deal.
The real issue now comes down to how much does Jackson want to pitch for the Yankees and what can he accept in terms of annual salary. If Boras is willing to compromise there is room to make a deal. If there is no wiggle room the Yankees will have to a pass on him.
Just knowing Steinbrenner was willing to help the Yankees acquire a durable 200-inning pitcher is enough for me to show that there is a willingness for the team to get better. It was not apparent for most of this offseason.
You are a Yankee fan and you are not happy now.
The reason: General manager Brian Cashman has not made a major splash with a big free-agent signing or a blockbuster trade.
To Yankee fans standing pat is like surrendering to teams like the Marlins and Angels, who tossed around cash this week as if it was only Monopoly money. Some fans are yearning for the days when George Steinbrenner would go after free agents he wanted with the ruthlessness of a pit-bull, never letting go.
However, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner seem to be a lot more pragmatic about spending too much for negligible return. They were willing to spend $150 million for Cliff Lee but they were not going to spend close to $80 million for C.J. Wilson or about $60 million for Mark Buerhle.
There are a lot of reasons the Yankees sat idly by while some teams played “Let’s Make a Deal.”
But perhaps the biggest reason is the Yankees have already lavished their riches on their “Pujols” and their “Lee.” Those are the 10-year, $275 million deal the Yankees committed to Alex Rodriguez in 2007 and the $186 million the team is paying CC Sabathia to be the ace the staff through at least the 2016 season.
Those two contracts are largely why the Yankees are the only team in the major leagues who are subject to the luxury tax. The Steinbrenner family would like for the team to remain competitive and successful while Cashman tries to reduce the annual payroll below the $178 million level where the tax kicks in. or, at the very least, the Steinbrenners would like it to remain steady and not push higher.
That is the reason Christmas ornaments like Pujols, Wilson, Buerhle, Jose Reyes and Prince Fielder will be dangling on other teams’ trees this December.
So Yankee fans will have to realize that a team that won 97 games last season is still an excellent one even if adds no one of significance this winter. Rodriguez will just have to be our Pujols and Sabathia will just have to pitch like Lee in 2012 to make Yankee fans forget that this free-agent shopping spree was just too pricey for a team already above the $200 million mark in annual payroll.
Rodriguez is the biggest key to the Yankees’ success in 2012. You just have to face the fact that Rodriguez is being paid the most because he is expected to be the best player in pinstripes, period.
Last season, he was anything but that. Oh, he showed a lot of promise in the spring when he showed up lighter and quicker in the field. He also had a spring that portended a monster 2011 season. But, as the previous three seasons proved, Rodriguez was beset by a series of injuries that kept him off the field for 63 games and a shadow of what he was in the other 99.
Rodriguez, 36, hit .276 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs. If this is the level of performance the Yankees will get from Rodriguez in 2012 they are doomed to fail. Oh, they are talented enough to make the playoffs. But they will not go very far or do very well in the playoffs without what was the most feared hitter in the American League when he is healthy.
But balky shoulders, unsteady knees and painful thumbs can reduce a great player to just a pretty good one real quick. That is what happened to Rodriguez in 2011 and why he needs to arrive in Tampa in Florida fit and ready to go to war to restore his reputation as that most feared hitter.
To steal a Reggie Jackson line, A-Rod “stirs the drink.” His health will determine if that drink is a classy Manhattan or just another slow gin fizzle.
There is no doubt that Rodriguez is on a slight decline. He has not played in more than 138 games since the 2007 season. From 2004 through 2007, Rodriguez averaged 43 home runs and 128 RBIs. From 2008 through 2010 he has averaged 32 home runs and 109 RBIs. In 2009, Rodriguez barely reached 30 home runs and 100 RBIs on the final day against the Rays but he was healthy at the right time to lead the Yankees through the playoffs and into the World Series as the Yankees won their 27th championship.
So the point is that Rodriguez can average 32 home runs and 109 RBIs and be in decline and still lead the Yankees into a World Series. He just has to be healthy when the playoffs begin. That was not the case last season and the Yankees paid dearly for it in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. They only trailed by a run but it may as well have been 10 runs the way the offense just seemed to sputter with runners in scoring position.
With a healthy and “locked in” A-Rod would the result have been the same? I doubt it.
