Results tagged ‘ Yu Darvish ’

Rising Son: Tanaka separate from the pack

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In 2008 Sports Illustrated published an in-depth article on the life on Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang, appropriately entitled, Chien-Ming Wang has a secret. In his native country of Taiwan, the former sinker-baller was a celebrity. He couldn’t get out of his car in Taiwan without getting mobbed by worshipping fans. Yet when he walked down the streets in New York City, he was barely bothered; no one hounded him or even recognized him. The piece delved into his personal life, as well as how he developed his signature pitch.

It was an interesting story on the foreign pitcher. One a reader could thoroughly enjoy.

Yesterday the Yanks landed 25-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, luring him to the Bronx with a pact worth $155 million over seven years; thus snagging the hurler from the Rakuten Eagles. Tanaka has put up staggering numbers in Japan since his debut in Nippon Pro Baseball in 2007, winning several awards and attaining superstardom along the way.

Masahiro Tanaka

This writer does not in fact know whether or not Tanaka can walk down the streets of Tokyo without being mobbed. Only time will tell if he will be able to take a stroll in Times Square without the hassle of adoring fans and media. But over the next seven years, rest assured, we’ll learn a lot about this newcomer.

What we do know now is that he was 24-0 in NPB last year with a microscopic earned run average of 1.27. Over the last three seasons alone he piled up 53 wins and only lost three games, posting an ERA of 1.44. For the sake of getting too analytical, most folks are predicting his WAR to have impressive range, meaning he will be worth a heck of a lot of victories throughout his Yankee tenure.

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His total WAR is going to be 16.8 after seven years.

No! It’s got to be 6.8 per season.

Thanks for your input, Twitter.

Notwithstanding the ever-glorious, overanalyzed “wins above replacement” stat, his regular numbers from the Far East are unheard of here in the United States – and even in Japan, those numbers leap out at you, giving a lot of pundits and writers the impression he is separated from the pack of aces.

Take for example Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was a well-sought-after pitcher during the 2006-07 offseason. His best season in Japan (pitching for the Seibu Lions) was the year right before he signed with Boston, being 2006.

Dice-K’s numbers that season: 17-5, 2.13 ERA, 186.1 innings pitched, and 200 strikeouts. His transition to Major League Baseball wasn’t anything special, going 15-12 with an ERA of 4.40 his first season in Beantown with the Red Sox, which was of course ’07. His workload got a bit heavier that year (204.2 IP) but the number of Ks was consistent; in fact, one more than his previous season at 201 strikeouts.

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His claim to fame was his 2008 season in Boston when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, which could be attributed to a lighter amount of innings – 167.2. His K total also fell to 154 strikeouts. From there, the “Dice Man” became nothing to write home to Japan about.

Point being Dice-K is not exactly comparable to Tanaka. Neither is Kei Igawa (a teammate of Matsuzaka’s from the Seibu Lions) who the Yanks acquired prior to 2007. Igawa’s best year in Japan came in 2003 when he was 20-5 with a 2.80 ERA; 206 IP, amassing 179 strikeouts. It’s also worth mentioning he never won more than 14 games in a single season for the Lions after ‘03.

That being said, Igawa never made a difference in New York. Before he was let go he finished with a 2-4 record in pinstripes, a 6.66 earned run average, and he struck out just 53 batters.

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In other words, he was a bad investment. Igawa’s ERA describes his time in New York perfectly, being the mark of the devil, and for the record, there’s no chance he was mobbed by fans. Frankly, if Yankee fans were to have seen Igawa in the street (that is if they would have even recognized him to begin with) they probably would have thrown eggs and tomatoes at him.

And no, he cannot be compared to Tanaka.

Even the great Yu Darvish cannot truly be compared to Tanaka. His best season for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters was 2011, the year before he came to the states and joined the Texas Rangers. In ’11, Darvish went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA; 232 innings pitched and a mind-blowing 276 strikeouts.

While 18 is a strong number in terms of win total, it’s not quite on par with Tanaka’s 24 from last season, although Darvish’s first two seasons in MLB weren’t bad:

2012: 16-9, 3.90 ERA, 232 IP, 221 Ks.

2013: 13-9, 2.83 ERA, 209.2 IP, 277 Ks.

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And while we won’t know what Tanaka’s numbers will be over the course of his first two seasons in pinstripes for another couple years, we do know his numbers were better than Darvish’s were overseas.

Hisashi Iwakuma, a Japanese starter who joined the Seattle Mariners in 2012, only mustered up 29 wins over his last three seasons in Japan (2009-11, for the Golden Eagles) – a far cry from the 53 Tanaka has racked up over his last three seasons pitching in the land of the rising sun.

Hisashi Iwakuma

It’s quite possible Tanaka is the best Japanese-born starting pitcher we’ve ever seen – at least that’s what the numbers suggest. Better in his native Japan than Matsuzaka; better than Igawa, better than Darvish, better than Iwakuma – and maybe even better than Hideo Nomo.

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Nomo was MLB’s first notable Japanese import, and he pitched for the Kintetsu Buffaloes from 1990-94. The most wins he notched in a single season in the Far East: like Darvish, 18. Again, not as many as Tanaka’s 24.

