February 2014

Keys to the Kingdom

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‘Tis the season of the cracking of the bat and the popping of the leather. Yes, MLB Spring Training is finally here, and yesterday the Yankees began their string of exhibition games. As it is, the Bronx Bombers dropped both of their first two Grapefruit League games to Pittsburgh, losing 6-5 Wednesday and 8-2 today – though we all know final scores are probably the least important stat when it comes to Spring Training.

It’s all about fine tuning and getting ready for April, when the scores count and the Yanks embark on their quest for World Series title number 28. Yankee Captain Derek Jeter, who as we all know announced his retirement after this upcoming season, declared today that he wants to go out a winner:

“We’re the last team standing and we win the championship.

That’s the only way I envision it ending.”

In order for that happen, a lot has to go right. First of all…

CC Sabathia needs a bounce-back campaign

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Last year CC Sabathia faced arm problems, really for the first time ever in his career. The Yankee ace lost 13 games in 2013 and only won 14, coming off 2012 when he won 15 – a far cry from the 21 and 19-win seasons he put up in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Last season Sabathia’s ERA was 4.78, the highest earned run average he’s ever posted in his career.

If you’re the type of analyst who likes to throw wins and ERA out the window, here’s something to chew on: Sabathia let up 28 home runs in 2013 – another career-high for a single season. If that isn’t enough, here’s something else to consider: Sabathia served up more taters than Phil Hughes last season, the former homer-happy Yankee and now-Minnesota Twin. Hughes allowed 24 hitters to leave the yard last year compared to Sabathia’s 28.

Yes. You know it’s bad when you’ve given up more long balls than Hughes.

There’s no debating the fact that Sabathia needs to turn it around; be the ace the Yankees bought him for prior to 2009, or at least be close to what he was. It’s not too much to ask, mostly because he’s already proven the type of anchor he can be to a pitching staff.

To his credit, Sabathia slimmed down and lost some weight. According to Michael Kay of YES, Sabathia came into Spring Training last year just under 300 lbs., whereas this year he showed up around 275 and visibly thinner.

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Obviously Sabathia is taking serious steps towards getting back to form, but he needs to cut down on the home runs and be clutch this year if the Yankees want to be that last team standing.

Stay healthy, New York

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You cannot predict injuries. It’s a fact of sports life. In recent times the Yankees have had a ton of hard luck when it comes to injuries, and they haven’t been able to field a complete team.

New Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury has failed to appear in 100 games in two of the last four seasons because of injuries. In 2010 the speedy center fielder only played 18 games and in 2012 he played just 74, thanks to fractured ribs as a result of an outfield collision (’10) and a collision on the base paths trying to break up a double play (’12).

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In between he’s been as solid as they come, though. 2011 was Ellsbury’s best season to date. With 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, a .321 batting average, 212 hits, and an All-Star nod, he was arguably the best all-around player in the American League. Being the runner-up for the AL MVP award, while taking home a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, is only a testament to how fantastic he truly was in ‘11.

That begs the question, which Ellsbury will be showing up in 2014? The perennial All-Star or the injury prone player who gives up his body en route to disabled list stints?

And Ellsbury is just one example.

To supplant Herculean second baseman Robinson Cano, who split for Seattle, the Yankees signed Brian Roberts – a 36-year-old second sacker once feared by all as a Baltimore Oriole, but has only played 192 games over the last four seasons on account of injuries. (Roberts managed to play 77 games last year, 17 in ’12, 39 in ’11, and 59 in ’10).

Doing the math, Roberts has missed 456 games over the past four seasons; DL stints and concussions have eaten him up. Keep in mind, specifically, he ruptured a tendon behind his right knee last April vs. Tampa Bay attempting a steal of second base.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays

Knowing all that, will Roberts be a comeback player and offer reliability, or will he simply be unproductive and relegated to the disabled list for a large chunk of the season?

