The Final Stretch

Today is a weather day where I can believe Opening Day is right around the corner. In eleven days, the Yankees open their season on what will probably be a 25-degree and snowy day in the Bronx. But let’s put aside our discussion of the weather and look at the decisions left for the Yankees to make roster-wise

1- Who is the fifth starter? When camp opened it seemed that Chris Capuano would win by default. His injury opened up a competition and it looks like Adam Warren has won it. I expect he will be given the job in the next few days.

2- What does the rest of the bullpen look like? We knew Betances, Miller, Carpenter and Wilson were locks coming into camp, but the last three spots were up in the air. Based on spring numbers, Esmil Rogers and Chase Whitley, both stretched out as starters, would seem to have an edge. Beyond that, the seventh spot seems up in the air. Chris Martin has been up and down. Chasen Shreve has too. Too close to call.

3- Who is the backup catcher? Austin Romine hasn’t hit, either has John Ryan Murphy. Romine has to either make the team, or be exposed to waivers, so I think he might make it.

4- What about the bench? With A-Rod looking like the probable DH the bench has four spots left. One goes to Murphy or Romine. Garret Jones and Chris Young were locks from the start. The only intrigue was the potential for Jose Pirela to sneak onto the roster, and that seems to have ended with his concussion. Brendan Ryan should make the team in his place.

That’s it, barring injury we know 24-out-of-25 Yankees who will break camp in 11 days.

The End of an Era

While I freely admit to not caring about the All-Star Game for years, and hating the home field advantage component of it, the news that MLB is getting rid of paper All-Star ballots makes me nostalgic.

I get it, we don’t need them. We can vote online and save trees. (Though no one ever seems to account for the electricity we use to get online in that statement.) It’s less messy, etc.. But there was something remarkably simple and satisfying about walking into a ballpark in May or June and in-between innings punching some holes next to your favorite players’ names. Even better, if you were at the game with a buddy, you could have an informal debate right there about why player x was a much better choice than player y.

I will adjust, but there are limits to how much technology I am willing to accept in baseball.

Why Not Try It?

The Yankees had been expected to try Alex Rodriguez at first base this spring, but apparently have backed off that idea. I don’t get it.Yes, the only way Alex Rodriguez makes this team is if he hits. And yes, the Yankees don’t want to use him at first, but isn’t positional flexibility a good thing?

The Yankees keep trying to find a guy who can play every position on the field. Don’t get me wrong, that person would be a bonus, but that person isn’t easy to find. But with a four-man bench, and if you carry 13 pitchers that’s what you have, you need guys who can cover more than one spot.

For the Yankees, that is even more important as Mark Teixeira last played 150 games in 2011. And while his wrist injury caused him to miss most of 2013, he is also prone to smaller, non-DL type injuries that leave him out of the lineup for five to seven days. Now the Yankees brought in Garrett Jones for those eventualities, but wouldn’t it be nice to have more backup?

Again, Alex’s place on this team is as a hitter, anything his glove does is a bonus. But if (when?) Teixeira gets hurt, the Yankees will want options. Spring training is the perfect time to give Alex a bunch of games at first and see what happens. Maybe he can handle it, maybe he can’t. What’s the harm in finding out?

Loud Panda

Newest Red Sox, Pablo Sandoval, has been in a war of words with the San Francisco Giants and frankly I’d like him to shut his gob.

For some reason he felt the need to make his criticisms personal by basically telling all his former teammates and his coaches, save for Bruce Bochy and Hunter Pence, that he missed none of them.  Nice Pablo, nice.  You really seem like a good guy.

When someone calls out 23 other players, and however many coaches, well that worries me.  The Red Sox signed him up for how many years?

Sandoval’s former teammate, Aubrey Huff, he of the suspiciously timed boffo seasons (seriously, take a look), fired back at him, kinda like I am now.   Naturally, Sandoval didn’t appreciate the feedback and went off on another juvenile rant.  It’s spring training Pablo, take it easy man.  It’s a long season and don’t forget you are really rich and play baseball for a living.  You should be happy.

