Results tagged ‘ Brian Cashman ’

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.

2012 Previews: A.L. East

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.

Why?

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.

It was.

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.

Montero-Pineda: No Big Deal?

The reaction to the Pineda-Montero trade is unanimous: Everybody seems to believe it was a hugely significant deal, but a ripoff of biblical proportions. Unfortunately, I have yet to read consecutive analyses saying who did the ripping.

My concern is the other part. Ever the contrarian, I am not convinced this is an epic trade, nor a rip-off. I’m not convinced by either of these guys.

I suppose the confusion originates with the similarly disparate conclusions about Montero’s ability to survive on the major league level. Before he hit the Bronx last September there was no middle about him. He was either the next great slugger and at least a sufficient catcher, or an overrated stumblebum whose ceiling might be Jake Fox.

I don’t think September cleared things up for us. He drove in a dozen runs and slugged .590 in 61 at bats, and showed the kind of jaw-dropping opposite field power off the middle-to-high fastball that seems to appear only once per decade. But as the Yankees cruised towards the division title amid the Red Sox collapse and a Rays surge that could never have threatened them, they trusted Montero to start exactly one game behind the plate. He wound up catching thirteen more innings in two other games and four of five baserunners stole off him. He did not impress defensively.

Nevertheless, the real question mark should be how New York used him – or didn’t use him – in its post-season cameo. Yes, Jorge Posada got on base eleven times in 19 plate appearances (five singles, four walks, a hit batsman, and a triple) but he didn’t drive in a single run and six of his eight outs were whiffs. It is intriguing that only one of the hits, only one of the walks, and the lone HBP came in the two Yankee wins (9-3 and 10-1 wins no less). Posada’s fireworks were mostly empty calories. Montero, meanwhile, appeared only in the rout portion of the latter and went 2-2 with an RBI.

The Yankees also just traded a bat when the forecast for their 2012 production is not optimistic. Alex Rodriguez slowed to a crawl last year, Curtis Granderson vanished in late August and Russell Martin long before that, Nick Swisher was all over the place, and there is only one Robinson Cano. I realize Joe Girardi envisions the DH spot as a place to park the fading Rodriguez or the beaten-up Swisher on a given day but this “keep ‘em fresh” use of the DH implies that the batters you’re going to use there are still of value. To me, the Yankee batting order got almost spasmodic in the second half of last season and a great young power-hitting bat in its middle would be far more useful than another young starting pitcher.

That is, if the Yankees really believed Montero was a great young power bat. I’m convinced that for all of Brian Cashman’s comparisons of Jesus Montero to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Piazza, he has decided that there is some grave flaw not just in his glove but in his bat. Cash was reportedly ready to trade Montero to Seattle for Cliff Lee in 2010 but balked at trading Montero and Eduardo Nunez (this was confirmed for me last summer by another Major League GM). Cashman has been surprisingly willing to trade this supposed blue chip prospect for whatever the drooling Mariners would surrender. It was suggestive enough that he seemed to value Nunez more highly than Montero. And now, if he  just traded a Cabrera or a Piazza for a Michael Pineda, he’s an idiot – and I don’t think he’s an idiot.

And I’m giving Pineda the benefit of the doubt here. I was first astonished by this guy’s potential during a throwaway appearance at the end of a televised Mariners’ game late in spring training 2010. His spectacular start to 2011 was no real surprise to me, and I’m assuming even though they cuffed him up for three earned on five walks and three hits in five innings at Seattle on May 27th, the impression was left on New York brass that this was one of the coming mound stars of the game. After all, before that start at Safeco, Pineda had been 6-2, with 61 K’s in 58-1/3 innings. He’d only given up 46 hits and only twice had walked more than two men in a game.

Pineda went 3-8 thereafter.

