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!
Hit By Pitch Early, A-Rod Spurs 4-Run Rally With Homer
YANKEES 9, RED SOX 6
Revenge may be a dish best served cold. But when Alex Rodriguez is the chef, the pot somehow boils over from a steaming cauldron.
After being deliberately hit with the fourth of four inside pitches from right-hander Ryan Dempster as he led off the second inning, Rodriguez blasted a 400-plus-foot rocket to the deepest part of centerfield at Fenway Park to lead off the sixth as part of a four-run rally that led New York to a victory over Boston on Sunday.
After Rodriguez’s second home run of the season the Yankees loaded the bases and chased Dempster from the premises. Left-hander Drake Britton came on and Brett Gardner greeted him with a three-run triple to center that turned what had been a 6-4 deficit into a 7-6 lead.
With a national television audience watching via ESPN, the sellout crowd of 37,917 that had cheered loudly when Rodriguez was hit in the second inning suddenly became eerily quiet, perhaps realizing that when their team is holding an 8 1/2 lead on the Yankees it might not have been too prudent for Dempster to awakened a sleeping lion.
Dempster (6-9) faced 22 batters after he purposely plunked A-Rod – seemingly to show his displeasure at Rodriguez’s legal right to appeal his 211-game suspension through an agreement long ago reached by the Major League Players’ Association – and he gave up seven runs on eight hits and a walk in that span before departing after pitching 5 1/3 innings.
“Whether you like me or hate me, that was wrong. It was unprofessional and silly. Kind of a silly way to get somebody hurt on your team as well. Today kind of brought us together.”
– Alex Rodriguez
Sleeping lion no more.
The Red Sox stormed out to an early 2-0 lead against CC Sabathia (11-10) in the first inning after Sabathia walked David Ortiz to load the bases. Jonny Gomes drove in Jacoby Ellsbury with a sacrifice fly and Jarrod Saltalamacchia scored Shane Victorino with a lined single to center.
But Dempster opened the second frame by tossing his first pitch so far inside at Rodriguez it sailed behind him. Dempster then followed with two pitches that backed Rodriguez from the plate. His fourth pitch was a hard fastball that grazed Rodriguez’s left elbow and struck his ribs.
As both benches and bullpens began to empty, home-plate umpire Brian O’Nora immediately leaped from behind the plate to warn both both benches. However, Yankees manager Joe Girardi disputed O’Nora’s failure to toss Dempster from the game since all four pitches were thrown inside. But O’Nora rejected his argument and ejected an irate Girardi from the game.
The Yankees immediately got even.
Curtis Granderson slapped a double down the right-field line and Eduardo Nunez followed with an RBI single to left-center that scored Rodriguez. Lyle Overbay then plated Granderson with a sacrifice fly to left.
The Yankees added a run in the third off Dempster thanks to Rodriguez.
Ichiro Suzuki and Robinson Cano opened the frame with consecutive singles and Suzuki was able to move up third on a flyout to right by Alfonso Soriano.
Rodriguez then got his first measure of revenge off Dempster on the night when he rolled a ball to short that scored Suzuki on the groundout to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead.
However, Sabathia was unable to hold the lead.
Victorino lead off the third inning with a double and he advanced to third on a flyout off the bat of Dustin Pedroia and scored on a rollout to first by Ortiz.
The Red Sox added a pair of runs in the fourth on a sacrifice fly from Stephen Drew and a solo home run by Will Middlebrooks. They added another run in the fifth when Sabathia issued an Intentional walk to Saltalamacchia to load the bases with two out only to have Sabathia throw low on a 3-1 pitch to Daniel Nava to score the Bosox’s sixth run.
But Sabathia ended the inning by striking out Drew on three pitches to leave the bases loaded. That turned out to be THE key out of the game.
Rodriguez then opened the sixth with what proved to be the longest home run hit by a Yankee all season. Rodriguez made sure he gave a little grief back to Dempster and the booing crowd by throwing up his right fist as the ball cleared the centerfield wall and he stopped at home plate to look up and point his two index fingers skyward.
