by Bruce Markusen |
February 13, 2012 4:56 pm |
The Yankees might actually have a good bench in 2012, something we haven’t been able to say very often over the past decade. With returnees Andruw Jones, Chris Dickerson and Eduardo Nunez and free agent acquisitions Bill Hall and Russell “The Muscle” Branyan all in the mix (and Eric Chavez possibly on the way), the Yankees have a chance to cobble together a decent corps of backup players.
Put me down in favor of the Yankees’ signing of Branyan to a minor league contract. Although he’s 36 and coming off a bad season split between Arizona and Los Angeles (the Angels, not the Dodgers), he has enormous power, the kind of power that makes teams pull out the tape measure when he makes contact. I’ve seen Branyan hit some absolutely monstrous home runs, particularly to center and right-center field. He’s one of the strongest players I’ve ever seen, right up there with Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell in his ability to hit for sheer length. Of course, he hasn’t hit nearly as many home runs as those two Hall of Famers, so that’s where the comparison has to stop.
Branyan also draws a decent number of walks and has a history of success at Yankee Stadium. (He’s the only player to hit a home run against the glass facing of the center field batter’s eye at the new Stadium, having accomplished that feat in 2009.) The key to Branyan’s situation with the Yankees is this: can he still play third base? If he can, then he gives the Yankees someone who can spell Alex Rodriguez against the occasional right-hander, while also providing backup at first base and at DH.
A check of Branyan’s record at Baseball Reference shows that he appeared in two games at third base for the Angels last season. Prior to that, you’d have to go back to the 2008 season for any prior experience at the hot corner; he made 35 appearances at third for the Brewers that season. So it remains somewhat questionable whether Branyan can log any serious time at third base at this late stage of his career.
If Branyan cannot play third, then his value would lie mostly in his ability to DH against right-handed pitching. As a DH, he would need to revert to his 2010 level in order to be helpful. That summer, he slugged 25 home runs and slugged .487 for the Indians and Mariners.
So there are plenty of questions regarding Branyan. But on a minor league contract, with a relatively small salary coming to him if he makes it to Opening Day, Branyan is worth a look. Besides, how can you not love a guy nicknamed Russell the Muscle?..
How do I feel about the possibility of trading A.J. Burnett? Where do I sign? Or perhaps I should say, “Great trade, who’d we get?” Even if the Yankees acquire little of value in exchange for Burnett, they figure to save $3 to $4 million in 2012 salary and can then use that money to add a left-handed DH or another piece to the growing bench. And if Brian Cashman is able to pry a meaningful player out of Pittsburgh in the deal, that’s all the better.
Media reports indicate that three or four teams are interested in Burnett, including the Pirates. The Yankees asked for Garrett Jones in a Burnett deal, but were quickly rebuffed by the Bucs. Jones is a left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder with power, so he’d be a fit for the role as a platoon DH role and backup outfielder. On the downside, he’s already turned 30, is not a nimble defender, and has seen his OPS fall from .938 to .753 over the past three seasons. Therefore, a player like Jones should not be a dealbreaker. Perhaps the Yankees can throw in another player, or perhaps they can find another match on the Pirates’ roster. How about a left-handed reliever like Tony Watson, who could then compete with Boone Logan and Hideki Okajima for the southpaw bullpen role? Or perhaps a minor league outfielder like Gorkys Hernandez?
The fact that the Yankees are engaging teams in serious discussions for Burnett indicates that the enigmatic right-hander has little future in the Bronx. Even if he’s not traded, he has no guarantee of returning to the rotation. He’ll have to beat out both Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes for the fifth spot, which is no small task. If Burnett is not traded and has a bad spring, the Yankees still have the option to stick him in the bullpen and use him as a long man. The bottom line is this: Burnett has no birthright to the starting rotation, not after the way he’s pitched the last two seasons.
