"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: 2010s

East Beats West Again

One-run games haven’t been kind to the Yankees. So, when they failed to add an insurance run with two on and no outs in the bottom of the eighth, Joe Girardi may have developed a lump in his throat. Then, when an Eric Chavez throwing error, which was actually a missed call by the first base umpire, prolonged the game with two outs in the top of the ninth, the Yankees’ skipper probably swallowed hard once again. Instead of being bad omens, however, these unfortunate late game developments only delayed what turned out to be the Bronx Bombers’ eighth straight home victory against the Texas Rangers. Considering the almost two hours spent waiting for the rain to stop, it was a small price to pay.

The Yankees 3-2 victory not only pushed the team’s record in one-run games to 15-17, but also marked their second consecutive victory when scoring three or fewer runs. Before the series, the Yankees had the second lowest winning percentage in the A.L. when scoring three or fewer, while the Rangers had the best mark when allowing no more than that many, so maybe the team’s luck in low scoring games is starting to change? Or, maybe the Yankees are just getting outstanding starting pitching?

Following the lead of David Phelps and Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia kept the Rangers off the board until the fourth inning, extending a string of 19 consecutive innings in which Texas failed to score. However, that came to an immediate halt when Josh Hamilton hit a laser shot into the right field second deck. Ironically, it was the first regular season Yankee Stadium home run ever hit by the Rangers’ center fielder, whose home run derby performance in the Bronx remains legend. And, Hamilton must have enjoyed the trip around the bases because in the sixth inning he followed it up a 450-foot blast deep into the bleachers.

Hamilton’s two solo homers chipped away at the Yankees’ 3-0 advantage, which was built in the bottom of the third inning. For the third straight game, Nick Swisher gave the Yankees their first lead of the game, but instead of a home run, the first baseman dunked a double down the left field line that scored Jayson Nix. A sacrifice fly by Curtis Granderson and two-out RBI single by the white hot Eric Chavez, who went 3 for 3, capped the scoring in the inning and, as it turned out, the game.

Aside from the long balls, Garcia allowed only two other hits in 6 2/3 innings before giving way to the trio of Boone Logan, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano, who collectively retired all but one of the hitters (the aforementioned error/bad call) they faced. As a staff, the Yankees have only allowed four runs in three games to a team that entered the series averaging five, so, needless to say, the starters and bullpen have both been equal to the challenge presented by the reigning American League champs.

Will the struggling Ivan Nova be able to take the baton in tomorrow’s matinee? Either way, the Bronx Bombers have made an early statement and, perhaps, reasserted themselves as the team to beat in the American League.

Yanks Win by a Nose, but Offense Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test

Arod and Teixeira teamed up to record the final out of the game. (Photo: AP)

It wasn’t the resounding breakout game most Yankees’ fans have been desperately anticipating, but on the strength of three runs, and Alex Rodriguez’ game ending throw, the Bronx Bombers finally managed to squeak out a much needed victory.

May has mostly been a gloomy month for the Yankees, but one bright spot has been the baby steps taken by Phil Hughes. In tonight’s game, the right hander broke out of the gate strong, but then fell victim to two old bugaboos. In the top of the third, Hughes left an 0-2 pitch over the plate to Humberto Quintero, who promptly lined an RBI double into the right field corner. Entering the game, Hughes had allowed opposing hitters to bat an astounding .293/.341/.537 (or 191% better than the league average) when ahead in the count 0-2, so Quintero’s run scoring hit was only the latest in a season’s worth of frustration born of poor location.

The Royals added to their lead in the fourth inning when Jeff Francoeur drove a 2-0 fastball into the left field seats. The long ball has been a season-long tormenter of the Yankees’ starting rotation, but no one has been more vulnerable than Hughes, who has been victimized at least once in each of his starts.  In 47 1/3 innings, Hughes has now allowed 11 home runs, giving him the third highest rate per nine innings among all qualified major league starters.

The negatives aside, Hughes did manage to hold the Royals to only two runs over six innings, which was important because the offense wasn’t quite ready to bust out. The Yankees finally got on the board when Robinson Cano launched a long home run in the fourth inning, but the winning rally was much more subdued. In the bottom of the fifth, the Yankees loaded the bases on a seeing-eye grounder, hit by pitch, and bunt single, setting the stage for another golden scoring opportunity. With the memory of last night’s failure with bases loaded still fresh in everyone’s mind, Derek Jeter fell behind in the count, but finally produced a run with a single that was flared into right. Would this be the hit that would jump start the Yankees’ struggling offense and put an end to their futility with runners in scoring position? Unfortunately, the answer was no. After Curtis Granderson’s ground out produced another run, Alex Rodriguez and Raul Ibanez each went down swinging to end the rally.

Although the Yankees may not have exited the inning with good feelings, they did come away with the lead. Keeping it, however, wouldn’t be easy.  Over the final three innings, Joe Girardi used five different relievers to record the last nine outs (such is life without Mariano), but his master plan almost hit a snag in the bottom of the ninth inning. With two outs, Alex Gordon, who had doubled, was at third when Alcides Escobar hit a grounder that Rodriguez fielded deep behind the bag. Arod’s only play was to desperately put his entire body into the throw, which hurtled across the diamond as Escobar raced down the line. The ball finally nestled into Mark Teixeira’s outstretched glove just ahead of the base runner, giving the Yankees a victory by the narrowest of margins, and, perhaps, a one-day reprieve from having to answer questions about not getting the big hit.

Outshined

In the classic Soundgarden tune “Outshined”, Chris Cornell writes:

I just looked in the mirror
And things aren’t lookin’ so good.
I’m looking California
And feelin’ Minnesota.

That brief stanza may be an apt way to describe Hiroki Kuroda’s start Wednesday night. He was both looking and feeling California in the home opener last Friday against the Los Angeles Angels. In the song, “feeling Minnesota” is a euphemism for feeling terrible. On the field, Kuroda wasn’t feeling Minnesota, Minnesota was feeling Kuroda. Four of the first five Twins to come to the plate in the first inning got hits and scored. By the time Kuroda had thrown 13 pitches, the Yankees were in a 4-0 hole.

Hiroki Kuroda's second Yankee Stadium start was much rougher than his first. (Photo Credit / Getty Images)

Kuroda’s downfall was Justin Morneau. His two-run home run in the first inning put the Twins up 4-0, he singled and scored in the third, and he belted another home run in the fifth — a solo shot — to end Kuroda’s night. (Not to question X’s and O’s, but Morneau’s fifth-inning home run came on a 2-0 count. Was anyone else thinking, “Hey, the bases are empty, walk him and take your chances with someone named Chris Parmelee?”).

The Yankees’ lineup, which was without Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner but had Mark Teixeira back, did their best to bail out Kuroda, responding with three runs of their own in the bottom of the first. Trailing 4-3, they loaded the bases with one out and a realistic chance to post a crooked number until Eric Chavez ended the threat by grounding into a double play.

Three different times the Yankees would get to within one run of the Twins, but not once could they tie the game. Three straight innings — the fifth, sixth and seventh — the Yankees put the leadoff man on base and mounted threats, but couldn’t score. After the first inning, the only runs they were able to manage came off solo home runs from Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter.

6-5 final, series finale with Phil Hughes on the mound Thursday. Are you confident?

ROOT FOR THESE GUYS

  • Alex Belth’s profile of Kuroda, posted here in February, made us want to root for him for reasons beyond his simply wearing the Yankee uniform. Wednesday was one of those nights sinkerballers tend to have. If the sinker doesn’t sink, it stinks.

    “He was just up all night,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He didn’t seem to have it from the get-go.”

    Despite the poor result, which raised Kuroda’s ERA to an even 5.00 and his WHIP to 1.61, Kuroda remains an integral component to the Yankees’ starting rotation, based on his skill set, veteran presence, and experience. We’ll have about 30 more chances to root for him.

  • Opposing Kuroda was native Long Islander Jason Marquis. Marquis, who grew up in Staten Island and still lives there, was making his American League and 2012 season debut. Marquis had pitched in New York before, but at Shea Stadium and Citi Field, but had never pitched a major league game in the Bronx.

    Marquis’ debut was delayed; this story has been well document. He left the Twins with two weeks to go in Spring Training to attend to his daughter, who lacerated her liver in a bicycle accident. Ken Rosenthal does a tremendous job of portraying the details of the story here. As a father of one little girl and another on the way, I applaud what Marquis did. There’s no decision to make.

    His daughter had four surgeries and is recovering well. According to reports, a full recovery is expected within three months. How fortunate Jason Marquis was to be home with his family, and STAY home when he joined his new team. As a bonus, his family got to be on the field with him yesterday (nice work by YES taking video and showing that B-roll during the bottom of the first inning).

    And he got the win.

  • Yankees Use Backup Plan to Even Series Against Twins

    Photo: AP

    Backup catchers should be seen, but not noticed. During the YES broadcast, that’s how former Yankees’ second stringer John Flaherty described the life of a number two backstop. Chris Stewart must not have gotten the memo.

    Over the first 10 games of the season, the Yankees have had no problem getting men on base, but driving them in hasn’t been as easy. So, after squandered scoring opportunities in the first two innings by leaving a total of five men on base, it seemed as if it would be another frustrating night in the Bronx. However, all that changed in the bottom of the third.

    After falling behind 3-1 in the top half of the inning (which also featured the ejection of Twins center fielder Denard Span and manager Ron Gardenhire), the Yankees quickly mounted another rally, but this time they would not be turned away. The unlikely hero in the inning was Stewart, who, in only his fifth at bat of the season, gave the Yankees a 4-3 lead with a bases loaded single that knocked Twins’ starter Francisco Liriano from the game. In total, the team scored four runs in the inning and then never looked back.

    Once staked to a lead, CC Sabathia took his game to another level. In each of the next three innings, the big lefty retired the Twins in order and at one point set down 13 consecutive Minnesota batters. Meanwhile, the Yankees continued to tack on runs, including two more RBIs from Derek Jeter, a homerun by Andruw Jones, and a final tally by Stewart, who ended the game with a career-high 3 RBIs. The outburst was more than enough for Sabathia, who departed with one in the eighth having given the Yankees only their third quality start of the season.

    Although Stewart was the focal point of the offense, just about every hitter had a good night. However, there was one exception. Alex Rodriguez was not only the sole member of the lineup without a base hit, but his failure to drive in a run extended a peculiar streak that has seen the Bronx Bombers go 11 straight games without an RBI from the cleanup slot, the fifth longest such stretch in baseball history. For most teams, such a prolonged period of futility from the cleanup slot would debilitating, but the Yankees’ have managed to win six of their first 11 games without a contribution from the four-hole. Of course, that really shouldn’t be surprising. What else would you expect from a lineup that has a backup catcher capable of driving in three runs in one game?

    Suspension Bridge

    A fundamental tenet of communication theory is that because the purpose of communication is to transmit information, it is irreversible. There are no “take-backs.” Apologies for verbal or written foul-ups are hollow. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. We live in an era right now where companies and universities are doing background checks on prospective employees and students by scouring Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds and other social media activity. A regular person has nowhere to hide. Public figures are under much greater scrutiny.

    Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen learned that the hard way.

    Not that he has ever hidden. He is no stranger to opening his mouth, inserting his foot, and still managing to demonstrate the capability to land in trouble. His latest misstep earned him a team-levied five-game suspension. The blogosphere and conservative baseball media population exploded. The first four words of Sean Gregory’s profile in Time Magazine are Guillen’s damning quote: “I love Fidel Castro.” He would go on to say he respected Castro’s survival skills, and that‘s what he loved about Castro. Communication is irreversible. No way to talk around that.

    Guillen manned up. He didn’t put out a statement. He was contrite, apologizing to the Marlins and to the Cuban-American community that has helped make Miami the multicultural center it has become.

    The aftermath and the analysis has been a series of contradictions. A combination of liberal versus conservative and wanting to have it both ways. The same people that in the past who have called Guillen “refreshing” for speaking unfiltered and disregarding the art of saying nothing, are now condemning him. Steven Goldman expresses his libertarian view at Bleacher Report:

    …Those who are standing on the sidelines sniping and calling for suspensions and termination need to consider their own motives. Moral outrage is cheap when the target has been so spectacularly, in Guillen’s words, “dumb.” This is shooting Marlins in a barrel. It’s much harder to stake a stand on an issue that is in the grey zone, when others might snipe back at you.

    He continued…

    Let us be clear: There is a difference between suggesting the Marlins needed to suspend Guillen to appease the Cuban-American community and another to argue that the quality of his remarks themselves deserved suspension. The former is what political bloggers call “concern trolling,” posing as a helpful pal of some third party that really doesn’t need your advice, thanks. The latter is, first, un-American, not in terms of the Bill of Rights—this is not a First Amendment matter given that your employer can censor you in the workplace all they want—but that any call that encourages punishment for speaking one’s mind, no matter how offensive, should be antithetical to our very being.

    Ken Rosenthal may have been one of those Goldman observed “standing on the sidelines sniping.” Monday, in his FOX Sports column, Rosenthal called for the Marlins to suspend Guillen. He wrote:

    Good people make mistakes, and Guillen just made the biggest of his career. Chances are the matter will blow over; everything seems to blow over in this society of limited attention spans. But the Marlins shouldn’t allow it to blow over. No, the Marlins should take a stand.

    Suspend Guillen.

    Not because a protest group wants him out.

    Because it’s the right thing to do.

    There is outrage in Miami. There is outrage among the Latino community, not just the Cuban-American population in Miami. The juxtaposition of Guillen’s comments with the opening of the Marlins’ new stadium in Little Havana has much to do with that. Dave Zirin notes this in his latest piece at Edge of Sports.

    Loria desperately needed a hot start for his team and some sugary sweet media coverage for his new ballpark. Then his new manager Ozzie Guillen decided to share his views about Cuba and Fidel Castro. … This issue is…now about whether the ire produced by Guillen’s words will be directed against Loria, his grab of public funds, and the entire Miami baseball operation. If that happens, this issue won’t die, but the Marlins might.

    Keith Olbermann, speaking as a guest on Dan Patrick’s radio show, said that sports provide a forum for us, the public, to address sensitive social issues. That “sports are well ahead of the rest of society on these issues.”

    The blog Platoon Advantage would beg to differ.

    …It’s certainly understandable why the Marlins felt like they needed to react.

    Though they didn’t feel the need to respond when team president David Samson called the people of Miami stupid. …There are dozens and dozens of equally or more foolish and offensive things done by Major League players, managers, coaches, front office types, and officials every year. And these offenses don’t get investigated by the Commissioner. These offenses don’t earn team-levied suspensions. These offenses don’t get noticed at all, despite the real damage they do to the communities where they happen. If we’re going to have such a low standard so as to punish Guillen for making a bad joke (make no mistake, there’s no way to honestly construe what Guillen said as a statement of support for Castro, his tactics, or his regime), where are the suspensions for everyone else who makes baseball look bad?

    What can we learn from all the coverage? We know Guillen’s comments were wrongheaded on many levels. We know those comments will be available forever. We know that there is heavy criticism, much of it founded, much of it personal. We know that all of it is irreversible. And yet again, we learn that no matter how hard the general sports fan wishes politics and sports to be separated, they are inextricably linked.

    [Photo Credit: Al Diaz and C.M. Guerrero/ Miami Herald]

    Observations From Cooperstown: Girardi, Cervelli, Stewart and Maxwell

    If George Steinbrenner were still alive… I just couldn’t resist starting this week’s column with a reference to the late “Boss.” Surely, he would not have been pleased by the Yankees’ season-opening performance in Tampa Bay. Three straight losses to start the season, lowlighted by poor pitching in the first two games and a nonexistent offense in the finale, would have been enough to ignite a Steinbrenner tantrum or two, at least in his prime years.

    I won’t offer up any tantrums here. After all, it is only three games, and three games against one of the better teams in the American League. But then again, this series did not exactly produce a highlight reel of great moments in Joe Girardi’s managerial career. We’ve already heard plenty about his panic-stricken decision to intentionally walk the immortal Sean Rodriguez in the very first inning of game one, setting up Carlos Pena’s backbreaking grand slam. So there is no need to add charcoal to that fire.

    Just as egregious was Girardi’s decision to start Eduardo Nunez in the second game while giving Derek Jeter a half-day off as the DH. Here we go with the issue of rest, yet again! It is beyond ridiculous that Jeter needed any kind of rest in the second game of the season. The counterargument that Jeter’s legs needed a break from the artificial turf of Tropicana Field doesn’t hold much water either, since most of the Rays’ infield is actually covered with dirt, like a traditional grass infield, and not the harder artificial surface. Whatever the rationale for the Jeter/Nunez move, the Yankees paid the price on Nunez’ first inning error, which led to two unearned runs against a shaky Hiroki Kuroda.

    Later in the game, Girardi inexplicably allowed lefty specialist Clay Rapada to face the Rays’ best hitter, Evan Longoria, who responded with a ringing double that was nearly a home run. How could Girardi have allowed this matchup to take place? This is the same Rapada who allowed right-handed batters to hit .692 against him in 16 plate appearances last season!

    In the third game, Girardi made another bad lineup decision. For some reason, he decided to play the defensively challenged Raul Ibanez in right field, a position that he has not played since 2005. Ibanez is bad enough in left field, but putting him in the unfamiliar territory of right field, and in a domed ballpark where it is often difficult to pick up the flight of the ball against the roof, is just begging for misadventure. Sure enough, Ibanez delivered with his first error of the season. If Nick Swisher absolutely needed a day off from right field–and to me it’s questionable that he needed a day off so early in the season–then Girardi should have played Andruw Jones in right field and simply foregone the platoon advantage.

    Clearly, this was not a good weekend for Girardi, whose obsession with “rest” has become almost comical, and has overridden all other managerial tenets of common sense. I guess there’s little hope that Girardi will change this tendency; we can only hope that he starts to show a better feel for in-game managing, especially with regard to intentional walks and the decision to ever let Rapada face a right-handed batter the quality of Longoria.

    Still, I’m not going to panic. Coming out of spring training, the Yankees were the consensus pick of the media to win the American League East. I believe they remain the favorites, even in a stacked division. CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera will pitch better, Mark Teixeira will start to hit (though he still needs to stop the pull-the-ball tendencies), and the depth of the pitching staff will win out.

    But check back with me again if the Yankees lose two out of three to the Orioles…

    ***

    Prior to the tempest in Tampa Bay, the Yankees generated some controversy on the final day of spring training when they made room for newly acquired backup catcher Chris Stewart by demoting Francisco Cervelli to their Scranton/Wilkes Barre, affiliate, also known by its alternate nickname, the Empire State Yankees.

    More than a few Yankee fans were outraged by the decision, but you can put me in the opposite camp on this issue. Despite his reputation as a superior defender, Cervelli has actually become a major liability behind the plate. He makes far too many errors, a total of 19 over the last two seasons combined. Even more alarmingly, he has thrown out a scant 14 per cent of opposing base stealers in each of the last two seasons. That’s such a paltry number that it’s reminiscent of the throwing troubles of Johnny Blanchard and Cliff Johnson, two former Yankee backup receivers of decades gone by.

    At least Blanchard and “Heathcliff” could hit, and with enough power to make them game-changers in the late innings. Cervelli is a .260 hitter with no power; he has marginal offensive talents, and not nearly enough offensive potential to make up for his poor throwing and erratic decision-making.

    In regards to Stewart, he’s reminiscent of Kevin Cash as a hitter, but at least he brings legitimate defensive chops to the position. He’s an excellent catcher with a strong arm, having thrown out nearly 40 per cent of basestealers in 2011. As long as the Yankees don’t ask him to play more than twice a week, he’ll be acceptable–at least until Austin Romine is able to return from his back problems. And perhaps in the interim, Cervelli can change his ways. At one time Cervelli was a good defensive catcher; it might not be too late for him to regain his fielding prowess playing every day at Triple-A…

    ***

    Finally, I’m a little disappointed the Yankees received nothing for Justin Maxwell, other than the waiver price the Astros paid for in claiming him on Sunday. Maxwell’s value should have been at its apex after a great spring in which he impressed everyone with his game- breaking speed, versatile defensive ability, and live bat. I know that he’s 28 and not anyone’s idea of a top prospect, but he has the tools to be a very good fourth outfielder–and that should carry some value. It seems to me that the Yankees should have at least extracted a Grade-C prospect from the Astros or the Orioles, the two teams who expressed the most interest in Mad Max during the spring.

    Maxwell couldn’t crack the Yankees’ bench, but he has enough talent to play regularly for the awful Astros. Houston is playing three unproven kids in its baby cradle outfield (J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic). Martinez is regarded as the Astros’ top prospect, but Schafer is a failed prospect out of the Braves’ system and Bogusevic is off to a slow start, so Maxwell figures to receive plenty of opportunity at Minute Maid Park.

    Maxwell is a fun player to watch. I’ll be rooting for him to do well for the Astros, who could use all the help they can muster.

     

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

    Observations of Spring Training: Mad Max, The Bullpen, and Johnny D

    Lost amidst the concerns over the shoulder inflammation experienced by Michael Pineda, one of the most interesting stories of Yankee camp has involved the status of two outfielders who are at a crossroads in their careers. Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson are both capable of serving as fifth outfielders on a major league roster, but they are finding no room in a crowded and well-established outfield. The Yankees are set to open the new season with five outfielders, with three of the slots taken by starters Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher, and the other two going to DH platoon partners Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez.

    Unfortunately, the Yankees cannot send either Dickerson or Maxwell to Triple-A, at least not without passing through waivers. Both players are out of options, and both are likely to be claimed by another team if the Yankees try to sneak them through the waiver wire. So the Yankees may be forced to trade one or both of them, or risk losing them for nothing more than the waiver price.