One out later, Nunez slammed a long single off the Green Monster in left. Overbay then dumped a single into right and Chris Stewart drew a four-pitch walk to end Dempster’s evening.
Britton, who was tagged for three runs on five hits in one inning by the Yankees on Friday, then was greeted by Gardner’s high-arcing drive to center that just missed landing over the wall, ending up as a bases-clearing triple that turned the game to the Yankees favor for the rest of the evening.
The Yankees added a run in the seventh when pinch-hitter Mark Reynolds blooped a single to center off left-hander Franklin Morales to score Granderson.
They added another run n the ninth off wild right-hander Rubby De La Rosa after he hit Jayson Nix to open the frame. He later uncorked a wild pitch to advance Nix to second, Nix stole third and he scored on Stewart’s one-out single to left.
Despite not pitching at his best, Sabathia got credit for the victory. He gave up six runs on seven hits and five walks while he fanned five in 5 1/3 innings.
The Yankees’ vaunted bullpen – which has been a source of strength all season – behind Shawn Kelley, Boone Logan, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera kept the Red Sox scoreless over the final 3 2/3 innings on two hits and two walks while they punched out five batters to preserve the victory.
Rivera, who entered the game after blowing his past three saves opportunities for the first time in his 17-season major-league career, pitched around a two-out single by Ortiz and a walk to Gomes to retire the tying run in Saltalamacchia on a fly ball to left to earn his 36th save in 41 chances this season.
Dempster ended up a bigger loser than he already was in the second inning. He gave up a whopping seven runs on nine hits and one walk while he struck out three in 5 1/3 innings.
But the bigger loss is that he perhaps awoke the Yankees from a slumbering state and allowed then to rally around their controversial teammate to win a very important three-game series at Fenway.
The Yankees are now 64-59 and they are in fourth place in the American League East, 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Red Sox, who are 73-53. The Yankees are just six games behind in the wild-card standings.
- Opposing fans and even some Yankee fans can hate Rodriguez all they like, but the man is helping this team’s offense in a big way. He finished the game 3-for-4 with a home run, two runs scored and two RBIs. Since his return from the disabled list on Aug. 5, Rodriguez is hitting .319 with two home runs and six RBIs in 12 games.
- When both benches emptied in the second inning, Gardner had to be physically restrained by Cano from storming out to the mound to get Dempster. However, Gardner paid Dempster back the best way he could with that triple off Britton that added three more runs to Dempster’s ERA and turned him from a potential winning pitcher to what he really is now – a loser. Dempster’s ERA would have been 4.58 without the three-run triple. As it is, Dempster’s ERA rose to 4.77. Gardner was 2-for-5 with three RBIs and he is now hitting .315 with runners in scoring position and is .429 with the bases loaded.
- Nunez was having himself a very good game until he had to leave in the sixth inning with a tight right hamstring. Nunez was 3-for-3 with two lined shots off the left-field wall, two stolen bases and an RBI. In his past nine games, Nunez is 12-for-34 (.353) with six runs scored and six RBIs. But if Nunez is placed on the disabled list it would be the third time this season he would have missed significant time due to injury.
The only true negative is that the Yankees needed to win the game so badly that they were unable to take the opportunity to get some retribution for Dempster’s cowardly act. If you think Dempster was standing up for his fellow major-league players, he wasn’t because those same players agreed to the rules that allowed Rodriguez to appeal his suspension. If Dempster had a beef, he should have taken it up with Commissioner Bud Selig for not issuing a ban through the Collective Bargaining Agreement or the Players’ Association. Dempster made himself look like a fool, lost the game, rallied the Yankees around their embattled teammate and woke them up enough to beat the Red Sox. I can’t see any positives for Dempster or the Red Sox in it. It was stupid decision.