The truth is we won’t know how well his stuff will translate from NPB to MLB until we receive a sample size, which could be a year or two. Yet if his numbers, compared to the other Japanese-born starters, are any indication, he will surely succeed. He could potentially go soaring above and beyond the realm of accomplishments of the other Japanese pitchers.

And if Tanaka does indeed dominate, there’s a good chance he won’t be as lucky walking down the streets of New York as Wang once was. The man from Japan might just become a little too popular to go unrecognized in the city that never sleeps.

But that all depends on how he does. And you can bet your life Yankee Universe will be watching.

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If it’s not the Twins, can the Yankees win?

Last year the Yankees were ousted from the playoffs at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, losing the deciding Game Five on Oct. 6. This year will be a much different story, considering the American League Division Series won’t even begin until Oct. 7 – 2012 already a longer postseason than 2011 for the Bronx Broskis.

By the end of tonight’s all-or-nothing Wild Card play-in game the Yanks will know where they’re headed for the first two games of the ALDS: they’ll either be getting on a plane set on course for Texas to play the Rangers, or they’ll be heading to Baltimore to face the Orioles.

Before they square off with their first round opponents, there’s an ALDS history lesson that needs to be taught. In 2001, the Yanks eliminated the Oakland A’s in five games. Since then have had an easy time with one particular team in the first round of the playoffs, but haven’t had much luck against virtually anyone else.

2002 ALDS: Yankees booted by the Los Angeles Angels, three games to one. Loss

2003 ALDS: Yankees defeated the Minnesota Twins, three games to one. Win

2004 ALDS: Yankees duplicated ’03, beating the Minnesota Twins, three games to one. Win

2005 ALDS: Yankees once again booted by the LA Angels, this time three games to two. Loss

2006 ALDS: Yankees eliminated by the Detroit Tigers, three games to one. Loss

2007 ALDS: Yankees forced to an early exit at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, three games to one. Loss

2008: Didn’t make playoffs

2009 ALDS: Yankees sweep the Minnesota Twins, three games to none. Win

2010 ALDS: Yankees once again broom the Minnesota Twins, three games to none. Win

2011 ALDS: Yankees eliminated by the Tigers, three games to two. Loss

Obviously there’s a pattern here. The Yankees have no problem beating teams in the ALDS – teams that are only named Minnesota Twins, that is. The Angels, Tigers, and Indians have crushed the Yankees’ dreams in the ALDS, so it begs the question that’s been on my mind since last October:

If it’s not the Twins, can the Yankees win?

Either way, New York has a great deal of experience playing each of its potential 2012 first round opponents. This writer has been asked who he’d rather see the Yankees play in this year’s ALDS: the Rangers or Orioles. I’m not quite sure because the way I see it, there are pros and cons of facing either team.

Texas Rangers

Pros

  • The Rangers played incredibly sloppy baseball to close out the 2012 regular season, committing three errors on the way to a one-sided 12-5 loss to the Oakland A’s on Wednesday, blowing the AL West in the process– and it didn’t start there. Texas lost seven of its last 10 regular season games.

  • No Cliff Lee this time. If it wasn’t enough for Lee to hand the Yanks their only two losses in the 2009 World Series, he came back for seconds in the 2010 American League Championship Series; dominating the Bombers in a crucial Game Three with a masterful 13-strikeout performance. He was a huge part of the Rangers’ past success vs. New York – and he’ll be a non-factor this postseason. Speaking of past success…
  • Past success in the ALDS vs. Texas. The Yankees played the Rangers in the ALDS in 1996, 1998, and in 1999 – and knocked them out all three years while twice sweeping them (‘98 and ’99). Although the Rangers knocked the Yanks out in the second round of the playoffs in 2010, the Yanks have never had a problem with them in the first round. Numerically in fact, the Yankees are 9-1 vs. Texas in ALDS play.

Cons

  • The first two games will be played in Arlington. Along with the changes made to the Wild Card, MLB changed the rules in terms of home field advantage. Instead of the team with home field advantage playing the first two games at home, then going on the road for two, then coming home for a Game Five (if necessary), the team with HFA starts on the road for two games, then comes home for the final three (games four and five of course, if necessary). Therefore, the Yankees will have to play the first two ALDS games in Texas, which is a difficult Stadium to win at.

  • Facing Yu Darvish. The Yanks won’t have to worry about the young man from Japan in Game One of the ALDS if the Rangers take the Wild Card, as he’ll be starting the winner-take-all game vs. Baltimore tonight. However, if the Yankees do happen to cross paths with him, they should keep Tuesday, April 24 in mind: the night Darvish shut them down with an 8.1-inning, 10-strikeout masterpiece to lead the Rangers to a 2-0 win. His name might not be Cliff Lee, but Darvish was a virtuoso that night; reminiscent of a Lee performance.
  • Pitching to Josh Hamilton. In the 2010 ALCS Hamilton punished the Yankees, clubbing four home runs, driving in seven, and batting .350. He went on to win the ALCS MVP, and later the American League MVP. His batting average for 2012 may not have been the highest of his career (.285) but Hamilton still smacked 43 homers and batted in 128 runs. He is one of the most dangerous hitters in the big leagues – and obviously he’s more dangerous playing in October, when it matters.