So start the clock on Burnett’s departure from New York. I’d put it better than 70/30 that he’s an ex-Yankee by the end of the month. Heck, it might happen before the Yankees open camp on Sunday. I’d imagine quite a few readers of Bronx Banter would be pleased by that possibility…
Now that Luis Ayala has signed with Baltimore, there may be an opening in the bullpen for another right-handed reliever. It could be filled by Manny Delcarmen, who is one of the more interesting names among the 27 non-roster players that the Yankees have invited to spring training. First, the bad news. Delcarmen didn’t pitch at all in the major leagues last season, and he struggled badly in Triple-A ball for two different organizations. Now the better news. He’s only 29, is durable, has had decent success against the American League East in his career, and has plenty of postseason experience.
In 2007 and 2008, Delcarmen was highly effective as a Red Sox set-up reliever, striking out nearly a batter per inning with a WHIP near 1.00. He has struggled badly since then, resulting in a demotion to the minor leagues last spring. In many ways, he reminds me of Ayala–at one time an effective reliever who has fallen on hard times. He’s just the kind of reclamation project that pitching coach Larry Rothschild specializes in, so it’s worth the relatively small gamble of a minor league contract.
When he’s right, Delcarmen throws in the mid-90s and has an excellent curve ball, which he uses as his out-pitch. Remember, Joba Chamberlain won’t be ready by Opening Day, Burnett could be traded, and Cory Wade, while effective in 2011, seems like a candidate for regression in 2012. So Delcarmen has a chance to make the team as the 12th pitcher–and that might not actually be a bad thing.
[Featured image photo credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images]
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.
When I heard that Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers’ veteran right-hander, refused a trade to the Yankees last summer, my first thought was “Fine, we don’t want you anyway.” If he didn’t want to play in New York, his loss. Better for him to stay away than become the next Ed Whitson. God knows we’ve seen turkeys in pinstripes, from Britt Burns and Denny Neagle to Jeff Weaver and A.J. Burnett.
So I was surprised when I read that Brian Cashman was pursuing Kuroda this off-season. This after trying to sign him as a free agent last winter as well. What was I missing? Then last month, there it was: the 37-year old Kuroda signed a 1-year, $10 million contract to pitch with the Yankees. Coming on the heels of the trade that sent Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda, the signing was pushed off the back page, yet drew rave reviews from baseball analysts. I e-mailed my pal Jon Weisman, who runs the Dodger Thoughts blog, and he said that Kuroda “was one of the classiest guys to wear a Dodger uniform. A good pitcher who might have the occasional stumble but can usually be counted on to pitch seven good innings. He goes right after hitters.”
Okay, the guy’s a pro. But there’s more to him than that. As Jon said, “It’s hard to feel too low when you’ve got Hiroki Kuroda on your side.”
Last year, his fourth year in the major leagues, Kuroda was having his finest season when he met with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti in mid-July. Kuroda had gotten little run support and had a 6-11 record (from May 12 through July 27, Kuroda went 1-10 with a stellar 3.38 ERA), but as the trade deadline approached, he drew interest from several teams, particularly the Yankees and Red Sox.
Colletti told Kuroda how much he liked and respected him. He’d signed Kuroda three-and-a-half years earlier and admired how well the pitcher adapted to the major leagues. “He takes everything so seriously,” Colletti told me over the phone recently. “He has tremendous focus, even to a greater extent than most players.” The general manager told Kuroda, “I want to give you a chance to experience a pennant race again,” all the while understanding that being traded is not considered an honor in Japan.
“He is someone who takes his time and contemplates every major decision,” Colletti said, “but I could tell that day that his heart wasn’t in it.”
Kuroda liked L.A., where he lived with his wife and two daughters. He appreciated his time with the Dodgers and got along with his teammates. Under the visor of his cap were the characters 感 謝, which mean ‘thankful’. For Kuroda, being thankful isn’t a glib daily affirmation; it is a reminder of where he came from and who he is.
Unlike most other Japanese pitchers who played in the United States, Kuroda was not a star in high school. In fact, he spent most of his time on the bench. Kuroda’s father had been a professional player though he never pushed his son. His mother, however, supported the old school brand of discipline practiced by his coach. Kuroda was strong and durable but wild and was often relegated to pitching in practice. During bullpen sessions, his coach Hidemasa Tanaka told the catcher not to catch any pitch that wasn’t a strike. Kuroda had to retrieve each errand toss and then sprint back to the mound to make the next pitch.