On the same day his manager and his teammates rallied around him, Rodriguez will not be hearing much from general manager Brian Cashman and other members of the Yankees’ front office. Cashman said on Sunday that he does not feel comfortable talking with Rodriguez other to say hello or goodbye because of Rodriguez’s lawyers intentions to file a grievance with the Players’ Association alleging the Yankees knew Rodriguez was seriously injured during the end of the 2012 season and played him anyway. One of Rodriguez’s attorney, Joseph Tacopina, told The New York Times on Saturday that the Yankees concealed MRI results that would have shown Rodriguez’s left hip was injured during the 2012 playoffs. Yankees president Randy Levine said the claim was inaccurate, adding that Tacopina “needs to put up or shut up.” . . . Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter took batting practice and fielded ground balls at the team’s minor-league complex in Tampa, FL, but he will not be activated when he is eligible to come off the disabled list on Tuesday. Jeter, who is recovering from a strained right calf, still has not run the bases or participated in a simulated game, which he needs to do before he will be activated.
The Yankees will have Monday off before opening a four-game homestand on Tuesday with a day-night doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The doubleheader was scheduled as a result of a rainout on May 19.
Ivan Nova (6-4, 2.99 ERA) will start the day game and Phil Hughes (4-12, 4.97 ERA) will pitch in the nightcap. Right-hander Esmil Rogers (3-7, 4.91 ERA) will pitch in the afternoon contest for the Blue Jays while Mark Buehrle (9-7, 4.29 ERA) will pitch the late game.
Game-time for the opener is 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network. The night game will begin at 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by MY9.
YANKEES 4, RED SOX 2
Most major-league teams conduct “Turn-Back-The Clock” nights to feature vintage era teams. The New York Yankees held their own version of “Turn-Back-The-Clock” night on Thursday and they did it only with a 40-year-old starter and a 43-year-old reliever.
Andy Pettitte threw eight dominant innings of one-run ball and Mariano Rivera began his final season in Major League Baseball with his first save as New York recovered from an 0-2 start to the season to beat Boston in front of a paid crowd of 40,611 on another chilly night at Yankee Stadium.
Pettitte looked to be in vintage 1996 form, when he won 21 games for the Yankees. Using his patented style of peering over the edge of his glove, Pettitte (1-0) scattered eight hits, walked one and struck three while holding the hated Bosox scoreless through six innings.
Their lone score off Pettitte came with two out in the seventh inning when Will Middlebrooks punched an opposite-field single and Jackie Bradley Jr. plated him with a double high off the wall in right-center.
Much earlier in the game, the Yankees finally took their first lead of the season in the second inning when Travis Hafner led off the frame with a single off veteran right-hander Ryan Dempster (0-1). Two outs later, Eduardo Nunez blasted a ground-rule double in right-center and Lyle Overbay scored Hafner and Nunez with an opposite-field single to left-center.
Though the Yankees are missing a lot of power with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez injured, the Yankees broke out the long-ball on Thursday from two of their least likely “Bronx Bombers.”
Brett Gardner led off the third inning with a first-pitch golf shot off Dempster that just scraped over the wall into the first row of the right-field bleachers for his first home run of the season and only the 16th of his career.
With the Yankees leading 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Francisco Cervelli touched off a mammoth shot to left-center on a 3-1 offering from reliever Clayton Mortensen for Cervelli’s first home run of the season and only the fifth of his career. The ball actually struck high off the wall in the Red Sox bullpen and nearly landed in the bleachers.
Pettitte left after eight innings and handed the ball to a familiar teammate, Rivera.
The future Hall-of-Fame closer did give up a leadoff walk to Dustin Pedroia and a one-out double down the left-field line by Jonny Gomes. Pedroia scored on a groundout by Middlebrooks but Rivera struck out Bradley looking to record the 609th save of his 19-season career.
It also was the 69th time that Rivera had saved a victory for Pettitte, which is tops in the majors since the statistic was first recorded in 1969.
Though the Red Sox won the series, the Yankees at least got a measure of payback to improve their record to 1-2.
- For those who thought Pettitte might be through at age 40, you are dead wrong. Though Pettitte did allow nine base-runners, he kept the ball in the ballpark and used three double plays to prevent the Red Sox from manufacturing any offense. Pettitte threw 64 of his 94 pitches for strikes (68 percent) and he never was seriously in much danger of losing his 3-0 lead.
- Overbay, 35, came through with a huge two-out hit in the second inning and general manager Brian Cashman’s decision to sign him after the Bosox released him in the final week of spring training may prove to be a good move while the Yankees await Teixeira’s return from a torn tendon his right wrist.
