Monday, July 30, 2007

Yanks Quiet at the Deadline

Since the current playoff run began in 1995, the Yankees and trade deadline rumors have gone hand in hand. This year is no different, the Bombers are linked to almost every potential big name player out there, Texeira, Gagne, Dotel, even Dan Johnson. Alright that last one is not quite a big time player, but point taken. In line with his stance last season, Cashman, and the Tampa brain trust, are unwilling to part with any top tier prospects, and feel confident plunging forward with the current roster.

Pitching remains a concern. Kyle Farnsworth added fuel to the fire with another disastrous outing yesterday, amid yet another blow up on the mound, Jorge Posada the recipient this time. Shipping Farnsworth out would fit the addition by subtraction mantra, but at the least his days of appearing late in important games must end. Note to Torre, no more eighth innings for Kyle, unless the mercy rule is in effect. With Luiz Vizcaino the only reliable setup man in front of the recently unhittable Mariano Rivera, the Yanks have a need.

Gagne, Dotel, Otsuka, Qualls. New York is in play on all of them, but teams want the sun and moon from the Yanks, notably Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy, particularly Texas. Unless Texas suddenly gets a dose of reality, Gagne stays put. Nobody else available is a difference maker. Teams drooling over Octavio Dotel, the same Dotel the Yanks left off the postseason roster last year, says everything you need to know about the players available. Enter Joba Chamberlain, 21-year-old righthanded flame thrower, 2006 draft pick from Nebraska. The Yanks promoted Chamberlain to Triple-A last week. Before he could make his second start, management scratched Chamberlain and sent him to the bullpen, where he will throw Monday and Wednesday. Critics argue that the late season move to relief, at this age, screams for an arm injury. Proponents counter that limiting his innings will decrease stress on Chamberlain’s arm. Right or wrong, expect Joba sporting pinstripes on Friday night against Kansas City. Forget Torre’s use of Edwar Ramirez, Chamberlain will pitch meaningful innings, and pitch often. According to scouts, he is ready now and provides a serious upgrade over all the current options.

Still, the Yanks remain in play for the aforementioned relievers, though not as desperate. Phil Hughes will join his fellow uber-prospect next weekend at the stadium, after completing another dominant rehab outing, tossing 6 2/3 shutout innings for Scranton. Hughes immediately slots into the rotation, behind Wang, Pettitte, and Clemens. Torre may continue calling Mussina the fourth starter, but if a playoff series started today, before even returning the majors, I still pitch Hughes before Moose.

With Hughes back the starting pitching is set, while New York will reinforce the bullpen internally with Chamberlain, and Jeff Karstens, who has matched Hughes zero for zero during his rehab stint, could provide a surprising boost to the relief corp. Chance of a trade for pitching, 50/50, but no major deals likely, unless Texas or KC drastically change their requests in the next 48 hours.

Go around the horn, A-Rod, Jeter, and Cano. All set there, especially with Cano swinging a hot bat the last three weeks, dispelling rumors of his demise. First base, a sore spot most of the season, is the most frequently mentioned trade possibility on the offensive side. Partially thanks to the merry-go-round of inhabitants underperforming most of the season, though I feel the rumors persisted because critics needed to point the finger somewhere when the offense was struggling to score runs and first base is the only lineup spot not solidified. Potential trades continue floating through the grapevine, notably A’s backup Dan Johnson. If anyone feels Johnson, or a Shea Hillebrand, also mentioned before inking a minor league deal with San Diego, will be a difference maker, I have a bridge you might want to buy. Andy Phillips finally looks comfortable, and somewhere Doug Mientkiewicz lurks.

The red hot Hideki Matsui, a rejuvenated Bobby Abreu, and the young and old platoon of Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera, round out the lineup. Again, due to contracts, age, and current performance, the outfield is set.

Depending on who you ask, Jason Giambi intends to play in August, the question remains where. Giambi should never defensively take the field again for the Yankees. He ranks somewhere between putrid and unwatchable. Damon already consumes the DH role, a move back to CF puts Melky Cabrera, a far superior defensive player and budding offensive contributor, on the bench, transforming the Yanks into a station to station, home run hitting lineup, with below average defense. If Giambi brings his 35 home run stick to the plate, the shear threat is worthwhile. Given his early season performance, and about three months vacation hurting timing at the plate, do not count on Giambi. In fact, Giambi returning hurts the team. It forces Torre to play him, potentially inserting an automatic out into the middle of the lineup, while hurting the defense as documented above. Giambi just disappearing better serves the Yanks.

Of course, if Damon is traded that changes. Rumors circulated that New York is offering the aging CF, and the remaining 2 ½ years on his ill fated, around the league. The sheer rumor signifies Cashman and the front office brass admit their mistake. When healthy, and performing, Damon is a lightning rod leadoff hitter. Injuries, a refusal to go on the DL, age, and a slower bat, has relegated Damon to a shell of the “idiot” leader from Boston. Finding a taker remains another story. Barring a major injury elsewhere in the league, the contenders can do without a broken down Damon, while long term contracts do not fit rebuilding situations.

One player surprisingly drawing interest is Kei Igawa. Another situation where the Cashman and company admit a mistake, without directly saying it, finding a taker for Igawa is likelier than Damon. Igawa has shown one glimmer of hope that he can pitch in the majors, his strikeout total. Since returning Igawa fans about a batter per IP, substantiating his Japanese statistics. Control remains his undoing. Igawa walks close to a batter an inning, while consistently falling behind in counts allowing opposing hitters to tee off on his below average fastball. Maybe pitching in NY is overwhelming, or the transition to America, or he may simply not be good, but lefty pitchers always get second, and third lives. With no spot for the Kei-man, Igawa will move, the only question is now or after the season, and how much of the contract the Yanks must pay. Cashman only wishes he could trade the posting fee along with him.