Baltimore Orioles

Pros

  • Familiarity. The Yankees are no strangers to Camden Yards, having played nine games there this year. Yankee fans flock down from New York to root for the team, sometimes giving Oriole Park the feel of Yankee Stadium. And in case you’re wondering, six of the Yanks’ nine wins vs. Baltimore this year were road victories.
  • The Orioles’ postseason drought. Baltimore hasn’t danced in October since 1997 – and their last taste of playoff baseball ended on a sour note: the Indians beating them in the ALCS. It’ll be interesting to see just how the Orioles respond when all eyes are on them this October.
  • The absence of longtime Yankee nemesis Nick Markakis. The 28-year-old outfielder – also a career .295 hitter – was struck by a pitch on his thumb on Sept. 8, fracturing the bone and thus ending his season. With Baltimore boasting such a potent offensive lineup with the likes of Mark Reynolds, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters, Markakis is one less problem for the Yankee pitching staff to worry about.
  • Inexperience on the part of the Orioles’ third baseman. Manny Machado was called up from the Double-A Bowie Baysox on Aug. 9. He’s done a fine job on offense in his infantile career, with seven homers and 26 RBIs. But on Monday, some shoddy defense at third cost his team a game vs. Tampa Bay – a game the Orioles needed to win in order to stay in contention with the Yankees for the AL East. If Machado falls through the cracks on defense, it might cost the O’s in the playoffs, the same way it did vs. the Rays.

Cons

  • The Orioles knew how to win in extra innings this year. Baltimore posted 16 extra-inning victories in 2012, and won nine games that lasted 12 innings or longer. Some of their dramatics included a 15-inning win, a 17-inning win, and an 18-inning win this year. For the Yankees, playing only nine innings is key, given the O’s dominance in extra frames.
  • Pitching to Mark Reynolds. The Orioles’ first baseman smacked 23 home runs this year – and seven of those 23 were off Yankee pitchers. Reynolds posted a .294 average vs. the Yankees in 2012 and knocked in 14 runs against New York. All season long Reynolds has been a thorn in the Yanks’ side, and he has a chance to continue it in the playoffs.
  • Jim Johnson at the end of the game. Baltimore’s closer nailed down 51 saves this year in 54 save opps. Up until Tuesday, the Yankees were 0-for-58 when trailing after eight innings. Johnson is not a pitcher the Yankees would ideally want to be facing in a late, close game. Johnson was 3-for-3 in saves vs. New York this year.

  • Resiliency on the Orioles’ part. Case in point: Thursday, Sept. 6. At Camden Yards, the Yankees fell behind early and trailed the O’s 6-1 after seven innings. New York rallied for five runs in the top of the eighth to tie it at six – only for Baltimore to answer with a four-run bottom half of the eighth. When it looked as if the momentum swung the Yankees’ way, the Orioles made sure to show the Bombers they possess the ability to battle back. Baltimore went on to win, 10-6.

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As always, there are upsides and downsides of playing any postseason opponent. I’m not one to make predictions, but ESPN is: and 11 of 28 analysts in Bristol, Conn. say the Yankees will be going to the Fall Classic – and six of those 11 have the Yankees winning it all.

This writer can only hope those six are right.

It’s only too bad the Twins aren’t playing for the Wild Card this year. I know the Yankees would be rooting hard for them – and I think, given the history, I’d say the Yankees’ odds of winning the first round would be pretty favorable.

But it’s not the case. It’s not the Twins and if the Yanks want World Series number 28 this season, they’ll have to do what good teams do: find ways to win.

Breathing Down Our Necks

The 2012 MLB season is just about three weeks away. Players are currently in camp fighting for roster spots, getting in shape, and preparing for what will be a summer-long grind.

29 teams have the mentality of, “let’s put a good team together and have a fun season.”

The Yankees on the other hand have the mentality of, “when camp breaks we need to win the division, win the pennant, and then win the World Series.”

Good logic.

And as usual, it won’t be easy. A number of teams have bettered themselves during the off-season, and will pose huge threats to the Yankees bringing title number 28 home to the Bronx in October. A few teams will be breathing down the Yankees’ neck and they need to keep a sharp eye on them.

The top five are…

The Rays

When the Tampa Bay Rays first entered the league, they were almost a laughingstock; a joke that always finished at the bottom of the AL East. But in 2008 they came out of nowhere, capturing the division over the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and then going on to win the AL pennant.

Since then, the Rays have been pests; a team that won’t go away, no matter how many times a knockout blow is delivered to them. Last year they swiped the AL Wild Card from underneath Boston’s nose, and have been to the playoffs three of the last four years.

On offense this season, Tampa Bay might be under the microscope, at least a little bit. The Rays didn’t re-sign Johnny Damon in the off-season, but signed Luke Scott – who hit just .220 last year – to supplant him. After a year with the Chicago Cubs, Carlos Pena is returning to the Rays – and he only averaged .225 at the dish in 2011.

One of the only true powerhouses the Rays have at the plate is Evan Longoria, who only batted .244 last year, yet clubbed 31 homers.

With their seemingly thin offense, one might get to thinking, why are the Rays such a threat?

The answer is their starting pitching.