    Maxwell, in particular, has opened the eyes of the Yankee brass with his speed, range, and live bat. Like Dickerson, he can play all three outfield positions, which is important given the defensive limitations of Ibanez and the age of Jones. Mad Max might also be the fastest runner in the organization, making him a potential weapon as a pinch-runner. But he’s also 28 years of age, hardly the age of a true prospect, and coming off of major surgery to his throwing shoulder.

    So what should the Yankees do? Perhaps the most sensible thing would be to chuck the obsession with a 12-man pitching staff and carry Maxwell as the sixth outfielder. But I just don’t think the Yankees are daring enough to try something different. If that’s indeed the case, then a trade would make the most sense. There are teams, such as the Mets, who are desperately in need of outfield help. With Andres Torres sidelined by leg problems and most of their alternatives better suited to backup or minor league duty, Maxwell could probably start in center field for the Mets right now. The Mets and Yankees hardly ever make trades, but the circumstances might be right for a current exchange, provided the Mets are willing to fork over a C-level prospect from the lower reaches of their minor league system…

    ***

    The injury to Pineda will not only change the configuration of the starting rotation, but it will alter the dynamic of the bullpen. With a healthy Pineda, Freddy Garcia appeared to be the odd man out of the rotation and likely would have been ticketed for long man duty in the pen. Now that Garcia will be starting, the Yankees will have an opening for a long reliever. It figures to be one of three Triple-A prospects: D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, and Adam Warren. Of the three, Warren throws the hardest, but Mitchell may be best suited to relief work because of his hard sinker.

    Earl Weaver would certainly approve of the Yankees’ plan to use a pitching prospect in long relief. The former Orioles skipper was a big believer in breaking in his young pitchers in the relatively pressure-free role of long relief. If they succeeded out of the bullpen, Weaver would then challenge them further by pushing them into the rotation. Weaver certainly had a long record of success with young pitchers in Baltimore, from Jim Palmer and Dave McNally to Doyle Alexander and Ross Grimsley to Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor.

    The Yankees can only hope for similar success from either Mitchell, Phelps, or Warren.

    ***

    After a poor start to the spring training season, Raul Ibanez has shown some life in a body that is closing in on 40. He has hit three home runs over the last week, while showing power to both left and right field. Even if Ibanez had continued to struggle in Grapefruit League play, he was never going to lose his job on the Opening Day roster. Still, the Yankees remain on red alert with regard to the DH position. If Ibanez struggles over the first couple of months of the season, do not be at all surprised if the Yankees cut bait with him and look very seriously at the possibility of signing Johnny Damon. Ibanez is coming off a subpar season in Philadelphia, and given his age, it shouldn’t be any shock if he turns out to be cooked as a major league hitter.

    Of all the remaining unsigned free agents, Damon is the best available player. He still has sufficient power and speed to make him dangerous, even if he can’t play the outfield anymore. His OPS of .743 was significantly better than Ibanez’ mark of .707. And he did so without the benefit of having Citizens Bank Park as his home field.

    So why hasn’t Damon found a job yet, with the regular season just days away? Damon has been hurt by two factors this off-season: he’s insistent on wanting an everyday DH role because of his pursuit of 3,000 hits, and he’s a Scott Boras client, which can be a discouraging factor to some potential suitors. If Damon were smart, he’d willingly sign as a platoon DH with the Yankees, if only because some playing time is better than no playing time. If Damon were to hit well enough, there’s always a possibility that the Yankees would expand his role and make him the regular DH, though he’d have to concede some DH time to Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nick Swisher. But by continuing to sit on the sidelines, Damon won’t be able to impress anybody.

    Yankees aside, I hope that Damon signs with some major league club between now and May. Not only can the man still hit, but he brings an energy to the ballpark and to the clubhouse. He’s a fun player to watch. Without a doubt, Johnny Damon should play somewhere in 2012.

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

    Observations of Spring Training: Lefty Relievers, Utility Infielders, and Trade Rumors

    Once Hideki Okajima failed his physical, most Yankee observers assumed that Joe Girardi would carry only one left-hander–the erratic Boone Logan–in the Opening Day bullpen. That situation may have changed now, thanks to the remarkable spring performances of two obscure pitchers, veteran Clay Rapada and minor leaguer Cesar Cabral. The two southpaws have pitched so well in Grapefruit League play that Girardi and Brian Cashman are now considering the possibility of carrying a second left-hander.

    On the surface, Rapada is not that impressive. He’s a 31-year-old journeyman who’s pitched for four teams in five years, doesn’t throw hard, and carries a lifetime ERA of 5.13. But thanks to one of the funkiest lefty deliveries I’ve ever seen, he is virtual Kryptonite to left-handed hitters, holding them to a batting average of .153 and an on-base percentage of .252 in his career. Combining funk and finesse, Rapada has clearly demonstrated the ability of overmatching lefty swingers. This spring, he has struck out nine batters in seven innings while not giving up a single run.

    Cabral is a lesser known quantity than Rapada, but has the higher ceiling. Very quietly, he was selected by the Yankees out of the Red Sox’ system in December’s Rule 5 draft. He was above average at Double-A Salem last year, pitching to the tune of a 3.52 ERA and striking out 46 batters in 38 innings. With a smooth and fluid delivery, Cabral throws a fastball in the low nineties, topping out at the 95 mile-an-hour mark. He also has an excellent swing-and-miss changeup which can make him effective against right-handed batters. That ability would make him more than a lefty-on-lefty matchup reliever.

    Like Rapada, Cabral has been brilliant this spring. The 23-year old has struck out 11 batters and walked only one in eight-plus innings. The Yankees have been duly impressed.

    Here’s the trick with Cabral. As a Rule 5 draftee, he has to stay on the Yankee roster all season or be offered back to the Red Sox. If the Yankees try to slip him through waivers, he has almost no chance of clearing; someone will take a chance on a young left-hander with his ability.

    If I were a betting man–and I’m not, unless it’s someone else’s money–I’d bet on the Yankees carrying two left-handers on Opening Day. After all, Girardi does love his late-inning matchups. And if I were to wager on either Cabral or Rapada, I’ll predict the Yankees take Cabral. With youth and stuff on his side–not to mention the chance to stick it to Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox–Cabral will be the choice.

    By the way, if Cabral makes the Opening Day roster, he’ll become the first Yankee with the name of “Cesar” since Cesar Tovar played for Billy Martin in 1976.

    ***

    In case you’re wondering why you haven’t seen Russell Branyan in any of these Grapefruit League exhibition games, it’s because he remains sidelined with a bad back. The injury has prevented “Russell The Muscle” from playing any games in Florida; somehow the Yankees have been listing him as day-to-day on their pregame notes, dating all the way back to the beginning of spring training.

    Branyan’s inability to hit or play the field will likely cost him any chance of making the Opening Day roster. His chances were slim to begin with, but if he could have proven his ability to play a little third base and still hit with some power, he might have been a valuable backup. Now, his best chance of staying with the Yankees could depend on his willingness to go to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he could be an infield insurance policy. It might be Branyan’s best bet. Given his age and health, I find it hard to believe that any of the other 29 teams would give a guaranteed major league contract to Branyan.

    With Branyan pretty much out of the picture, Eric Chavez becomes a lock to make the team as a backup third baseman/first baseman and occasional DH. The question now becomes: who will be the main utility infielder, Eduardo Nunez or veteran Bill Hall?

    Clearly the favorite, Nunez is younger, faster, and more athletic. Many observers have already penciled him in as the primary utility infielder, but until the Yankees release Hall, there is a sliver of doubt. While Nunez has more natural talent and youth on his side, Hall has more power and has more experience filling the difficult role of being a part-time player. He also does not have chronic trouble throwing the ball, a habit that plagued Nunez throughout last season. Based on spring training performance, Nunez currently has the advantage. He’s hitting over .300 while Hall is batting in the low .200s.

    Perhaps the wise thing to do would be to start the season with Hall, see if he has anything left at the age of 31, and let Nunez compile some regular at-bats in Triple-A. If Hall proves he cannot play, the Yankees can always make the switch to Nunez in mid-season…

    ***

    Very few trades are made during spring training, but the Yankees’ depth in pitching and in the middle infield could result in a deal or two. According to one report, the Yankees have offered Freddy Garcia to the Marlins, but Miami, which has already added free agent Mark Buehrle, wasn’t interested. Still, there are always teams looking for pitching in the spring; the list of Garcia suitors could include the Cardinals and the Tigers. Another rumor has the Yankees talking about a swap of Garcia for Bobby Abreu, but the Angels would have to throw in some money to offset Abreu’s $8 million salary. Garcia is making only $4 million.

    On a completely different front, the Phillies, who are currently working without Chase Utley and his ailing knees, have talked to the Yankees about middle infield help. The Phillies are legitimately concerned that Utley will miss the entire season, if not have his career come to an abrupt end. Backup infielder Michael Martinez is also injured, so the Phillies have approached the Yankees about Ramiro Pena, who has no chance of making the Yankees’ Opening Day roster and is destined to start the season for the Scranton/Wilkes Barre traveling baseball show. Pena would likely serve as a defensive caddy behind Placido Polanco, who may be moved back to second base if Utley’s knees are as bad as the Phillies fear.

    [Picture by Bags]

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

    Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Gene Michael

    If you’re looking for connections between the current Yankee organization and the 1972 season, there are not many. Other than some minority shareholders and some old-time spring training instructors, there really is no one left from the 1972 days. Except for Gene Michael, that is. These days, he serves as one of Brian Cashman’s senior advisors, giving him advice on such newsworthy matters as the re-signing of the formerly retired Andy Pettitte. Back then, some 40 summers ago, Michael did his best to give the shortstop position the kind of defensive dignity it had lacked since the days of Tony Kubek.

    Gene Michael looks a little bit surprised on his 1972 card, as if he isn’t quite ready for the snapshot taken by the Topps photographer. But it is most fitting that he is posed with a glove, for that was by far his best tool as a player. Michael really couldn’t run very fast, and he couldn’t hit a lick, though he did have enough patience to coax a walk here and there. He certainly had no power, with a total of 15 home runs in ten seasons. But he could handle the glove. And notice how small that glove was. We’ve always heard that middle infielders prefer small gloves so that they can take the ball out of the glove quickly and make a fast throw to one of the bases, but that glove is really stretching the limits of that theory.

    It‘s rather amazing that Michael established himself as the master of the bidden ball trick using that small of a glove. Where exactly did he hide the ball? In his shirt? Yet, Michael could pull that play better than anyone in history. Here’s what he would do. With the runner at second base assuming that the pitcher was holding the ball, Michael would casually sidle over toward the second base bag with his ball nestled in his glove. He would then place a decisive tag on the unsuspecting victim before making the ball readily apparent to the umpire.

    It’s a play that major leaguers rarely use in today’s game–I can’t remember the last time I saw a second baseman or shortstop pull it off–but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency. According to the official records, he executed the hidden ball trick at least five times. Considering that the hidden ball play relies on surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice.