The non-waiver deadline lurks tomorrow, followed by another month of rumors before the waiver deadline. Outside of bench player, or middle reliever, Scranton will provide the Yankees biggest acquisitions. After already cutting the lead in half since the All-Star break, Chamberlain and Hughes may just be the youthful shot in the arm that carries the Yanks past Cleveland.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Annual Trade Deadline Countdown

Speculation, rumors, buyers and sellers, insider information, media types contriving situations only conceivable in the imagination – may sound like your average down on Wall Street, but it’s the annual prelude to the baseball trading deadline. Several in baseball personnel continue to predict 2007 will be the slowest year to date, with few difference making players available, and contending teams unwillingly to part with high prospects for rental players. The pattern of holding onto prospects, sometimes overvaluing, has been building over the past few years as the value of young, impact players earning bound to relatively low salaries has skyrocketed in the age of escalating free agent salaries.

Listen and read enough, and it seems half the players in the league are involved with trade rumors. 14 teams should realistically be buyers and only some will execute a trade. Unless a borderline team, like Minnesota or St. Louis, with an outside chance to reach the playoffs, wants to become the 2004 Mets, they should face reality and look toward next year. These teams, smartly managed for the most part, are unlikely to make a Scott Kazmir-esque mistake, and both may sell an ancillary piece if things continue spiraling down over the next few days. I stress ancillary piece. Forget Torri Hunter, or god forbid, Johan Santana. Minnesota must try to resign both, if only to save face publicly.

Mark Texeira is the biggest name out there, and all indications are he is heading to Atlanta for a trio of highly touted prospects, headlined by switch-hitting catcher Jared Saltalamacchia. Texeira is the only formidable bat available, with a few big failures in his short tenure, Texas GM Jon Daniels needs to move Texeira before he walks and get good value or he is staring at unemployment. Atlanta can use a power bat to pick up the slack with Andruw Jones struggling, plus the Braves have a dearth of young talent to deal. The pieces all fit here. With the Mets staggering along in first in the NL East, an impact move by either Philly or Atlanta may provide the statistical and emotional lift to catch the Mets. While many other teams have floated in the Texeira rumor mill, the Angels are the only sensible fit. LA’s recent track record is holding onto prospects, which is backfiring since none have developed into formidable contributors yet. Casey Kotchman holds better long term value than Texeira anyway.

Most teams subscribe to the old axiom, good pitching beats good hitting, and covet bullpen help. Almost every contender, particularly Detroit, Cleveland, both NY teams, and Atlanta, can really use middle relief help. All indications are Octavio Dotel and Eric Gagne is likely to go, while rumors surround the entire Astros bullpen but at most only one member will get dealt. The Yankees are playing both sides, looking to acquire while simultaneously shopping both Kyle Farnsworth and Scott Proctor. Farnsworth to Detroit makes sense on many levels, except the Yankees are directly competing with the Tigers in the AL. The unwritten rule never to help the competition went out the window when San Diego traded Scott Linebrink to Milwaukee earlier this week, so maybe the Yanks do cut their losses and deal Fransworth to Detroit. It appears the Bombers biggest pitching acquisitions will come from Triple-A Scranton, in the form of super prospects Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.

Gagne to Cleveland makes the most sense. He wants to close games; the Tribe have an unstable closer situation, and hear the footsteps of the Yankee stampede behind them. The Royals have no excuse for keeping Dotel, with a contending team at least two to three years away. I think Dotel is a nice consolation for Cleveland or Detroit, if they cannot land Gagne, or his bullpen mate, Akinori Otsuka.

One under the radar rumor involves Chad Cordero to the Mets. Cordero would provide a major upgrade to a struggling Mets middle relief core that recently saw Joe Smith returned to Triple-A, and only has one reliable contributor, Pedro Feliciano, at this point. Cordero immediately vaults the Mets bullpen to a formidable level, required to succeed in the playoffs.

In Houston, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls, continually show up in rumors. Each has struggled at times this season, sparking trade speculation, while each has pitched lights out for stretches fueling the theory that Houston will hold onto each, keeping the bullpen in tact for a run next year. Lidge appears to have rediscovered his dominant stuff the past month, returning to the closer role, lowering his season ERA below two and posting over a K/IP. In other words, forget about him. Qualls or Wheeler is there for the taking, but both are available since neither has pitched great.

Watch out for Atlanta in the reliever sweepstakes. The Braves desperately need relief help, after losing setup man Mike Gonzalez to season ending surgery in May, and watching Bob Wickman continually blow late inning leads to the tune of a 7+ July ERA. With all the holes Atlanta needs to plug, give credit to Bobby Cox for holding the ship together, keeping the Braves very much within striking distance.

Just as many contenders need starting pitching, but it is simply not available. The White Sox continue offering everyone, outside of Mark Buerhle and John Danks. All reports are Jose Contreras is a shell of his former self, and the numbers supports that theory, 5-13 record with a 6.22 ERA. Is that really going to help anyone? Javier Vazquez and Jon Garland are better options, until you hear Kenny Williams’ asking price. The Braves, surprise, can really use a veteran fourth starter behind Smoltz, Hudson, and James, while both the Mets, counting on Pedro Martinez returning in August, and Cleveland, will likely fill their needs from within.