He was still good in June, and what followed could very easily have been exhaustion – except he had managed 139 innings pitched in the minors in 2010 and 138 two years before that. This was not totally foreign territory. And yet he collapsed at the All-Star Break:

                     GS  IP  ER  BB  K   HR   W  L    ERA   WHIP  G/A   OA

Before         18  113  38  36  113  10    8   6    3.03    1.04     0.84   .198

After            10   58  33  19    60   8     1  4     5.12     1.38     1.38    .236

Look, a 1.38 WHIP is not going to kill you, not with the Yankees. Consider that for all the disappointment the second half tacked on to his rookie season, Pineda got run support of 5.16 for the season (Derek Lowe/Dan Haren/Chris Carpenter territory). The Yankees gave all of their guys a lot more help: Ivan Nova 8.82, Freddy Garcia 7.49, A.J. Burnett 7.19, CC Sabatha 6.98, and Bartolo Colon 6.41.

But there is another disappointing set of splits to consider. Pineda not only did better in the pitcher’s paradise that is Safeco, but he did better in a supremely bizarre way.

Michael Pineda’s home-road splits:

                     GS  IP  ER  BB  K  2B   3B  HR   W  L    ERA   WHIP   G/A  OA

Home          12  77   25  28  82    3     0     9     5    4    2.92    1.01      0.92  .182

Away           16  94   46  27  91   21     2     9     3    4    4.40    1.17      1.05   .234

Do you see it?

Michael Pineda surrendered only 12 extra-base hits at home, exactly one a game. On the road, he gave up 32 of them, exactly two a game. The homers are the same but the doubles helped to kill him.

Another stat to throw at you. His BABIP (for the un-SABRized, the opponents’ Batting Average on Balls hit In Play) was .258. That was the ninth lowest in the majors last year, and while having the ninth lowest opponents’ batting average on anything would intuitively be a good thing, in this case it ain’t. The BABIP for all pitchers combined was .291, which implies that on as much as thirteen percent of the outs Pineda got on balls the hitters hit, Pineda was lucky they were outs. Low BABIPs (or high ones) tend to correct themselves over the course of a season, or from one season to another, which is as good an explanation for his opponents’ actual batting average to jump by .038 after the All-Star Break as is “he got tired at 113 innings.”

There are a lot of numbers in here, but between Pineda’s second half (and road) woes, and the Yankees’ remarkable unwillingness to put Montero on the spot in the playoffs, I infer that this wasn’t a rip-off, and it wasn’t a trade of future Hall of Famers – that it might have just been the trade of a couple of high-ceiling but deeply flawed ballplayers.


							

Eduardo Nunez Of The Above

As I watched the replay of Eduardo Nunez’s 127th fielding chance of the season turn into his 11th error of the season (and open up the gates of hell for five unearned Toronto runs in the New York Yankees’ defensive inning of the second half), I was reminded of two virtually identical sentences about Nunez that were spoken, months apart, by two different Major League General Managers.

“As near as I can tell,” the first told me, “there are only two clubs who believe Nunez is anything more than a glorified utility infielder – the Yankees and Seattle.” The other said “I believe only two teams believe Nunez is more than a utilityman – maybe a Wilson Betemit. Seattle and the Yankees. And I’m not sure the Yankees really believe it.”

Both of these GM’s believed, but could not offer evidence about, the story that the Yankees and Mariners had agreed on a deal last summer of Cliff Lee for Jesus Montero and somebody, and then when M’s GM Jack Zduriencik demanded that the somebody be Nunez, Brian Cashman bailed out.

So if you’re Seattle, sometimes your best deals are indeed the ones the other GM isn’t sharp enough to take you up on, and take you to the cleaners with.

Nunez is not a major league infielder. There was a joke going around the Yankees earlier this year that he was on the roster entirely to make Derek Jeter look like a defensive all-star. Now the joke is, the Yankees feel they can trust all those whistling liners towards left that A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia and Sergio (“Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here?”) Mitre will surrender in the second half, to Eduardo Nunez and what was his .920 fielding average before #11 dribbled away tonight.

The GM who doubted that the Yankees really thought highly of Nunez said if I could see his scouting reports on Yank prospects and compare them to New York’s own I would assume there were 50 or so Yankee farmhands who had the same names as other, far lesser players. It is not atypical for teams to hype prospects – the trade market is now largely based on prospects – but it is awfully unusual to see a team actually begin to believe its inflated opinion of a minor leaguer.

