Results tagged ‘ Alex Rodriguez ’

These Questions Are Easier Than They Seem

Nothing makes simple questions needlessly complex more quickly than a lot of people needing to fill a lot of time and space. So. Let’s knock these off quickly.

Can The Yankees Void Alex Rodriguez’s Contract?

Highly unlikely. When Rodriguez admitted to past PED use four years ago, the team had a window in which it could’ve claimed he had misled them so seriously that it amounted to fraud or more likely breach of contract. It could’ve cut off his paycheck and invited him – or the Players’ Association – to sue them.

But Rodriguez could’ve just as easily responded by saying ‘thanks.’ He was coming off a 35/103/.302/.392/.573 season, the ever-willingly gullible fan base bought his line about having merely “experimented” and stopped years before, and he would’ve found somebody to pay him – and maybe even pay him more.  The Yankees still had dreams of making additional tens of millions in marketing money as Alex Rodriguez – the clean home run hitter – expunged Barry Bonds from the record book. They didn’t want to fire him.

One of the problems with breach of contract is that if you feel you’re the victim of it, if you don’t respond legally, you are – in a passive-aggressive fashion – forgiving whatever action you think constituted the possible breach. The time frame before your window to try to void a contract expires is not set in stone, but it sure as heck is less than four years.

But Isn’t The New Allegation A Whole Different Breach?

It sure would be – if Rodriguez admitted it. But he’s denying it, outright. Unless there’s another positive test out there, there isn’t a fraud/breach way out of his contract.

By the way, no, I’m not a lawyer. Don’t ask me why I’m so familiar with this topic right now. Trust me, I just am.

So Couldn’t The Yankees Buy Him Out Of His Contract?

There are several variations, but the best estimate is that the Yankees owe Rodriguez another $114,000,000. Exactly what would your motivation be to accept something less?

If he retires, he gets less. If he has to retire because of injury, the Yankees can put in a claim on their insurance on the contract. But if he keeps showing up to work, either willing to play or trying to rehabilitate himself, the club owes him the full amount.

Ask Don Gullett. The Yankees signed him the same winter they signed Reggie Jackson. Everybody knew he had a risky delivery and a cranky arm, but they still gave him a six-year contract. He pitched exactly 30 times for them, the last game coming in July, 1978. He was still showing up at Yankee Stadium and throwing stiffly on the sidelines as late as the summer of 1980. He was a non-roster invitee in 1981. His endless arm miseries produced one of the great jokes in the history of television sportscasting. Deep into one winter, Jerry Girard of WPIX-TV in New York interrupted reading the NBA scoreboard and announced there was breaking news. “This just in,” he said as the director killed the graphics of the scores and put him on camera. “There has been a Don Gullett sighting!”

Why On Earth Did The Diamondbacks Trade Justin Upton?

This is the revised version of the question “Why On Earth Would The Diamondbacks Trade Justin Upton?” The two questions have been asked 47,552 times* this off-season on radio, tv, and the internet.

Answer: In what is now a five-and-a-half season sample size, Justin Upton is a career .250 hitter with a .325 on base percentage and a .406 slug, and an average of 18 homers and 63 RBI. That’s what he’s done lifetime away from Phoenix (the homers and RBI are normalized to a 162-game season). He drove in exactly 20 runs on the road last year.

He is a supremely talented prospect who has thus far shown he doesn’t travel well.

The Braves can take some hope from the fact that sometimes disastrous home-road splits are not entirely-park related but at least somewhat comfort-related. If he’s just as good at home in Atlanta as he was in Arizona, the trade won’t be a disaster (and he still won’t be a superstar). They can still also be optimistic about a smaller sample: 1/8/.293/.388/.483 – in 58 career at bats in Atlanta.

*-I made that number up.

Why Hasn’t Michael Bourn Signed Yet?

He hit .238 after July 1st of last year.

That’s why you trade for Ben Revere instead.

Which Hall Of Famer Is This?

From The Baseball Hall Of Fame Photo Archive

From The Baseball Hall Of Fame Photo Archive

This one is not easier than it seems. HOF President Jeff Idelson tweeted that shot out today, with this enticing hint:

This brilliant lefty’s pickoff move was deemed great by Earl Weaver. He’s in the HOF, but not as a player. Who is he?

An additional hint was later provided – that he was on USC’s national college champs of 1958.

The photo provides an approximate date. That thing at the top left is the famed curved roof of the Orioles’ old spring training home, Miami Stadium, and the bagginess of the uniform suggests 1960 or 1961 at the latest.

Since Jeff has already tweeted the answer, I’m going to give it again, below. It ain’t Steve Dalkowski and it ain’t Frank Bertaina.

 

 

 

This brilliant lefty is Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick

 

A-Rod And Miami: What We Know

I broke the news here yesterday that representatives of the Yankees and Marlins – later identified elsewhere as New York team president Randy Levine and Miami owner Jeffrey Loria – had discussed a trade that would send the crumbling Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez to the Marlins.

As the supplemental reporting of others indicates, this may have begun as a sarcastic response by Levine to a chimerical wish by Loria. But the ownership groups of both clubs know damn well this is no longer a joke, and they can ameliorate if not solve each other’s problem. A lot of the blockbuster transactions in baseball history have begun as jokes or expressions of exasperations (Manager Leo Durocher’s stunning move from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Giants in mid-season 1948 comes to mind).

My sources have little else to add today, except to suggest that the Marlins might be willing to swap more of their overpriced stock for Rodriguez and the net differences in salary than previously indicated (say, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle for Rodriguez and 60 million or so). That will all depend, I’m told, on just how much Miami season ticket sales drop after the disastrous 2012 season.

As to the key players, only Rodriguez is talking, saying after the Yankees’ ignominious finish in Detroit that he wanted to remain in New York and would not waive his no-trade clause.

After Yankees’ Senior Vice President/General Manager Brian Cashman had dismissed Wednesday’s report as “100% not true,” reporters Andrew Marchand and Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York and Jon Heyman of CBS then revealed the Levine-Loria conversation, and the sad fact that Cashman apparently didn’t know about it, nor the hotline it created.

Today, another embarrassed executive who was clearly out of the loop – Marlins’ president David Samson – insisted there had been no negotiations, while Heyman and others ran with the explanation that the Rodriguez talk was just a joke made last April during the Yankees’ stadium christening exhibitions at Miami and that was that.

My primary source says Marchand and Matthews have it right. It was an offhand remark that has turned into at least an avenue to discuss an anything-but-offhand trade:

What began as a casual, joking conversation between New York Yankees president Randy Levine and Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria about the possibility of Alex Rodriguez playing for the Marlins may develop into serious trade talks this offseason, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation.