The question marks of Ellsbury and Roberts are of course piled on top of apprehension about Jeter and Mark Teixeira. Jeter (39, 40 in June) as we all know is coming off ankle injuries that limited him to 17 games in 2013, while Teixeira (33, 34 in April) is coming back from wrist problems that only allowed him to play 15 games last year.

How each of these players respond is obviously a “to be determined” but at the same time there is no crystal ball in existence to let us know if they’ll be able to grind out the entire season injury-free.

The bullpen has to be effective

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It’s fair to say the Yankees’ bullpen was probably their weakest link last year, even with the legendary Mariano Rivera at the back end closing everything out – which really tells you the whole story. This writer keeps asking himself,

“If the bullpen wasn’t that good with Rivera last year, what can we expect without him this year?

David Robertson, as of now, is expected to succeed Mo in the closer role, which is scary to think about. If you recall in 2012 when Rivera’s season ended on May 3 on the warning track in Kansas City, Robertson was plugged into his spot as closer, but he didn’t cut it.

In just his second save opp a week after Rivera went down, Robertson failed to protect a 1-0 lead over Tampa Bay, giving up a three-run homer to Matt Joyce. He later gave up another run and the Yankees went on to lose, 4-1. Robertson called it afterward “the worst feeling in the world.”

Luckily in 2012 the Yankees had the option of using Rafael Soriano in Robertson’s stead – an option that worked out well, given that Soriano saved 42 games in Rivera’s absence.

Now, similarly, the Yankees have signed former Oakland A’s closer (and 2009 AL Rookie of the Year) Andrew Bailey, albeit to a minor league contract. Bailey has 89 saves to his name in his short career, with experience as a closer, making him the logical choice to succeed Rivera over Robertson.

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However…

Bailey, like a lot of other Yankees, has a history with injuries. In 2012 he had reconstructive surgery on his right thumb, and just last year an MRI revealed he had a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.

It’ll come down to whether or not Bailey can make it back from injury and be a shutdown pitcher like he once was. For now though, the Yankees have a premiere setup man in Robertson – and that’s about it, because Robertson isn’t a proven closer.

At least not yet.

Looking outside the back end of the bullpen, the middle relievers need to step up too. Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne are going to be two important pieces to the bullpen, along with newcomer Matt Thornton, the tall order who’ll replace Boone Logan (now with the Colorado Rockies) as the main southpaw out of the ‘pen.

Sources are saying former top Yankee pitching prospect Dellin Betances will be vying for a spot in the bullpen this spring, as it’s already been established by Yankee GM Brian Cashman that he will be a reliever in the long run. Betances could either prove to be a key middle reliever or long reliever, yet he has to pitch well enough for the Yankee brass to have faith in him – and well enough to keep himself off mopping duty.

The Opening Day bullpen is likely going to come down to whichever relievers are effective during Spring Training, and the point stands: they have to be effective, whoever they may be when camp breaks.

Masahiro Tanaka has to adapt

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Nobody is expecting Masahiro Tanaka to go 24-0 and post an ERA under 2.00 in his rookie season, but if there is one thing the new, prized Japanese import must do, it’s get acclimated to the MLB style. His numbers in Japan were far better than a lot of the other Japanese-born pitchers who’ve come over from the land of the rising sun, meaning he could potentially have a huge year, but the average fan might not realize a couple of things.

First off, pitchers in Japan throw only once a week, whereas here in the states, Tanaka will have to toe the rubber once every five days. Not only that, but the NPB in Japan also uses smaller-sized baseballs compared to an official MLB rock, therefore an adjustment needs to be made in that respect.

The biggest difference will be the hitters Tanaka faces. Monsters such as David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Prince Fielder will probably pose bigger threats (and are more intimidating) than the more tactical batters he went eye-to-eye with in Japan.

Though one could argue Tanaka won’t be fazed by the Goliath-like giants he faces here in the U.S., given his cool demeanor and calm presence at his introductory press conference.