The past two years, starting pitcher trade rumors and Dontrelle Willis go hand in hand. I feel the allure comes from his track record, his age, his larger than life persona, and his team’s willingness to deal, more than his value. Willis’ numbers have clearly declined since his 22-win 2005 season. The Marlins missed the opportunity to get maximum trade value, but some team desperate for pitching, blind to reality, may still ante up. Every day Florida holds onto Willis his value declines. D-Train to the Mets rumors have persisted for almost two years, now may be the team. The Mets need a shot in the arm, and pitching stability. Willis provides both. He may not be an elite pitcher, or a staff ace, but he will take the ball every fifth day, give the team a chance to win, and provide life to the clubhouse. With El Duque always on the brink of a missed start, Tom Glavine getting hammered two of every three starts in his slow pursuit of 300 wins, and the great unknown in Pedro Martinez returning from major surgery that often leads to setbacks, the Mets can use a known quantity. More important, the clubhouse intermittently turmoil laden clubhouse needs a good spirited character to reunite the team.

Offensively, the Mets are actively pursuing 2B help after losing Jose Valentin earlier this week, but I feel they can use a big OF stick. Consider Shawn Green’s awful numbers since returning from injury, the likelihood Moises Alou stays healthy for more than a week, not to mention Ramon Castro hit fifth this afternoon, and the Mets really need bat. Jermaine Dye anyone. Unfortunately, all indications are Omar Minaya is counting on Alou and Pedro to be major contributors. Not exactly making Met fans feel warm and fuzzy. After multiple poor offseason trades (see Guillermo Mota, Brian Bannister for Ambrioux Bourgous, and Heath Bell for Ben Johnson), Minaya needs to make amends for a team expected to win now.

While the big name hitter is not available, outside of Texeira, some teams can use a serviceable hitter to add punch to the lineup, notably San Diego and the Angels. The Padres waiver acquisition of Milton Bradley already paid dividends, with late game clutch hits, and some much needed pop. Mike Piazza is a nice fit for LA, at a low cost. The Rays are dangling Ty Wigginton out there. A 20-plus homer threat, able to play almost every position, Wigginton can help any team with offensive needs, if only the Mets could reverse that Kris Benson trade, but Wigginton has no place on the Yankees, the team most associated with him. With Giambi possibly returning, Andy Phillips hitting well, and Torre already struggling to get everyone into the lineup, Wigginton would replace Miguel Cairo as the utility infield backup, hardly his optimum role. Cashman Wigginton will not solve the Yanks problems.

Arizona is interesting to watch. Only a week ago rumors circulated that Livan Hernandez was on the market, what a difference a week makes. Back surgery shelves Randy Johnson for the season, and eight straight wins propel the D-Backs within .5 games of first place LA. Now, Hernandez and Eric Byrnes will stay put, and Arizona may become buyers. The D-Backs sorely need a veteran to provide leadership, and solidify the young team. Do not expect Arizona to mortgage any of those young studs though.

The next three days should be interesting. New players may surface at the last minute, while teams can decide to cash in their chips for the season and trade away big names. The deadline may turn out like your average Hollywood film, more hype than substance, but GM’s can tilt a few divisional races with deadline moves. Every NL division is there for the taking, a deadline lift could determine the winners.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Yanks All-In on Hot-Rod

Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner pushed all the chips to the middle of the table. They went all in, showed their cards, now they await the dealer’s hand. The dealer is one Scott Boras, famous for his stern poker face.

The Yanks front office had little choice here. Texas still pays about $8 millions per year for A-Rod, meaning the Yanks only chip a mere $17-18 each season. Allowing Rodriguez to opt out, then signing him to a new contract makes no business sense, since they lose the $20+ million Texas contribution over the next years. A-Rod has only 15 days after the World Series to decide whether to opt out or not. A small negotiation window for a contract extension guaranteed to be the highest valued ever. If A-Rod opts out, meaning Texas no long frays the salary impact for the Yanks, I think the chances he returns are slim to none. Negotiating now is the only option.

On the flip side, do you think Scott Boras cares what helps the Yankees? Boras is all about dollars and cents, seeing what the market yields, then asking for more. Unlike A-Rod’s previous free agency, Boras will not require a 100-page binder to convince teams A-Rod deserves a blank check, one sheet with his final 2007 stats should do the trick.

No matter what the Yankees offer, Boras will want more. The super agent, with a penchant for setting new financial standards, expects to again reach unchartered waters making A-Rod the first $30 million a year player, or, dare I say, $40 million a year. Undoubtedly, Boras plans to pit the Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, White Sox, Yankees, and Mets, against each other, with Boston, and perhaps a sleeper like San Fran, in the mix, all with hopes to drive the price up. And you know what, that is exactly what will happen. And some team will pay up.

With both A-Rod and Boras refusing to negotiate until after the season, Cashman better start identifying contingency plans to add both a right-handed power hitter, and a third baseman. The minor leagues are barren of impact position players, nor can any rookie bear the weight of replacing A-Rod. Mike Lowell is a name that keeps popping up. If Florida unloads players, Miguel Cabrera is as close to A-Rod as the Yanks can come, and he comes cheaper and younger. Cabrera would cost a pretty penny in prospects, though.

New York opened a potential Pandora’s box by agreeing to negotiate with A-Rod in-season, against team policy, only to immediately have A-Rod refuse the request. Now, it is possible that A-Rod walks anyway, leaving the Yanks with egg on their face, and the Yanks damage their relationship with Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, who they each refused to negotiate with this season, to the point where each walks after the season. As unlikely as it sounds, today the possibility is very real. If that happens, the 2007 season may seem like glory days compared to the 2008 edition.

Rickey, A Coach?