Kuroda wanted to quit many times but he stuck with it, pitching at Senshu University in Tokyo without achieving stardom. It was no surprise he wasn’t a high draft pick in 1997 when the Hiroshima Carp, a losing small-market team, signed him to the customary 10-year Japanese contract.
“The team had a lousy defense and he had to pitch in a small park,” says Robert Whiting, author of “You Gotta Have Wa”. “It was hard for him to put up the numbers he might have if he had played for the Yomiuri Giants, and accordingly, he did not get as much attention as he might have.” Nevertheless, Kuroda developed into an accomplished pitcher with good control.
“Kuroda earned everything by merit, including his chance to take the mound,” says Mike Plugh a professor of communications in Akita City who has written about Japanese baseball for Baseball Prospectus.
Alex Ochoa, the first base coach for the Red Sox, played against Kuroda for 4 years in Japan. Last week, Ochoa told David Waldstein of the New York Times, “He pitched like an American. He got ahead with his fastball and then used his breaking stuff and his splitter to get you out.”
Plugh says that Kuroda was appreciated by baseball fans in Japan, but adds, “The Carp are notoriously stingy. When he became a free agent, even after he showed himself to be one of the best pitchers in Japan, they didn’t want to pay him at first.” When they finally came around, Kuroda signed a 4-year deal. He was a rarity. Since the advent of free agency in Japan in 1992, players have changed teams at will. “Players move about quite a lot these days, usually from less influential teams to more influential teams like the Giants,” Whiting told me. “In this sense, Kuroda was an exception.”
Kuroda wisely had a clause written in the contract that allowed him to leave if the majors came calling. After one more season with the Carp, he declared free agency and signed 3-year, $35.3 million deal with the Dodgers. He was in tears at his farewell press conference.
“I made the decision because I wanted to go one step forward as a baseball player,” said Kuroda. “I would’ve been fine finishing my career with the Carp, but my feelings of wanting to challenge myself in a different kind of baseball grew stronger.”
Perhaps his decision was not necessarily compatible with the need to stay loyal to the Carp. He may have felt the need to repay the debt in full and then take a step up the ladder. Only after he was freed by a sense of obligation was he able to concentrate on personal ambition.
Kuroda arrived in the States with none of the hype that accompanied Dice K in Boston. “He didn’t have superstar baggage,” said Dylan Hernandez. Kuroda was open to changing his approach to fit the American game. In Japan, pitchers only throw once a week and they don’t face the same level of hitters they do in the States. With the help of an interpreter, Kuroda talked with Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and catcher Russell Martin. He also watched a lot of video. “The first year it wasn’t so much spring training as the long season,” Honeycutt told me last week. “We tried to give him a day off when we could.”
In Japan, players don’t seek out coaches so Kuroda was honored when Torre eventually approached him with a friendly pat or a few words. He spent some time on the DL with tendinitis that first year but he had a solid season. He took a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Braves in July before Mark Teixeira broke it up with a single. What made Kuroda’s transition to the majors impressive is that he continued to strike batters out while maintaining the same fine control he had in Japan.
He came into his own in the playoffs. Kuroda had never pitched in postseason with the Carp, yet there he was throwing 6.1 shutout innings against the Cubs in the clinching game of the NLDS. The Dodgers lost the first two games of the NLCS against the Phillies. In Game 2, Phillies starter Brett Myers threw a ball behind Manny Ramirez. After the Dodgers jumped all over Jamie Moyer in Game 3, Russell Martin was hit twice. In the top of the third, with two men out, Kuroda threw a fastball over Shane Victorino’s head. The benches cleared (and Kuroda was later fined $7,500) but he allowed just two runs over 6 innings and the Dodgers won the game. “That was a big turning point,” Torre told Kamenetzky. “You knew he was a competitor, but I think at that point and time you realized what kind of competitor.”
The next season, Kuroda had an oblique strain and missed most of April and all of May. Then, in August he suffered a concussion after getting hit in the head with a batted ball in Arizona. The ball ricocheted all the way to the Diamondback’s on deck circle. “I didn’t know if he was going to get up,” said general manager Colletti. Kuroda went to the hospital and only missed a few starts. “That tells you everything you need to know about him, ” said Colletti. Kuroda didn’t pitch in the NLDS due to a bulging disk in his neck and gave up six runs against the Phillies in the NLCS without making it out of the second inning.