While it’s perfectly fine to expect Tanaka to succeed – and he will – it’s reasonable to presume he will go through his growing pains. Adjustment is the biggest part of his game.

We’ll get our first live look at Tanaka on Saturday afternoon in the Yankees’ exhibition vs. the Phillies.

They have to make each other better

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The key to any successful team is chemistry. Most of the 2014 Yankees will be first-time teammates, not having played with each other before. While some like Jeter, Teixeira and Brett Gardner have been together for a few seasons, newbies like Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have not had a chance to jell as teammates.

If you look back to 2009 – and the Dynasty years, for that matter – a player could have an off-night, but the rest of the team would be on. For example,

In 1998, Tino Martinez might have an “0-for” night, but Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill would be firing at will, and the Yanks would win. The next night Jeter could have gone 0-for-4, but Martinez and everyone else would still be en fuego.

Those teams were the masters of picking each other up.

If the 2014 Yankees can perfect that same art, they’ll be as lethal as any team in baseball.

And the kingdom will be theirs.

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Omega, 2014: Derek Jeter announces this season is his last

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If you pick up a Bible and thumb your way through to last book – the book of revelation – you’ll find the story of the end of the world, otherwise known as the apocalypse. Flying, fire-breathing dragons, the harvest of the earth, and the final battle between good and evil are discussed, and it advises all readers to maintain faith. In its epilogue, the Bible’s final line is, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.”

Now, we will never know when, exactly, the apocalypse will transpire; it’s an unknown phenomenon in terms of its timing. But if you’re a member of Yankee Universe, you found out today the end of the world will come at the conclusion of the 2014 season.

Or at least the end of a significant era.

This afternoon Yankee Captain Derek Jeter announced (via his “Turn 2 Foundation” Facebook page) that this coming year will be his last, and he will retire when this forthcoming season is over.

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“…it was months ago when I realized that this season would likely be my last. As I came to this conclusion and shared it with my friends and family, they all told me to hold off saying anything until I was absolutely 100% sure.

“And the thing is, I could not be more sure. I know it in my heart. The 2014 season will be my last playing professional baseball.”

This is the end. The day we all had nightmares about.

Jeter has pretty much earned the right to hang ‘em up though, having conquered basically everything there is to conquer in baseball. Cooperstown, for all we know, might already have a special room designated for the wonders of Jeter’s career; there’s no question he’ll be enshrined in upstate New York’s hallowed halls with the ghosts of baseball’s past.

Here’s a little bit of input on my part:

Why now?

For one, his age. Although in recent times certain players have been able to suit up and take the field at 40 years old (and beyond), eventually they can’t do it anymore, for whatever reason. Some players, like Randy Johnson for example, hang around to meet career goals. In Johnson’s case he stayed in the game to reach 300 wins, but he put his cleats away almost immediately after he reached the milestone.

Jeter has no more real goals to reach, being a five-time World Series champ, a World Series MVP, an All-Star game MVP; having 3,000 career hits, being the all-time Yankee hit leader . . . and so on and so forth. Think of doing something unfathomable in baseball, and then realize Jeter has been there and done that.

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Summing it up, Jeter will be 40 in June and he has nothing left to accomplish on the field.

Another reason, clearly, was the injury to his ankle that he sustained in Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS. Since that fateful October night, nothing has been same for him. He only played 17 games in 2013 because his ankle wasn’t quite right, batting an uncharacteristic .190 (12 hits in 63 at-bats) which was a sizable drop from the .316 BA he put up in 2012.

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It was evident his afflictions impacted him in 2013. He didn’t have it last year – and he knew it.

“Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle.

“The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.”  

One last piece of info Jeter slipped into his reason for retiring: his desire to be more of a businessman and start a family.