Number one man James Shields went the distance last year, tossing 11 complete games to lead the league in that category. He also threw four shutouts to lead the league, winning 16 games along the way.

Behind him is the pride of Vanderbilt, southpaw David Price. Last year Price compiled a 12-13 record; not the best numerically, but he was an All-Star and was coming off a season in which he won 19 games. He did prove to be a workhorse despite his uneven record, logging 224.1 innings and making 34 starts, which led the league.

Behind the 1-2 punch of Shields and Price is a supporting cast of excellent arms. 24-year-old Jeremy Hellickson is the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. He threw 189 innings in ’11, won 13 games, and notched an ERA of 2.95.

Jeff Niemann won 11 games last year, as did Wade Davis, giving the Rays five pitchers with double digit wins.

If a team has that kind of efficiency out of their starting five, they are going to be very tough to beat.

The Red Sox

Boston seems to be in a little bit of a state of flux. This off-season was busy in Beantown, as they let go of revered manager Terry Francona and signed on the ever-colorful Bobby Valentine to be their skipper. They allowed closer Jonathan Papelbon to walk, as he took his flame-throwing arm to Philadelphia to be the Phillies’ closer.

Two of their big-ticket starters, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, have undergone Tommy John surgery. Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season and Dice-K will be out until at least June or July, leaving the Red Sox with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester as their top starters.

Other than Beckett and Lester, the Red Sox have a ton of questions marks as far as their rotation in concerned. How will Daniel Bard make the transition from the bullpen to the rotation? Is Clay Buchholz going to perform at a high level?

Will Felix Doubront be a factor? What about Alfredo Aceves, who has had back problems in the past?

The starting pitching is not the only part of the team under scrutiny. Boston signed Andrew Bailey to replace Papelbon in the closer role, and will insert former Yankee Mark Melancon into the setup spot, supplanting Bard.

How will Bailey handle closing in Boston as opposed to Oakland? Will Melancon rise to challenge of setting him up in close-game situations?

All of these questions won’t be answered until the season commences, but if the Red Sox score runs – and they are capable of scoring runs – it won’t be a problem. Although Boston got off to a horrendous start and a fatal finish, they still scored 875 runs, which was good enough to lead the majors in ‘11.

And they always seem to give the Yankees a hard time.

Last June Boston swept the Bombers in three games at Yankee Stadium, being led by Yankee killer David Ortiz. Big Papi smacked two homers in the series, and stirred up controversy when he flipped his bat in what many felt was a move to show up the Yanks.

Bottom line: Ortiz proved he still has it when it comes to making the Yankees’ lives miserable.

Along with Ortiz, 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia will undoubtedly be swinging a hot bat this year, as will All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who hit .338 last season with 27 homers and 117 RBIs.

Like the pitching, speedy left fielder Carl Crawford and butch third baseman Kevin Youkilis are question marks. Crawford is dealing with a wrist injury that many analysts say caused a decline in his numbers last year. Youkilis had season-ending thumb surgery last August.  

If Crawford and Youkilis come back – and return to form – the Yankees, and all American League pitchers for that matter, need to look out. These two sluggers have the potential to cause major problems for the Yankees when they are at 100%.

All things considered, the Red Sox will have a potent lineup. And no matter what anyone says, the Red Sox are always in the back of the Yankees’ minds. Always.

The Tigers

Last October the Detroit Tigers dashed the Yankees’ hopes and dreams of winning the World Series, eliminating the Bronx Bombers in five games in the ALDS. New York was forced to watch the Tigers celebrate on their soil, as the team from the Motor City proved to be too much for the Yankees to handle.

And it may have just gotten more difficult to beat them.

This off-season the Tigers signed power-hitting lefty Prince Fielder, who clobbered 38 home runs and drove in 120 runs last year. The hefty first baseman has twice averaged .299 at the plate (2009, 2011) and in 2007 Fielder led the National League in homers with 50.

It’s what you can expect from a big guy, but don’t let the size fool you.

Despite his heavy, 275-pound frame, Fielder is durable. He has played in all but one game since 2009, appearing in all 162 games in 2011 and 2009. He played in 161 games in 2010.

Fielder will join the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Delmon Young, two powerhouses who have already proven their worth in Detroit. Last season Cabrera led the league in doubles (48) and batting average (.344). Like Fielder he is also durable, as he appeared in 161 games in ’11.

Young dazzled in last year’s ALDS vs. the Yankees, punishing them with a .316 BA while clubbing three homers and posting a .789 slugging percentage. He collected six hits in the five game series and drew two walks, showing his worth when the stakes were high.

Detroit is obviously the front-runner to once again win the AL Central, and behind ace Justin Verlander – the reigning AL Cy Young winner and AL MVP – their chances of taking the central are high. The other teams in that division pose virtually no threat, and potentially the Yankees could face the Tigers in the ALDS again this year.

If a rematch is in the cards, the Yankees have to adjust accordingly. It didn’t work out for them in last year’s postseason.

The Rangers

It’s no secret that Texas is one of the prime teams to beat, as they have represented the American League in the World Series the past two years. The Rangers lost their number one starter C.J. Wilson to a division rival, the LA Angels, but something tells me it’s not going to matter. The Rangers’ pitching will still be top notch.