Apparently, first place in the NL East is not sufficient. With the Mets lineup failing to meet lofty preseason expectations, thanks to a boat load of injuries, and underperforming superstars, notably Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran, hitting coach Rick Down paid the price. Down is out, the first coach fired under Randolph, replaced by none other than Rickey Henderson. Stolen base king, former MVP, World Series champion, aloof purveyor of unforgettable quotes, the previous generation’s Manny Ramirez, a coach.

Other than simply shaking things up, I do not see many tangible benefits from bringing Rickey into this clubhouse. During his playing career, Henderson occasionally exhibited an attitude problem, lack of work ethic, and famously disappeared for a card game during a Mets-Braves playoff series. Not to mention, Rickey does not come off as the most astute individual. Name the last time a professional coach, spokesperson for the organization, setting examples for young players, spoke of himself in the third person.

Subsequent reports have Henderson taking over at first base, with Howard Johnson assuming the duties of hitting instructor, a better scenario for the Mets. Getting on base and base stealing are Henderson’s sweet spot. As first base coach, he can focus on teaching base stealing, similar to his role as spring training instructor a few years back, and help hitters approach at the plate, lending credence to patience and working pitchers. I do not envision Rickey succeeding breaking down the technical components of a swing, nor do I want during a playoff run, if I am the Omar Minaya.

The move can go one of two ways, Rickey can prove a quality clubhouse person and provide important leadership to the young core of talent, or he can disrupt team chemistry. Despite public perception, almost everyone he played with, to a man, says Rickey is a great teammate. The only difference, teammates found his antics amusing and laughable at times. As a coach, he needs to take a more serious approach, saving the clown act for select times. Can he make that adjustment?

I have never spoken to Rickey, though I would love to, nor have I recently heard him interviewed, so it is hard to say if “retirement”, which he still refuses to admit to, has led to maturity. If so, Henderson can provide some desperately needed mentorship, especially following the Jose Reyes hustle problem, and Paul LoDuca vs. the Hispanic player’s controversy. If he is still the old Rickey, putting himself before the team, the Mets only gain another sideshow, the last thing they need.

Adding Henderson is as high a risk-reward proposition as changing a coach can be. Given his lack of any coaching experience, and the situation the Mets are in, middle of a pennant race with pressure to make the World Series, I do not like the timing, and prefer a more experienced coach. As with all decisions, time will tell. But I cannot wait for that first interview, and the return of the quote machine. Hey, its just Rickey being Rickey.

Reconstructing the 2007 Yanks, Or Not

Each year when the trading deadline approaches, at least since their return to prominence in the mid-90’s, the Yankees become a one-team rumor mill. The Yanks come up in conjunction with any player that has a chance to be available, whether the move makes sense or not. Teams want New York involved to drive up the price, while the Yankees feel the need to be involved thanks to a do anything to win now mindset and occasionally the prevent other teams from winning tactic. This season is different. Below .500 for the first time since 1995, fielding an inflexible roster log jammed with superstars, the playoffs a long shot, unlikely to be sellers simply because its not the Yankee way, the Yanks appear headed to an uneventful trade deadline.

A-Rod is not going anywhere this season. One train of thought says with the team out of contention to trade A-Rod, likely to opt-out of his contract after the season anyway, obtaining prospects instead of letting him walk. No chance this happens. Even if somewhat logical, there are too many reasons it will not happen. First, the Yanks just announced they plan to negotiate an extension with A-Rod. Regardless if the extension is completed, the commitment means he stays. With attendance expected to reach 4 million, a privately owned television network depending on star power for ratings, and the prospect of chasing a 60-homer season, Ruth or Maris ring a bell, the Yanks need A-Rod, no matter how far from the playoffs the team is. Trade him and risk a major public out lash. Cashman will learn the fans “Big Hook” may be bigger than the Boss’. Finally, no team will exchange fair trade value for A-Rod given the contract situation, without negotiating an extension, which Boras will never allow. At worst, if he walks after the season, at least the Yanks save face publicly.

Besides A-Rod, rumors continue to surface about trades involving notable underperformers, Bobby Abreu and, before the injury, “Mr. Stuff”, Jason Giambi. Not happening. One major oversight here, trades require two willing teams. What team wants a mediocre fielding corner outfielder with no power, hitting seventh in a struggling lineup, susceptible to prolonged slumps? Did we mention the $15 million salary? Yes, the Yanks can eat it, but why even go there, play it out.

Up the middle the Yanks are entrenched, Jeter, Cano, Posada, Cabrera, and Damon, in some capacity. Matsui mans left, and the revolving door platoon of Phillips, Mientkiewicz, and Cairo, handle first. With three high paid veterans, a young ace, and burgeoning prospect, the starting rotation is not going anywhere. In the pen, Rivera is untouchable, but everyone else is in play. If the Yanks trade any major leaguers, the bullpen will be the source. Other contenders can use a Farnsworth or lefty-specialist Mike Myers, the two most likely targets. For some reason the Yanks seem to love something about Farnsworth, but I can envision swapping the big mouth reliever for an underachieving reliever on another team, or Myers for a low-level prospect.

On the buy side, the most obvious targets are first base, and the bullpen. Texiera rumors continue, but not at the price Texas is asking. Cashman’s plan remains and I believe correctly, to hold onto all the young minor league pitching. Trading Hughes, Chamberlain, or any other player off the Double-A pitching staff for a 3-month rental in what appears as a lost season, would haunt the Yanks for years. Cashman will not allow that to happen, irrespective of his job security.