Others have dismissed the story because no team is talking trades while it is in the process of being humiliatingly swept out of the playoffs. Of course they don’t. But nor does planning for 2013 freeze just because 2012 games are still being played. Anybody pay attention to the weekend of Yankees’ bench coach Tony Pena? Sunday he had to manage the last three innings after Joe Girardi got ejected. Tuesday he was back in his adjunct role at Girardi’s side. In between, on Monday, he was in…Boston. To interview for the Red Sox manager’s job.

The off-season trades, free agent signings, hirings and firings – and the possible trade of Alex Rodriguez – are all starting now. Right now.

The logic behind moving Rodriguez to Miami is impeccable. Whatever damage A-Rod did not himself do to his reputation, the Yankees have – both on and off the field. They have devalued him as a player (he helped) by the extraordinary step of benching him while the team collapsed. They benched him even against Justin Verlander, against whom he could claim a career 8-for-24 mark with three homers.

They may have even baited him into insubordination. Supposedly by accident, the now imperiled-manager Joe Girardi submitted two different lineups for the rained out Wednesday night ALCS Game 4, one featuring Rodriguez, the other without him. A former major leaguer told me today he wouldn’t be a bit surprised if A-Rod hadn’t seen his name on the initial card and told Girardi where to go – which could easily have been what the Yankees wanted him to do. If you don’t buy that bit of conspiratorial sci-fi, how about weighing whether it’s more likely that for a game that could decide whether or not they kept their jobs Joe Girardi and his coaches ‘accidentally’ wrote out two line-up cards, or the Yankees decided to try to further mess with A-Rod’s head?

It is also speculative, but the Yankees (particularly through the nefarious Howard Rubinstein Public Relations Agency) have long employed the Strategic Leak, with the receiving end usually being The New York Post (for whom Rubinstein also works, in a relationship that mainlines directly to Rupert Murdoch himself). What better and more authoritative source could there be for the Casablanca-like “I’m shocked, shocked, that gambling is going on in here” quality to the Post’s splashy story that Rodriguez was trying to get the phone number of an Australian bikini model during Game 1 of the ALCS, than the Yankees themselves? Who would know she was there? Besides the principals, who would know what the ballboy saw? Who would know all of it? The Yankees. As I alluded to yesterday the autographed-ball-as-groupie-troll bait is probably attempted ten times a day in organized baseball.

But why hurt A-Rod when you’re trying to get rid of him?

Well, that’s easy. You don’t just have to find somebody willing to take him off your hands in a trade that doesn’t humiliate you. You have to convince Rodriguez to drop his no-trade clause. And nothing makes that likelier than being able to say to him ‘did you like the last two weeks? The sports pages? And the gossip pages? Would you like five years of that?’

As many columnists noted today the Yankees have no choice but to put Rodriguez in another uniform ASAP. The reason they gave him a contract through his age 42 season – the pursuit of the career home run record – is now a pointless irrelevancy. The 2009 admission of steroid use has made the ‘clean alternative’ to Barry Bonds into a pathetic joke. And, given his rate of decline and frequency of injury, Rodriguez is a less-than-even-money bet to hit the first home run milestone for which he would get one of those $6,000,000 bonuses. It’s Willie Mays’ total of 660 and Rodriguez ended the 2012 season with 647. A-Rod needs thirteen. He had thirteen as of June 26 this past season. He would hit exactly five more thereafter, in 199 regular season at bats.

You know how many homers a rate like that produces over 500 at bats? Twelve. Thirteen if you round up with a vengeance.

But more relevantly, even if Rodriguez has some sort of Jeterian renaissance ahead of him, the Yankees have spent the last week all but neutering any chance it has of blossoming in New York. They have made him – and many of the other stars – into damaged goods. Ten days ago Girardi was extolling the pricelessness of a consistent line-up. Since that moment he used seven different batting orders in seven games. In the process, he threw virtually everybody in his line-up except Jeter and Russell Martin under the bus.

The Yankees ownership can thus, with fake mournful looks plastered onto their phony faces, not pursue free agent Nick Swisher, and unload Rodriguez at any price, and sign a bunch of cheaper alternatives, because of the crisis they themselves have facilitated. For weeks they’ve been reminding me of the 1983 Philadelphia Phillies.

This is not one of the great teams of history but it was one of the most instructive. The Phils cut through the slightly-favored Dodgers in the NLCS (1-0, 1-4, 7-2, 7-2). Ever seen that Gary Matthews homer slamming off the facade of the second deck at the Vet? That sealed Game 3 and it hit about two feet below my auxiliary press box seat and it sounded like a bomb exploding.

The Phils walked into the Series as nominal favorites over the Orioles. Baltimore seemed to have a slightly better offense but Philadelphia had the pitching. Back of John Denny and Al Holland the Phils took the opener on the road 1-0. But when the Orioles took game two, Manager Paul Owens pulled a stunning move. Even though first baseman Pete Rose had gotten within shouting distance of Ty Cobb’s all time career hits record, and had gone 6-for-16 in the NLCS (5-for-9 in the last two games), Owens benched Rose, citing Rose’s 1-for-8 start in the Series, and swapped in Tony Perez against lefty starter Mike Flanagan. Perez got a weak single and looked like a statue in the field, and Owens undid his move for Game 4, but by then it was too late.

In dropping the last three games, the Phillies scored six runs and they had to blow up the franchise. They released not just Rose but Joe Morgan, too. They sold Perez back to the Reds. They offed veteran reliever Ron Reed. And in the last week of Spring Training they purged Matthews (sending him to Chicago for almost nothing, where he led the Cubs to the 1984 NL West title) and reliever Willie Hernandez (sending him to Detroit for even more almost nothing – and Hernandez won both the Cy Young and the MVP as the Tigers rolled to one of the most dominant seasons of the last 50 years).

The Phils would bubble up to the surface for a fun 1993 NL Championship (the Joe Carter World Series). But excluding that, it would be nine managers and 24 years before they would again finish first.

And the dominos all began to fall when they benched a controversial superstar who was pursuing one of the seminal records of baseball. Now why does that sound so familiar?

 

Exclusive: Yanks, Marlins Talk A-Rod Trade (Confirmed)

Updated 10:45 PM EDT: ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews has the moving parts of the Jeffrey Loria/Randy Levine conversations that kicked off the trade talk between the Marlins and Yankees about Alex Rodriguez.

According to the source, Loria said in his conversation about A-Rod with Levine, “Alex is Mr. Miami; it would be great if he played here for us.”

To which Levine is said to have replied, “You can have him.”