Colby Lewis won 14 games last year, as did Matt Harrison. If you were to ask manager Ron Washington, he would probably say both Harrison and Lewis possess the stuff to be number one aces.  Alexi Ogando went 13-8 last year with a 3.51 ERA and he’ll be another weapon in the Rangers’ rotation.

Throw Neftali Feliz and Yu Darvish into the mix, and you have quite a set of pitchers, although there are some questions surrounding Feliz and Darvish.

Feliz is making a transition from the bullpen to the rotation, so much like Bard in Boston, his performance depends on how well his stuff translates; how well he works being stretched out. If it goes well for him, and he throws as hard as he did working in the closer role, he’ll be a feared pitcher in the American League.

Like Feliz, Darvish is making a transition – but not from the bullpen. He’ll be making the switch from Japan to MLB. In his native country, Darvish was one of the finest and most revered pitchers. Last year alone Darvish struck out 276 batters over 232 innings of work, and won 18 games with a 1.44 ERA.

Those numbers can be deceitful, however.

Ask Matsuzaka, or Hideki Irabu, or Kei Igawa, or any pitcher who sparkled in Japan and fell apart here. Pitching in the states is much different than pitching in the Far East, so Darvish is basically going to be an enigma until we really see what he can do – and we won’t know what he can do until he logs some innings here in the good ol’ U.S.A.

As far as the Rangers’ offense goes, they won’t have many problems if Josh Hamilton stays healthy. Even if he spends time on the disabled list, they have plenty of power to make up for it. Mike Napoli, the Rangers’ catcher, smacked 30 homers and drove in 75 runs last year.

You know you’re going to be alright when you’re getting that kind of production out of the catcher spot.

Along with Hamilton and Napoli, there’s Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, and Michael Young – a perfect combination of veteran and youthful offense.

A message to the Yankees: when you’re in Texas, look behind you. ‘Cause that’s where the Rangers are going to be! (I couldn’t resist the cheesy/obscure Walker, Texas Ranger reference).

The Angels

In recent times the Angels have almost had the Yankees’ number, being the only team with a lifetime winning record against the Bronx Bombers. LA’s pesky hitting coupled with their stellar pitching are going to make the Halos one of the best teams in the league this season, if not the best.

And it starts with one of their gigantic off-season acquisitions.

The biggest, obviously, is first baseman Albert Pujols. The slugging 3-time NL MVP signed with the Angels on Dec. 8 – and, as if LA wasn’t hard enough to beat already, they just got that much more difficult; that much deeper.

Pujols adds a surefire power bat to the lineup that already includes scrappy, young hitters like Howard Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis, and Mark Trumbo. Former Yankee Bobby Abreu gives the Angels a veteran presence, as do outfielders Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells.

Last year LA scored 667 runs. Expect that number to go up in 2012.

Along with their strong offense, the Angels have stacked the deck as far as their pitching is concerned. As noted, the Halos snatched the Rangers’ ace C.J. Wilson over the winter, and he will join Dan Haren and Jered Weaver – who were both in double figures in the wins category last year. Haren notched 16 Ws while Weaver put up 18.

Ervin Santana sealed 11 wins last year with an ERA under four. If he does the same working in the back end of the Angels’ rotation this year, they are going to win a lot of games.

The Angels are pretty much the team that has it all; the complete package. If you were to ask me for my World Series pick, on paper, it would be the LA Angels.

But as Yankee Captain Derek Jeter always says, “on paper doesn’t win you ballgames.”

True. But the Angels look awfully dangerous, and have eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs twice, in 2002 and 2005. The last time the Yankees and Angels met in October (2009) the Yankees came out on top, beating the Halos in six games.   

They may need to do it again if they want to win number 28.

All is Quiet on the Yankee Front

“What a mix we have goin’ on for the last two innings.

 

Sitting alone upstairs, owner Gary Wheeler…reportedly has already sold his ball club, the Tigers, to the corporate group in the box to his left.

 

Now an unconfirmed report beginning to ripple the water…that the corporate’s first business…would be to trade Billy Chapel when the season is over.

 

So as so often happens in a ball game, there are so many other undercurrents; so many more things that meet the eye.” – Vin Scully in “For Love of the Game” (1999)

The biggest move the Yankees made last off-season was the signing of Rafael Soriano – and some might argue that it wasn’t even a big signing at all. Aside from that and maybe the minor acquisition of Russell Martin, the Yankees who are normally alive during the winter meetings were basically dormant.

The same can be said about this off-season, thus far.

Baseball’s winter meetings kicked off this past Monday in Dallas and there has not been much to report on as far as the Bronx Bombers are concerned. The Yankee brass has not yet signed or agreed to terms with any of the top free agents.

It doesn’t mean they haven’t tried however, winning the bidding to first negotiate with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. The 29-year-old middle infielder possesses a lifetime batting average .302 with 149 career home runs, 664 RBIs, and has stolen 134 bases in his career in the Far East.

How that will translate in the United States remains to be seen – as does whether or not the Yankees will sign him. Sources at the meetings said the Yankees may not even land him, despite winning the right to talk with him before any other team.

I mean really, what’s the point of signing him anyway? Unless they believe Nakajima is Derek Jeter’s heir, then why negotiate with him and attempt to sign him in the first place, especially when starting pitching is more vital to the Yankees than another infielder.