    By the time that Michael had refined the hidden ball trick, he was well established as a Yankee. But he did not start out in the organization, instead coming up through the Pirates’ system. Signed by the Pirates in 1959 after a standout career as a basketball player at Kent State, the six-foot, two-inch Michael might have wondered at times if he should have signed with one of the NBA teams that wanted him. “Stick” rode the minor league buses for seven seasons before finally making it to the major leagues in 1966, when he was already 28.

    Though he was unusually tall and lanky for a shortstop of that era, he impressed the Pirates with his fielding and his range. His hitting was another story. A .152 batting average in 33 plate appearances will discourage a coaching staff. After the season, the Pirates had a chance to upgrade the position by acquiring Maury Wills, so they did just that. They packaged Michael with power hitting third baseman Bob “Beetle” Bailey, and sent them to the Dodgers for the mercurial Wills.

    Michael didn’t hit much better for the Dodgers, who evaluated him for one season before deciding that he couldn’t play every day and selling him to the Yankees in a minor transaction. He entered the 1969 season with a chance to become New York’s No. 1 shortstop, but his bat remained quiet, limiting him to 61 games. Then came the best offensive outburst of his career. He lifted his average from .198 to .272 and cemented himself as the first-string shortstop.

    He never came close to hitting that well again, but the Yankees didn’t seem to mind, as long as he gobbled up groundballs like a Hoover, showed a knack for heady plays, and turned his share of double plays with second base partner Horace Clarke. Steady and smooth, he remained the Yankees’ regular shortstop through the 1973 season. In 1974, he lost the job to Jim Mason. That winter, the Yankees, believing they had a capable replacement in Mason (boy, they were wrong on that one), released Michael. He later latched on with the Tigers, where he filled a role as a utility infielder for one season before being released.

    It’s not particularly well remembered, but the Red Sox gave Michael a spring training invite in February of 1976. Michael stayed with the Red Sox through late May, but never actually appeared in a game for Boston before drawing his release. That’s why you won’t find Michael listed as a Red Sock in his entry at Baseball-Reference. The release not only ended his Red Sox tenure before it began, but it ended his well-traveled career.

    While Michael’s playing career was unremarkable, it was after his playing days that he established his genius in the game. Michael’s intelligence had always impressed George Steinbrenner, who hired him as a coach and then as a manager, before making him a part of the front office. He then spent some time as manager with the Cubs, where he was criticized by Dallas Green for not being tough enough, before coming back to New York. In the early 1990s, the downtrodden Yankees, having hit one of the worst stretches in their history, turned the task of rebuilding the franchise over to Michael.

    As a general manager, Michael didn’t bring much flash or showmanship. With his extremely deep voice and chopped manner of speaking, he wasn’t particularly engaging in interview settings; in some ways, he was the antithesis of Billy Beane (or Brad Pitt). While Michael didn’t know much about glitz or self-promoting, he knew what he was doing in putting a team together, while still emphasizing the Sabermetric principles of on-base percentage and defensive range. He placed an emphasis on player development, which included the drafting or signing of such cornerstone players as Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. He patiently waited for the right trade to come his way. On Election Day 1992, he made his signature move by trading Roberto Kelly to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. The trade changed the look of the lineup, while bringing an intensity, a property that had been sorely missing, to the Yankee clubhouse.

    It’s unfortunate that Michael was fired as GM before he could see the benefits of his labors. The 1994 strike didn’t help matters either. It’s possible the Yankees would have advanced to the Series that ill-fated year, in what turned out to be Stick’s second-to-last season at the helm.

    And those who know the game realize the importance that Michael had in laying the foundation for the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He deserves credit, just like Cashman and Bob Watson. Not bad for a guy who didn’t see the major leagues until he was 28.

    Thankfully, Michael remains part of the Yankee organization today. I feel a lot better about things knowing that Gene “Stick” Michael is still around.

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

    [Featured Image Via Linnett Portraits]

    Observations From Cooperstown: Gary Carter and Raul Ibanez

    The late Gary Carter never played a game for the Yankees, a fact that should be regretful for any Yankee fan who remembers the 1980s. If Carter had played even one season in the Bronx, the Yankees might just have won a World Series title that proved so elusive during that decade of frustration.

    The winter of 1984-85 brought me some of the most difficult times of my life. My mother was dying from abdominal cancer, a horrible experience under any circumstances but particularly difficult for me as I was trying to muddle through a challenging sophomore year at Hamilton College. One of the few diversions that helped me forget about my mother’s terminally ill condition involved the winter meetings that December. Both New York teams made blockbuster trades at those meetings, the Mets acquiring Carter for a package of Hubie Brooks-plus, while the Yankees nabbed Rickey Henderson for a group of young players headlined by Jose Rijo. The news of those two trades, which happened within five days of one another, made that December and that January, when my mother finally passed, a little bit more bearable.

    The Yankees ended up with a good team in 1985, a 97-win club that finished only two lengths behind an exceptional group of Blue Jays. Led by Billy Martin, who replaced Yogi Berra after a handful of games, the Yankees came within whiskers of matching the Blue Jays for the AL East title, even with little contribution from their starting catcher, Butch Wynegar. A two-time All-Star, Wynegar was well past his prime at the age of 29, and would later undergo treatment for debilitating depression. What would have happened if the Yankees had added Carter for the 1985 season? Carter, buttressed by a strong left-handed hitting backup in Ron Hassey, would have given the Yankees one of the missing links to an otherwise sterling lineup.

    Sure, it would have been a lot to ask Yankee GM Clyde King to swing blockbuster deals for both Carter and Henderson in the same winter, but the Yankees had both the minor league resources and the major league talent to make it happen. They could have centered a package for Carter around Dan Pasqua, who at the time was a top-tier hitting prospect coveted by numerous teams. They could have included a young Doug Drabek (whom they would eventually trade in a regrettable deal for Rick Rhoden) and tossed in a young infielder from among a group of Rex Hudler, Bobby Meacham, and Andre Robertson.

    Not only would have Carter solidified the chronically weak catching corps that plagued the franchise in the mid-1980s, but he also would have given the Yankees exactly the kind of rah-rah leader that would have perfectly complemented guide-by-example types in Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield. With Carter behind the plate, improving both a potent offense and perhaps coaxing more from a thin pitching staff, the 1985 Yankees could well have leapfrogged over the Blue Jays into the postseason. And then who knows what might have happened?

    Of course, all of this is wishful thinking, and more than 25 years after the fact. Perhaps the Expos would have preferred an established infielder like Brooks, who had the ability to play both shortstop and third base while hitting with game-changing power. Maybe the Expos foresaw that Pasqua would fall well short of the stardom forecast for him.  But the idea of Carter-as-a-Yankee was just one of the thoughts that has gone through my mind in the aftermath of his premature death at the age of 57.

    I had the privilege of meeting Carter several times; he never failed to deliver the goods with his friendly nature, boyish enthusiasm, and sincere regard for the concerns of others.

    Back in 2003, I interviewed Carter at the Waldorf Astoria, exactly one day after he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. Bruce Brodersen, a friend of mine who heads up the Hall of Fame’s multimedia department, arranged and oversaw the interview. Bruce, a diehard Mets fan like few others, immediately took notice of Carter’s 1986 World Series ring. Noticing the interest, Carter told Bruce that he could wear the ring during the duration of our 20-minute interview. I cannot imagine many players, Hall of Fame or otherwise, offering to let a perfect stranger wear a cherished world championship ring. But that was Carter.

    Gary Carter as a Yankee? It’s nothing more than a dream. But imagine if it had happened. Any Yankee fan who cares about integrity, character, and winning would have been proud to watch the man known as “Kid” wear the pinstripes.

    ***

    In contrast to yours truly, Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long is legitimately excited about the addition of free agent Raul Ibanez, whom he calls an “RBI machine.” For the Yankees’ sake, I hope Long is right; batting in the lower third of the Yankee order, Ibanez figures to have plenty of RBI opportunities batting behind the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher.

    Of course, while Long drools over the RBI possibilities, he doesn’t mention Ibanez’ relative lack of power in 2011 (as evidenced by a slugging percentage below .450) and an inability to draw walks or to reach base in any kind of consistent manner. These could be concerns for the Yankees, whose collective offense will be one year older and will have to hope for bounce back seasons from A-Rod and Tex. At the very least, the Yankees will have a capable offense in 2012, but will they have a dominant one? If they don’t, Ibanez will be exposed as a less-than-effective DH.

    Having said all of that, I’ll be rooting for Ibanez. He visited Cooperstown last summer, accompanying his son during his week-long participation in the Cooperstown Dreams Park. According to my sources, Ibanez made a good impression with his friendly and receptive manner. That jives with what baseball people have said all along, that Ibanez is one of the game’s good guys, a man of character and a powerful presence in any clubhouse.

    So this is no Elijah Dukes here. It will be easy, if somewhat frustrating, to root for Raul Ibanez. I just hope that Joe Girardi uses Ibanez with caution. He cannot hit left-handers anymore, so his at-bats against southpaws should be restricted as much as possible. Furthermore, Ibanez needs to be kept out of the outfield. A brutal defender with little arm, Ibanez should only the play the outfield if the game is a blowout–or if the Yankees simply run out of outfielders. If Girardi follows this plan, he can minimize the damage that Ibanez can do, and allow his other role players to pick up the slack.

    [Picture Credit: Aya Francisco]

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

    It’s Baseball Season?

    Three weeks ago, with the Knicks floundering amid the Giants’ Super Bowl victory, the anticipation of Yankees’ arrival in Tampa for the start of Spring Training would have been met with great anticipation and fervor. Jeremy Lin changed that. The Knicks are relevant. Madison Square Garden is buzzing. Baseball is on the back burner, save for those of us who follow the sport more closely than the winter sports.

    From a newsmaking perspective, it was a relatively quiet winter for the Yankees. They took care of the CC Sabathia contract early; Jorge Posada’s retirement marked the next phase of the end of the Core Four; the pursuit of CJ Wilson wasn’t as aggressive as the pursuit of Cliff Lee a year ago, so it wasn’t as much of a shock or a perceived loss when the Orange County Angels signed him. The Yankees did make the backpages — in baseball-related news, anyway — by trading Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda. Shortly thereafter they signed Hiroki Kuroda. The respective deals left no doubt that Allan James Burnett’s time as a Yankee was limited.

    And so it was that the Yankees ended the Burnett Era on Friday by paying the Pittsburgh Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands in exchange for two minor leaguers. Burnett can now put the “Pie” in Pirate.

    The timing of the Burnett trade was similar to the one that sent Alfonso Soriano to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Alex Rodriguez eight years ago, although to be sure it is not nearly as significant a deal, and it won’t cause anywhere near the circus that A-Rod did. Jettisoning Burnett is more of a simple “addition by subtraction” move. There were many who viewed getting rid of Alfonso Soriano similarly (considering what he has become, and how that move indirectly pave the way for Robinson Cano’s emergence, maybe the folks with that view were correct).