For all the talk of Robinson Cano and how he has become the best hitter and best player on the Yankees, it is still Rodriguez who can turn a game with his bat that can strike fear into opposing pitchers, managers and teams. Besides the fact is that his ability to hit makes Cano, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner better.
To steal a Reggie Jackson line, A-Rod “stirs the drink.”
His health will determine if that drink is a classy Manhattan or just another slow gin fizzle.
The same can be said of Sabathia. He is, after all, the unquestioned ace.
When he is really dealing he is among the best pitchers in baseball. He is 59-23 in his 101 starts in pinstripes. The Yankees have reached the postseason in the past three seasons largely because of his work in the regular season.
But the past two seasons, his work in the postseason has been not worthy of the status of the one of the best pitchers in baseball. In the past two postseasons he is 2-0 but his ERA in his six appearances (five starts) is 5.84. That stands in stark contrast to his 3-1 record and 1.98 ERA in the 2009 postseason.
In the 2010 playoffs, Sabathia pitched with an injured left knee that required offseason surgery. Sabathia rehabbed the knee and showed up at spring training in February 30 pounds lighter. It helped him get off to unusually quick start and by the All-Star break Sabathia was on the top of his game.
He was 13-4 with a 2.72 ERA at the break. He finished the season 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA. So in his last 12 starts, Sabathia was a very ordinary 6-4 with a 3.66 ERA before imploding the playoffs. Why?
Much of that was was blamed on Sabathia’s noticeable and significant weight gain down the stretch. The heavier he got the worse he pitched.
But the Yankees chose not to allow Sabathia to opt out of his contract and leave via free agency. Considering the things Sabathia has done for the Yankees it was a very wise decision. After all, Wilson. Buerhle, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda were not going to replace Sabathia.
In order to find another ace like Sabathia would have cost the Yankees prize prospects like Jesus Monetro, Eduardo Nunez, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. So getting a younger pitcher like Felix Hernandez would have pretty much raped the impressive farm system Cashman has gradually rebuilt the past five years.
So Sabathia will remain a Yankee through at least 2016 (the Yankees have an option for 2017) and the Yankees do not have to bid on overpriced free agents or trade their great young prospects. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
Now the Yankees just have to make sure Sabathia stays off the Cap’n Crunch cereal he loves and eats a lot more salad throughout the 2012 season. At age 31, Sabathia is going to have to realize that to extend his career he is going to have to take care of that large frame going forward.
The Yankees could easily add a starting pitcher or two to their roster to improve the rotation. I fully expect Cashman to continue to his efforts to do just that this winter. But the real key to this staff is making sure Sabathia is able to hit the 2012 playoffs in shape and healthy enough to be the ace he is supposed to be.
Without that, and the health of A-Rod, the whole journey to the 2012 playoffs will be just as wasted as the effort in 2011 was.
Like I said Yankee fans, A-Rod and CC are our free agent pickups and we will live or die in 2012 with them.
MLB WINTER MEETINGS
DAY FOUR – FAREWELL
Pardon me for having a vision of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman ending up in a long, unproductive discussion with a Hotel Anatole bellhop on the best way to turn in his room key. It has just been the way it has gone for Cashman since he arrived on Monday: Long and unproductive.
But to be fair to Cashman, it was exactly what he predicted would happen before he ever stepped foot in the hotel lobby.
While the Miami Marlins were shopping at Tiffany’s the Yankees were checking the clearance racks at JC Penney’s.
The Yankees came into the MLB Winter Meetings with a very short shopping list of parts that could make a team that won 97 games last season just a bit better. The starting lineup remains the same, the Yankees have five starting pitchers with which they can start the season, they boast a deep bullpen and have just a few spots to fill on the bench – though the Yankees would even like to bring back veterans Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones.
So the Yankees used these meetings to kick the tires on potential trades for a starting pitcher, they won the right to negotiate with a Japanese infielder and they selected two players in the Rule 5 draft on Thursday that could have an impact on their bullpen this spring.
The moves won’t spur much of a surge of season ticket sales but Cashman hopes the seeds sown here will lead to something more fruitful down the road.
First, let’s look at the two additions to the pitching staff:
The Kansas City Royals used the fifth pick in the draft to select left-handed reliever Cesar Cabral from the Red Sox and then traded him to the Yankees for cash considerations. Cabral, 22, will be given a look this spring as a potential second left-hander in the bullpen to go along with Boone Logan.