All of this makes me really worried about the 2015 team dynamics.  I thought Hanley Ramirez was going to be the problem child given his reputation, but it turns out Pablo might be instead. I’d like to think veteran players like David Ortiz or Dustin Pedroia could talk to Pablo and have him cool his act, but given the rhetoric of the past few days, I’m not sure what to expect.  If Pablo really is this immature and this big a clubhouse problem then the Red Sox might have a major problem on their hands.

Oh, and here’s a prediction, Christian Vasquez will be the best catcher at stopping stolen bases this year, percentage-wise.

Hamels?

Here’s a rumor that has me scratching my head, the Yankees have apparently come closest to meeting the Phillies’ asking price for Cole Hamels. Nothing against Cole Hamels, but I don’t get it. Yes, he is a wonderful pitcher, but he is 31, and costs about $100-million for the next four seasons. If the Yankees were a clear playoff contender, I would get it, but at this point it seems like a foolish move.

I’m not saying the season is lost, but there are a lot of things that need to go well for the Yankees to make the playoffs. In no particular order- Tanaka’s elbow must hold up, Ellsbury and McCann have to live up to their paychecks, Beltran and Teixeira need to contribute more than they did in 2014, Nova needs to make it back, Pineda needs to continue to develop, and Gregorius must prove to be a regular shortstop. I think a lot of those things could happen, but I am not willing to mortgage a significant part of the future for Hamels until I know for sure. And if most of them don’t happen, the Yankees are going to be in trouble.

Maybe this is simply a case of the Yankees checking in with Philadelphia and making sure that they don’t trade Hamels to Boston for a low price. That would make more sense. But for now, Hamels in pinstripes shouldn’t happen.

There Should Be Another Captain

Brian Cashman said on the radio today that Derek Jeter should be the last caption of the Yankees. Jeter was a wonderful Yankee, but the idea of ending the captaincy with him perversely taints the legacy of two other wonderful Yankees- Lou Gehrig and Thurman Munson.

If ever there was a time to end the idea of a Yankee captaincy, it was with the death of either of those two players. In fact, Munson, was the first captain of the Yankees named after Gehrig’s death in 1941. When Munson subsequently died in 1979, the Yankees waited a few years before naming Greg Nettles captain. Willie Randolph and Ron Guidry followed and then Don Mattingly. When Mattingly retired at the end of 1995, the Yankees waited until 2000 to tab Jeter.

The fact that the captaincy went on and thrived after both Gehrig and Munson’s shows that there should be another captain. Not today, maybe not in five years, but at some point. Some day another player will come along who is worthy of the title and the Yankees should bestow it on him.

Cuban Relations

Many sources are reporting that the Red Sox have signed the latest Cuba amateur player offering his services to the highest bidder.  19-year old Yoan Moncada, an infielder, was highly sought after and one NL Scout, per ESPN’s reporting, told Jerry Crasnick that Moncada would go 1/1 if the draft were held today.  And a report says he immediately becomes the best Red Sox prospect and number 10 overall in baseball per Baseball America.  Wow, that is good to hear for Red Sox fans.  Reports are that it is a $30m deal minor league deal meaning he’ll start the season in the minors.

What is interesting is that Moncada plays SS and the Red Sox have their infield set with Napoli at first, Pedroia at second, Sandoval at third and Bogaerts at SS.  Where will they play him, even if he does start the year in the minors?  It is with some sadness that I say if you made me decide today, I’d have to strongly consider moving Dustin Pedroia.  Now I realize it is never wise to bet against him as he has always overcome doubters but the fact is he has declined offensively 4 years running with his OPS dropping from .861 in 2011 to a .713 last season.  His contract is relatively modest and could probably be moved without too much trouble.  He is 31 and at his own admission has been injured for the past 2 seasons, but he is also quick to point out he has never felt better.

At some point, Ben Cherington will have to make a few difficult decisions to free up the logjam both in the infield and in the outfield.  These are good problems to have mind you but as a player, it might be an anxious time trying to figure out where the playing time might come.

A-Rod Gets it Right

I don’t know if this was A-Rod acting on his own, or someone told him to do it, but issuing a handwritten apology for his actions was the smartest thing he has done pr-wise ever.

