The ball was chopped slowly and to get the out the first baseman would have to pick it up barehanded in the grass corner between the foul line and the infield dirt. The pitcher would have to hustle over but as the game’s most abused cliche reminds us every 43 minutes, that’s why they have PFP in spring training. With a speedy runner it would still be close but this was the majors and he who executes best laughs last.
The fans at Yankee Stadium didn’t think twice about it when it happened in the top of the fourth yesterday. The play was difficult, but the pitcher was CC Sabathia and his hustle and athleticism have been one of the under-publicized aspects of the franchise’s success since 2009. And of course, the New York first baseman for exactly the same length of time has been Mark Teixeira and the goaltender-like whip-lash catches he makes at the bag and his other defensive wizardry obscures the fact that if that comparatively ordinary slow chopper is hit to him 500 times over a decade he’s going to pick it cleanly at least 499 times.
Except the Yankee first baseman yesterday wasn’t Teixeira, it was Kevin Youkilis. And no offense to Kevin Youkilis, but when he reached down to scoop up the Jose Iglesias chop and toss it to Sabathia for the out he got nothing but grass and air.
An inning later Jarrod Saltalamacchia shot one into the corner in left, where Brett Gardner should have made an adroit pick-up of the ball as it rattled around. Except Gardner was in center because like Teixeira, Curtis Granderson is hurt and it was Vernon Wells. And no offense to Vernon Wells, but when he waited for the straight bounce off the fence that never comes out there, it didn’t come, and he was left to play ‘go chase’ for awhile. All things considered Saltalamacchia probably would’ve gotten a double out of it anyway but there would have been a play and every tenth or twentieth time – an out.
In neither case did the Red Sox score. But those two plays alone added ten pitches or more to Sabathia’s count and send him packing after five innings down 4-to-2, which opened things for the Yankee bullpen, which may be the least recognized problem among the cascade of them that started yesterday, and soon it would 5-to-2 and then 8-to-2 and then just as in “Young Frankenstein,” it got worse – it started raining.
The effect on the offense of the subtraction of Teixeira, Granderson, Derek Jeter, and even Alex Rodriguez is obvious. What will kill the Yankees – and I mean last place kill the Yankees; this is not the collapse of 1965, that was last year in the ALCS, this is 1966 – will be its effect on the defense. Bad defense is not only its own punishment but it makes bums out of the best of the pitchers. And to re-use yet another old joke, kid, these aren’t the best of them.
And much of this mess will never show up in the box score. The Iglesias and Saltalamacchia plays were both clearly to be scored base hits. Unfortunately this Yankee team – the Muddlers’ Row of Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, Wells, and Youkilis – has been assembled through (in the memorable phrase of the equally memorable San Francisco baseball writer Hank Schulman) dumpster-diving. And defensively they’re just bad enough to not make the plays, but just good enough to not get the errors.
It’s hard to say how this impending disaster will be received in the Bronx. The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992 and they’ve either won or been in contention every year since 1993. Hal Steinbrenner was still at the University of Florida Business School then, and the Yankees could and often did draw half of what they draw these days. A front office with no memory of the Bad Old Days never mind experience with alleviating them is likely to panic and throw some babies out with the bathwater (heck, the Yankees began panicking about mild media criticism more than a year ago). And the front-running fans who have filled the place during these later glory years will not know what that they were seeing, and never fully realize the implications of the fact that their new platoon third baseman was guy who had been released by the Red Sox exactly a week ago today.
Toronto: I’m not one of those stick-in-the-muds who looked at the Dodgers last year and tut-tutted “you can’t parachute in four new guys in mid-season and expect to form a team.” I mean, for one thing I’m an entirely different kind of stick-in-the-mud. But more importantly, that conclusion ignores the reality that the Giants have won two World Series while parachuting in four guys (last year) and five guys (2010).
So my refusal to jump on the Bandwagon going doing Blue Jay Way is nothing about team chemistry or parachuting or trying to meld a team while competing or Jose Reyes’s hamstrings on turf. I just think that the laudable effort to rebuild a once-great franchise has somewhat obscured some remaining problems – like a very average bullpen, very average production out of the DH spot, and trouble at third base until Brett Lawrie returns.