“Now it is time for the last chapter. I have new dreams and aspirations, and I want new challenges. There are many things I want to do in business and in philanthropic work, in addition to focusing more on my personal life and starting a family of my own . . .”

It’s good the captain is willing to dive into the business world and try to master it the way he did the game of baseball. The question is, however, as far as beginning a familial lifestyle,

With whom will he start a family?

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Given his glorious track record of dating attractive women, he can practically pick any woman he wants at this point, and then take it from there. Lucky guy.

How he announced it

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Facebook. It shocked most people in the press, including myself.

Jeter isn’t the type of person who takes to social media every time a thought pops into head (like the rest of us), so the fact that he wrote up a note and threw it on his foundation’s Facebook page was a little bizarre. This writer even kept saying to himself, over and over again after the news broke,

“Facebook? Really?”

You would think he would’ve waited until Spring Training started, and called a press conference for all to see. At the very least it would’ve been a little more formal than a Facebook post, but kudos to Jeets going against the grain and breaking the huge news in an unconventional manner – well, at least unconventional by his standards.

He rose through the ranks of pro ball by being an uncommon player, so he might as well go out doing things in uncommon ways.

What it means for the Yankees

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In a nutshell, they’ll need a shortstop after this year. The questions about whether or not the Yankees will pursue Stephen Drew are already rising, though they aren’t expected to make anymore deals now that the offseason is on the downswing. That and the fact they’ve already spent nearly half a $billion already.

Buster Olney, ESPN analyst and former Yankee beat writer, speculated that the Colorado Rockies – if their season starts to crumble and they’re non-contenders before July 31 – might explore the idea of moving their All-Star SS Troy Tulowitzki.

Tulowitzki is owed somewhere around $140 million over the next several years. Who better to pick up that contract than the Yankees: a team notorious for having deep pockets and not being afraid to show it, especially when they’re in need of a key player.

Discussing the topic, MLB Network brought up two other names who will apparently be free agents after this year: Hanley Ramirez (LA Dodgers) and J.J. Hardy (Baltimore Orioles). Ramirez however made a statement today claiming he “wants to be a Dodger for life.”

Yet, should the Yankee brass offer him a larger sum of money than LA does, Ramirez might reword that statement. Robinson Cano made similar remarks about staying with the Yankees, and we all saw what happened there.

On the other hand the Yankees could go the in-house route to supplant Jeter next year, which could mean Eduardo Nunez is the guy going forward. But if they want to look beyond Nunez because of his defensive foibles, every shortstop in the farm system needs to perform well enough this season – or do something extraordinary enough this season – to prove they might just be the heir apparent.

Cito Culver, I’m looking at you.

The farewell tour

New York Yankees player Jeter celebrates as he holds the World Series trophy after the Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in New York

Like last year (for Mariano Rivera), fans from all over the place are going to flock to wherever the Yankees are just to see Jeter during his last hurrah. The Yankee captain is going to be like a giant neon light in 2014, and the fans are going to be like moths on hot summer nights, flying towards him.

If they can afford it, that is.

Ticket prices for the Thursday, Sept. 25 game vs. Baltimore – the Yankees’ final home game of the 2014 regular season – have absolutely skyrocketed. Before Jeter announced his plans, it was just an average game. Now that his final appearance at Yankee Stadium could potentially fall on that date, you cannot buy a ticket for less than $397. At press time; that figure could be inflating as I’m typing this.

While Sept. 25 may be Jeter’s final game at the big ballpark in the Bronx notwithstanding a playoff run, it’s possible the Yankees honor him with a special day on Sunday, Sept. 21 at home vs. the Blue Jays. Tickets for that game have also become astronomical in terms of price, and it would make sense they pay homage to the captain on that day, being that the Yanks honored Rivera on Sunday, Sept. 22 this past year.

Fitting.

Either way, fans will be coming from near and far to see Jeter this year. 2014. The final year. The apocalypse. The end of the world, or at least the true end of the Yankee dynasty era.

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