Swapping relievers is possible, but how much impact will that have. Like it or not, barring a major surprise, if the 2007 Yankees plan to make a miracle comeback, they need the current players to pull it off. However, over the past few years, we have learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to the Yankees.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Beware the Easy Schedule

One analyst put it best, saying it seems like every day we say the Yankees need to turn it around right now. Under .500 at the All-Star break for the first time in the Torre era, with three superior teams showing few weaknesses atop the standings, the Yanks no longer have room for error. Another 1-8 road trip will spell the final kiss of death, if the last one was not already.

When the injuries hit, sending the team into an early tailspin, we pointed to the weak post-All Star game schedule as the time when a rested, healthy Yankee team would make their run. Analyzing the schedule, the Yanks play the next 28 games against teams currently under .500, half of those at the Stadium. Before handing the Bombers 20 wins, look at their record against Baltimore, Tampa, and Toronto this season, 3-10. That is right, three wins. The Rockies have more AL East wins than the Yankees. The Colorado Rockies. Weak schedules guarantee nothing, that is why they play the games.

Even if New York beats up on weaker opponents over the next month, Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston get the same chance during the second half. After the 28 game stretch the Yanks hit a rough patch with 8 games against Detroit, series with Boston, Cleveland, and the Angels. Essentially, relying on the schedule is another crutch to hold onto. A reason to believe they can climb out of the hole.

Bottom line, the Yankees need to play better. Hitting, pitching, defense, consistency. That will win games, not easy opponents. Clutch hitting and shutdown bullpen performances, hallmarks of the championship years, are sorely lacking, evidenced by a 6-14 record in one-run games. Throughout the Torre era, the team carried a swagger, confidence, sense of invincibility into the late innings, we grew to expect the Yanks to pull out every close game. This season, the team panics late in games, makes crucial fielding errors, and never seems to combine clutch hitting with good bullpen pitching, it is usually one or the other, sometimes neither.

Given the level of competition, and the first half performance of the 2007 edition, a playoff run this season would be more remarkable than 1978. In ’78, the Bombers were reigning champions that played decent in the first half, while Boston played off the charts. The 2007 Yankees have won nothing, ask Jeter or Posada, this team has nary a playoff series victory. The first half performance ranks with the most disappointing ever, and the teams they are chasing may only get better. A miracle comeback requires not only an unbelievable second half run, but also a semi-collapse by Boston, Detroit, or Cleveland. For some perspective, the Yanks need to go 50-25 just to reach 92 wins, while Cleveland only needs to go 40-34 in the second half to match that. A .667 winning percentage means winning almost every series over the second half of the season, without any lapses. Do you get the sense this Yankee team can do that?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Help On The Way for Yanks

The injuries that ravaged the Yankees pitching staff early in the season, leading to 11 different starting pitchers in the first 2 months of the season, are starting to heal. After adding Clemens, the starting staff stabilized with four veterans consistently pitching each turn through the rotation. Starting stability led to better bullpen performance, in turn more wins, outside of the one disastrous road trip through Colorado, San Francisco, and Baltimore.

While improved, the Yankees pitching are not exactly the Padres, and additional reinforcements are necessary, welcome, and on the way. Injured within a four-day span as April turned to May, Phil Hughes and Jeff Karstens also began the march back to the Bronx in the same week, each making rehab starts last week. Later this week both make the second of what should be three or four rehab starts.

Everyone in NY anxiously awaits Hughes’ return. The ballyhooed prospects legend only grew after leaving in the midst of a no-hitter with the hamstring injury. Hughes provided a glimpse of the Yankees future, raising expectations for his return. Assuming no further setbacks, Hughes will start in Trenton next, then Scranton, before presumably joining the Yanks the last week of July, stepping right into the fifth spot in the rotation. Besides helping the team down the stretch, the baseball world wants to see for themselves what all the scouts have raved about.

Less celebrated, Karstens return will add depth to a bullpen with numerous weak links. Throw aside the whole lefty advantage, Mike Myers, Ron Villone, and Sean Henn, define unreliable. Torre hardly ever goes to them in a close game, even against lefties, and none can provide the innings of a long man, alas Aaron Sele out in Queens. At worst, Karstens can eat innings to save the back of the bullpen when a starter lasts less than five innings, or a game goes into extra innings. An underrated, but valuable asset, just ask the Yankee relievers that pitched every game earlier this season, then look at their stats.

With the season hanging in the balance, at the very least Karstens and Hughes returning allows the Yankees to start planning for next year. At best, it adds depth to the pitching staff in preparation for a miracle run. Either way, I am psyched to see Phil Hughes, baseballs top pitching prospect, take the hill again.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Hustle Already

Jose Reyes still has some growing up to do. Nobody made a big deal Tuesday night when Reyes failed to run out a grounder back to the mound in Tuesday night’s blowout loss in Colorado. Randolph removed Reyes after the incident. A blip on the radar, no incident, no news articles, no comments about it. One assumes Randolph quickly handled it in house.

Fast forward to Friday night, a dribbler to third base in the eighth inning of another disappointing Met loss. For a second the ball appeared it could go foul, but Mike Lamb fielded it in fair territory. Where is Jose Reyes during this play? He is still standing at home plate, taking in the scenery. Inexcusable, especially for a speedy player who always has a chance to beat a throw out if an infielder bobbles the ball for a split second. To add insult to injury, Lamb slowly jogged toward first and nonchalantly lobbed it over to record the out.

