AMID all the curiosity and nostalgia about the sudden unretirement of Andy Pettitte, there rested one question that is absolutely fundamental to understanding the 2012 American League Eastern Division race.
I heard people ask Pettitte about how it happened, when it happened, why he wanted it to happen, how his arm was, how his legs were, how his head was. I heard questions about when Brian Cashman called him and how often and how much he was offered and how much he eventually signed for and why it took him so long and when he’ll be ready.
What I did not hear was a question about why – in the wake of trading the best hitting prospect they’ve produced since Robinson Cano for a starting pitcher, and in the wake of signing a free agent starting pitcher, and with a training camp full of young starting pitcher prospects – why did the Yankees feel they needed Pettitte?
Even at the point when Cashman traded Jesus Montero to Seattle for Michael Pineda (and then incongruously compared Montero to Miguel Cabrera), the Yankees had a surfeit of starting pitchers. CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes were all back (and Bartolo Colon could’ve been). Manuel Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Hector Noesi were awaiting opportunities. And then Pineda was added. And then Kuroda. And then Pettitte.
I understand no team divides its 162 starts evenly among five men and if you go through a year with only two rotational changes it’s been a blessing from above. But to add so much is to suggest not that you’re worried about injury or attrition, but about the quality of what you already have. I don’t think the Yankees trust Nova, I think they feel Hughes’ moment is passed, I presume they have no faith that the moment will arrive for Banuelos and Betances. And after his flaccid spring, I’m sure they’re wondering if the Pineda thing was a disaster too.
Jesus Montero probably can’t catch a lick and the Yankees didn’t have first base open for him to move to. But a player like him, with that kind of high ball opposite field power, is far more scarce than a Michael Pineda at his best, let alone a Michael Pineda who didn’t gain velocity in the off-season, only weight. The Yankees seem deliberately intent on ignoring the reality that they are aging dangerously on offense. I realize that part of the solution to that is to free up the DH spot that Montero would’ve filled, by a rotation of the wheezing Alex Rodriguez, the unpredictable Nick Swisher, the aging Derek Jeter, and the calcified Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez. But it would seem those guys, and the offense, would’ve benefited a lot more from taking days off and letting the kid get 600 plate appearances and 30 homers.
And while my theory of Cashman getting as much pitching protection as he can speaks well to his preparedness for the ever-growing chance of injury or unreliability among his hurlers, there is no similar cushion being built for the line-up. This is a dreadful bench, from Francisco Cervelli (no power), to Eduardo Nunez (no glove), to Jones (no future). And there’s nobody in the farm system to fill the deficiencies before Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams arise during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. There was a guy but they traded him for a starting pitcher so good that they had to talk a 39-year old out of retirement to replace him. Lord help the Yankees if Curtis Granderson hits like he did last September, or if Rodriguez (“he’s in great shape; oh yeah, he was in great shape last year before he broke”) or Teixeira or Russell Martin get hurt. Or Cano. No Cano and they might not be even a factor in the pennant race.
That’s why I’m picking TAMPA BAY in this division, and handily. This is still a popgun offense, although I giggle every time I read somebody rip them for bringing back Carlos Pena to replace folk hero Casey Kotchman. Casey Kotchman had 560 plate appearances last year in Tampa and drove in 48 runs. A first baseman almost has to try to achieve a statistic that pathetic. In any event, Andrew Friedman has upgraded the offense from anemic to serene, improving by small measure at first, at DH, and at short (where Jeff Keppinger is bound to supplant the .193/.223 boys, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac). Desmond Jennings is clearly blossoming into a star, and if B.J. Upton can hit merely .275, he will finally become one as well.