Plus there’s this little scandal from last year that sneaked in under everybody’s radar. The big trade for the noble Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey? It came less than a year after Dickey became one of a handful of major league pitchers to admit to taking painkiller injections during the season (Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz were among the others). In Dickey’s case this was 2011; I’ve seen no reporting about him and the drug – Toradol – in 2012:
Dickey is among the players who believe Toradol is more effective than taking over-the-counter pain pills. He said he believed the injections helped keep him on the field to pitch 2082/3 innings last season (2011), despite his injured foot. Some doctors, though, said athletes might believe Toradol to be more effective only because of the way it is commonly administered.
The emphasis there was mine.
Giving your starting pitcher a series of anti-inflammatory pain-dulling injections all seasons long is ok because the drug, while requiring a prescription, supposedly only has a slightly greater impact than a couple of Advil (injected directly into the source of your pain). Except, oh by the way, that pesky drug insert sheet references limiting its use to five days in pill form and two days for injections, and oh by the way in England physicians are instructed to start patients on Toradol only in a hospital, and oh by the way when Clay Buchholz was in a hospital with internal bleeding last June he said he thought his use of the drug contributed to his crisis and the fact that doctors had to transfuse him with three or four pints of blood.
Dickey is hardly deserving of being the only one with a finger pointed at him. My understanding is there isn’t a rotation in the majors that doesn’t have at least one regular Toradol, and that some of them may be in new uniforms this year in part because of their teams’ fears that the painkiller could mask necessary pain, the kind that warns you of impending injury. For as with any drug that dulls pain, or covers up muscular damage or exhaustion, or which neutralizes tiredness, the possibility is increased of sudden serious injury. You don’t know you’re hurting and you push it to far – and something snaps.
In short, if a Toradol scandal, or a Prescription Drug scandal, breaks in baseball this year the guys on the record as (past) users are few and far between. And only one of them is a defending Cy Young Winner.
Almost as an aside I also have doubts about the efficacy of Toronto’s rotation. Dickey went from 8-13 in 2011 to 20-6 last year. His strikeouts soared from 134 to 230 in only 25 more innings. His offensive support went up 8/10ths of a run. I don’t know if any of that is sustainable or repeatable this year – especially without the joy of facing pitchers every ninth batter. Tell me how much you’re willing to rely on Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, to say nothing of Ricky Romero, currently of the Dunedin Blue Jays.
Boston: The gift of Jackie Bradley being ready as much as a year early – and it is a gift, his at bats are those of a 10-year veteran who draws 100 walks every year – may hide some dubious free agent signings. When your key acquisition does so poorly on his physical that you (and he) agree to cut the deal from three years to one, that’s a problem. When you are hoping that Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, and Ryan Dempster all had ‘blips’ last year, that’s a lot of high-odds wagering.
The Red Sox probably did themselves a favor by sacrificing the stability that was Adrian Gonzalez in order to offload the franchise-sinking contracts of Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. But as has been noted elsewhere, they were left with a lot of contract room and not that many people to spend it on. Instead of a Josh Hamilton they went for “Clubhouse Guys” – which is great for long road trips, flights, bus rides in traffic, rain delays, etc. – but rarely seems to be the corrective folks assume insomuch as the last time I checked the game was still played out on the field and very rarely in the clubhouse.
Bradley, of course, is the real deal (though I’ve never seen a player whose Dad didn’t reach the majors use the “junior” on his uni – his reads “BRADLEY JR.”). Will Middlebrooks is legit too. If Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia stay healthy that’s four of nine positions that will excel offensively and defensively. But with David Ortiz hurt and presumably waning there is no longer a feared hitter in this line-up and given the depth of this division that’s a serious impediment to contention.