Cabral was 3-4 with a 2.95 ERA in 36 combined appearances with Class A Salem and Double-A Portland last season. He struck out 70 batters in 55 innings and Cashman likes his 94-mph velocity and the fact he can get left-handers out consistently.
Cabral was selected in the 2010 Rule 5 draft by the Rays but later was returned to the Red Sox.
With the 29th pick in the draft, the Yankees selected right-handed starter Brad Meyers from the Washington Nationals.
Meyers, 26, was a combined 9-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 25 games (24 starts) in stops at Class A Salem, Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse last season. He struck out 116 batters in 132 2/3 innings and walked just 15. In 2009, the 6-foot-5 hurler was named the Nationals’ Minor-League Pitcher of the Year.
Though Meyers is a starting pitcher, the Yankees will look at Meyers as a potential long reliever because the team intends to use Hector Noesi as a starter this season.
The Yankees entered the draft with 39 players on their 40-man roster. The addition of Cabral and Meyers meant that the Yankees had to release 26-year-old outfielder Greg Golson. Golson hit .195 with no home runs and two RBis in 40 games over four seasons with the Phillies, Rangers and the Yankees.
The Yankees might add some depth to their bench by obtaining the right to sign 29-year-old infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima of the Seibu Lions in Japan. Nakajima is primarily a shortstop but he also can play second and third base. He hit .314 with 20 home runs and 93 RBIs in 130 games in Japan last season.
The Yankees posted a bid of $2 million for Nakajima and now the Yankees have until Jan. 6 to reach contract agreement or the $2 million fee is returned to them.
The Yankees are saying Nakajima would give the Yankees some options if Chavez does not re-sign. But it also gives the Yankees the option of trading Eduardo Nunez for a starting pitcher because the Yankees also have backup infielder Ramiro Pena on the 40-man roster.
As for the search for starting pitching, Cashman made it clear he believed that clubs were not going to overpay for free-agent pitchers such as C.J. Wilson, Edwin Jackson, Mark Buerhle and Roy Oswalt. So Cashman has been seeking out possible trades for pitchers like John Danks of the White Sox, Matt Garza of the Cubs, Jair Jurrgens of the Braves and Gio Gonzalez of the Athletics.
Late Wednesday, the Yankees even inquired about Jonathan Niese of the Mets.
The problems Cashman has had in making a potential deal for any of these pitchers is teams are asking for the Yankees’ best prospects in catcher Jesus Montero, pitchers Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos and veterans like Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova, David Robertson and Phil Hughes in return. These are players Cashman does not want to trade.
But with the free-agent signing season in full swing, there is likely to be teams with changing circumstances, agents who might have to lower their price for some free agents and trade demands get lowered as spring training approaches. Cashman sees this period in January as an window of opportunity that may allow the Yankees to get a No. 2 or No. 3 starter via trade or free agency.
Oh, and do not buy the Cashman party line about his mild interest in Japanese ace right-hander Yu Darvish.
The Yankees are not tipping their hand but it is a pretty good bet that Cashman and the Yankees might go all out to win the bidding when Darvish is posted. Though the posting fee will easily top the $50 million the Boston Red Sox ponied up for Daisuke Matzusaka, that posting fee does count against the team salary level.
Darvish, 25, is also young enough that the Yankees could structure a graduated long-term contract worth $120 million over eight years that could be worth $10 million the first year. That is half of the $20 million C.J. Wilson is seeking in a six-year deal. Darvish is six years younger and the Yankees believe he has a much higher ceiling than the 31-year-old Wilson.
So do not write off Cashman and the Yankees this winter based on their relative lack of activity in the winter meetings. The hares may have a nice head start for now but the tortoises are going to be coming on strong in January. Cashman just hopes that the Yankees are one of those tortoises.
MLB WINTER MEETINGS
Though the New York Yankees have not created any shockwaves at the Hotel Anatole in Dallas in baseball’s annual Winter Meetings they are beginning to send out some tremors of where they are heading in 2012.
As manager Joe Girardi arrived in Dallas on Tuesday to join general manager Brian Cashman, it has become very obvious that the Yankees want to divest themselves of enigmatic right-hander A.J. Burnett. This confirms what I had posted on Nov. 11 when the Yankees chose to re-sign veteran right-hander Freddy Garcia.