    Monday’s signing of Raul Ibanez assures they have a left-handed hitting DH who can also play a little outfield to spell either Brett Gardner or Nick Swisher. It also marks a homecoming for Ibanez, a native New Yorker. Look for many of those stories over the next six weeks, particularly as the Yankees prepare to break camp.

    Other than the typical puff pieces — how does the pitching staff shape up, particularly now with three arms under the age of 30; how is the respective health of the aging left side of the infield; who is the 25th man, etc. — it figures to be a quiet Spring. That was until Mariano Rivera revealed that 2012 would be his final season.

    Even with the buzz Mo’s statement caused both locally and nationally, it won’t cause nearly the level of craziness that David Wells’ book, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield’s respective roles in the BALCO scandal, a certain trip to Japan, or the afterglow of a World Series championship did. And that’s fine by the Yankees. It leaves more time and room for Jeremy Lin and the Knicks to own the spotlight.

    Lost In Translation?

    Will Hiroki Kuroda's success translate in the Bronx? (Photo: AP)

    Because it came in the wake of the Yankees’ blockbuster trade for Michael Pineda, the acquisition of Hiroki Kuroda has been somewhat overlooked. Even now, the Japanese right hander seems to be getting short shrift on his own team. Recently, Yankees’ pitching coach Larry Rothschild identified Pineda and Ivan Nova as candidates for the number two slot in the rotation. However, if A.J. Burnett is traded and Freddy Garcia is sent to the bullpen, Kuroda will rank behind only CC Sabathia in terms of experience and success as a starter (Kuroda’s 114 games started are almost as many as Pineda, Nova, and Phil Hughes combined). What’s more, over the last two seasons, Kuroda has ranked 36th and 44th in bWAR and fWAR, respectively, which suggests the righty is a solid number two. So, why does it seem as if not too many people look upon him as being one?

    Hiroki Kuroda’s Home/Road Splits

    Source: Baseball-reference.com

    Although the Yankees acquisition of Kuroda has received some appreciation, there has also been hesitation expressed about his migration from the N.L. West to the more talent laden A.L. East. In addition, there have been concerns over the move from pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium to Yankee Stadium and its short right field porch, a fear heightened by the spike in Kuroda’s HR rate last season. However, during his Dodgers’ career, Kuroda hasn’t been a product of Chavez Ravine. Rather, he has pitched just as well on the road as home (3.43 ERA with .661 OPS against vs. 3.48 and .687). Also, an overlay of Kuroda’s batted balls at Dodger Stadium transferred to Yankee Stadium reveals only two additional HRs (doubles in Los Angeles that would have cleared the left field wall, not the short porch, in the Bronx), which hardly suggests a potential long ball epidemic.

    Yankee Stadium Overlay of Kuroda’s Batted Balls at Dodger Stadium

    Source: http://katron.org/projects/baseball/hit-location/

    There are obvious drawbacks to an overlay, including variables like atmospheric conditions and ballpark-impacted pitch selection (not to mention the accuracy of the simulator). Also, the general trends in Kuroda’s batted ball data suggest an increase in both line drives and fly balls, which doesn’t bode well for his ability to keep opposing hitters in the park. Over his first three seasons, the right hander was able to induce ground balls more than half the time, but in 2011, that rate dropped all the way to 43%. Perhaps more concerning was the precipitous rise in line drives, which seems to justify the spike in Kuroda’s HR rate.

    Hiroki Kuroda’s Batted Ball Data

    Source: fangraphs.com

    Does Kuroda’s move toward being more of a fly ball pitcher represent the start of new trend? It’s hard to tell from one year’s worth of data, but a closer look at the home runs he allowed in 2011 might suggest the increase was more of a fluke. Exactly half of the 24 homers allowed by Kuroda came with two strikes, which was more than double the five he allowed in the two seasons prior.

    “I think it’s a random spike, given the information available,” said Joe Sheehan of Sports Illustrated. “The homers themselves were clustered in few outings–the chance that it’s some kind of skill issue is less than it just being a blip.”

    In fact, Kuroda’s struggles with two strikes weren’t confined to the long ball. With the exception of 0-2 counts, opposing batters hit well above average against the veteran pitcher in every other two strike combination (click here for a look at how hitters performed with two strikes in 2011). If Kuroda is able to cut down on the damage against him with two strikes, not only might his HR rate return to more normal levels, but his performance could improve across the board. It’s hard to predict whether or not he will be able to make the adjustment, but perhaps pitching against stiffer competition in a more hitter friendly environment will improve his concentration (i.e., pitch selection) with two strikes on the batter? That’s all conjecture, but regardless, Kuroda has substantial room for improvement in two strike counts.

    Hiroki Kuroda’s Performance with Two Strikes, 2011

    Note: sOPS+ measures Kuroda’s performance against the league average in a particular split. For example, his sOPS+ of 121 in all two strike counts indicates opposing batters hit 21% better against him.
    Source: baseball-reference.com

    Another concern expressed about Kuroda’s transition to the Yankees is the impact of the team’s porous infield defense. However, according to UZR/150 (which, admittedly, is far from an exact barometer), Yankees’ infielders were at least on par with the Dodgers’ at every position but short stop. Also, based on advanced analyses like Mike Fast’s recent study on catcher framing, Russell Martin ranks as one of the best defensive backstops in the game (according to Fast’s framing data, Kuroda’s catcher in 2011, Rod Barajas, ranked toward the bottom in 2011). Finally, as a group, the Yankees’ outfield led the majors with a UZR/150 of 10.2, which was well above the Dodgers’ rate of 2.8. So, even if Kuroda has gradually become more of a fly ball pitcher, that could play to his advantage on the Yankees, especially if he can get opposing batters to hit the ball to Brett Gardner.

    Comparison of Yankees and Dodgers Infield and Outfield Defense, 2011

    Source: fangraphs.com

    Defense is always an important part of the equation when evaluating pitching, but in Kuroda’s case, it might be a little overrated. Because of his age, and perhaps the perception that he is a control specialist, many people seem to regard Kuroda as a contact pitcher. However, over the last two years, he has proven to be adept at missing bats. Among all qualified pitchers spanning the last two seasons, Kuroda ranks ninth with a swinging strike rate of 10.5%, or two percentage points higher than the league average. If Kuroda can continue to fool hitters, especially during the period when they are learning his patterns, his ability to generate swings and misses could mitigate some of his defense’s shortcomings, if they do exist.

    Swinging Strike Rates, 2010-2012

    Source: fangraphs.com

    There are usually many unanswered questions when a player transitions to a new team and league, so skepticism surrounding Kuroda’s ability to maintain his success in the Bronx is only natural. However, based on his track record and the Yankees’ short-term commitment, there’s every reason to be optimistic that the right hander will be a positive contributor in 2012. Will he be the number two? Such distinctions really have little relevance in the grand scheme of a 162-game season, but if the sentiments expressed by those who know him best are accurate, I wouldn’t bet against it.

    Observations From Cooperstown: Russell the Muscle and A.J. the Ex-Yankee

    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.

    Observations From Cooperstown: Bill Hall, Mel Hall, and Jimmie Hall

    The Yankees’ rumored interest in free agent utility man Bill Hall is a bit puzzling. Should we interpret that interest as a sign that the Yankees do not believe that Eduardo Nunez can handle the defensive responsibilities of being a utility infielder. Alternatively, is it a signal that the Yankees would like to trade Nunez, perhaps in a deal for a left-handed bat who can fill part of the DH role? To be honest, I’m not sure which of those thought processes are running through the mind of Brian Cashman.

    Still, Hall is an interesting player. In 2006, he hit 35 home runs as a starting shortstop and looked like a budding star at the age of 26. Stardom never happened. In 2010, he was a reasonably productive utility man for the Red Sox, filling in around the infield and outfield. Then he signed a free agent contract with the Astros, where he flopped as the team’s everyday second baseman. After being released by the ‘Stros, the Giants took a flier on him, but watched him hit a mere .158 in 38 late-season at-bats.

    Now 32 years old, Hall will never be a 30-home run man again, that’s for sure. But if he can revert back to the player of 2010, a versatile player who can play three infield positions and all three outfield positions while hitting with some pop, he’s be a useful guy to have. If not, if his 2011 numbers are an indication of his true current ability, then the Yankees will have to tread lightly here. If they sign Hall and trade Nunez, there may not be a safety net available in the event of a Hall breakdown.

    When you’re a baseball fan, it’s funny how the mind works. When I hear the name “Hall,” I think of the Hall of Fame, and I think of past Yankees with the same last name. The Yankees have not had a player named Hall since the now-infamous Mel Hall, who was one of the team’s bright spots during the fallow years of the early 1990s. Hall played hard, pounded right-handed pitching, and delivered his fair share of clutch hits, but then he took some “hazing” of a young Bernie Williams to ridiculous extremes, driving the young outfielder to the verge of tears. He repeatedly referred to Williams as “Zero.” When Williams began talking in Hall’s presence, the veteran outfielder chided him by yelling, “Shut up, Zero.” Why this treatment was allowed to go on unchecked remains one of the great mysteries in Yankee history.

    Hall also failed to make friends with the front office when he brought his two pet cougars–yes, a pair of pet cougars–into the Yankee clubhouse without warning, creating a mild panic in the process.

    Yet, the hazing and the cougar incident pale in comparison to Hall’s post-career problems. Hall is currently sitting in a federal prison, where he will remain until he is old and gray because of his repulsive relationship with two underage girls. Hall was convicted of sexual assault; he essentially raped the girls, one of whom was 12 at the time of the relationship. Sentenced in 2009, he will have to serve a minimum of 22 years, or the year 2031, before he is eligible for parole. If he does not gain parole, the total sentence will run 45 years, putting him behind bars until 2054. Hall is 51 now, so that would put him at a ripe old 93 years. So who knows if he’ll even live that long.

    There is one other “Hall” that I remember playing for the Yankees. He was Jimmie Hall, a left-handed power hitter of the 1960s. He began his career with a flourish, putting up OPS numbers of better than .800 in his three major league seasons with the Twins. As a rookie, he set a record for most home runs by a first-year player in the American League, busting the mark set by Ted Williams in 1939. He also had the ability to play all three outfield spots, making him particularly valuable toMinnesota.

    Apparently on the verge of stardom, Hall then fell off the map. He struggled so badly in 1966 that the Twins traded him to the Angels. Some say his early decline was the result of being hit in the head with a pitch. Others pointed to his inability to handle left-handed pitching. And then there were those who felt that he was done in by the changes to the strike zone that hurt so many hitters during the mid-to-late sixties, when the second deadball era set in.

    By the time that Jimmie Hall joined the Yankees, he was a fragment of the player who had once torn through the American League. The Yankees acquired him early in the 1969 season, picking him up from the Indians in a straight cash deal. Hall came to the plate 233 times for the Yankees, but hit just three home runs and reached base only 29 per cent of the time. Even in a deadball era, those numbers didn’t suffice.