If they do sign him, it could mean the end of Eduardo Nunez’s Yankee tenure, one way or another. They could potentially package Nunez in a trade for a starter, then utilize Nakajima as a backup infielder.

Speaking of starting pitching, Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson are both off the market, as they have signed lucrative deals with the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Buehrle followed his former manager Ozzie Guillen to South Beach for a contract worth four years and $58 million.

Meanwhile Wilson left the Texas Rangers for the Angels, a division rival. I suppose five years and $77.5 million will make him a richer and happier man – along with having Albert Pujols as a new teammate.

Pujols is coming off statistically his worst season: 147 games played, 37 home runs, 99 RBIs, and a .299 batting average. He is probably the only player in baseball who could call that his worst season, because any average player would kill for that kind of “off year.”

Yet he recovered with a remarkable postseason; five homers, 16 RBIs, .356 BA, and his second World Series ring. And after all that, “Phat Albert” took his talents to the west coast.

It surprised me, considering Pujols is basically the face of the Cardinals’ organization. He will probably be considered a legend in St. Louis for years to come, despite his abrupt and rather unceremonious departure. He now has the opportunity to make himself a legendary name in Anaheim.

Remember: Reggie Jackson’s number is retired in both New York and Oakland.

But I digress; back to the subject at hand: the Yankees and starting pitching. They may have lost out on Buehrle and Wilson but the Bombers may have one last chance to make a splash and sign a big ticket free agent starter:

Yu Darvish.

The 25-year-old phenom holds a professional record of 93-38 with an ERA of 1.99, and has collected several accolades in Japan including the Pacific League MVP twice (’07, ’09).

Last year I interviewed Brian Sweeney, a former Seattle Mariners reliever who played with Darvish in Japan on the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Sweeney called Darvish “a classy individual” and “an excellent player.”

Any team could always use a classy and excellent player. He’ll most likely fit in wherever he lands.

ESPN insider Buster Olney reported earlier today that the Yankees feel “lukewarm” about bidding on Darvish. Rightfully so, considering the Yankees have had bad luck with highly-regarded Japanese starting pitchers in the past.

Hideki Irabu was thought to be a one of the best hurlers in the Far East, having led the Pacific League in wins (15) in 1994 and ERA in 1995 (2.53) and 1996 (2.40). He also led the PL in strikeouts in 1995 and 1996 (239 in ‘95 and 167 in ‘96).

Those league-leading numbers didn’t help him when he went 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in the U.S. – and those nice stats were far from everyone’s mind when then-Yankee owner George Steinbrenner called Irabu a “Fat, p***y toad.”

Ouch.

Kei Igawa was another pitcher the Yanks had on their radar and eventually signed for five years and $20 million. They had such high aspirations for him, taking his numbers in Japan into account: 86-60, a 3.14 ERA, and 1,174 Ks.

His overall numbers at the MLB level in the U.S., dating back to when the Yanks signed him prior to 2007: 2-4, 6.66 ERA and just 53 strikeouts.

Igawa obviously did not turn out to be what the Yankees had hoped for. In the eyes of most Yankee fans, the team spent $20 million for two wins and a minor league starter.

That being said, anyone can understand the Yanks’ reluctance to go after another Japanese starter in Darvish. If the Bombers do go after him and he happens to land in the Bronx he will be expected to accomplish a lot. Maybe not 20 wins in his first season, but a convincing winning record and a low ERA are not out of the question.

And that can be said of whatever team he goes to, not just if he goes to the Yanks.

We probably won’t know for a long time where Darvish will go – and we’ll have to wait even longer to find out if he lives up to the hype.

I don’t usually agree with people associated with the Red Sox – very rarely does that ever happen. But Boston manager-turned-baseball analyst Terry Francona said probably the smartest thing an analyst can say about the winners and losers of the winter meetings:

“Winning the winter meetings doesn’t mean winning the pennant.”

Francona should know that better than anyone. Looking at last year, the Red Sox won big at the winter meetings and didn’t even make the postseason, suffering a gigantic September collapse.

The Red Sox spent a fortune and signed big ticket free agent after big ticket free agent, only to choke worse than Mama Cass did on that…ham sandwich.

Bottom line: on paper does not win ballgames. I hope the Angels and Marlins both understand that.

As for the Yankees: they have a chance to make a splash – and even a chance to make a blockbuster trade – before they head to Spring Training.

But at least for now, like last year, all is quiet on the Yankee front.

Believe: An Interview With Seattle Mariners’ Reliever Brian Sweeney

 

Brian Sweeney and I graduated from the same college!

 

Believe. It’s a motto Seattle Mariners’ reliever Brian Sweeney goes by. Believe in yourself, believe in God, just believe and you will be fine.

 

On July 1, Sweeney, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., pitched at Yankee Stadium; a scoreless, 1-2-3 inning in which he got Ramiro Pena, Brett Gardner, and Derek Jeter out. He later went on to face the Yanks on July 11 in Seattle and got the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher out. At press time, Sweeney is 1-1 with a 3.68 ERA.