- Gardner and Cervelli showed that the Yankees do not always have to rely on “little ball” to win games. But don’t expect this pair to be piling up a lot of dingers this season. The Yankees won this game with good pitching, good defense and some opportunistic hitting.
- If the Yankees are going to have to rely on more of a running game this season it would nice if their top base-stealers would not get thrown out on the basepaths. Gardner was thrown out at second base in the first and Nunez was nabbed the same way in the sixth. Both of them were nailed by backup Red Sox catcher David Ross.
- After his 3-for-4 night on Wednesday, the Red Sox made sure Vernon Wells did not get a fastball to hit on Thursday. Wells did not adjust and was 0-for-4 with a strikeout.
- In this series the Red Sox trotted out a new shift on Robinson Cano in which they shifted third baseman Middlebrooks into short right-field. It evidently bothered Cano because he hit two balls right to Middlebrooks and was 0-for-3 with a walk and is hitting .091 after three games.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda told reporters on Thursday that he still is feeling discomfort in his bruised right middle finger but that he still hopes to be able to be ready for his next start in Cleveland on Monday. Kuroda was struck on the finger as he reached up to stop a hard line drive off the bat of Shane Victorino in the second inning and he later was forced to leave the game. Kuroda is scheduled to throw a bullpen session in Detroit on Friday and he will know then if he will be able to pitch. . . . Manager Joe Girardi changed the lineup to have Cano batting second and Kevin Youkilis batting third. Girardi said he decided to make the change to break up three left-handed hitters at the top of the lineup against Dempster. . . . The Yankees decided to give right-hander David Aardsma his unconditional release on Thursday. Aardsma, 31, had a 3.52 ERA this spring, but he was designated for assignment because the team preferred right-hander Shawn Kelley, who could offer multiple innings out the bullpen.
The Yankees travel to Detroit on Friday for the Tigers’ 2013 home opener.
Right-hander Ivan Nova (1-0, 4,19 ERA this spring) will start for the Yankees seeking redemption from a 2012 season in which he was 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA. In his short career, Nova is 0-1 with a 9.24 ERA against the Tigers.
He will be opposed by right-hander Doug Fister (2-3, 5.68 ERA this spring), who pitched 6 1/3 innings of shutout baseball in Game 1 of the 2012 American League Championship Series against the Yankees. He is 1-2 with a 5.18 ERA versus the Yankees in the regular season.
Game-time will be 1:08 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!
THIRD BASE – KEVIN YOUKILIS (19 HRs, 60 RBIs, .235 BA)
With Alex Rodriguez headed for surgery to his left hip this month the Yankees were forced to take a plunge into the free-agent market for a replacement and they chose 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis.
The former Red Sox nemesis has had his own issues with injuries throughout his career but the Yankees needed someone who could play the position and provide some offense until Rodriguez is ready to to return to action, which won’t come until at least June.
Youkilis enters 2013 free of the swirling rumors of his commitment to the game former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine thrust upon him last season. After he was traded to the Chicago White Sox he did pick up his production, hitting .236 with 15 home runs and 46 RBIs, largely batting second.
After undergoing sports hernia surgery that ended his 2011 season, Youkilis suffered through the early part of 2012 with a groin injury that landed him on the disabled list. When Will Middlebrooks produced good numbers in his absence, the Red Sox decided to send him packing to make room for the rookie.
Youkilis has never played in more than 147 games in any of his seven full major-league seasons, which was in first full season with the Red Sox in 2007. His best season with the Bosox was in 2008, when he hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs.
But Youkilis’ all-out style of play has also left him susceptible to nagging injuries, which have lessened his power and production numbers. In addition, Youkilis’ unusual batting style, which worked well for him when he was younger (He hit a career-high .312 in 2008), has left him less effective the last two seasons in which he has hit .258 and .235.
It will be the job of hitting coach Kevin Long to get Youkilis back on track at the plate with is timing and to get Youkilis driving the ball as he did so well at Fenway Park. As a right-hand hitter, the Yankees will not be looking for big-time power from Youkilis. But they would like him to get back to hitting closer to his lifetime .283 average and driving in runs.