    Hall didn’t last the season in theBronx. On September 11, the Yankees dealt Hall to the Cubs for two players with wonderfully opposite names, minor league pitcher Terry Bongiovanni and outfielder Rick Bladt. If you remember either of those players, give yourself a cigar.

    So that’s it for the Yankees’ legacy of Halls. Mel and Jimmie. If the Yankees end up signing Bill Hall, we can only hope that he’ll be a better player than Jimmie and a better man than Mel.

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

    Observations From Cooperstown: Ibanez, Mike Stanley, and Burnett

    So who will be the Yankees’ designated hitter? The first DH name that came up in the aftermath of the Jesus Montero trade was Carlos Pena. But he wanted too much money for the Yankees’ liking and returned to Tampa Bay. The second name belonged to Johnny Damon, who instead expressed an interest in returning toDetroit, only to see the Tigers sign Prince Fielder to that ridiculous nine-year contract. So Damon is still in play for the Yankees, at least for the moment. Next up on the list is former Phillie, Mariner, and Royal Raul Ibanez, who is also a free agent. My reaction to the possibility of Ibanez becoming a Yankee? Don’t touch this guy with a ten-foot bat, corked or otherwise.

    Ibanez is a native New Yorker, a good guy with a strong clubhouse reputation, and a left-handed hitter with power, so it’s only natural that his name would come up in connection with the Yankees. But that’s where the interest should begin and end. At one time, Ibanez was a fine hitter with the Royals and Mariners, capable of slugging at or near .500. Those days are over. He’s 39, hit only 20 home runs last year despite playing in a hitter’s playground, and slugged a mere .419. His on-base percentage was more strikingly worse, a meager .289. This guy’s not a lefty DH. He’s barely even a good pinch-hitting candidate at this point in his career.

    With Ibanez, there’s no consolation coming from his defensive play. Though he spent the last three years playing left field for the Phillies, his fielding is–and always has been–atrocious. There’s a video somewhere on the Internet from a game in which Ibanez is playing for the Mariners against the Yankees. After he fields a ground ball down the left field line, Ibanez attempts to throw the ball back toward the infield, but he instead accidentally spikes the ball, which travels a few feet to the right and straight down to the ground. Video records are incomplete, but it may be the worst throw in the history of major league baseball.

    Of course, that play represented Ibanez at his worst, but his general level of fielding acumen ranks somewhere between bad and poor. For his career, TotalZone puts him minus 5 for his play in left field, a ranking that matches his awful reputation. As a point of comparison, former Yankee Marcus Thames has a career TotalZone of minus three. So, by this rating, Ibanez is even worse than Thames, a frightening proposition. Yikes.

    So other than DH, there’s no where to play Ibanez without risking further embarrassment. And if he’s not good enough as a hitter to be a DH, then there should be no role for him on the 2012 Yankees…

    ***

    In assessing the great catchers of Yankee lore last week, I discussed Jorge Posada and Thurman Munson while referencing Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, and Bill Dickey. Though he was neither a particularly strong defensive player nor a longtime Yankee, I should have included at least a footnote mention of Mike Stanley. In terms of pure offense, Stanley was one of the best catchers the Yankees have ever had, putting up OPS numbers of .800, .923, .929, and .841 from 1992 to 1995. In 1993, he even received some votes in the MVP balloting. Stanley’s emergence as the No. 1 catcher coincided with the Yankees’ return to glory in the mid-1990s.

    Why have we forgotten Stanley so quickly? Unfortunately, he didn’t join the Yankees until he was 29, the result of one of Gene Michael’s prudent free agent signings. He played four full seasons in New York, left when the Yankees acquired Joe Girardi, spent a year and a half with the Red Sox, and then returned to the Yankees as a DH for the tail-end of 1997. As a matter of bad luck, he missed the Yankees’ 1996 title while in Boston, and was not brought back for the world championship season of 1998. The end result was zero titles for Stanley.

    The emergence of Posada over the last decade and a half also made it easier to overlook the prior contributions of Stanley. But Stanley was a very good player, a right-handed hitter with power who had a terrific opposite field stroke, and brought the kind of patient, grinding style at the plate that became a hallmark of the Yankees in the mid to late-1990s. He wasn’t Posada and he wasn’t Munson, but Stanley was an important part of the Yankee turnaround, and that makes him an important part of franchise history…

    ***

    A few Yankee fans have asked me which of their bottom-of-the-rotation starters will be traded between now and Opening Day. I don’t think it will be Phil Hughes, if only because the Yankees would be trading him while his value is so low. This Yankee administration hasn’t forgotten that Hughes was once their top prospect, and the front office would love nothing better than to see Hughes report to spring training in good shape and take aim on the potential that he seemed to be tapping two years ago. I also don’t think that the Yankees will trade Garcia, who is probably the one pitcher best suited to serving as a long man/spot starter. Nothing seems to phase “The Chief,” so I’d expect he’d handle the Dick Tidrow/Ray Burris/Ramiro Mendoza role without a hitch.

    That leaves A.J. Burnett, who still has two years to go on that nonsensical contract and continues to be Yankee fans’ greatest source of frustration. Is Burnett tradeable? Sure, anyone is, assuming that the Yankees pick up enough of his contract. But I do get the feeling that Brian Cashman will want something tangible in return, whether it’s a lefty DH or a utility infielder. If the Yankees eat something like 80 per cent of the $33 million owed to Burnett, then Cashman will expect a player in return, and not just some 25-year-old middle reliever pitching in Class-A ball.

    There have been suggestions of a swap sending Burnett to the Cubs for Alfonso Soriano, but there is a problem with that. Soriano has three years remaining on his monstrosity of a contract, meaning that the Yankees would have to commit an extra year compared to the two years left on the Burnett deal. Soriano also happens to be a right-handed hitter, making a platoon with Andruw Jones a bit unfeasible.

    Still, there may be a deal out there somewhere. At the right price, a team might just think that it can fix A.J. Burnett.

    Bruce Markusen was born on January 30. Hey, that’s today!

    [Drawing by Larry Roibal]

    Legacy Students

    Joe Paterno died Sunday at age 85. Life and career retrospectives abounded. Wins and losses were mentioned, as were bowl game triumphs, the iconic look he brought to the sidelines every Saturday. Most of all, his contributions to the “student athlete” and the culture he created outside the gridiron and the towering edifice that is Beaver Stadium were discussed.

    Not be ignored, though — and it wasn’t — was his role, his actions and his inaction regarding a certain former assistant coach and alleged pedophile. The Onion’s satirical headline spoke volumes: “Joe Paterno Dies In Hospital; Doctors Promise to Tell Their Superiors First Thing Tomorrow”.

    Legacies are meant to demonstrate an example to be set for successors. Sounds simple but legacies are complicated. Look at Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant, Bobby Knight, Vince Lombardi, Wilt Chamberlain, Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Lawrence Taylor, or most recently, Bill Conlin. Look at any iconic athlete, coach, writer, celebrity or politician whose indiscretions  made them as infamous as their contributions to their chosen fields made them famous. Look at the names I just listed. If we were playing word association, you could probably think of the words racist, drunk, womanizer, gambler, bully, insane, drug addict or kid toucher as quickly as you could think of Hall of Famer, Hit King, 714 home runs, 6 titles or  14 majors. Bryant, winner of 5 NBA titles and still considered in many circles the best player in the sport, was acquitted of the rape charges nine years ago; yet when a philandering husband suddenly buys a lavish gift for his spouse as a means of apologizing, it’s called a “Kobe Special.”

    Observing how the media has treated those players and coaches over the years, has there been a reluctance to hold any of them accountable for their actions? In many cases, no. Thus, in reading and listening to the Joe Paterno tributes, I was curious how the media would address Paterno’s role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal in the context of his legacy.

    The common refrain was that while we can’t dismiss his management of the Jerry Sandusky situation, we shouldn’t let that cloud our view of the man. If you knew someone who had a reputation of always going above and beyond for others, yet suddenly did the bare minimum and expected that to be enough, what would you think?

    In The Nation, Dave Zirin wrote:

    …according to our conception of who this man was supposed to be, there was no authority above Joe Paterno. There was instead an expectation that this man of integrity would without hesitation do far more than just fulfill his minimum legal requirements. Is that fair? When it’s your statue on campus and when the buildings bear your name, most would say hell yes.

    Howard Bryant wrote one of many commentaries for ESPN.com on Paterno’s death. He brought forth a similar sentiment as Zirin:

    …Paterno had too much power with not nearly enough oversight. He was bigger than the school, and the school cowered to him. Paterno gave millions back to Penn State; and as his power grew and grew unchecked over four decades, the university lost the ability to control whether he was benevolent or a tyrant.

    It was not a power particularly special to Paterno, but to his industry. The entire culture of the coach deserves deconstruction and revision, for the same can be said in varying degrees of Bryant and Knight, Bowden and Calhoun, Krzyzewski and Boeheim.

    When it was time for Paterno to use the power that he had accrued — when he became aware that for years, children allegedly were being molested under the ceiling of the football monument he had built — he did not lead.

    Joe Posnanski is writing a book about Joe Paterno. He did not blog about JoePa’s death, but he filed a piece for SI. The last words of the column quote Paterno, who said that “hopes the victims find peace.” Posnanski precedes the quote by writing that Paterno wanted his life measured in totality rather than by “a hazy event involving an alleged child molester.”

    Perhaps the most vivid piece of writing about “the hazy event” and Paterno can be found in  this diary. Warning: it’s not for the sensitive. It is heart-wrenching, explicit, and likely represents the anger of many who have sat back and thought “WTF?” regarding Paterno, Sandusky and the events of the past two months.

    Jeff MacGregor also posted for ESPN.com, with a take that I’m sure will be used in the Sport Studies curriculum at universities across the country. I’ve written in this space about man, myth, and legend; I did so in my first story on this topic back in November. MacGregor is much better with metaphor:

    Joe Paterno was no more and no less than human, and no living man can contend with his own legend. No man can live in his own shadow.

    A bronze statue of Joe Paterno standing seven feet high and weighing 900 pounds was swung into place at Penn State on Nov. 2, 2001.

    Four months later to the day, March 2, 2002, Mike McQueary stood at Joe Paterno’s door. He had a terrible story to tell.

    There’s a poignant scene in “The Deer Hunter” near the intermission when Robert De Niro’s character, Michael  is carrying Steven (John Savage), a badly injured friend, over his shoulder to safety. It is one scene among many makes the film’s title so significant; Michael is carrying Steven the same way he’d carry a deer after shooting it. Steven had become the deer carcass. Similarly, is it not reasonable to believe, based on MacGregor’s closing paragraphs, that four months after his statue was erected at Penn State, that Paterno became the statue?

    Paterno told Posnanski he wanted the victims to have peace. The first step could have been taken right then and there. Maybe even sooner. That, for many, is the focal point of any discussion about the late Joe Paterno’s legacy. And in the cumulative analysis of the man, the coach, the academic, the philanthropist, benefactor and humanitarian, we cannot be afraid to hold him accountable for that.