The next 2 years, Kuroda was healthier and he improved incrementally. He went from 183 and 117 innings to 196 and 202; his ERA went from 3.73 and 3.76 to 3.39 and 3.07. His walks stayed low and he continued to strike hitters out.
“He is a nice, no bullshit pitcher who pitches deep into games and is economical,” said Jay Jaffe from Baseball Prospectus.
Honeycutt calls Kuroda a true professional: “He commands the fastball in the lower part of the zone with movement. He’s a groundball pitcher, an attack guy, especially from the wind up, who looks for contact early in the count. With two strikes he will use a hard split finger, 86-88 mph that goes straight down and is lethal. But last year, he also challenged guys up in the zone when he was ahead and surprised them.”
“When he’s really on, his splitty is on,” Russell Martin told Anthony McCarron of the Daily News last week. “It gets him out of trouble. He can throw his fastball at 94 or 95 (miles per hour), though he’s mostly at 92 or 93, so it’s impressive. His slider is different, a really short break. It’s not a strikeout pitch, but it gets a lot of balls off the end of the bat, and his splitty is nasty against lefties or righties.”
Kuroda also became more comfortable with his English and was popular with teammates who appreciated his droll sense of humor.
Kuroda may come across as stoic or reserved but Clayton Kershaw thought he was “a goofball.”
What stood out to me in Kamenetzky’s ESPN piece is this quote from Kuroda: “There’s so much that you can understand about a person beyond words. And since I can’t really express myself, I’ve noticed a lot more, I’m tuned to notice the quality of a person without speaking. There’s a definitely a lot more importance in trying to understand a person without words.”
One Dodger teammate recalled how Kuroda comforted pitcher Jamey McDonald after Macdonald had a bad outing. Mcdonald refused to speak to reporters and Kuroda approached him and touched his shoulder as if to say, “I’ve been there.” It was a seemingly innocuous gesture but one that conveyed empathy and sensitivity.
Which brings us back to the meeting with Colletti. Kuroda thought about accepting a trade but he valued the commitment the Dodgers made to him when they signed him to a 1-year deal that spring. Would the champagne taste as sweet if he won a championship with a team that he didn’t start with in spring training? For Kuroda, the answer was no. A sense of loyalty—or ningen-kankei, the Japanese term for human relations—far outweighed the lure of moving to a contender. He stayed with the Dodgers.
“I wanted that feeling to remain important to me,” Kuroda told Hernandez last summer. “I think your self-identity is defined by certain decisions you make. If you go back on them, you lose a sense of who you are.”
The more I learned about Kuroda, the more I saw how narrow my thinking was last summer. Colletti called Kuroda’s decision to stay with the Dodgers “honorable” and I agree. When the season was over, Kuroda was expected to return to Japan and end his career with the Carp.
“I was surprised that he didn’t go back,” says Dylan Hernandez. “On the last day of the season he was crying in the clubhouse and I thought ‘this is it.’” Takashi Yamakawa, a Japanese baseball writer for Kyodo News said that Kuroda “changed his mind after deep consideration. Kuroda is not young in his spirit. He is an adult.”
The chance to pitch for Yankees meant not only pitching for a contender but pitching for the most famous team in the world. It is the challenge of playing for a perennial favorite, something that Kuroda has never experienced. “My feeling is that he made an exception for the Yankees,” said Hernandez. “They are the best, most visible team in the world. You just don’t say no.”
Kuroda will pitch in a new league, against a DH, and work in smaller ballparks than he did in the NL West. He’s coming off his two most durable years and is at his peak just when physical decline is set to take effect. Oh yeah, he’s also pitching for the Yankees, where the pressure to win is unrelenting.
“The pressure is more than double,” says Yamakawa, who told me that Kuroda went to a doctor last summer when he was having trouble sleeping at night. Unbeknownst to his teammates Kuroda spent two nights in the hospital. The doctor said that stress was keeping him awake. “But he is good at switching his mind when he’s on the mound,” Yumokura said.