There is a good possibility that Youkilis might slide into the No. 3 or No. 5 spots in the batting order to separate left-handers Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. That means the Yankees will be counting on Youkilis to provide solid production in the heart of the batting order.
A lot will depend if Youkilis is 100 percent healthy when he reports to camp in Tampa, FL, and he can remain healthy. He will have to because the Yankees’ options behind him are quite limited and much less productive.
As a fielder, Youkilis is considered an excellent first baseman. He won a Gold Glove for his work there in 2007. However, he is not as accomplished as a third baseman. Of course, he is actually still considered above average at the position.
There is no doubt that injuries have had an effect on his fielding at third the past two seasons. He made nine errors in 2011 and he committed the same total in 2012. So the slip in his fielding percentage at third had to be due in large part to the sports hernia and groin injuries.
His career fielding percentage at first is .997 but at third it is .966. But the Yankees feel if he is healthy, he can play the position more than adequately. Fielding, after all, was not a strength of A-Rod’s game either.
Of course, it is hard to know what the strength of Rodriguez’s game is really. Last season was another one of those seasons that he has failed to provide the production the Yankees needed and his season ended with a late injury which may or may not have contributed to his poor postseason.
After playing in just 99 games in 2011, largely due to a right knee injury, Rodriguez played in 122 games in 2012. He missed more than a month of the season and returned in early September after being struck in the left hand with a pitch from Seattle Mariners ace right-hander Felix Hernandez.
But when he was healthy, Rodriguez did not produce much in the way of power or runs batted in. He finished the season hitting .272 with 18 home runs and 57 RBIs. Batting in the middle of the most productive lineup in baseball in 2012, A-Rod hit .200 with the bases loaded and .230 with runners in scoring position.
But the most telling statistic is this: Rodriguez hit a home run every 25.7 at-bats in 2012. In his career, he has hit a home run every 14.9 at-bats. To say the 37-year-old three-time Most Valuable Player is suffering through a serious erosion of his skills is putting it mildly. It even lead to his being pinch-hit for at a critical point in the 2012 American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.
So even when Rodriguez returns the question is how much can the Yankees count on him? Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since 2007.
What looked to a be a lock that he would eventually break Barry Bonds’ dubious all-time home run record of 762 looks to a longshot now. But the real problem is the Yankees are on the hook for paying Rodriguez, in sickness and unproductive health, through the 2017 season.
So unless A-Rod gets tired of being booed, looking like a fool striking out against mediocre pitchers and he decides to retire, the Yankees have a 6-foot-3, 225-pound albatross around their necks. General manager Brian Cashman has been ordered to reduce payroll to $189 million by 2014 and it will be hard to see how they can remain competitive as long as they are paying big bucks to an unproductive has-been.
But we will see how it all plays out when Rodriguez does make it back to the field in 2013.
Likely, he will not play much third base.
Though Rodriguez two Gold Gloves as a shortstop with the Texas Rangers in 2002 and 2003, he has never been considered a very good fielder at third base. His career fielding percentage at the position is .964 and it was .957 in 2012. He committed eight errors in 81 games at the position last year.
The previous injury to his right hip pretty much has robbed him of some of the lateral quickness and smoothness he needs to field at the hot corner.
So upon Rodriguez’s return it is more likely he will assume the designated hitter role for most of the rest of the season in order to keep his surgically repaired left hip from acting up again.
The Yankees do not have much in the way of options at third base behind Youkilis.
They were hoping that they could convince Eric Chavez, 35, to come back for a third season. But the free agent elected to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Though Chavez was unable to physically handle playing third base on a daily basis, he did contribute mightily to the Yankees at third and first base and as a DH and pinch-hitter. He hit .281 with 16 home runs and 37 RBIs in 2012. He also played 64 games at third base and flashed some of the form that led to him winning six consecutive Gold Gloves at the position from 2001 through 2006 with the Oakland Athletics.
He and his left-hand bat will be missed in 2013.
Instead the Yankees will have to look to Jayson Nix, 30, as the primary backup in 2013.