The Garcia signing gave the Yankees five starting pitchers available to them in 2012, including Burnett, Garcia, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and the ace CC Sabathia, who signed a lucrative extension rather than opt out of his contract. With Cashman testing the pulse of other clubs for trades of starting pitchers such as John Danks, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Garza and Jair Jurrgens and looking at free agents such as Mark Buerhle, Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda it seems obvious the Yankees are not completely satisfied with those five starters.
The Yankees do have six pitchers who are 24 years old or less in the minor-league system who can help next season, including Hector Noesi and the Yankees’ top two young pitching prospects in Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos.
But it seems obvious the Yankees are looking to make a deal to add a potential No. 2 or No. 3 starter to allow themselves the luxury of being able to dump Burnett and the two years on his contract that will pay him $33 million. The Yankees have offered to pay $8 million of that contract if there is any team interested in the 34-year-old right-hander, according to the New York Post.
But, at this point, there have been no takers. Burnett was 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA in 32 starts last season.
Moving Burnett does have some obstacles. For one, Burnett does have a partial no-trade clause which limits the Yankees’ potential trade partners. A second issue is that the Yankees likely would like to have the deal for that additional No. 2 or No. 3 starter in place before making a trade shipping Burnett to another team. Finally, the Yankees might to have to sweeten any potential deal for Burnett by offering to pay more than the roughly 25% percent they are offering. A fairer number may be closer to 50% if they truly want to be rid of Burnett.
Burnett does have value to the Yankees, according to Cashman, because he is capable of pitching 200 innings. However, the issue has never been the innings Burnett can pitch; it has been the quality of those innings. Burnett has logged two consecutive seasons with ERAs over 5.00 and he is always among the league leaders in wild pitches and batters hit by pitch. His lack of control does not make him a good option to shift to the bullpen. So Burnett limits the Yankees’ choices.
Despite the fact that Burnett did pitch well in Game 4 of the American League Division Series with Detroit, Yankee fans have pretty much gotten tired of his act on the mound and seek a more stable pitcher in the rotation. Cashman obviously agrees but he also knows it could be difficult to unload Burnett this winter.
Meanwhile, the Yankees did have one bit of news on Wednesday.
The Yankees have won the rights to negotiate with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, a source confirmed.
Nakajima, 29, was a memeber of the Seibu Lions and is a career .300 hitter since his debut in 2002. The right-handed hitting Nakajima would be a potential backup to Derek Jeter.
According to CBSSports.com the Yankees winning bid to the rights to sign Nakajima was $2 million. Nakajima batted .314 with 20 home runs, 93 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 130 games with the Lions this season.
You can also read this potential signing as another clue as to where the Yankees might be headed in 2012.
Last season, Eduardo Nunez hit .265 with five home runs, 30 RBIs and 22 stolen bases in 112 games mostly as backup at shortstop, second base and third base. At age 24, Nunez has his future progress with the Yankees blocked by Jeter, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez.
The Mariners sought Nunez (in addition to Nova and Jesus Montero) in a trade for Cliff Lee in July 2010, which Cashman rejected because he did not want to part with Nunez. Teams this winter have inquired about his availability in trade and Cashman would the flexibility to deal Nunez once the Yankees are able to sign Nakajima.
The Yankees also have reserve infielder Ramiro Pena on the roster. Pena lost the reserve infielder spot to Nunez in spring training last season but did hit .100 with one home run and four RBIs in 23 games with the Yankees in 2011. Though Nunez is the better athlete, has better speed and a better bat, Pena is much more reliable in the field and he is the team’s best bunter.
So if the Yankees do sign Nakajima and they have Pena on the roster it is pretty clear the Yankees would be willing to trade Nunez as part of a package to obtain a starting pitcher. This is no real secret but the Nakajima signing makes it obvious the Yankees are willing to go through with the move if the Yankees can get a good starting pitcher in return.
The Nakajima bid also may be revealing one other even more important point. The Yankees might be setting the stage for a bid for Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters.
What better way to make Darvish’s transition to American baseball smoother than by giving him another player on the roster to translate, room with and adapt to the major leagues. I could be reading too much into this but I do not see it as that far-fetched the Yankees might be thinking this way.