Included in there is the bombshell detail that explains the unfortunate Brian Cashman’s denial this afternoon. He might be the Senior Vice President/General Manager of the Yankees, but he doesn’t make all the deals and some of them they don’t even give him a much of a heads-up on.

Updated 4:04 PM EDT: Yankees’ Senior Vice President Brian Cashman has denied to MLB.Com’s Yankees’ beat reporter Bryan Hoch that there have been any A-Rod trade talks with the Marlins.

 

Cash – whom I like – is, say, incorrect.

I’d also like to point out that the last time Brian Cashman denied something involving me, it was to tell me and a crowd of reporters that my tweet showing Rodriguez receiving post-pitch detail signals from the stands on Opening Day in 2011 was not an issue for the ballclub and the team was just fine with me and had no problem and everything was just fine. 

Three months later they threw me out as Bob Wolff’s assistant at the P.A. microphone for Old Timers’ Day and leaked it to The New York Post.

UPDATE 4:19 PM EDT: I’d also point out that Cashman may not know about any of this – yet. Not two years ago ownership – by his own admission – essentially signed a free agent without telling him. Cashman said the other 29 GMs would have loved to have “their owner force Rafael Soriano down their throat.”

Original Post: 

The New York Yankees have held discussions with the Miami Marlins about a trade involving their third baseman in crisis, Alex Rodriguez.

Sources close to both organizations confirm the Yankees would pay all – or virtually all – of the $114,000,000 Rodriguez is owed in a contract that runs through the rest of this season and the next five. One alternative scenario has also been discussed in which the Yankees would pay less of Rodriguez’s salary, but would obtain the  troubled Marlins’ reliever Heath Bell and pay what remains of the three-year, $27,000,000 deal Bell signed last winter.

None of the sources could give an indication as to how serious the discussions have already gotten, but one of them close to the Marlins’ ownership said he believed the trade made sense for both sides, and would eventually be made in some form.

Not only are the Yankees one loss away from elimination in the American League Championship Series (and as of this writing, one loss away from an ignominious sweep), but in the post-season Rodriguez is just 3-for-23 with twelve strikeouts, has been pinch-hit for twice, and was left out of one of the Division Series games against Baltimore entirely. He last homered on September 14, and has only one extra base-hit and six RBI in the 24 games since that date.

Rodriguez has become a Gordian Knot for the Yankees. As the roster grows old and the farm system is in a fallow period for position players, the Steinbrenner family wants to reduce payroll, not increase it. And while the precise salary numbers are not known, Rodriguez is scheduled to earn approximately $28 million next year, $23 million in 2014, $22 million in 2015, $21 million in 2016, and $20 million in 2017 – when he will be 42 years old. His physical fragility and declining power now make him just slightly less valuable than the average American League third baseman (by one calculation, Rodriguez’s WAR number – “wins above replacement player” – was 2.0, seventeenth best among Major League third basemen, just behind obscure rookie Luis Cruz of the Dodgers).

Nevertheless, paying Rodriguez $114 million not to play for them would seem to be against the new – cheaper – thinking at Yankee Stadium.

But to a Marlins’ franchise facing financial calamity after the failure of its combination of splashy free agent signings, a high-profile new manager, and a brand new downtown stadium, a “free” Alex Rodriguez has serious upside. He grew up in the community, owns an incredibly high-priced home there that he has been unable to move, and might be refreshed by both the release from the New York cauldron, and a possible move from third base to first base with his new club. Such a position change would be blocked in New York by the presence of first baseman Mark Teixeira and the club’s self-perceived need to rotate the aging Yankee regulars in the Designated Hitter spot.

The degree to which the cauldron was heating up was underscored by a dubious story in Tuesday’s New York Post, which claimed Rodriguez was trying to get the phone numbers of two women seated behind the Yankee dugout during Saturday’s American League Championship Series opener by utilizing the age-old athlete trick of having autographed baseballs delivered to them.

This followed last week’s episode in which tv game show host Donald Trump – tweeting last Wednesday from a team-provided freebie seat in a Yankee Stadium suite – also heated up the cauldron by resuming his online attacks on Rodriguez. Trump invoked Rodriguez’s admission of steroid use during his time with the Texas Rangers by using the more generic and damning word “drugs,” and admitted he had a personal animus towards Rodriguez dating back to what had also tweeted were “dishonorable dealings with me on an apartment deal.”

Trump was sitting in the team suite at Yankee Stadium – on the ballclub’s dime as usual – when he tweeted this:

But the “drugs” tweet was only the culmination of a day of off-and-on attacks on Rodriguez by Trump.

Before the same game:

For more than a year the club has been aggressively retaliatory towards those – like Trump – who have invoked Rodriguez’s admission of steroid use, and others who have been critical of him in any other way. Over the past summer the team suspended team Advisor and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson for questioning what impact Rodriguez’s confession would have on the legitimacy of his career statistics. Later in the season, a Yankees’ media relations staffer bypassed a new formal appeal procedure and was heard shouting at an official scorer who had given an error to an opposing player rather than a base hit to Rodriguez. Yankees’ media relations director Jason Zillo was described in a 2011 book as being “close” to Rodriguez. In the same book Rodriguez called Zillo a “friend.” In 2011, Zillo and the Yankees had similarly tried to squelch stories about the seeming deterioration of the play of Derek Jeter.

Trump’s call for the Yankees to “terminate” Rodriguez’s contract for “misrepresentation” is not a practical solution in a time with a strong players’ union, and given the fact that in the off-season of 2007-08 the Yankees happily kept Rodriguez from leaving for free agency by giving him a new ten-year contract that ensured that his pursuit of the career home run record would come while wearing their uniform. More over, the confession came in February, 2009, and if any claim to void the contract could ever have been made, it would have been then, and not now.

The Yankees presumably are not happy with Trump’s tweets. But they are less so with Rodriguez’s vanishing adequacy. And if the Marlins provide an escape hatch – even an escape hatch costing them either $96,000,000 (if they were to swap Rodriguez for Bell) or $114,000,000 (if they just give him away, or obtain low-cost players or prospects in return for him) – the Yankees are prepared to ignore the business consequences to offload a formerly great player who with each week seems to turn into simply a more and more painful headache.

Steinbrenners Rob Reggie To Allay A-Rod

These are not your father’s Steinbrenners. For that matter, do they appear to be their father’s Steinbrenners.

In four days it will have been two years since George Steinbrenner died, and in that time his sons Hank and Hal have run their inheritance like a private vehicle for the only thing they seemed to have inherited from him: knee-jerk petulance. Their Dad grew out of its most virulent form by the time he was 60. The sons don’t seem to be moving that quickly.