Although Robert Whiting predicts that “Kuroda will suffer from the Yankees weak infield defense on the left hand side of the diamond and the home run jet stream to right center,” the pitcher will be reunited with his old catcher Russell Martin. “He was sad when Martin left,” says Yumokura. He said that ‘Martin is the only catcher for me.’”
“Without a doubt it’ll help pitching to Russell,” said Honeycutt. “That’s a huge positive for the Yankees and I have no doubt that Kuroda’s qualified to handle the change.” He is almost certain to get more run support, too. “He might have won 17 games last year with that offense,” said Colletti.
Kuroda is not expected to be an ace but a workhorse. Maybe he’ll have a higher ERA but should also win more games. Kuroda wanted an opportunity to be the best in the world and it seems as though he owed himself the chance to take a shot at it. And while winning a World Series is all that matters in certain quarters in the Bronx, there are some of us Yankee fans who appreciate toughness and effort no matter what the result.
“He is a humble man and not afraid,” said Yamakawa. “But he’s never had that great fame and he is ambitious to be successful.” The reporter thought for a moment before adding a small request: “Please help him.”
The second crisis hit when an on-set fire cost another night of shooting, and MGM refused to budget another day. Levinson needed more time. Sova suggested breaking out a second camera in the diner, to speed things up by filming actors on both sides of the table simultaneously. That, however, created a problem with sound: instead of clipping a lavalier microphone to just one actor and allowing him to say his lines cleanly—that is, without overlap from other actors, so it can be edited into a scene later—the new situation demanded that all the actors, on-camera and off, be miked. Robert Altman aside, at the time it was still rare to use overlapping dialogue, especially for trivial, tabletop chatter. “What Levinson did in a revolutionary way 30 years ago,” John Hamburg says, “is something we’re doing now.”
It was, for the final two weeks, a kind of liberation. “Because we didn’t have to worry about overlaps, we could really ad-lib,” Guttenberg says. “You could ad-lib offstage and throw the guy a fastball, and he could catch it and throw it high. That’s what made the experience so unique in filmmaking: you didn’t have to match ‘what we did last time.’ It was ‘Just give me something extraordinary. Take it wherever you want to go.’ ”
…Banter is a delicate thing, crippled by obvious effort, destroyed when, as so often happens on sitcoms, it’s reduced to point scoring or put-downs. Reiser was so quick, so on, that there are moments in Diner when he sounds as if he’s trying out material. But Levinson was also going for something deeper, a casualness implying dynamics and affections that reach back years, and even the screw-ups nail that quality. The best comes when Guttenberg’s Eddie asks Boogie, “Sinatra or Mathis?,” and Rourke brushes him back with “Presley.” “Elvis Presley?,” Guttenberg’s Eddie says. “You’re sick … ” He starts to improvise, but it’s like watching a kid let go of the handlebars for the first time: he knows he’s going to crash. “You’ve gone like two steps below … ,” Guttenberg stammers, “in my … my, uh, book.” Clearly, a blown take: The actors giggle, Stern spits up his drink, breaks character, and says, “Once again … ” But rather than splice in a cleaner run, Levinson went with the mess.
I recently found a diary that I kept in 1985. I turned 14 that June. Pasted to the pages are ticket stubs from the movies I saw (“View to a Kill,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”), from the Eric Clapton concert my mom took me to for my birthday, and the ball games I saw. There’s some writing in there, updates on Pony League games and school work, but there’s more drawing than writing.
Here’s a few pages…
My man, Reggie.
Good ol’ Knucksie, Phil Niekro.
In August my mother rented a cheap little cabin for a week out near the tip of Long Island. My twin sister, Sam, and one of her friends came along with us. The highlight of the week was finally getting to see “Back to the Future,” which I’d be pining to see for weeks.
Mom didn’t want us watching TV while we were on vacation so I had to listen to the games on the radio. But I begged her to let me watch the news later that night to see the highlights and she did. The next day, Griffey’s catch was on the back page of the Daily News. We bought the paper and I copied the picture into my diary.
That’s my favorite Yankee catch of the 1980s (which is saying something considering how many sick plays Winfield made).