Darvish, 25, is a 6-foot-5, 187-pound right-hander who was 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA for the Ham Fighters in 2011. He also struck out 276 batters in 232 innings. Unlike countryman Daisuke Matzusaka, Darvish has a mid-90s fastball and he attacks the strike zone rather than relying on his breaking stuff to fool hitters into swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.
If Darvish is posted, as the owner of the Nippon franchise has promised Darvish he would, the Yankees could make an all-out effort to sign him.
The Yankees have had only lukewarm interest in Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson, who is considered the top free-agent pitcher available this winter, because he is seeking $20 million per season. The Yankees believe Wilson projects as a No. 3 starter, at best, and they do not seem willing to invest that much money in him.
Darvish, however, could be a different story. The posting fee for him does not count against the payroll cap and Darvish is young enough that the Yankees could structure a long-term deal that would pay him considerably less than $20 million a season and scouts believe Darvish has a far superior upside than the 31-year-old Wilson.
So the bid for the rights to sign Nakajima may not seem so insignificant if you dig beneath the surface a bit.
Girardi, meanwhile, on Wednesday was making the case for the return of the Yankees’ two senior bench player sin 2011: Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez.
Girardi signaled to the players’ agents that the Yankees would be interested in keeping them both.
Jones, 33, played in the outfield and also was a part-time designated hitter. The right-handed hitting Jones batted .247 with 13 home runs and 33 RBIs in 77 games and hit .286 against left-handed pitching.
Chavez, 33, missed 2 1/2 months of the season with a fractured bone in his left foot and hit .263 with two home runs and 26 RBIs in 58 games. He started 33 games at third base, two first base and five at DH.
Girardi said with the veteran club the Yankees have, he would like to have Chavez and Jones back in order to give regular days off to his veteran starters, He was happy with what Jones and Chavez contributed to the club last season.
However, Cashman said the bench will have to take a back seat until the Yankees look at all their options with filling out their pitching needs this winter.
There is just one more day left for these meetings in Dallas. So far, it seems the Yankees have been one of the most obvious wallflowers in the grand ballroom. But sometimes the tempo needs to be set for the real dance to begin.
It looks like Cashman will be doing most of his waltzing in January.
MLB WINTER MEETINGS
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is holed up in his suite at the Hilton Anatole like a trappist monk.
He is not meeting face-to-face with other GMs or sharing his thoughts with player agents. The reason is he arrived at these annual meetings from what he considers a position of great strength.
After all, his club won 97 games last season and came within two runs in Game 5 of the American League Division Series of going to the American League Championship Series for a third straight season. It also is a club that was one of the best, if the not best, offensive clubs in baseball and the entire group of starters are signed, sealed and ready to go.
Sure there are questions behind CC Sabathia in the pitching rotation. But they have five starters returning and Hector Noesi heads up a group of six young pitchers who are 24 years old or younger who could contribute to the Yankees’ rotation next season. With Rafael Soriano’s decision not to opt out of his contract the Yankees are assured of having the nucleus of what was baseball’s best bullpen back next season. Of course, a second lefty reliever to go along with Boone Logan would be nice.
The bench will need some work because Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez are free agents (though the Yankees would love to have both back). The backup catcher spot would seem to come down to a battle between Francisco Cervelli and rookie defensive whiz Austin Romine. Jesus Montero seems to be the favorite to become the team’s everyday designated hitter, replacing veteran Jorge Posada, who will be allowed to sign with another club if he does not retire. Eduardo Nunez seems to be a lock to return as the team’s primary infield backup.
So there are not a lot of needs Cashman has as the meetings kicked off today. He is likely looking at possibly acquiring another veteran pitcher to add to the starting staff. However, Cashman does not seem too eager to spend the $14 million a season it would take to sign 31-year-old lefty C.J. Wilson of the Rangers, who heads the list of potential free-agent starters.
The Yankees have also been very quiet about lesser free agents such as Mark Buerhle, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda. They even have not tipped their hand as of they intend to pay a potential posting fee of $75 million or so to gain the rights to sign 25-year-old Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish, even with his ridiculous career-low 1.44 ERA this season.
Because they do not need offense they are not a major player for top-line free agents such as Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Carlos Beltran or Jose Reyes.
It is as if Cinderella tossed off the glass slipper after it fit and said no thanks to the prince (with apologies to Mr. Fielder of the Brewers for the pun). The Yankees have always seemed to be major players at the winter meetings but they are taking a back seat this time.