Christian Red of The New York Daily News reports this afternoon that the Yankees have told their Hall of Famer and Special Advisor Reggie Jackson to “stay away” from the team, from Yankee Stadium, and from other club-related activities after his inarguable comment to Sports Illustrated that Alex Rodriguez’s admission of past steroid use “does cloud some of his records.”

It’s about the mildest form of the truth: that when combined with Rodriguez’s tone-deaf personal conduct at every stage of his career and his track record of getting smaller as the stage gets bigger, his admission of PED use – at minimum while with Texas – might be enough to give the voters the excuse they almost to a man dream of, of denying him a spot in Cooperstown.

Reggie Jackson, who said none of that and referred only to the aforementioned “cloud” and some “real questions about his numbers,” has now been banished, till further notice:

…according to two sources familiar with the team.

“Reggie is under punishment,” said one of the sources. “He’s upset.”

The comments were published at an inopportune time, when the Yankees were in Boston for a pivotal four-game series against the rival Red Sox. The punishment is not an outright ban, one of the sources said, but the Bombers felt that Jackson took a shot at A-Rod that was below the belt when he said that Rodriguez’s admitted performance-enhancing drug use “does cloud” A-Rod’s records.

“The team doesn’t need any negative publicity or aggravation, especially playing in a big market like Boston, and at Fenway,” one of the sources said. “A-Rod doesn’t need the aggravation.”

The name Steinbrenner appears nowhere in the piece. Nor does it show up in Marc Carig’s summary in The Newark Star-Ledger which adds the term “in effect suspended” and  just a dollop of context:

…club officials deemed the outspoken slugger as too “high maintenance.”

Of course the absence of a Steinbrennerian reference simply serves as circumstantial evidence that it originates from one of them (the bet is Hal – Hank had the presence of mind to step slowly away when he sensed he was slightly overmatched trying to do his father’s job). The next best reason for conclusion-jumping here is reached by asking yourself who else would’ve had the power to ban the Yanks’ last, best, living connection to the days George Steinbrenner resurrected the moribund franchise in the late ’70s. You think General Manager Brian Cashman did this? The gnomish Chief Operating Officer Lonn Trost?

Of course it could’ve been Trost’s idea. The latter source quote noted above (“The team doesn’t need any negative publicity or aggravation…”) is just dense enough to be something from him. What on earth did the Yankees just get themselves besides negative publicity and aggravation by banning Reggie Jackson just as the storm-in-a-teapot over his comments to SI had faded completely from consciousness? Who on earth would have let this wet blanket land on the eve of the All-Star Game?

But even if he did dream up this chicken spit and convince Hal Steinbrenner it was salad, Trost is not likely to have given the story to The Daily News. Just two months ago he demanded that Major League Baseball actually investigate the newspaper for another story, co-authored by the impeccable Bill Madden, that the Steinbrenners were exploring selling out.

The key to the saga is the necessity of protecting Rodriguez, even at the cost of alienating and publicly humiliating Jackson, who spent only five of his 21 major league seasons in New York but is now high on the list of retired stars identified solely with the Yankees. Mr. Red of The Daily News refers to Rodriguez as the “star third baseman” and while that’s what the Yankees desperately need people to think this year, and next year, and the year after that, and all the way until 2017 when his noose of a contract finally runs out, it is hardly still the case. This is a player, healthy enough to have appeared in 82 of the Yankees’ first 85 games, whose On Base Plus Slugging Percentage number falls below the likes of Ryan Doumit, Adam LaRoche, and Jed Lowrie – and just ahead of Chris Davis, thought to be in danger of being relegated to a platoon at first base for Baltimore.

Other than structurally I am not comparing the two cases – throwing me out and throwing Reggie Jackson out aren’t in the same universe – but we are beginning to see the outlines of a pattern of the Yankees ham-handedly overreacting in defense of their rapidly rusting former star. On Opening Day last year I finally got a clear photo from my seats of a Yankee “Coaches’ Assistant” named Brett Weber. Throughout 2010 he had given hand signals from his own seat right back of home plate to Yankee players in the on-deck circle. Nearly always, this was Rodriguez, who often looked inquiringly towards Weber for some kind of data. Gradually it had dawned on me that Weber was providing Rodriguez with details about the preceding pitch: speed, location, type.

But at the opener on a frigid March day in 2011 Weber had elevated his game. He was signaling everything except time, temperature, and traffic conditions on the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

The pictures were so inconsequential that I didn’t even blog about them here. I tweeted one shot and explained that Rodriguez was just getting confirmation of what he’d seen. What I thought but didn’t (bother to) write, was that he’s so tense that he needed confirmation from a kid in the stands with a radar gun what pitch he had just seen thrown even though he was closer to the pitch than the kid was.

But a newspaper - The Daily News, natch – published the photo two days later and I arrived at Yankee Stadium that morning as the center of attention. Major League Baseball had already instructed the Yanks to not sit Weber or anybody else in the stands. The team had already issued an explanation: namely that the Radar Gun attached to the Yankee Stadium scoreboard wasn’t working that day and so Weber was telling the players something they would have ordinarily known but for a mechanical failure.

In the middle of an ad hoc “news conference” in which I insisted that it might be bizarre for a team employee to be giving an active player a kind of hand-signal play-by-play but it didn’t strike me as cheating, who walks over but General Manager Cashman. I’ve only known him fifteen years or more and he decided to make a joke about Weber signaling for beers, and then to explain that it had all been cleared up and Weber would be back in his seat for the next day’s game, and that certainly the Yankees weren’t upset with me for tweeting the photo.

The hell they weren’t.

Since 2001 I had served as the assistant to, and “color man” for, Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff as he did the play-by-play of Old Timers’ Day over the Yankee Stadium public address system. I had occasional jokes and even less occasional insight to drop in, but mostly I was there to help out Bob, who is universally revered in my industry for his skill and moreover his generosity. Just before Old Timers’ Day 2011 Bob phoned me to say he had just been told by the Yankees that while he was invited back to “announce” the game, I wasn’t. “They said they were going in a different direction.”

I wasn’t happy about it – mostly because Bob wasn’t happy about it – but good grief, the Yankees once fired Babe Ruth, it’s their ballclub and they can do what they want. Even as I chafed at the idea that a ten-year run was over without so much as a phone call or email from them, it still never dawned on me that there was an ulterior motive.

Then The New York Post ran a story leaked to them by the Yankees that there certainly was one. The Yankees, the ‘paper’ reported, were avenging themselves against me for having tweeted the Weber/Rodriguez photo.

For the last several years, political commentator Keith Olbermann has served as an in-stadium play-by-play man for the Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day. But the Yankees are making a change, The Post has learned. The Yankees were not happy with Olbermann posting a photo on Twitter earlier this season of a coach signaling pitches to their batters in the on-deck circle. So they decided to bounce the liberal loudmouth and will have Bob Wolff and Suzyn Waldman provide the commentary for today’s game instead.