Nunez already disproved theories that he might be a big league shortstop (91 chances, 9 errors). Now he’s working on third base. They’ve only experimented with him in the outfield and there might yet to be salvation there. He seems to have a viable bat, with a little pop, and a propensity to get very hot for very short periods of time. But if this is all he’s going to be, and they didn’t trade him and Montero for Cliff Lee, the Yankee front office is sillier than it seems even from the outside.

My goodness, as I was finishing this up, he just fumbled another one and just barely got the ball to second for the force (on a high throw). Which makes this headline laugh-out-loud funny.

Even Big Market Fans Have A Right To Kvetch, Too

I wonder sometimes if I am still living in the baseball city in which I was born.

At almost any point from my teen years to several months ago, the New York newspapers would by now have been calling for the dismissal of Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman, and the public shaming and court-martialing of the Wilpon family.

Instead I am reading a lot about how the Yankees will be “better balanced” without Cliff Lee; that they can get the bullpen depth they need instead, and a righty bat off the bench. Yes, having Sergio Mitre as your third starter and thus sinking to a record around .500 is about as balanced as you can get.

When the city isn’t making excuses for the Yanks’ impenetrable player acquisition strategy, it is commending new Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson as a great baseball man. So’s John McGraw, and what’s more, McGraw’s made just as many big moves this winter as Alderson has.

Seriously, I’m a baseball fan who happens to be a Yankee customer, and I did not have an irrational rooting interest in whether or not Lee ended up in the Bronx. But between the Yanks’ two failures to get him, and the sudden signing of Russell Martin, I’m very dubious about the chain of logic in the front office – if any.

As I recall, the trade with Seattle for Lee fell through last summer because Brian Cashman refused to part with both catching prospect Jesus Montero and shortstop prospect Eduardo Nunez. Nunez, of course, later came up to New York and showed he might survive as a utilityman but right now doesn’t come close to being even a reliable .250 hitter. I have heard two completely conflicting sets of information about Montero: the first that he is the Super Prospect: an influential catcher in all aspects of the job, and a potent bat. The second is that he has not grown either as a defender, handler of pitchers, or check on baserunners, and that his swing has more than one hole.

In 25 years of carefully watching scouting reports, when they conflict this much, I’ve never seen the positive ones prove correct. More over, it is clear that the real catching prospect in the Yankee system is young Gary Sanchez, who cut across rookie ball and at Staten Island like lightning this summer.

And now mix Russell Martin into the recipe. And the re-signed Derek Jeter, with the loose plan that he’ll play shortstop for another two years, by which time Jorge Posada will have presumably retired and Jeter can slide over to become a 39-year old DH without any measurable power.

So Montero has no role in 2010 and Nunez won’t be thought of for a job (one he probably can’t handle anyway) until 2012? And they are in New York and Cliff Lee is not? And even assuming the statistics, the history, the precedent, and the hands of time are wrong about Jeter and Cashman is right – nobody is yelling at Yankee management? Even though there are no prominent pitchers to trade for (and don’t say “Felix Hernandez” – he has a no-trade deal and the Yankees are reportedly on the no-way list)?

And the Mets of this winter make the Yankees of this winter look like the Red Sox of this winter. When you are operating in the nation’s largest community, and your team is without a single nearly-ready position prospect, and you still haven’t bitten the bullet on Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez, and you insist there are no economic restrictions on your personnel budget, and your top free agent signees are two guys dropped by the Pirates, surely some member of the Enraged Fourth Estate that has made this city the cuss-filled territory it is today should be demanding that the team either get on the stick or let the fans in for free.

It would be nice to dismiss this as the ranting of a big market fan with a sense of entitlement and a terrible fear he is finally facing his comeuppance. But face it, in the smaller markets, when the ownership misleads you and puts an inferior product on the field, they do not have the further gall to charge you $100 a ticket in the upper deck. 

Some Yankees/Red Sox, With Pictures

I am told that the meeting Saturday night in which Joe Girardi “decided” to start Phil Hughes against the Red Sox Sunday night, was not limited to uniformed personnel and General Manager Brian Cashman. At least one other person was involved, couldn’t confirm who it was. The reversal proved invaluable as Hughes offered his cleanest outing in weeks and he may have staunched the Yankee bleeding for the moment.