They are not alone. The Boston Red Sox will be perilously close to the $178 million payroll mark that would kick in the luxury tax after they spend the money they will need to bring back free-agent DH David Ortiz. After letting closer Jonathan Papelbon walk as a free agent and their desire to let go veterans like J.D. Drew they are staring at a more than a few major holes in their starting rotation, their bullpen, in right field and on their bench.
But they can’t spend the money to fill all those holes without incurring the luxury tax and they traded away most of their best minor-league prospects in the past few seasons to acquire Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez.
The Bosox are also dealing with a new GM and manager who have their own particular likes and dislikes and ways of running things.
So it is not a great winter to be a free agent when some of the so-called “big market” teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers and White Sox can’t afford the lavish contracts those free agents are seeking.
That means it will be a buyers’ market this offseason and Cashman, well aware of that, is looking to delay any decisions he makes until the middle-tier free agents have to drop their demands enough that they become bargains.
When other GMs approach Cashman offering pitchers in trade such as Jair Jurrgens of the Braves, Matt Garza of the Cubs and John Danks of the White Sox, they are asking for in return prospects like Montero, Nunez and pitchers like Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. Cashman would prefer to sign a free-agent pitcher and lose a draft pick rather than have to trade his best prospects.
In the case of Danks, the veteran left-hander could become a free agent after this season. So why deal for Danks, give up Montero and Banuelos and then have Danks walk as a free agent after one year? That doesn’t seem to make much sense to Cashman and it would be a hard sell to the fans in the Bronx no matter how much Danks would help the 2012 rotation.
So Cashman remains hidden away in his suite quietly waiting and waiting and waiting for the right time to dip his toe in the market. If you are expecting the Yankees to be part of a blockbuster deal involving three teams and 10 players you just may as well get it out of your head right now. It is just not going to be one of those winters for the Yankees.
It will be much quieter. I sure hope Cashman has Angry Birds on his I-Phone to keep himself busy.
NEW YORK YANKEES WINTER MEETINGS PREVIEW
One person you are not likely to see much of at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas on Monday is Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
As baseball’s 2011 Winter Meetings open, Cashman habitually spends most of his time in his suite. And it is not because he is diving into the honor bar. Cashman is in “bunker mode” hoping to make a deal or signing or two that will help the Yankees improve for the 2012 season.
Of course, Cashman has already done a few important things that will help the Yankees in the upcoming season.
The most important mission he had this offseason was keeping ace left-hander CC Sabathia from opting out of his contract and becoming a free agent. Cashman was able to get Sabathia to sign an extension through 2016 worth $122 million. So that took what would have been the most-prized pitcher off the market and kept him with the Yankees.
Determined to ensure the Yankees enter 2012 with a solid starting rotation, Cashman set the Yankees priorities as “pitching, pitching and pitching.” That is why the Yankees picked up the options on Nick Swisher and Russell Martin and is allowing Jorge Posada to go as a free agent.
The only major signing of a non-pitcher this winter was the signing of infielder Jayson Nix to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. Nix, primarily a second baseman, can also play third base and has logged some time in the outfield.
Nix, 29, played for Toronto in 2011 and hit .169 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 136 at-bats in 46 games. He has hit .209 over the span of four major-league seasons.
Nix is an insurance policy in case reserve first baseman and third baseman Eric Chavez decides to retire or signs with another club as a free agent. The Yankees have made it clear they would love to have Chavez and free-agent outfielder Andruw Jones return to the team next season.
So when it comes to the Yankees’ starting lineup and bench, the Yankees pretty much are looking at a status quo with rookie catching prospect Jesus Montero expected to be the team’s primary designated hitter in 2012 replacing Posada.
Cashman proved how important he values pitching by re-signing Freddy Garcia to a one-year contract worth between $4 million and $5 million. Garcia, 35, was selected as a starter out of spring training after he signed $1.5 million contract over the winter. Garcia posted a 12-8 record with a 3.62 ERA in 25 starts (over 26 games).
With Garcia’s signing the Yankees rotation features Sabathia, rookie surprise Ivan Nova, a recovering Phil Hughes, enigmatic veteran A.J. Burnett and Garcia. That starting five does not exactly appear to be a championship caliber staff if you ask most Yankee fans. So the speculation has been that Cashman would dip into the Yankees’ rich financial reserves to pony up some big money for free-agent pitchers C.J. Wilson, Mark Buerhle, Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson.