The factual errors in the item (I had never done the play-by-play; the implication that Bob Wolff was somehow replacing me was made by somebody who knew nothing of the mechanics of Old Timers’ Day) suggested this was not Cashman cashiering me, nor the exec in charge of the event, Debbie Tymon. This was further up the chain. Even President Randy Levine insisted to me that the events were unconnected, and that I was a “candidate” to return to help Bob in 2012, and that I’d hear from the club directly next time.

Not exactly. Old Timers’ Day 2012 came and went without even a post-it stuck on my seat in the ballpark reading ‘drop dead.’

And in retrospect this petty little exercise seems like a minor note before the publicity fiasco crescendo of the move against Reggie Jackson. Note that in both cases nothing was announced, just leaked. In both cases there is executive-level action by people who don’t really know what’s going on, and who wind up exacerbating a forgotten story by resurrecting it and publicly blaming on somebody else.

And in both cases the motive is to somehow defend Alex Rodriguez.

Clearly Rodriguez needs it. After the tweeted photo story broke, an American League manager took me aside to thank me for stirring up the hornet’s nest. “They’ve been doing that for years, even in the old park,” he said. “I’ve complained and complained and complained – nothing. And it was always done for A-Rod.” The skipper added some texture to this by suggesting that the real need for a guy in the stands in a Yankee jacket giving pitch details to Rodriguez and other Yankees was that the team was notorious for flashing the wrong pitch and the wrong speed on the scoreboard (they would hardly be the only team accused of that crime and/or gamesmanship).

The sad part about all of this is that in both cases these are amazing over-reactions. The “signal” story went away within 24 hours and Brett Weber returned to his seat (although Rodriguez never again got the benefit of his technically-illegal wig-wagging). Reggie Jackson’s gentle honesty about the fact that Rodriguez is a freakin’ admitted steroid user resonated here in New York with all the impact of a snowball thrown into a pond and ruffled far fewer feathers than his comments about the Cooperstown worthiness of the late fan favorites Gary Carter and Kirby Puckett.

Under Steinbrenners: The Next Generation, the Yankees’ front office looks like a bunch of hand-wringing clerks wearing green eyeshades, rushing to defend Alex Rodriguez. You know what George would have done? Nothing. He might’ve updated his infamous derision of Dave Winfield and call Rodriguez “the new Mr. May,” but he would’ve taken the heat – not applied it to others unnecessarily.

Instead the Yankees: get another publicity nightmare; underscore the fragility of their third baseman’s ego and the insanity of his five-years-to-go contract; and pull the rug out from under one of their top ambassadors (and one of their guys who actually hit his 500+ home runs without any juice).

If Hal Steinbrenner – with or without Lonn Trost – is going to run this hallowed team like a Roller Derby franchise, that other Daily News story had better be true. The Steinbrenners need to sell the club. The Yankees need to be run by some grown-ups with skin of merely ordinary thickness.

Baseball Prospectus 2012

It hath arrived.

Got it first Sunday at a chain bookstore here and have not dived fully in,  but the predictions based on Statistical Reduction and a dozen other complicated formulae cascade out upon you from every page and it’s worth mentioning a few even before anybody’s done a thorough vetting of what they’ve got.

The most poignant of them, perhaps, are the minimalist predictions for the Yankees’ only offensive addition (“his dense hasn’t been good in a decade, and his bat is barely good enough to fill a DH role”) compared to the man the franchise downgraded, degraded, and then forced into retirement:

Player                                           PA    2B     3B   HR    RBI     AVG/OBP/SLG    WARP

Raul Ibanez                              552   28     3      17     65       .251/.311./.416    1.5

Jorge Posada                           376   18     0      13     45       .260/.350/.440   2.1

The predictions were done, obviously, before Ibanez signed with the Yankees and do not account for their intention to sit him against lefthanders. If that brings Ibanez’s predicted Plate Appearances down the 32 percent or so to where the Posada predicted Plate Appearances are, the BP forecast for Ibanez translates to 19 doubles, 2 triples, and 44 RBI.

In short, the stats – and remember this is the predictive formula that got Evan Longoria’s rookie season virtually exactly correct, even though it had nothing but college and minor league data to work with – suggest Jorge Posada would’ve had a better year than Raul Ibanez will have. This underscores a point that has become clearer and clearer to me since the Montero-Pineda trade: Brian Cashman and the Yankees are approaching 2012 in exactly the opposite way they should be. They are not flush with hitting and weak with starting. Their offense is, in fact, getting dangerously old, and the only immediate productivity from their farm system was likely to be more starting pitching (the traded Hector Noesi, plus Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances). They did not have a hitter to trade, least of all one that Cashman compared to Miguel Cabrera.

I’ll go into the Yankees’ age problem in another post but the Alex Rodriguez prediction is appropriate here:

Player                                           PA    2B     3B   HR    RBI     AVG/OBP/SLG    WARP

Alex Rodriguez                       437   18      0    24      66       .279/.377/.525    4.3

Ack.

BP has long been known as a deflator of the balloons of hope. It sees Mike Trout getting just 250 ups this year, with a 4-24-.254/.317/.369 line. Bryce Harper gets the same number of plate appearances, and just 7-26-.239/.304/.383. The rookies it likes best include an unusually large lot of catchers:  Jesus Montero (2.7 WARP), Robinson Chirinos (2.5), Ryan Lavarnway (2.3; I agree; Boston hopes this year may rest on whether or not anybody on the “New Sox” has the vision to see it); James Darnell (2.1) and Devin Mesoraco (2.1). The likelies to crash (in terms of WARP falloff) are Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Gordon, Matt Kemp, Alex Avila, and Jeff Francoeur – but even with that it still sees Bautista at 9th in that category in the AL and Kemp tied for 7th in the NL.

What it says about the big Pujols move, and the other transactions, I leave to the hard-working editors and publishers. I’ve stolen enough of their thunder.

As to an evaluation of the book itself, there is a format change. In past years, players were grouped by the teams they were with in the preceding year. In this edition, all those who have moved before the publishing deadline have been put in the sections of their new teams – which sounds great, except when you go looking for Pujols and Fielder you’ll find the former with the Angels and the latter with the Brewers instead of the Tigers. It’s a nice try but ultimately not helpful.

And in what is either a booming typo or a bizarre redefinition, the very last leader board in the book – Rookie Pitchers’ WARP – seems to list last year’s rookie pitchers. Unless I’m missing something, Pineda, Hellickson, Ogando, Kimbrel, Sale, et al, don’t get a second bite at the kiddo apple.