Nix entered the 2012 season as a minor-league player invited to spring training by the Yankees. After hitting over .300 in the spring Nix was assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but he was recalled on May 3 when the Yankees decided that Eduardo Nunez was ill-suited to be a utility infielder.
Nix hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 177 at-bats as largely a backup to Rodriguez at third base and Derek Jeter at shortstop.
Nix was designated for assignment by the Yankees on Nov. 30, 2011 to make room on the 40-man roster for All-Star reliever Mariano Rivera, who was signed to a one-year contract. But Nix agreed to accept an assignment to Triple A in order to remain with the team. He will be invited to spring training and he has an excellent chance of retaining his backup infielder role.
Though Nix will not knock down any fences, he will play solidly in the field and give a good effort at the plate. That is what the Yankees hope he can do.
Nunez, 25, started the season as the team’s infield backup but his careless errors in the field cost him the job. Manager Joe Girardi and the Yankees’ front office agreed to send Nunez back to Triple A to play shortstop exclusively.
However, Nunez spent most of his time in the minors sidelined with a right-hand injury. There are no questions about Nunez’s bat. He is a career .272 hitter with the capability of stealing 40 bases in a full season.
But Jeter, 38, is still the shortstop and Nunez is a butcher in the field, hence the nickname “Eduardo Scissorhands.” He was on a pace to commit 42 errors if he had played every day in 2012.
The Yankees look at Nunez as a potential right-hand DH in 2013 at this point. Nunez is not a home run hitter but he could possibly hit 10 home runs and drive in 60 runs if he got 425 or so at-bats. The Yankees also missed his speed last season.
Nunez stole 22 bases in 112 games in 2011 and he actually led the Yankees for most of the 2011 season with 11 until A-Rod and Ichiro Suzuki passed him in September. Nunez along with left-fielder Brett Gardner and Suzuki would give the Yankees a speed game they were lacking in 2012.
But the Yankees likely will not use Nunez at third base and there is a good possibility that Nunez could be traded to a team needing a shortstop before the season starts. They will listen to offers anyway.
Behind Nix the Yankees do not have a lot of major-league-ready options at the position.
David Adams, 25, and Corban Joseph, 24, are on the 40-man roster but both are primarily second basemen.
Adams hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs at Double-A Trenton in 2012 while Joseph hit a combined .276 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs between Trenton and Triple-A Scranton.
Adams, a third-round draft selection out of the University of Virginia in 2008, has been held back by a severe ankle injury. Joseph is a fourth round pick in 2008 out of Franklin High School in Franklin, TN.
Joseph would seem to have more upside because of his power and the fact that he bats left-handed. The Yankees could use a left-handed hitting infield backup. But Joseph is not considered as a shortstop. The same for Adams.
Both were elevated to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule V draft in 2013 and both will get opportunities to play in spring training. But Nix and Nunez have a huge upper hand on them because neither of the youngsters have played a significant amount of time at third base. In addition, neither player is among the Yankees’ Top 20 prospects.
The only third baseman among the Top 20 prospects is the Yankees’ first selection in the 2011 draft Dante Bichette Jr., son of the former Colorado Rockies slugger of the same name.
Bichette, 20, opened eyes last spring when he was placed on the traveling squad for an exhibition game against the Houston Astros and he hit a pair of solo home runs in his two at-bats in the only game in which he played. However, his 2012 season was a major disappointment because he hit only three home runs, drove in 46 runs and batted .248 at Class-A Charleston (SC).
But because he was the Most Valuable Player of the Gulf Coast League in 2011 and he has adapted better than expected at third base, the Yankees have high hopes for the Maitland, FL, native. However, he appears to be more than two years away from being ready for the major leagues.
Third base appears to be a big issue for the Yankees entering 2013.
Rodriguez is sidelined once again and his replacement Youkilis has had issues with injuries of his own. There appears to be an adequate backup in Nix but the Yankees have limited options behind him. The jury on Bichette is out for now but the Yankees remain optimistic he can follow in his father’s footsteps.
This is definitely not the Yankees’ strongest position entering the season and there will be a lot of people crossing their fingers Youkilis stays healthy and Rodriguez come back strong. It seems an awful lot to ask for at this point.