    [Photo Credit: Dr Brady]

    Observations From Cooperstown: Posada, Pineda, and Pena

    Jorge Posada still hasn’t made his decision official, but it’s become common knowledge that he has decided to retire rather than continue his career as a backup catcher in Tampa Bay, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. While I would never begrudge a player who wanted to prolong his career as much as possible, there is some artistic symmetry in Posada beginning and ending his playing days in the same place.

    Posada represents the latest in a long line of great Yankee catchers, a succession that began with Bill Dickey before continuing with Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Thurman Munson. Dickey and Berra are members of the Hall of Fame, Howard and Munson are not, and Posada will become the focal point of what should be an interesting five-year debate over his worthiness for the Hall of Fame.

    The comparison of Posada and Munson has long fascinated me. Based strictly on OPS (.848 to .756), one would conclude that Posada was the superior of the two. Posada certainly had more career value, thanks to luck and longevity. But using an eyeball approach–assuming you’re old enough to have seen both players–Munson was the better player, especially when you factor in the areas of fielding and baserunning.

    As much as I like Munson, he just didn’t have the career longevity that is needed for a Hall of Fame player. I would also vote “no” on Posada’s entrance into Cooperstown, though I’m open to change my mind. The relatively late start to his career, along with his defensive deficiencies and baserunning misadventures, render him just short of my personal Hall of Fame line. But that should not be interpreted as some kind of insult. Any player who is even considered for the Hall of Fame is a player of achievement, a player of longevity, a player who is worthy of praise and appreciation. Posada’s offensive excellence—encompassing his ability to hit with power, draw walks, and do damage from both sides of the plate–made him a modern day version of Ted Simmons.

    And let’s not forget that early in his career, Posada was a respectable receiver who generally developed good rapport with his pitchers. For every A.J. Burnett, there have been dozens of pitchers who came to trust and rely on Posada’s enthusiasm, passion, and leadership abilities. By all accounts, Posada has been a good and well-liked teammate who has blended well with the vast array of personalities the Yankees have had over the last 15 years.

    Posada’s career path is rather remarkable given its origins. It’s worth noting that he was not a highly touted player when first signed by the Yankees. He was a 24th round selection in 1990. He started his professional career as a second baseman with the Oneonta Yankees, a short-season Class-A franchise in the NY-Penn League, before someone in the organization had the foresight to convert him to catcher. When the Yankees first brought him to the major leagues, they often used him as a pinch-runner. It’s almost as if the Posada of the 1990s was someone else, some alien life form who possessed the powers of self-transformation. I guess his makeover is proof that players are adaptable, than they can evolve, and that a longshot can become a success in the game of major league baseball.

    Farewell, Jorge. Next stop, Old-Timers Day. I think you’ll be pretty popular that day.

    ***

    I think I’ve been as big a booster of Jesus Montero as anyone who writes for The Banter, so you might expect that I’d be unhappy with the trade that sent him and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. Granted, I’m a little disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to see Montero play every day in pinstripes, primarily because I think he is going to be a star hitter, the kind of player who will hit .300, slug .500, and carry a team’s offense for days at a time.

    As much as I like Montero, I love the trade. Scouts praise Pineda the way I rave about Montero. At six-feet, seven inches and 260 pounds, he’s been described as a “monster,” even as a “leviathan,” which may be the first time I’ve heard that word used to refer to a ballplayer. (He looks like a bigger version of Lee Smith, if such a thing is possible.) With his 95 to 98 mile-an-hour fastball and bone snapping slider, Pineda makes mitts pops and heads turn.

    If Pineda duplicates the way he pitched for the Mariners, particularly over the first half of the season, the Yankees have a perfectly formidable No. 2 starter. If he adds a third pitch to his repertoire and pitches to a reachable higher level, he becomes a full-fledged No. 1 starter, someone who can eventually wrestle with CC Sabathia for the mythical top spot of the Yankee rotation.

    As a bonus, the trade with the Mariners also netted Campos, whom some scouts project to be better than Pineda. With his smooth delivery and live fastball, the 19-year

    -old right-hander will start the season at Single-A ball, but could move up to Double-A by midsummer.

    While the Yankees often deal prospects for established veterans, they don’t often make trades where they deal young talent for young talent. In fact, I can’t remember Cashman making this sort of transaction in the past. This deal reminds me of the 1978 trade in which the Yankees traded Mike Heath, a highly touted young catcher, to the Rangers for a power-throwing left-hander named Dave Righetti. (The deal also included a longtime veteran in Sparky Lyle, but Heath and the three other prospects going to Texas were really the keys to the trade.) Righetti became a serviceable starter before Yogi Berra made the controversial and still-debated decision to move “Rags” to the bullpen, where he had some level of success but never became a dominant closer.

    I think Pineda will turn out to be a better pitcher than Righetti. He’ll need to stay healthy, and have some luck along the way, but I think his chances of success are pretty good. With Pineda and the bonus addition of free agent Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees now have their deepest rotation since the days of Clemens, Pettitte, Mussina and Wells…

    ***

    As with any trade, the Pineda deal leads to the inevitable question: what is the next move? The subtraction of Montero leaves the Yankees without a DH. Joe Girardi has said he wants to rotate some of his resting veterans into the DH slot, but that’s not a fulltime proposition that can be sustained through 162 games. There will be plenty of days when the Yankees will want–make that, need–a proper DH who can put up some raw numbers. Two free agent candidates appear to be at the top of the list. They are Johnny Damon and Carlos Pena.

    I’d be fine with either one on a reasonable one-year contract, but my preference would be Pena. At 33, he’s five years younger than Damon, outslugged him by 44 points in 2011, and has a history of launching long balls at Yankee Stadium. With 28 home runs and 101 walks for the Cubs in 2011, Pena fits the Yankee offensive blueprint to a tee.

    Pena can no longer hit for much of an average, and he must be platooned, because he’s become like Oscar Gamble against left-handed pitching. The Yankees have a solution for that in the re-signed Andruw Jones, whose prowess against left-handed pitching has been well documented. A Jones/Pena platoon would be an ideal fit for the seventh position in the Yankee batting order.

    On the other hand, Damon still has something to offer. He can hit the long ball (16 home runs) and can still steal a base (19 stolen bases in 2011). He would bring more of a contract presence to the lineup, an ingredient that was sometimes missing in 2011. And we know that Damon would have no trouble fitting into the clubhouse dynamic or dealing with the New York City press.

    Damon or Pena, which is your choice?

    [Photo Credit: Seattle Mariners Musings]

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times and can be found from time to time on Facebook.

    The Virtual Reality of Joe Paterno

    Saturday, January 14, 2012, marked the publication of Joe Paterno’s first comments on the record since the Jerry Sandusky scandal exploded and led to the end of his career as he, and everyone else, knew it. Sally Jenkins’ piece reads like a prologue to an obituary, with the necessary exposition to put the past two months into some sort of context.

    Removing the descriptive language, though, reveals the quotes from both Paterno and his wife, Sue that shape Jenkins’ story. I pulled a few that I found particularly jarring:

    1) “You know, it wasn’t like it was something everybody in the building knew about. Nobody knew about it.”
    — Paterno, on his insistence that he was unaware of a 1998 police investigation into the report on the boy who has come to be known as “Victim 6”.

    Analysis: The same thing was said about Tiger Woods’ inner circle when questions of “how much did they know and when did they know it” came about regarding his serial philandering. Jo Becker’s report in the New York Times from November 10 of last year provides insight into this notion. Becker spoke to several investigators who doubted Paterno’s assertion of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, know-no-evil.

    An excerpt from Becker’s article:

    “You have to understand those statements in context — there is nothing that happens at State College that Joe Paterno doesn’t know, or that Graham Spanier doesn’t know,” one person involved in the investigation said. “Whether or not a criminal case went forward, there were ample grounds for an administrative inquiry into this matter. I have no evidence that was ever done. And if indeed that report was never passed up, it makes you wonder why not.”

    Joe Paterno was the most notable and powerful man at Penn State. According to the anonymous investigator, he was the most powerful man in State College. In 13 years since that investigation took place, Paterno’s assertion leaves us to interpret his involvement in one of two ways: either a) he knew what happened and was responsible for organizing a broad cover-up, or b) like Pete Rose has done every day since he was banned from baseball in 1989, Paterno crafted an alternate version of the events that he believes so passionately, it has become truth. This second supposition aligns with one definition of truth listed as “conformity with fact or reality.”

    2a) “He didn’t want to get specific. And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
    — Paterno, describing Mike McQueary’s call to him after witnessing Sandusky having sex with a boy in the showers of the Penn State Football facility in 2002.

    2b) “I had no clue. I thought doctors looked for child abuse in a hospital, in a bruise or something.”
    — Sue Paterno, when asked if she knew anything about Sandusky’s alleged child molestation.

    Analysis for 2a: Paterno’s recollection that McQueary didn’t want to be specific in his description of the actions is consistent with the original report of McQueary’s statement. Numerous reports since November, and the grand jury report, confirm that Paterno did, in fact, run it up the chain. But another quote from Paterno is particularly revealing:

    “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”

    Again, we come back to Paterno’s power. He could have easily told the administration and the Board of Trustees about the McQueary call and the accusations and said, “Do what you have to do.” He also could have cleaned house. Expertise and knowledge of male rape had nothing to do with it. Neither did procedure. Many of Paterno’s players have called him a father figure and have said he taught them how to be leaders. Do true leaders back away from a challenge or shrink in the face of adversity? That’s what Paterno did. He did not practice what he’s preached.

    Analysis for 2b: Sue Paterno added that we will become a more aware society as a result of this. That’s a nice thought, except millions of people both inside and outside Happy Valley have been aware of child abuse for years. When similar salacious charges ravaged the Catholic Church several years ago — this was international news — awareness heightened to the nth degree. Sue Paterno’s statement does not reflect well on the cultural awareness and intellectual faculties of either her or her husband, despite their ability to recant the Classics or demonstrate their love of opera, as Jenkins noted.

    3) “Right now I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do, ’cause I don’t want to sit around on my backside all day. If I’m gonna do that I’ll be a newspaper reporter.”
    — Paterno on his current state of affairs.

    Analysis: Before saying, “If I’m gonna do that I’ll be a newspaper reporter,” Jenkins observed that Paterno grinned and smiled; an obvious attempt to try to rankle the veteran reporter. Paterno should know, though, that the enterprising work of reporters not sitting on their backsides and exposing his role in this mess are part of the reason he is out as Penn State’s head football coach and is no longer a tenured professor there. One reporter in particular, Sara Ganim, could very well win a Pulitzer for her work on this story. Paterno demonstrated in both nonverbal and verbal terms why he kept Happy Valley in such a hyper-controlled bubble. He hated reporters.