The Yankees, My Tweet, C-4, And Shamwow

The reaction by most who saw the photo I posted on Twitter on Thursday seemed to be: “Are you sure that isn’t Vince, the ‘Sham-Wow’ Guy?

Apparently that was not the reaction from Major League Baseball.

Writing in The New York Daily News, Anthony McCarron reports that MLB was to contact the Yanks today about the possibility that their version of infamous infomercial pitchman and battery defendant Vince “Fettucine, Linguine, Martini, Bikini” Shlomi may have violated the ominous sounding “baseball operations bulletin C-4“:

Major League Baseball officials will call the Yankees Saturday to remind them of baseball operations bulletin C-4, which forbids team staff from communicating pitch types and pitch speed to players via hand signals, an MLB spokesman said.

This is NOT Vince and he is NOT trying to sell you four Slap-Chops

McCarron identifies the signaler as Brett Weber, a former minor league pitcher who was hired by the Yankees more than two years ago to pitch batting practice, then run the radar gun and compile offensive and defensive charts during the game.

Apparently sequences like this – which I finally captured on camera during Thursday’s season opener at Yankee Stadium – may be ‘C-4 Transgressions’:

That’s Weber on the left (behind, as another wag suggested, Mother Teresa) and Alex Rodriguez on the right, more or less in the on-deck circle. He is not looking to see if Cameron Diaz is in the seats.

I sit more or less between them. Weber has, since at least the start of the 2010 season, been seated about dead center behind the plate, four or five rows from the backstop. I have not watched him through an entire game to be certain of this, but it is my impression that the signaling is heaviest early in a game, and that not it is not done to all players (and no jokes about how that’s because Weber “can’t do this all day”). I can say without fear of contradiction that this is no coincidence. I have seen Rodriguez look for the signal, nod, look away, and the signal stop.

Last year, on at least one occasion, the Yankee employee had some sort of card or card-shaped object with which he also gestured towards the players in the on-deck circle. I do recall at least one occasion last season in which I did not see Weber at the game. I can’t speak to 2009; my seats that year were about seven rows back and more or less lined up with the on-deck circle.

While McCarron concludes that Weber is signaling pitch speed to the players, and more to the dugout than to the batter in the on-deck circle, my sense was that these signals were more likely to indicate the type and location of the pitch, and specifically to the next hitter. But I’m just drawing a conclusion.

As odd looking as this has always been, it has struck me as being something less than cheating and I wasn’t looking to portray it as such. As I wrote earlier, I noticed this last year and made a few desultory attempts to capture the images, but none had been to my satisfaction until Thursday – so it was not as if I was trying to catch the Yankees at anything, and, obviously I’ve been in no hurry to do so. The same information – pitch type and speed – is flashed on the gigantic centerfield scoreboard more or less simultaneously with Weber’s gesture. McCarron explains:

Some Yankee hitters waiting on-deck look for pitch speed from that employee instead of on the scoreboard – where it is shown in most every ballpark, including the Stadium – believing the staffer is more accurate.

The thing that amplifies this strange saga is history. In the ’70s and ’80s the Yankees and MLB were frequently at odds over an “Eye In The Sky” – an innovation by the late George Steinbrenner in which a Yankee employee (beginning, I believe, with Gene Michael, and lasting so long that the last one may have been Buck Showalter) worked from the press box level and was in communication with the dugout during games, relaying goodness knows what. The Commissioner’s Office frowned on this and monitored it regularly.

Still, two other things surprise me more than anything else about this tempest-in-a-teapot. First, it went on all last year and nobody noticed? Based on relative seat location, the signals should be visible on television, although the players looking into the crowd would not necessarily have attracted any attention.
More importantly: At Yankee Stadium, it’s a shock to consider that the club surrendered the income from the seat. That, friends, costs at least $500 a game.

Champagne Ivan Nova In The Sky – and other lessons from Tampa

Still not sold on the Yankees’ rotation and the question marks still begin at the #2 slot, but the work of first Ivan Nova and then Phil Hughes on consecutive nights in Tampa was unavoidably impressive. A year ago Nova proved himself a gutsy pitcher (he happily plunked Jose Bautista and then asked him in Spanish “what are you going to do about it?”) but one who started to have trouble when he’d come out for the fifth inning. Wednesday he again opened with an HBP then retired all the other Orioles he faced, including six of their regulars, and most importantly expended only 59 pitches over six innings. If he could repeat that kind of economy they would have to inducted him into Cooperstown this July, so anything remotely close makes him a legitimate big league starter (BTW note to NYC radio/tv: he’s “Eevan” – the man is not a Russian wrestler with a cutesy name). Hughes was not quite so dominant last night versus Tampa (facing at least eight regulars) but he looked much more like the Cy Young candidate of last year’s first half than the almost .500, almost 5.00 guy of the second half. The other headline out of the Yankee camp is Alex Rodriguez. Whatever the origin of his hip problems, for the first time in two years he looked like he could pivot with them fully, launching titanic homers on both nights, one that disappeared into the night in deep left, the other that towered out more towards center. Rodriguez also looks more agile defensively, and ranged neatly to his left last night to grab a sharply hit ball, planted confidently, and got off one of his old-fashioned rocket throws to beat the runner at the bag. Since if they hope to compete with the Red Sox and Rays, the Yankees have no margin for error, a vintage year from Rodriguez is essential, and the pitching tumblers like Hughes, Nova, A.J. Burnett, and Bartolo Colon all have to twirl perfectly or the post-season is an impossibility.