Baltimore: As mentioned in the AL Central preview the Orioles could’ve easily offed the Yankees in the ALDS last year even though they were relying on two outfielders – Lew Ford and Nate McLouth – who had been released earlier in the same season (Ford, by a team in an independent league). The O’s were reshaped by two guys who were largely viewed as having been bypassed by the proverbial parade, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, and featured the contributions of only a couple of homegrown guys (Markakis, Machado, Wieters, Jim Johnson).
What becomes of the Orioles when the revivified farm system begins to contribute? Dylan Bundy was arguably the game’s top pitching prospect, until this spring when he was bypassed by his teammate Kevin Gausman. Will they step into the rotation or be used out of the bullpen a la David Price? Could WBC-tested infielder Jonathan Schoop help out? Or outfielder L.J. Hoes? Could any American League team add more key parts from its own farm system as 2013 rolls along?
Tampa Bay: Well, yeah, actually.
Even while trading off Wade Davis and James Shields, the Rays still have a complete back-up rotation (Jeff Niemann in the bullpen, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Alex Colome in the minors) to say nothing of a Cy Young Winner (David Price) and two possible future candidates (Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore) at the front of Plan A.
And if the primary bounty in the Shields trade, Wil Myers, is not summoned into the Tampa line-up it will only be because of injury, or because the traditional small-ball line-up is producing satisfactorily and there’s no need to squeeze out James Loney or the platooners at second or DH.
The key Tampa weakness would seem to be behind the plate. They kept Jose Molina intact enough to appear in 102 games last year and one wonders if that can be done again, or if Jose Lobaton is a satisfactory alternative. There isn’t a catching prospect in the system and despite the sense that the Rays hit the bullseye with every one of their very few economic darts, the minors are thin generally in terms of position players (2009 was a bad draft, and every year that passes makes the 2008 selection of Tim Beckham as the overall number one pick instead of some kid named Posey look that much sillier). But the arms keep appearing, the down-market free agent signings keep producing (you realize that Loney could out-hit his predecessor Carlos Pena by a hundred points and still not hit .300?), and the veterans get transformed either into more draft choices (or guys like Wil Myers. Good grief, the team with the thinnest tightrope in the sport was somehow able to trade for Wil Myers). Marc Topkin has a superb and concise explanation of how the Rays keep the machine turning here and I offer the usual disclaimer here that I went to college with the future Mrs. Stuart Sternberg and their oldest son was an intern for me one summer.
The Division: I know this is viewed as a three, four, or even five team race. I just don’t see anybody seriously challenging the Rays, especially when Myers comes up. I’m not certain on whether the Orioles’ Tampa-like structuring and youth flood can overcome the value of Toronto’s mass additions in the race for second place; either way it’ll be close. The Red Sox are not likely to compete but also not likely to be challenged by the Yankees who – even in the disaster of last place – will still be the division’s lead story.
Tomorrow we’ll finish it up with the Tarot Card reading that those one-game wild cards make trying to predict the playoffs six months in advance.
Did pretty good last year: picked five of the eight post-season teams, including the Rangers and Giants. So, a little late, let’s get started on the 2011 forecasts with the American League and the East:
BALTIMORE: The Orioles have a lot going for them, not the least of which is information I couldn’t have known until tonight. Brian Matusz’s injury forces their hand on young lefty Zach Britton, who drew the most oohs-and-aahs in Florida as he mastered veterans like they were platoon guys in the Eastern League. For the Orioles to be anything more than a Cinderella team, Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen will have to form a “Baby Birds” rotation as effective as the Milt Pappas/Jack Fisher crowd of 50 years ago – but less likely things have happened. The O’s have a confused but deep bullpen, and a powerful line-up that also presents an airtight infield defense if Derrick Lee and Brian Roberts can stay healthy. J.J. Hardy was described in Florida as “re-born” and Vladi Guerrero is still hitting anything that doesn’t hit the mascot. It’s also Buck Showalter’s Honeymoon Year – his second season in each job (1993 Yankees, 1999 Diamondbacks, 2004 Rangers) has seen a playoff contender grow out of almost nowhere.