Randolph pulled Reyes after the inning, and then made it clear after the game that not running hard is unacceptable. Unfortunately, Reyes failed to get the point. The All-Star’s post game demeanor and comments were more whoops, hope it does not happen to me again, rather then apologetic for letting the team down.
Before the next night’s game, Billy Wagner, who never is at a loss for words, backed Randolph, going as far to say Reyes should be benched for the weekend. Wagner finally issued a useful quote, instead of his typical shoot from the hip commentary that becomes bulletin board material in other clubhouses. Wagner called out Reyes. That is veteran leadership, but it begs the question, where the leaders are amongst the everyday players. Pitchers typically deal in there own fraternity. Where was Paul LoDuca, David Wright, Delgado, Beltran? Someone needed to step up publicly and lay into Reyes, enough to wipe the smirk off his face and make sure he gets the point.

A week ago, in the opener of the doubleheader in Philly, Reyes lost his cool following a blown call on a stolen base attempt. Players argue bad calls all the time, Reyes, and his coaches, did well to control the outburst preventing an ejection. Two on the field controversies in the same week. Coincidental string of events, or burgeoning attitude problem?

The lack of hustle becomes a bigger problem since the Mets are struggling. When things go south, every mistake, every negative facial expression, each negative comment, the media magnifies. If the Mets had won 8 of 10, maybe the play becomes an afterthought, addressed in the manager’s office, without any public scrutiny.

I applaud Randolph’s reaction, but comments during an interview earlier Friday afternoon directly contradict his handling of the situation. When questioned during his Friday spot on WFAN about Julio Franco not running out a slow grounder in Colorado, two days after the initial Reyes incident, Randolph claimed it was no big deal. He continued, that there was little chance to beat the throw even if he ran hard, and that its alright since he is 47 years old. Yes, I know comparing Reyes and Franco, is like comparing apples and oranges. As a veteran leader, on the team for little more than clubhouse leadership, given his performance this season, Franco needs to set a better example. How can Franco confront Reyes if he does not run every play out?

The situation diffused over the weekend. Reyes makes his All-Star debut in San Francisco on Tuesday. The break gives Reyes an opportunity to reflect on his actions, or lack thereof, and Randolph’s punishment. Let’s see if he gets the message.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Padre Pitching Dominance

Pitching wins. You can never have enough pitching. Good pitching shuts down good hitting. Get the point. Baseball clichés are more than catchy sayings, they mean something, they have a point. The 2007 San Diego Padres are living proof, wielding the best record in the National League, with a less than potent offense, to put it nicely. No regulars’ batting average is higher than .265 or boasts an OBP over .334. On the mound, the Padres are on pace to post the best numbers across the board since the 1990’s.

Petco Park favors pitchers, but not by more than a half run, the differential between the Padres Team ERA and the next closest team. The numbers are staggering, lowest ERA, lowest WHIP, top 3 in BAA, 4 shutouts more than any other team, most Quality Starts, lowest bullpen ERA, OK, let me catch my breath. The current Team ERA of 3.05 would shatter Atlanta’s 3.13 ERA from 2002, the lowest this decade. San Diego’s pitching supremacy should not surprise anyone. Look at the progression over the past three seasons, moving to 13th in MLB in 2005, up to second, beyond AL Champ Detroit last season, before taking the big leap this season.

Many factors contribute to the Padres success. Lets start with the best, and least ballyhooed, 1-2 combo in baseball, Jake Peavy and Chris Young. The fact Chris Young even required the fan vote to make the All-Star game is a disgrace to the process. Young has dominated the NL this season, and is arguably the NL Cy Young winner at the half way mark. Both Peavy, bouncing bac in a big way from a subpar 2006, and Young, are Top 10 in ERA, WHIP, and Strikeouts. The pair are right there in wins also, though its more of a team stat than a reflection of pitching dominance, case in point Carlos Zambrano and Randy Wolf posting 10 and 9 wins respectively to go along with over 4 ERAs.

Health, always an issue for pitching staffs, continues to bless the Padres thus far this season. The top four starters each have 17 or 18 starts, while the fifth spot has made 17 starts, the last 11 by Justin Germano, who replaced Clay Hensley after Hensley struggled early on. Of the five current starters, only Boomer Wells sports an ERA over 4, and none have lost more than five games. Consistency, a good mix of veteran and young arms, all contribute to the record stats.

The dominance does not end with the starts, San Diego’s bullpen ERA also leads the majors, on pace to be the lowest since the 1990 Eckersley-led Oakland A’s. We all know Trevor Hoffman, the All-Time Saves leader, but the setup and middle relievers separate San Diego from the rest of the league. Scott Linenbrink is the NL answer to the Angels Scot Sheilds, a proven shutdown eight inning reliever in front of a proven elite closer, a deadly combination. Doug Brocail has rediscovered his dominance of the late 1990’s, while Heath Bell, acquired in an off-season trade with the Mets, has emerged as a go-to guy in the late innings. Along with Cla Meredith, the Padres bullpen usually slams the door shut on opponents when handed a lead. Joe Torre please take note, nobody in the Padres bullpen is in the Top 10 in appearances. There may be something to be said for rest.

GM Kevin Towers deserves a ton of credit. He stole Chris Young, clearly an emerging talent at the time, from Texas, along with starting 1B Adrian Gonzalez, before the 2006 season. Then, after last season, Towers snagged both Bell and Royce Ring from the Mets for little more than Ben Johnson. Think the Mets and Rangers want do-over’s?

All this, and we did even mention third starter Greg Maddux, inching ever closer to 350 wins, and new manager Bud Black, one of the best pitching coaches of this ERA. Do not underestimate the pitching knowledge and leadership these two bring to the pitching staff. It takes more than raw talent, pitching savvy and knowledge separates the good from the elite. A little talent does not hurt either.