Phils And Yankees: Not Their Year

CLEARWATER – As the Yankees hoped that after his minor stumble on some balky carpet that Yogi Berra has that insurance, you know, the kind that pays you cash, which is just as good as money, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay met up in Clearwater in a dream match-up. Literally a dream, because you don’t need to spend looking much time at either roster to realize that despite the Phillies’ glittering rotation and the Yankees’ three Hall-of-Famers in waiting, neither of these teams is going very deep in the post-season (presuming they make it at all). This is contrary to Conventional Wisdom, which was last heard from telling you that Cliff Lee was going to the Yankees last winter, just as it had told you he was going to them last July. Lee is part of the Yankees’ most obvious problem: based on performance so far, Bartolo Colon is a) a vampire and b) their number two starter. Colon, with his ten-pitch warm-up sessions and newly refound control, has been a joyous mystery even to his new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. But comebacks like his almost always fizzle before the first of June and the Yanks have a long way to before Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman, and/or Dellin Betances join the rotation or buy them a veteran starter. The Yankees are also aging alarmingly. I will spare you my usual pronouncements on how moribund Derek Jeter is, but the recent pronouncement that Jorge Posada would not even be used as a temporary back-up catcher should tell you exactly how little the Yanks think he has left. The joke around here is that Cameron Diaz was feeding Alex Rodriguez popcorn in that Super Bowl luxury suite because he now gets too tired doing it himself. Jesus Montero offers a glimmer of youth but the reality is that in two at bats today, Roy Halladay made him look like he’d never been to the plate before (to be fair, Halladay did the same thing to Robby Cano). The Yanks only matchup with Boston at the back of the bullpen and if their lineup is better than Tampa’s, it isn’t much better. The Phils have an advantage the Yanks don’t – the NL East may be as bad as the AL East is good, but they have two enormous crises. I ran into my old friend Ruben Amaro in the hallway just before first pitch and he swore he felt better than he looked – and he looked exactly like a General Manager of a team with a devastating rotation and no second baseman or right fielder. Chase Utley’s injury is a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside some tendinitis and it would be called “indefinite” if only Amaro was that certain. Nobody has any idea what’s next, and Utley’s absence not only puts a Wilson Valdez or Josh Barfield in the lineup, but it also deranges their batting order and perhaps places Jimmy Rollins hitting in a three-hole for which he is ill-suited. Right field may be a bigger problem still. You could make a viable platoon out of Ben Francisco (who absolutely kills lefties) and John Mayberry, Jr (he homered again today) but both hit right-handed. In news that should terrify every Philadelphian, Domonic Brown’s replacement four of the last five days has been Delwyn Young, a scat back of a utility infielder who was not good enough to stick with the Pirates. This is a team that is suddenly in deep trouble on offense – Halladay looked gorgeous for six innings today but they got him only three hits before Sabathia left) and as awe-inspiring as the Four Aces look, having Brad Lidge close for them is like owning four Maseratis and employing a staff of blind valet parkers.

Bryce Harper: “I Want To Kick The Crap Out Of You”

IMG_3042.jpg“Gonna remember that first RBI for a long time?,” a reporter asked Bryce Harper.

“‘Scuse me?” Harper deadpanned up from his seat in front of a locker in the visiting clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

The reporter tried again: “Are you going to remember that first RBI?”

“Did I get an RBI?” Harper’s act had reached its end and he smiled broadly. “Just kidding! Yeah.”

It had come in the 8th inning of a sloppy 10-8 Washington victory over the Yankees, off the prototypical AAA pitcher, Romulo Sanchez. But the single to right made the loudest sound of any ball connecting with any bat all day, and it was probably not coincidental that rightfielder Colin Curtis then bobbled it.

It’s not as if they’re going to put a plaque up to indicate it happened, although it was noteworthy that when Harper went into the game in the bottom of the 5th, as he jogged out to right, the other team’s crowd applauded loudly, as they did for his two plate appearances, as they did when he first emerged on the on-deck circle.

The first ribby also inspired remarkable perspective on comparative quickness. We will each have our own perspective on October 16, 1992. It was the day of the book party for Madonna’s $50 book of naked pictures of herself. The next day, Tom Glavine would four-hit Toronto to open the World Series. It was three weeks until Bill Clinton’s first presidential election. I had already been working at ESPN for ten months, Derek Jeter had already played 58 games in the minor leagues, and one of Harper’s current Washington teammates, Matt Stairs, had already played 13 games in the major leagues.

IMG_3038.jpgHarper said, with full sincerity: “It takes awhile.”

He was referring, of course, to the “30 to 40 at bats to get yourself ready,” during spring training – and not the seemingly lightning route that has put him in a major league camp at the age of 18 years and not even five months.

That route seems to challenge the expectation that Harper will have seen three Spring Trainings before he appears in a big league game that counts. It is noted that at this time in 2013 he will still be a young 20 year-old and that’s quick enough. Except the ball explodes off his bat and his adjustment to the outfield has already been such that he was as proud of starting a relay that nailed the Yankees’ Austin Romine at third base as he was of the RBI hit (shown to the left in what you’d say is a crappy photo, until you realize it was taken from the distant press box with an unaided iPhone).

Many newly-official men have looked like star big leaguers at 18. To go back to placing Harper’s birth in perspective, the ill-fated Yankee phenom Brien Taylor had already struck out 187 guys in his first 161 innings of pro pitching the day Harper was born. But it is hard to believe the Nats would arbitrarily slow down his pace through the minors to stick to an artificial deadline of 2013, because it isn’t just Harper’s physical game that’s so impressive.

His attitude is also already pretty well developed. Harper was asked by the small crowd of reporters around his cubicle what he thought of playing in a packed stadium festooned with Yankee self-promotion, and he admitted it was “awesome” to have shared a field with Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia and all the rest. He said “awesome” twice and added Nick Swisher to the pantheon of impressiveness, which should make Swisher say funny things later on.

But then Harper was asked if he’d said hello to any of these Yankees (even Swisher, who was almost 12 when Harper was born). “No. I don’t really care to say hi to anybody over there. I stick over here.” I wondered if that was humility or competitiveness. “You try to beat ‘em. That’s what I am. If we’re off the field? Hey, I’ll go and say hello. You can be my best friend off the field and I’ll hate you on the baseball field. That’s how I am…on the field, I want to kick the crap out of you.” (By the way, here’s Dave Sheinin’s version of this in The Washington Post, including the very relevant detail that Harper grew up around Las Vegas as a Yankee fan).

One game, one portentous spring training, one killer instinct, and one exhibition game RBI do not mean you should step directly into the majors at 18. But they do tend to support the idea that suggesting it is theoretically possible at 19 is not at all crazy.

A LITTLE PHOTO TOUR OF (MY) SPRING TRAINING OPENER:
Take a nice deep breath:

IMG_3005.jpg 
An almost-forgotten pre-game ritual: The visiting team taking infield (and outfield) practice. The catchers are Derek Norris and Jesus Flores, the coaches Jim Lett and John McLaren. When I asked Washington manager Jim Riggleman about this, he said there was nothing better for a team before a game. “But on the road, the groundskeepers look at you like you’re crazy! ‘Get off our field!’” It looked to both of us like none of the Tampa groundskeepers had been alive the last time a big league team taking infield on the road, which may have gone out with Earl Weaver:
IMG_2994.JPG

Just follow the big white line to spring:
IMG_2976.jpg
And best of all, the scorebook comes out of hibernation:
IMG_2996.JPG
 

False Spring In New York

Pitchers and Catchers report, New York temperatures clear 40 degrees, and somebody issues a forecast that references “55″ by the end of the week and it’s not the age of the latest pitcher the Yankees invited to camp.