The question remains what and who the Yankees can rely on in the post-season. Anything past CC Sabathia is a guess; it would seem it would be wise to try to give Hughes a rest until the playoffs begin, and pin second-starter hopes on him, and then see what Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett and even Ivan Nova might give you.

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Lost in the Yankees’ walk-off (literally) victory; this was the Stadium farewell for Mike Lowell, drafted originally by New York so long ago that Buck Showalter was still the Yankee Manager (Round 20, 1995, they sent him to Oneonta of the NY-Penn League where he hit exactly one homer in 313 plate appearances). Lowell would get fifteen Yankee at bats in 1998 before going in a foolish trade to Florida for pitcher Ed Yarnall and two others. 
One of my favorite memories of the game is an afternoon in Fort Myers in 2009 when I spent the first four innings of a Boston exhibition game on the bench between Lowell and Wakefield (at that point they had 29 years of big league experience between them). Of course we talked everything but baseball. Lowell remains one of the game’s classiest acts, and when I told him the game just wouldn’t be the same without him, he reassured us “I’ll be around.” He could succeed in anything from coaching, to ownership, to announcing. 
Two other photos are offered. On the right, that’s a tv viewer of mine, the rookie Red Sox first baseman Lars Anderson. In the shot at the left is SNL’s Jason Sudeikis, further down the front row in seats belonging to Lorne Michaels. Having dropped enough names I’ll leave you with this most bizarre of stats: I got to see 16 Yankee games from the seats this season and the home team won fifteen of them.
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See you Tuesday and Wednesday as Ken Burns premieres his PBS Baseball documentary follow-up, “The Tenth Inning.”

Cooperstown: Sunday – And More On Rose

The Hall of Fame induction speeches are always heartfelt and always noteworthy, but rarely do they have such emotional impact as this year’s.

Frankly, Rickey Henderson gave as good a speech as anybody could’ve imagined. It was respectful, it was self-deprecating, it was eloquent, it was moving. The only self-references were to say “I thank” – and he seemingly thanked everybody. And between his childhood memories of being bribed to play the game with donuts and quarters, to adolescent stories of asking Reggie Jackson for an autograph but getting only a pen, Henderson’s good-heartedness and generosity did more to enhance his reputation than anything else he could have done in fifteen minutes. I also think that Rickey finally admitted he had retired – the first-ever combination HOF acceptance/retirement speech.
Jim Rice was equally genuine and sincere, and instead of making even the slightest reference to the indefensible delay in his election, he poured oil on the troubled waters by saying it made no difference to him. My friend Tony Kubek did what he had always done so well: give us insights about others in the game. He began with a reference to his first Yankee roommate, and the man seated beside me, that roommate, Moose Skowron, tried to hide. Tony later inspired the longest sustained applause of the afternoon by thanking Henry Aaron for being such a hero and role model, inside and outside the game.
But the day was headlined by the daughter of the great Yankee and Indian second baseman Joe Gordon. Noting that her father, who had died in 1978, had ordered that there be no funeral nor ceremony, Judy Gordon said that her family would now consider Cooperstown his final resting place. If there was a fan who did not tear up, or feel a lump in the throat, he or she was not evident from where I was sitting.
Coming up tomorrow, a little more on the Pete Rose/Sparky Anderson ice-breaking I reported here Saturday night – the story is not only correct, but it’s only the beginning of what Rose considered a very rewarding weekend. First, some ground-level photos from Cooperstown 2009.
The mass of humanity assembles. It’s still more than an hour until the ceremony and thousands are already present:
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A little Yankee-Red Sox interplay. Brian Cashman at the left; Sox co-owner John Henry in the nifty hat, on the right:
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A colleague of mine – part of the contingent sharing the big day of his old partner Tony Kubek – interviewed, beforehand. Afterwards Bob and more than a dozen NBC Sports production figures of the ’70s and ’80s gathered for a lengthy reception in Tony’s honor:
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Mr. Kubek himself – getting a brief pre-ceremony pep talk from son Jim:
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And one more – that rare, almost transcendent appearance of Sandy Koufax, in the moments after the speeches ended. He is talking to Dave Stewart, once an Albuquerque Duke while Koufax was the team’s pitching coach. Eddie Murray at the right:
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