OLD Timers Day

Do not be fooled. The Yankees time honored annual tradition, where they parade in a cavalcade of stars from teams of the past, is not the reason today is “Old Timers Days” in New York. The real reason, today’s starting pitchers for the Mets and Yankees, 44-year-old Roger Clemens and 41-year-old Tom Glavine. With 43 years of combined Major League experience, each pitcher carries the weight of struggling teams and heavy expectations into the last start before the All-Star game.

Rocket comes off by far his best start of the season, major or minor league, when he shut down the Twins over eight strong innings to collect his 350th career win, stopping a 2-9 skid for the Yanks. While he was vintage on Monday night, it marks the first time it pitched 8 innings since August 2005. How will his 44-year-old body bounce back from the outing? Another major question is how long he can hold up in the hot weather. The Stadium should be a steamy 90 degrees this afternoon. Clemens exhibited difficulty maintaining stamina on a warm Baltimore night last week, and on a muggy afternoon in the thin air of Colorado the start before, hitting the wall hard in each start.

Every game is important as the Yankees continue to try crawling out of the hole they dug. With Pettitte struggling again last night, matching up against the Angels ace, trying to reach .500 before the All Star break, the spotlight on Clemens magnifies. Los Angeles is a tough matchup for Rocket. They have a fast lineup and like to run, playing right into Clemens biggest weakness, holding runners. If the top of the lineup gets on base, the Angels can run wild on Clemens. It could turn into an interesting chess match, and a fuin matchup.

Across town, the Mets, and Tom Glavine, try to right the ship on this painful road trip, in the middle game of a three game set in Houston. Glavine’s struggles enroute to the elusive 300th win are no secret. After posting a 5.83 ERA in 5 June outings, Glavine started July on the wrong foot, getting tattooed for six runs in Colorado. Then again, every Met struggled in the Colorado debacle.

With two starting pitchers heading to the DL last week, veterans like Glavine and Orlando Hernandez, need to buckle down and pitch well. The Mets young pitchers, Pelfrey and Vargas, have proven unreliable, while the bullpen continues to be spotty outside of Feliciano and Wagner, so Glavine needs to step up next to John Maine and carry the pitching through this part of the schedule. On the season, Glavine’s ERA is almost two runs higher on the road, another obstacle he must overcome. The Mets are bleeding right now, however the Phillies and Braves have failed to capitalize in the standings, allowing the Mets a chance to get back on track without major damage. They need the veteran leader to put the bandaid on, especially with the uncertainty surrounding tomorrow’s starter, Dave Williams, making his 2007 debut coming off an injury. A losing streak, and prolonged bad road trip is not how the Mets want to hit the All-Star break. And, oh yeah, did we mention that elusive 300. Do you think Glavine would prefer to get that over with?

In 2007, it is Old Timers Day every fifth day, and its more than a glorified exhibition game.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Best Pitch in Baseball – For Better or Worse

Velocity diminishes with age, split-fingered fastballs and curveball pitchers inevitably go down with arm injuries, and mediocre sliders wind up in the bleachers all too often. The changeup is old reliable. A simple pitching concept, changing speeds, when perfected, can make the difference between mediocrity and dominance, or in this case, pitching in the Yanks bullpen or being out of baseball.

Edwar Ramirez found himself out of baseball in 2004, after being released by the Angels twice in one season, never ascending past A ball. Three years, and one additional pitch later, Ramirez made his major league debut for the Yankees, striking out the side against the heart of the Twins lineup Tuesday night. His minor league stats are staggering, 80 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings between AA and AAA this season, while posting a miniscule 0.62 ERA, allowing a .128 BAA, and walking only 17. All thanks to the changeup.

The jury remains out on Ramirez’ major league potential, but with the Yanks bullpen in shambles, let’s see what he has got. The league may figure him out after the reports get out, then again he could become another Trevor Hoffman. People like to disregard 26-year-old prospects as over the hill, history says otherwise. Many players, particularly pitchers that rediscover themselves, blossom late and pitch into their 40’s.

Back to the change-up. It is the best pitch in baseball. Every pitcher should have it in the arsenal. All youth pitchers should learn to throw changes before breaking balls, more effective, less chance of injury. With Trevor Hoffman, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux, amongst others, as evidence, a pitcher with a decent fastball, good location, and a nasty changeup can dominate major league hitters without ever hitting 90 on the radar guns. The best change ups require similar arm action to the fastball. Ramirez seems to posses the tools, if he can keep hitters honest with his fastball he will be successful. Just having a reliever that does not walk someone every outing is a welcome sight for the Yanks.
Across the clubhouse, Kei Igawa is an example of what happens to a change-up pitcher with a terrible fastball. Igawa insists on throwing high fastballs, a mistake for a pitcher lacking overpowering stuff, which has trouble locating pitches. His out pitch is the change-up, proven effective in the few positive outings this season, albeit it very few. But Igawa continues to fall behind in counts, allowing batters to sit fastball, rendering his changeup useless, since hitters can just wait it out. A lifeless fastball, up in the zone, typically over the middle of the plate, is paradise for hitters. Any doubts, check Kei Igawa’s ERA. It is all a result of not throwing strikes, and not locating the fastball.