These should all be good signs for baseball here in Big Town, and once again optimism balloons like CC Sabathia before his gallant off-season knee-saving conditioning program. And I’m not buying a word of it. In fact, 2011 is shaping up as one of those rare seasons in which neither of the local teams seriously contend, perhaps a year like 1967.
That was my first true season of baseball awareness, inspired by the events of a birthday party for a neighbor named Wolfgang (Wolf wasn’t originally from around here) at which each of us was given a pack of baseball cards and everybody else’s contained the bonus “miniature poster” and mine didn’t and I vowed to get one and I was hooked. This minor childhood trauma is recounted because my vague memory is that Wolf’s birthday was May 10th, which the record books will show you was the last 1967 day in which either the Mets or the Yankees were at .500 or better. Between them the ’67 New York clubs lost 191 games and had the 17th and 20th worst records in all of baseball in a time when all of baseball consisted of 20 teams.
I didn’t see it at the time. I was eight. But clearly, the missing “miniature poster” was a sign of things to come during that awful season.
It’s not going to be that bad, but I continue to get the impression that not one correspondent or fan or executive of either of the teams has any idea exactly how bad it is going to be. The telltale sign is the Mets and Yankees both ended 2010 in decided spirals, yet if the Yankees had not spent gaudy money on the largely unnecessary Rafael Soriano, identifying this city’s biggest off-season acquisition would require an argument over the relative merits of Russell Martin, Ronny Paulino, and Brad Emaus.
The Mets are bleeding at second base, dependent in the outfield on the comebacks of two mega-contract free agents who might not have been good ideas when they were healthy, and absolutely without hope if their closer doesn’t put both his problems with the law and his fastball behind him. The Yankees are facing a superstar’s existential crisis at shortstop, and a far greater drama behind the plate than anybody’s letting on. And barring the kind of luck you only find in Fantasy Leagues, neither team has the starting pitching to expect to compete in their divisions.
I don’t have to fully regurgitate my stance on Derek Jeter. I am as sentimental as any baseball fan, ever. But I get far more choked up about a team making the post-season every year than I do about whether one player performed for 17 seasons with one team or “only” 15. As near as I can figure it, instead of cutting the cord now (or at least keeping their obligations to a minimum), the Yankees have designed some sort of plan by which Jeter will be permitted to deteriorate further at shortstop this year and next, and then be moved to the outfield where he will squeeze out Nick Swisher while producing a quarter of Swisher’s offensive value. 
I get it. Everybody loves Jeter. I’d like to point out the Yankees released Babe Ruth, fired Yogi Berra, trashed Tino Martinez, demoted Bernie Williams, and traded Elston Howard to the Red Sox. Not every great player stays that way until he’s 40 and gets to go out on his own terms. The Yankees’ decision on Jeter will not only cost them playoff appearances, but it will still end in tears, and an even messier conclusion in which Jeter hits .217 and is benched or released or put on waivers or all of the above.
Something also has to give in this odd mish-mosh at Catcher. Jesus Montero is supposedly ready, despite wildly varying reports on his ability to hit or catch anything that isn’t straight down the middle. If there wasn’t already uncertainty about the youngster, it would have been supplied by the acquisition of Russell Martin, who clearly still has the capacity in him for a strong comeback. And then there is Jorge Posada, supposedly still a vibrant presence at bat if not behind the plate, and ready to slide in to the DH role much of the time. Where ever the truth lies here, there are still three guys going into two positions, along with some thought that the DH spot will be used as a parking place for Alex Rodriguez and an At Bats opportunity for Andruw Jones, Ronnie Belliard, and Eric Chavez.
By the by, did you know that Chavez – the new utility cornerman and presumptive emergency middle infielder – has played twelve years in the major leagues and has spent exactly 28 and two-thirds innings playing anywhere except third base? Not games – innings. 

I am also probably belaboring a point I’ve made here before about the Yankees’ starting rotation: They don’t have one. While Sabathia is, simply, one of the best free agent signings in the history of the sport, the questions that follow him do not begin with “who replaces Andy Pettitte?” or “what about A.J. Burnett?” They start with the presumed number two, Phil Hughes, who was a flaccid 7-6, 4.90 after the All-Star Break and was eviscerated twice in the ALCS by Texas. Assuming Hughes enters 2011 as an established front-line major league starter is itself a leap. Then comes the nightmarish implications of the Burnett mystery. Then come the Ivan Novas, Sergio Mitres, and the veritable Old-Timers’ Day grouping that greets new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Freddy Garcia? Mark Prior? Bartolo Colon? No wonder Kevin Millwood is generating enthusiasm by comparison. Why not Scott Sanderson? Dave LaPoint? Kevin Mmahat?
This team is going to compete with the Red Sox and Rays? This team is going to compete with the Blue Jays who off-loaded the Vernon Wells contract. This team is going to compete with the Orioles in their Buck Showalter Honeymoon Year.
And still the Yankees are in better shape than the Mets. From the middle of last summer onwards, what passed for buzz inside CitiField was some sort of vague sense of doom. It had to do with the jailed Ponzi Schemer Bernie Madoff, but no other details emerged. It didn’t seem to make much sense; the Wilpon family had insisted it had not suffered greatly at the hands of the ultimate financial snake oil salesman, and all evidence backed up their assertion. Now it becomes clear that the owners were in trouble not because Madoff had stolen their money, but because he hadn’t. They are the defendants in an extraordinary billion-dollar suit that claims they knowingly pocketed the profits from a kind of privatized Enron disaster. While the action is headed to mediation by former New York Governor (and former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand) Mario Cuomo, it has already paralyzed the team’s finances and threatens to continue to do so for an indefinite period.
Which explains why the Mets, when still vaguely competitive last June and July, added no payroll. Which explains why the bullets were not bitten on the statues that replaced Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez. Which explains why, when another bat was needed, the Mets could reach only for Mike Hessman. Which explains why men named Wilpon did not take the fall in October.
Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran are enigmas. Jose Reyes is at the critical step, forwards to greatness or backwards towards underachievement. Ike Davis and Josh Thole are dedicated and gifted players who may not bring enough power to their respective positions. The second baseman could be a Rule V draftee. There isn’t one starting pitcher who isn’t weighed down with a huge question mark (Mike Pelfrey’s head, Jon Niese’s endurance, Johan Santana’s shoulder, Dillon Gee’s inexperience, the overall health of Chri
sses Young and Capuano, and the likelihood that R.A. Dickey actually found himself last season at the age of 35). And the bullpen? You don’t want to know about the bullpen.
So as winter today loosened its grip just slightly after a mean-spirited winter, I am thinking not about the warm spring breezes in the Bronx and Queens. I am thinking again about Wolfgang’s birthday party and the prospect that this year, every New York fan’s pack of cards will be missing something he was counting on getting.
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