And the Rays have the best pitching staff in baseball. Even if Matt Moore is hyped and James Shields returns to earth and David Price keeps underachieving, they can pull Wade Davis back from the bullpen, and bring up Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and half a dozen other guys from Durham. If the magic spell that made Kyle Farnsworth a top closer suddenly snaps, they have Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta and Jake McGee and J.P. Howell to give it a try. The Rays probably have not just the best staff, 1-through-14 in baseball; they may have the best staff, 1-through-28. Who knows: if everything doesn’t go wrong maybe they dangle some of those prospects at mid-season and get some hitting?
The problem in BOSTON last year was pitchers drinking before the games were over. The problem in Boston this year could be fans drinking before they begin. Outside of Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury there isn’t a player on that 25-man roster about whom there is not one huge question. How soon will Kevin Youkilis’ crazy grip finally irreparably damage his hand? Can Carl Crawford actually face a pennant race? Is Buchholz healthy? Or Lester? Or Beckett?
Most importantly, to paraphrase long-ago skipper Joe M. Morgan, “who is running this nine?” New manager Bobby Valentine, showing my earlier criticisms of him may have been extreme and unfair, wanted Jose Iglesias at shortstop and hard-hitting, rapidly-improving Ryan Lavarnway behind the plate (Lavarnway being the only Red Sox player who didn’t panic down the stretch last year). He was overruled – and he certainly wasn’t overruled by newbie GM Ben Cherington. Years ago Terry Francona, John Farrell, and Theo Epstein came to the realization that Daniel Bard didn’t have the emotional chops to be a starting pitcher, and was best served firing gas out of the pen. They’re all gone, Bard was shoved into the rotation, is flailing just as the former bosses knew he would, and now presumably staggers back to the bullpen as broken goods behind the physically sketchy Andrew Bailey (Mark Melancon might close for them yet).
It’s a mess. It’s a mess that could almost accidentally come together in triumph and bolt into the pennant race, but – and heaven help me I’m agreeing with Curt Schilling – it looks like it is going bad quicker than he and I expected it to. Ah well, maybe they can hire Francona back at some point and he can sift through the ashes and rebuild The Olde Towne Team with an eye towards 2014.
The question in TORONTO is: could it be going good quicker than anybody expects it to? Seven spots in the Jays’ lineup don’t particularly startle you, until you reach the conclusion that the guys occupying them could all, realistically, hit 20 homers apiece this year. This does not include Jose Bautista, or the first full year of The Brett Lawrie, who might become Canada’s first true homegrown baseball hero since The Larry Walker. The Blue Jays might be good for 250 home runs – Adam Lind could easily jump from one of the “other seven” to All-Star status – and the only defensive liability of the bunch, catcher J.P. Arencibia, could soon be supplanted by uber-prospect Travis D’Arnaud.
The Jays will hit and field. Their bullpen – fresh-armed Sergio Santos, protected by the underappreciated Coco Cordero, joining the incumbent Casey Janssen – with Darren Oliver actually finding a team he hasn’t previously played for – is newly solid. The questions are all among the starters. Only Ricky Romero has a resume, but during Toronto’s remarkable spring in dreary Dunedin (I know, I know, spring training stats, but they are 22-4 as I write this), Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, and even Deck McGuire and Kyle Drabek have looked sharp. Dustin McGowan is, in a tradition as old as time itself, hurt again – but perhaps only for a few weeks. If there’s one thing John Farrell knows it’s how to translate pitching potential into success. Just slight success out of the rotation and the Jays could vault into contention.
As to BALTIMORE they seem to be planning to use Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson as part-time Designated Hitters. End Communication.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST FORECAST:
Faint heart never won fair predicting contests. I’m convinced about the winner, and taking a flier on the runners-up. It’s possible one of the Wild Cards comes out of this division but I’m not convinced any more. The Yankees and the Red Sox are not locks, and they are so not locks that I will assume New York will finally suffer the kind of position-player calamity that accelerates its decrepitude. TAMPA BAY is your champion, TORONTO second, NEW YORK third (close), BOSTON fourth, and BALTIMORE should’ve been relegated already.
NEXT TIME…I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.