 

But his story begins long before facing the Bronx Bombers. Sweeney recently talked to Yankee Yapping about his journey through baseball, where he learned his knee-buckling changeup, and how he was punk’d the night before he was called up to the big leagues.

 

Yankee Yapping: You started at Archbishop Stepinac High School, and then moved on to Mercy College. Could you describe what it was like to pitch for the Flyers (now known as the Mavericks) and what did you major in while you were there?

 

Brian Sweeney: Pitching for Mercy was an incredible learning experience.  I learned about hard work, dedication and how important it was to not give in, no matter what the circumstance.  

 

Our records each season were not very good but it was not for lack of effort. I learned how to lose which is an important aspect in my professional life.  

 

Learning how to lose helped me want to win more!

 

We lost off the field as well, because our assistant coach passed away in a car accident my freshman year. I also learned my changeup from my head coach at Mercy that I still use today.

My major was biology. 

 

 

 

Mercy alumn can go on to do great things..hope I fall into that category. 

 

YY: Growing up, was there any specific team or player you looked up to?

 

BS: I was a Yankee fan growing up and my idol was Don Mattingly.

 

 

 

YY: You made your MLB debut for the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 16, 2003. What was your initial reaction when you got the call to the show?

 

BS: There was an unbelievable feeling of satisfaction. I knew from when I was four years old that I wanted to be a professional baseball player. Granted I wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees, but after seven years of work in the minor leagues, I have finally accomplished my goal of getting to the big leagues.  

 

People spend seven years in school to become doctors and lawyers, but I would certainly say my schooling helped me become a big league baseball player.

 

 

 

YY: After you spent a year with the Mariners, you went to San Diego to pitch for the Padres. What was the move like, going from the American League to the National League?

 

BS: The move wasn’t a big deal, except I wanted to stay with the Mariners my whole career. They brought me up and I wanted to pay dividends for them. I guess I can do that now that I’m back in Seattle. Both San Diego and Seattle are classy organizations. I only wish they were closer to home for me and my family, though!

 

 

Brian pitched for the Padres in 2004 

 

 

YY: On May 7, 2006, you earned your first career save in a 6-3 Padres’ victory over the Chicago Cubs. As a relief pitcher, how did that feel and would you rather have a win or a save?

 

BS: It was a pretty cool experience considering our closer was Trevor Hoffman. He had pitched, like, five days in a row and he had the day off so they put me in the closer role that day.  Everybody in the stands expected Hoffy to run out of the bullpen, but they got me that day.  

 

All things winning are good, so I prefer both.

 

 

 


The drills are different in Japan 

 

YY: At the end of ’06 you made your way to Japan and pitched for the Nippon-Ham Fighters. The story in the Journal News said, “You could go on all day about the differences between pitching in Japan and the United States.” Is there anything that you miss about Japan, now that you’re back in the States?

 

BS: I miss some of the drills that were conducted over there. For instance, they would put the pitchers at shortstop and it really was a great workout. I also miss some of my teammates. I played with Yu Darvish, who is an excellent player and a classy individual. Overall, it was a lot of fun to play in Japan.

 

I would also say I miss the food there. It was tremendous!

 

 

 

YY: This past April you came back, signed a deal with the Mariners, and then you were sent to the minors. Exactly two months later you were back in the majors. How did it feel to be back, considering you went right back to where you started (in Seattle) Was it a kind of homecoming for you? How happy were your teammates for you?

 

BS:  It felt like I was in a time machine. All I could say was, “Where am I?”

 

Coming back and getting called up was satisfying, especially since I was able to go back to the Mariners–the team that bred me for seven years. It was like a homecoming, but I also had to get to know a lot of my teammates.

 

The only one I really knew from my first stint with the Mariners was Ichiro. It was fun to catch up with him and we talked a lot about Japan. It was a learning process to get to know the rest of the players. It took some time, but I got to know them all.

 

 

 

Believe. 

 

YY:  Recently on July 1, you pitched at Yankee Stadium–a scoreless, 1-2-3 7th inning in which you got Ramiro Pena, Brett Gardner, and the legendary Derek Jeter out.

 

Your family was there, holding signs that read “believe” on them. Could you maybe give me the story behind that, and what did it feel like to be pitching at Yankee Stadium against its most beloved player? Did you change your pitching approach when Jeter stepped into the box?

 

BS: Believe is a word my children use (they are 11 and 6). It’s a strong word that means a lot and it pays dividends over time; believe in yourself, believe in God. My family jumped on that. They made signs that read “Believe” on them and it was meaningful to me that they did that.

 

I later found out that the Mariners’ team expression is “Believe Big.” It’s just a positive word.

 

As for Jeter…

 

I did the same thing with him that I did with the other hitters; same approach. Obviously he is one of the most celebrated ballplayers on the Yankees and he was a nice challenge.

 

The only thing that was different about him was that he took a long time to get into the batter’s box. I wish he had gotten into the box a little faster! Maybe he was trying to slow me down? It could just be his routine.

 

 


On July 1, Brian pitched against Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium 

 

 

YY: At the moment your career record is 4-1. Of those four wins, which one would you say (if you can) was the most memorable, or rewarding?

 

BS: My first win was certainly the most rewarding. On June 29, 2004, San Diego needed a starter to face the Arizona Diamondbacks–and not just the D’Backs, but Randy Johnson.