Or Cashman might look to make a substantial posting bid for 25-year-old Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish.
The Yankees have also been linked in trade rumors for pitchers such as Matt Cain of the Giants, Jair Jurrgens of the Braves and Matt Garza of the Cubs.
Of course, Cashman has a collection of six pitchers in the organization who are currently 24 years old or less who could advance to help the major-league club as starters or relievers in 2012 including Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, D.J. Mitchell, Hector Noesi, David Phelps and Adam Warren.
Noesi compiled a 2-2 record with a 4.47 ERA in 30 games (two starts) over four separate stints with the Yankees last season. Cashman has been getting glowing reports about how Noesi is throwing this winter in the Domincan Republic and he is touting Noesi as the “next Ivan Nova.”
So the Yankees could go in a lot of directions this winter with their pitching staff: (1) they could stand pat, (2) sign a free agent, (3) trade for a starter or (4) look to shore up the staff with a young pitcher in their minor-league system.
But any addition to the staff surely would mean that one of the current five starters would either have to go to the bullpen or leave the team entirely. That will not include Sabathia, Garcia or Nova. So that means Hughes and Burnett might be in the crosshairs should the Yankees decide to add another starter.
Hughes was 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA in an injury-plagued 2011 season. However, if you throw out his first three starts when he was pitching with a weak right shoulder and two consecutive starts in August in which he gave up 12 runs in 8 1/3 innings, Hughes was 5-3 with a 3.38 ERA in his other nine starts.
What this would indicate that is if Hughes is healthy at the start if spring training there is a good possibility he could return to his 18-8 form of 2010. The Yankees have heard good reports about Hughes, 25, who is working out in his native California this offseason.
Hughes has pitched well in the bullpen before as he did in the Yankees’ championship season in 2009, however, the Yankees are stocked with right-handers Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and a recovering Joba Chamberlain. There does not seem to be much room left for Hughes here. So, for now, Hughes is a starter.
Burnett, 34, is another story altogether.
Though Burnett’s Game 4 start against the Tigers in the American League Division Series was excellent, he is coming off two seasons in which he was a combined 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA. Because the Yankees owe Burnett $65 million he has been the proverbial albatross around the Yankees necks and he possibly could remain that way for another two seasons.
The Yankees could hope that Burnett somehow finds a way to consistently put the ball in the vicinity of the plate and cuts down on his gopher balls or they could also decide – like a malignant tumor – he must be removed from the roster even if it means that the Yankees have to pick up most, if not all, of his contract to pitch for another team.
Yankee fans are certainly rooting for the latter. They have seen enough of “Bad A.J.” to know that it is time to bring the curtain down on his bad act.
Other than that potential shift in the rotation, the only other move Cashman likely could make is to add a left-hander to the bullpen.
Boone Logan, 27, has been the lone lefty in the bullpen for two seasons. Though he did OK with a 5-3 record and a 3.46 ERA in 2011, he is not, by definition, a real lefty specialist. He has been pressed into that role due to injuries to Damaso Marte and Pedro Felciiano the past two seasons.
But Marte has been released and Feliciano has undergone shoulder surgery and he won’t pitch at all under the final year of his two-year deal with the Yankees. So the Yankees do need to explore obtaining a lefty who can consistently retire left-handed batters.
Cashman could really help the Yankees out a lot by finding the one piece of the puzzle that would make the Yankees’ bullpen even better than it already is.
Also do not be surprised if Cashman comes up with a surprise or two, much like he did with Granderson deal two winters ago.
Cashman always plays his cards close to the vest and he never really signals what he is likely to do. That is why if a rumor surfaces about the Yankees interested in making a deal, I automatically discount it. Cashman does not make deals that are rumored in the press. He does it with cunning and stealth.
Although Cashman has signed disasters like Burnett and Kei Igawa, he also has made some nice deals such as the Granderson and the Swisher deals. Although it appears Cashman is likely to use a scalpel and a Band-Aid rather than a hacksaw to this winter’s roster, you never really know if players like Swisher, Eduardo Nunez, Montero or Betances could be traded in order to obtain the pitching help the Yankees seem to need.
If you do not see Cashman much in the hotel lobby you can almost be assured he is stoking the fears of his rival GMs. That is just the Cashman way.