BOSTON: I need to tell you about this? The Red Sox added two ex-closers to the bullpen, have a line-up with six potential All-Stars in it, and Mike Cameron on the bench? And that in my night in their dugout in Fort Myers last month, the focus of the stars was cheering everything that the then-struggling Jarrod Saltalamacchia did? There is just so much depth that unlike last year the team could contend even with a star – or maybe two – falling to injury. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are also tremendous teammates, not merely tremendous talents. Buster Olney said it best, in mime. He put one hand by his belt to indicate the other 29 teams. He put the other at his neck: “The Red Sox are here.”
NEW YORK: The aforementioned Mr. Olney tracked the end of the Yankee dynasty to Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, but this kind of overlooked the fact that they made the post-season in eight of the next nine years, reached the Series twice, and one once. This is the year the whole dynasty ends. Alex Rodriguez is healthy again and poised for an epic campaign, and there is no reason to doubt Cano or Teixeira. But otherwise I’d rather have Baltimore’s lineup. Or Toronto’s. The treatment of Jorge Posada (he can’t even be the back-up catcher? Not even the emergency back-up catcher?) and the reliance on such late-round fantasy fodder as Russell Martin, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and maybe Kevin Millwood is just startling. What? Juan Acevedo and Scott Erickson weren’t available? There is always the chance that Derek Jeter is right and everybody else is wrong about his deterioration at bat and in the field. On consecutive at bats in the second inning on Opening Day, a Miguel Cabrera screamer cleared Jeter by at least ten feet yet he jumped anyway as if unable to judge its height; then, a pretty ordinary liner by Victor Martinez nearly took his glove off. It seemed prophetic. I cannot see this team in the post-season, and none of its prospect-saviors: Banuelos, Betances, Brackman, or Montero, are ready yet.
TAMPA BAY: One of the explanations I heard for Austin Jackson’s blossoming in Detroit last year was that they put Johnny Damon’s locker next to his. This year he’s supposedly tutoring the gifted but so-far underachieving B.J. Upton. You’ve already heard the story of Manny Ramirez – hearing either the call of the clock or of the diminished paycheck – volunteering for spring training road trips and extra work in left. You know that Dan Johnson can produce the same kind of power/low batting average at first that Carlos Pena did. You have noticed the Rays’ rotation is as young and as deep as anybody’s this side of Philly (and might have improved with Matt Garza clearing space for Jeremy Hellickson). But Tampa is being written off because Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey have to fabricate a whole new bullpen. The readily forgotten reality is that they had pretty much done the same thing in 2010, with just as unlikely a cast. The key men: the closer Rafael Soriano (Atlanta), the 8th-inning guy Joaquin Benoit (hurt in the minors), and the lefty specialist Randy Choate (minors) had all been elsewhere in ’09. They are not likely to have the wire-to-wire reliability of a Soriano, but there is no reason why Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta shouldn’t hold the fort until Jake McGee or Brandon Gomes is ready. The Rays are not in Boston’s class – who is? – but they are Wild Card-worthy.
TORONTO: Like Baltimore, rookie manager John Farrell has an airtight batting order with 20-homer power at every spot in the line-up, and a rotation and bullpen that could be heaven or hell. I prefer Baltimore’s starters to Toronto’s, but Farrell’s unique background of college head coaching, major league talent development, and major league pitching coaching, might enable him to get more out of the Jays’ mix of what I think is an overrated Ricky Romero and a cast of dozens. It is simply tough to imagine a team hitting as many home runs as the Jays will and still finishing last.
THE FORECAST: I don’t think the top two spots are at issue. Boston wins, the Rays probably take the wild card. The question becomes whether the Yankee collapse, and the Oriole and Jay growth spurts, happen rapidly enough to unleash Steinbrennarmageddon in the Bronx: the Yankees finishing last. I suspect we will see them occupy the basement long enough for the kind of good old-fashioned accusation firestorm and managerial firing speculation that used to make 161st Street the Bronx Zoo. But I do not think both sets of birds will fly with equal success. I may have Toronto and Baltimore switched here, but I see it: 1. Boston, 2. Tampa Bay, 3. Baltimore, 4. New York, 5. Toronto (and the last three, very close indeed).