 

Johnson had 3,992 career strikeouts and was going for 4,000. In that game, he got to 4,000 and I was two of them; I had to hit against him because it’s the N.L. We did however win the game 3-2 and it was a great feeling.

 

The next day I actually met Randy and talked to him, which also made it memorable.

 

 

 

YY: What’s the best story you have from being an MLB pitcher? When I interviewed John Flaherty (a former MLB catcher) he said he was hung over the day he was called up to the majors. Do you have a story like that?

 

BS: Oh brother! I know John very well and it’s pretty funny that he was hung over when he was called up! I have a story like that…

 

The night before I was called up I was out with a longtime roommate of mine. We had a few beers and then Jim Slaton, one of the coaches said, “I’m fired because the team isn’t pitching well.” I didn’t take it very well and had some choice words.

 

Finally he stopped me and said, “Just kidding. You’re going to the big leagues tomorrow.” I practically passed out; all the work I put in had finally paid off.

 

I was so happy, but I couldn’t get in touch with my dad right away because of the massive blackout that hit the east coast in the summer of 2003. I wanted my dad to be the first to know, because he was and still is a huge part of my success.

Yu Darvish a Yankee? Yu Betcha!

This was a boring weekend, I’m not going to lie. This was really the first weekend without baseball that really sank in; I mean we had the parade last week, but this weekend there was really nothing, especially with my scuffling New York Football Giants on their bye week.

 

So I have basically been looking around at free agents and top prospects for the last 48 hours, as you might have seen from my last blog about Aroldis Chapman

 

Another name caught my eye and like Chapman, may or may not be a good fit in pinstripes. I guess it all depends on what he wants to do and the decisions he makes.

 

This prospective major leaguer’s name is Yu Darvish.

 

Yu Darvish a Yankee? I hope so! 

 

Darvish is a 23 year-old right hander from Osaka, Japan and has played his entire career in the Far East. And so far he has been very impressive, posting a lifetime record of 61-22 with a 2.14 ERA in the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan.

 

Pretty good record and ERA if I do say so myself, especially considering Darvish has only been a pro since 2005.

 

Not only that, but he has been scouted since junior high school; different schools wanted Darvish before he even reached the high school level and he opted to go to Tohoku High School, the same school that produced major leaguers Kazuhiro Sasaki (formerly of the Seattle Mariners) and Takashi Saito (currently of the Red Sox)

 

After high school (where he shined by the way, posting a career ERA of 1.10 with 375 strikeouts in 332 1/3 innings) he was drafted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

 

And with the Fighters he has been so good, he has earned two All-Star selections, the 2007 Pacific League Most Valuable Player award, and proving he can field his position, he has won two Golden Glove Awards (the equivalent of our Gold Glove award)

 

Obviously he has got game.

 

In terms of pitch selection, Darvish features a fastball that has maxed out at 98 mph, a hard slider with table-dropping break, a curve ball, a fork ball, a cutter, and a changeup. Darvish’s go-to pitch is his sinker and he has also tried out a knuckleball, but does not utilize it on a consistent basis.

 

 


Yu Darvish has pitched in Japan his whole life 

Talk about having a vast arsenal of weapons. I guess most Japanese pitchers do, though; before Daisuke Matsuzaka came to this country none of us knew what a gyro ball was!  

 

It depends on what Darvish wants to do; he has been scouted by MLB teams before, even when he was in high school. The Angels, Mets, Dodgers, and Braves have all tried to get him. He just felt his allegiance should stay in Japan, so he opted to stay there.

 

But I’ve been hearing some rumors about him coming over to the U.S. and if and when he does, should the Yankees take a look at him or try and get him?

 

It looks worth it. I mean with Chapman it’s different; he is good, but no one really knows a lot about him except that he has defected from Cuba, wants to pitch for MLB, and throws hard. With Darvish they have a variety of (really good) numbers to look at along with a five-year career in Japan.

 

Like I said, it’s only a matter of his choice–does he want to pitch here or stay in Japan?

 

Kei Igawa was not what the Yankees hoped for. 

 

He is much different than the other pitchers the Yankees have gotten from Japan in the past; I think he would be a lot better than Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa. I think he already is, actually; neither Irabu nor Igawa were as big as Darvish currently is in their home country. Darvish is a spokesperson for coffee over there!

 

And…well…at least I’m certain Darvish wouldn’t get called a “fat toad” by the Yankees’ owner, as Irabu did, or be in the minor leagues as Igawa is right now.

 

Hideki Irabu was called a fat toad by George Steinbrenner 

 

Not to mention he has at least had some experience pitching against hitters from the United States. In the World Baseball Classic this year, Darvish tossed a scoreless inning in the semi-final game vs. the U.S., allowing no runs on a single and striking out two batters en route to Japan’s 9-4 win over the U.S.

 

It may not be much experience against U.S. batters, but it’s something.  

 

Darvish just has all the history and accolades already in place; great numbers throughout his career and multiple honors, unlike many other Japan-born hurlers. I know Japanese pitchers have not been very kind to the Yanks in the past, but this time would be different, if it even happens.

 

Would I accept Darvish as a Yankee? Yu betcha!     

 

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