    None of Paterno’s comments should come as a shock. There is no new information. From this interview, it’s clear Paterno believes that we are naive enough to think his story is the truth. Should we believe he was naive enough to have never heard of male rape or child molestation? Paterno may believe we as the public, are that stupid. What if, based on everything that has come out since November, we believed the same of him?

    Observations From Cooperstown: Andy Carey and the Utilityman

    Andy Carey was not a star–perhaps he was no more than an average player–but he was good enough to start at third base for a pair of world championship teams during the glory years ofNew York City baseball. And if not for his presence at the hot corner, Don Larsen might not have made history in the 1956 World Series.

    Carey died on December 15 at the age of 80, succumbing to a severe form of dementia, but his death was only reported publicly last week. Perhaps that’s a testament to the family’s desire for privacy. Or perhaps it’s evidence that Carey had become a forgotten figure in Yankee lore, having not played for the franchise in over 50 years. If the latter reason is the more accurate, then perhaps it’s something of a sad commentary on our society’s lack of interest in history.

    Well, Carey should be remembered. First, he had a bit of quirkiness to him. For example, he was known as a voracious eater. He ate so much that he started costing the Yankees money. On road trips, the Yankees typically allowed players to sign for their meals in hotels and restaurants. Because of Carey’s insatiable appetite, the Yankees changed the policy.

    On the field, Carey was the Scott Brosius of the 1950s, except for the fact that he never had the kind of breakout season that Brosius enjoyed in 1998. When Carey first came up, he was so strong defensively that the Yankees considered converting him to shortstop, with the plan to have him succeed an aging Phil Rizzuto. Ultimately, the Yankees decided that he was a better fit at third; he became the starting third sacker in 1954.

    Offensively, Carey had only marginal talent. He led the league in triples one year and batted over .300 in 1954, but those achievements were the extent of his hitting highlights. Conversely, he was a solid defensive player, once turning four double plays in a single game to tie a major league record. On a team surrounded with sufficient offensive talent, like the Yankees had in the mid-1950s, you could win with a player like Carey at third base.

    Larsen was certainly appreciative of Carey in Game Five of the ‘56 Series, when he took part in two remarkable plays. In the second inning, Carey knocked down a line shot off the bat of Jackie Robinson, the ball caroming to the left of the third baseman. Yankee shortstop Gil McDougald retrieved the ball and nipped Robinson at first. And then in the eighth, Carey made a diving snag of Gil Hodges’ line drive. Carey’s two-time heroics preserved both the no-hitter and the perfect game, the latter being the only one of its kind in postseason history.

    Carey remained with the Yankees through the 1959 season. With the arrival of Clete Boyer via trade, the Yankees deemed Carey expendable. They traded him to theKansas CityA’s, Boyer’s former team, in exchange for power-hitting outfielder Bob Cerv.

    From there, Carey bounced around with the A’s, White Sox and Dodgers before calling it quits in 1962. But it was as a Yankee that he would always be remembered. Carey became a frequent visitor toCooperstown, where he took place in baseball card shows, almost always signing with other Yankees from his era, like Larsen, McDougald, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron and Hank Bauer.

    Off the field, Carey led a busy life. He was married four times, including a past marriage to Lucy Marlow, a relatively little known actress who appeared in such programs as “Gunsmoke” and “The Blue Knight,” two old shows that I actually remember. The IMDB web site describes her as a “knockout-looking minor 50s film and TV actress.”

    Some might describe Andy Carey as a “minor” player of the fifties, too. And that would be unfair. When you’re good enough to start for a quartet of pennant-winning teams and a couple of world champions, you deserve more of a description than that…

    ***

    It continues to be a quiet off-season for the Yankees, with the latest non-development being the inability to sign Japanese star Hiroyuki Nakajima by last Friday’s deadline. Nakajima wanted more than a one-year contract, which represented the Yankees’ limit, and was not thrilled with the prospect of playing a backup role inNew York.

    While most observers have fluffed off the non-signing, I think there’s something deeper here. That the Yankees had such interest in Nakajima, an All-Star shortstop inJapanwhom Brian Cashman projected as a utility infielder, indicates that they are not completely satisfied with Eduardo Nunez, last year’s utility man, or totally enamored with the prospects of re-signing Eric Chavez.

    The Yankees love Nunez’ raw tools–he has an appealing combination of power and speed–but they are legitimately worried about his throwing problems. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are going to need more days off in 2012, not fewer, so Nunez will have to become more accurate in making throws from the left side of the infield. Perhaps that deficiency explains why the Yankees have been willing to include Nunez’ name in trade talks with teams like the Braves and the White Sox.

    With regards to Chavez, he did play well before breaking his foot, but then showed little power after his return. And then there’s the problem of his repeated trips to the disabled list, which have become an annual occurrence. If a utility infielder cannot be trusted to stay healthy and fill in when needed, he loses a lot of his value.

    If the Yankees don’t re-sign Chavez, where will they turn? On the free agent market, the pickings are slim, but there are some intriguing names, including Carlos Guillen, Bill Hall, Jeff Keppinger, and Miguel Tejada. All carry asterisks, if not outright questions. Guillen was once a star, but he’s now 35 and can’t stay healthy. Hall played so poorly for a bad Astros team that he was released in mid-season, and then he flopped during a 16-game trial with the Giants. Keppinger can really play only one position, second base, and doesn’t have the ability to play shortstop for more than a game at a time. Tejada, at 37, is as cooked as the Christmas goose in Scrooge.

    All in all, the choices appear so limited that the Yankees may be forgiven for having the following thought: Is Chicken Stanley still available?

    [Photo Credit: Hy Peskin]

    Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

    Observations From Cooperstown: Okajima, Jones, the HOF, and Greg Spira

    The Yankees made two low-profile roster moves last week, but both were good transactions. First, they signed ex-Red Sock Hideki Okajima to a non-guaranteed contract, giving him a chance to make the team with a good spring training performance. Then the Yankees re-signed Andruw Jones, their most effective bench player in 2011.

    At one time, Okajima was one of the American League’s most effective left-handed pitchers. He was also one of the most fun to watch, given the way that his head bobbed toward third base, a particularly distracting trait for many hitters. Okajima spent most of last year at Triple-A Pawtucket, but is only two years removed from being a key member of the Red Sox’ bullpen. For his career, he has held left-handed batters to a .217 batting average and a .277 on-base percentage. He also has no fear of American League East pennant races, having done regular battles against the Yankees and the Rays over the span of three summers.

    With a good spring, Okajima could beat out Boone Logan, who was wildly inconsistent against lefty batters in 2011. Or there’s a possibility that the Yankees could carry Okajima as a second southpaw reliever. As it is, the Yankee staff is far too right-handed, with CC Sabathia providing the only certainty from the left side. Another left-hander, provided that he is effective, would be a nice bonus for Girardi to call on in sixth and seventh inning situations.

    Now on to Jones, a familiar face from 2011. He did quietly good work in a supporting role last season. After a so-so first half, Jones finished up the season on a strong note, establishing himself as a right-handed hammer. In 146 plate appearances against left-handers, Jones reached base 38 per cent of the time and slugged to the tune of .540. Those are Marcus Thames numbers. Jones is an ideal fourth outfielder who can handle either corner position, and can also play center field in the event that both Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner go down. If anything, I’d like to see Jones play more in 2012. Whenever the Yankees see a left-hander, Joe Girardi should find a place for Jones in the lineup, whether it’s in left field, right field, or as the DH…

    ***

    We are one week away from the Hall of Fame vote being conducted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The ballot contains five names that I personally regard as Hall of Famers, but only one man is likely to emerge with the 75 per cent vote needed for election.

    Here are the four players likely to receive the most support in next week’s election:

    Barry Larkin:

    Of all the players, he has the best chance to win election from the Baseball Writers. He received 62 per cent of the vote last year and would need a jump of 13 per cent, which is not without precedent. Like George Brett, Larkin’s frequent injuries were a factor against him, but not enough to dethrone him as the best all-round shortstop of the 1990s. His power (198 home runs) and his basestealing numbers (379 steals, only 77 caught stealing) really jump out, especially coming from a shortstop. I remember him as a very good player, but the numbers show him to be a great one. Prediction: He’ll receive 78 per cent of the vote and join Ron Santo in the Class of 2012.

    Jack Morris:

    After Larkin, he has the most favorable odds of earning the required 75 per cent. He received 51 per cent last year, so he will need a huge jump in the balloting. His supporters point to him as the best starting pitcher of the 1980s and cite his standout work in the 1991 postseason. His detractors emphasize his 3.90 career ERA, which would rank the highest of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. Prediction: He’ll receive about 64 per cent support, well short of election.

    Jeff Bagwell:

    His lack of voting support in 2011 (41 per cent) was astounding. Rumors of steroid use may have been a factor, but Bagwell never failed a drug test and was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report. MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons, whose opinion I respect greatly, recently rated Bagwell as the fourth best first basemen in history, behind only Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Albert Pujols. That’s good enough for me, but it doesn’t appear that it will be good enough for the voters. Prediction: He’ll receive just over 50 per cent support.

    Tim Raines:

    Like Bagwell, his lack of support from the writers has been astonishing. He’s the second best leadoff man of all-time, behind only Rickey Henderson, a supposition that should indicate his worth for the Hall of Fame. And as a bonus, he earned a couple of World Series rings as a part-time player with the Yankees, where he filled in as a left fielder, DH, and clubhouse leader. Prediction: He’ll jump from 37 to 41 per cent, leaving him alarmingly short of election. The lack of support makes little sense to me; he’s a far stronger candidate than Jack Morris, among others.

    ***

    There are celebrities among baseball writers, people like Bill James and Rob Neyer and Bill Madden. And then there are footsoldiers, people who do the research and leave the glory of the written word to other people. Greg Spira was one of those people.

    Greg was regarded as one of the best researchers and editors in the baseball world. He wrote occasionally, but it was research and large research projects that really drove him. He did a lot of work related to the Mets, frequently collaborating with a friend of mine, Matt Silverman. They worked on many projects together, trying to come up with stories and statistics that people would be interested in reading and hearing. Greg also served as the editor of ESPN’s Baseball Encyclopedia, a book that was a particular source of pride for him.

    There was pride, but little ego. Some of Greg’s friends tried to get him to write more often, but I don’t think he had the ego for that. He just wanted to do the research, and make it available for other people to study, and enjoy.

    Greg Spira died last week at the age of 44. He had a difficult history of health problems, dating all the way back to the 1990s. His kidneys and his heart finally gave out on him, even though his mind had plenty of baseball left in it.

    I don’t know why we keep losing these writers and researchers at young ages. There was Doug Pappas of Baseball Prospectus, John Brattain of The Hardball Times, and, of course, the beloved Todd Drew of Bronx Banter. I guess that all I can make of it is this: we must do what we can each day, not knowing exactly what might happen next.

    Keep researching. Keep writing. Keep loving the game. Do it every day until it’s time to stop.

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    "This ain't football. We do this every day."
    --Earl Weaver