A tale of two pitchers and one pitch. A $40 million Japanese import with high expectations and a career minor leaguer making minimum wage, hoping to survive. In the twisted world of baseball, the minor leaguer has the bigger upside. The Yankees have nothing to lose at this point, throw Ramirez into the fire. Let’s see what he has, it cannot possibly be worse than Igawa, or as frustrating to watch as Farnsworth and Proctor, can it be.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Sub .500 teams at the All-Star break must capitalize on every opportunity. That means finishing off the Twins with a rare late inning lead against Johan Santana. Yet, Mike Mussina handed away a 2-1 sixth inning lead, the Yankees mounted no threats against the nasty Twins bullpen, and failed to build on two vintage performances, losing 6-4 yesterday.

Most disconcerting, similar to many losses this season, the Yankees seemed to lack energy, appearing listless most of the game. New York went three up, three down in the last five innings. No walks, no working the count, no rally, no chance. Santana is the best in the business, opponents batting a meager .144 off the lefty this season, but the Yankees horrendous start leaves no room for an off day. They need wins, regardless who the opponent is.

Mussina deserves some of the blame. He pitched well, holding the Twins to one unearned run through five innings, before the Twins played small ball in the sixth, manufacturing a run with a bloop single, stolen base, and two groundouts. I hope the Yankees took notes during that inning. Then came the seventh inning, a double by Torri Hunter, two-run homer to Jason Kubel, game over. For the second time I remember this season, the other being Andy Pettitte against Endy Chavez in the first Met series, a weak hitter victimized a veteran Yankee pitcher on a fat pitch with the Yanks looking for a bunt. That is inexcusable. Mussina is a Stanford guy, still pitching more because of his pitching intellect than his talent, cannot afford to leave a pitch up in the zone, bunt situation or not. With Santana on the mound, there is no room for error. Mussina made a mistake, the Yankees paid the price.
On the offensive side, Torre ran a AAA lineup onto the field, benching Abreu, Damon, and Posada. Santana is tough of lefties, he is tough on everyone, but does benching Abreu, Damon, and Posada in favor of Miguel Cairo, Kevin Thompson, and Wil Nieves, give the Yankees a better chance against Santana. Lefty-righty matchups only go so far. In this case the three left handed hitters are far superior to the three righthander’s that started. Why make things any easier for the best pitcher in baseball? Torre can only sit at most one regular, thanks to the weak bench Cashman has constructed.

On another note, Nieves must go. Backup catchers do not make or break teams, but he is a marginal defensive catcher, throwing out a paltry 29% of base stealers, while posting a putrid .154 OBP. He is an automatic out. The idea that Mussina can only pitch well with Nieves behind the plate is misguided. How did Mussina manage the first six years of his Yankee career with Posada primarily catching? I hate the personal catcher idea. It can slide for top pitchers, alas Greg Maddux and Eddie Perez, not a 4-6 Mike Mussina. Cashman needs to find a better backup catcher, Torre needs to put the best lineup on the field, and the players need to show up to play every day, not twice a week.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Up In Flames

Friday night provided a glimmer of hope for salvaging the 2007 season with another major win streak. A vintage Yankee win, solid pitching, clutch hitting, Rivera slamming the door on a one run win, still had a sour taste thanks to the Kyle Farnsworth outburst. Any thoughts of carrying the momentum through the weekend and putting together a big homestand, quickly ended on Saturday.

Prevailing thought says the team comes out fired up Saturday after a big win, still in a must win situation. Quite the opposite, as the Yankees played with no life, looking more like a group of people with early dinner plans than a team of baseball players on the most prestigious team in the world. There was no sense of urgency from anyone. The stadium was lifeless, half empty after Dan Johnson’s moonshot in the sixth inning extended Oaklands lead to 4-0.

At one point during the seventh inning, as the Yankees bullpen imploded yet again, I leaned over to my friend and concluded, this is what the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s must have looked like, pointing to a morbid half empty stadium, a smattering of boos, and a scoreboard lopsided toward the visitors. For an afternoon, and possibly the next three months, Yankee fans and players will feel the pain that Royal and Pirate fans and players feel every season.

Jorge Posada’s comment on Saturday summarizes the state of affairs perfectly, “It seems like, at times, we just go through the motions”. Saturday’s game was so poorly played it is not even worth analyzing. One Johnny Damon seeing eye single up the middle, that is it, the Yankees offense for the entire nine innings. One measly hit.

Sunday the disaster continued. Andy Pettitte did not have to worry about holding a one run lead or keeping the team in the game while waiting for the offense this time, allowing 8 runs in less than two innings. Even the punchless offense scratching out 5 runs against the AL ERA leader proved useless.

The problems are countless. Abreu, outside of one two week stretch, is possibly the worst $15 million player ever. Yet, defying logic, Torre still bats him third most of the time. Damon needs to go on the DL. Matsui, a class act all the way, is simply not as good as everyone thought. Robinson Cano still has a bright future, and a sweet swing, but the Rod Carew comparisons are an afterthought. That is four left handed hitters providing no consistent production. Throw the injured steroid king into the mix, and its clear why the Yankee lineup, historically built around left handed power hitters to take advantage of the Yankee Stadium dimensions, only goes as far as Jeter, A-Rod, and Posada can take them.

I counted the Yanks out on Memorial Day, unable to imagine a team playing that bad turning it around. A month later that prediction proves prophetic. There is no chance this Yankee team makes the playoffs. Simple math, they need to go 55-28 from today on to reach 92 wins, a total that still likely falls short of the AL Wild Card in 2007. No chance. Not only are no trades out there to save this team, making a hasty trade to try saving a sinking ship would prove disastrous. Though unlikely, Cashman should evaluate selling players, rather than buying. July provides a full month to discuss trade rumors, since pennant race discussions are all but over.

Scott Proctor set his equipment on fire after Saturdays game. The Yankees season went up in flames with his uniform.