There was zero upside to some sort of press conference to discuss what happened over the past few years. First of all, would anyone believe what he had to say ? Second, what answers would he have been prepared to give?  I hope Alex takes a page from Mark McGwire when the cameras do reach him and tells everyone, “I am not here to talk about the past”.

Some will say A-Rod didn’t need to apologize to the fans. I disagree with that. He played all of us for fools. He proclaimed his innocence, attacked his accusers and tried to create the case that he was getting railroaded by MLB. I think the sentence he wrote about how he, “made the situation worse than it had to be”, captures what happened perfectly. I commend him for apologizing for that.

But an apology doesn’t excuse his behavior. Alex cheated and lied. He tried to manipulate lots of people involved in this sordid saga. There have been plenty of worse crimes committed, but that is a not a person I want to root for. I will still cheer for the Yankees as vociferously as I have in the past, but I will also be very happy when Alex, and all the drama that goes along with him, is no longer a part of the equation.

 

The Value of Prospects

Rob Neyer nailed something I have been struggling with for awhile- the value of prospects. Neyer makes two really great points.

1- It’s not that prospects in general are overrated, it’s that it is very hard to identify the ones that will succeed. His example of the 2011 evaluation of the Royals’ system by Baseball America is perfect.

2- There is no real system for checking or evaluating the ratings. Nobody goes back and grades the prospect reports. (Take a look back at NFL draft evaluations from year’s past sometime if you want a good laugh. They are generally terrible.)

Again, I am not arguing that prospects are overrated as a group. But teams are increasingly treating prospect development as a scientific fact when it is much more like a lottery. More prospects will end up as fringe guys, get hurt, or wash out, than truly develop into stars. For another example, take a look at the 2009 top-10 prospects for Tampa.

David Price is the top guy. No shock as he was coming off a great postseason and he certainly is one of the best pitchers in the game so I can’t really credit a lot of insight in this ranking, but then work down the list.

Tim Beckham is still young, but he hasn’t hit in years and he looks like a fringe guy at best.

Wade Davis became a very good bullpen arm in KC, but he was projected to be a top starter.

Reid Brignac is a fringe player at best.

Demond Jennings looks to be an average ML-er. Nothing more, but probably nothing less. Certainly not the replacement for Carl Crawford they thought he was.

Matt Moore was very good, but got hurt and had TJ surgery.

Nick Barense never made the majors and was in independent ball last year.

Hellickson started really well in the bigs, but he has regressed the past two years to below-average.

McGee was a very good closer for the Rays this past year.

Niemann’s career was derailed by injuries.

So we have one bonafide All-Star,  three fringe All-Stars (Davis, Moore and McGee) two possibly useful ML’er in Jennings and Hellickson, two guys who are fringy at best, and two guys essentially out of the game. That’s not bad, but remember this was essentially the best system in the game when this was published.

If you had gone to Tampa as Cleveland in 2008 and asked for the #2,#3,#4 and #7 guys in the system for CC Sabathia, you would have been laughed out of the room. Yet, that trade might have won the World Series for Tampa at almost zero future cost. In fact, if you look back at the Sabathia trade that was made, Cleveland came very close to missing out entirely without the benefit of some luck.

What this underlines to me is that prospects are fun to dream about, but you have to be very smart in how you use them. If your team is a clear contender, trading prospects for surer things is a smart move. If you are in sell mode, by all means trade for prospects, but remember that there is a lottery aspect to this. Teams seem to be hoarding them more than ever before, the smart GM’s will use that to their advantage.

 

A Good Offseason

With James Shields now heading to the Padres, I think we can declare the Yankees offseason is over. They could always bring in another guy on a minor league deal, but the heavy lifting is certainly complete. Let’s review the results.

The Yankees did a lot of good things this offseason, but I wonder if we will think about it more in the future for what they didn’t do? They didn’t make another huge bet in free agency. They certain weren’t parsimonious, they gave Chase Headley and Andrew Miller contracts that total over $80-million combined, but they were careful. Nobody received more than $13-million a year. Nobody received more than a four-year commitment. For the Yankees, this equals frugal.

They also got younger. Not incredibly so, but about as much as they could given the commitments they have made in years past. Didi Gregorious will only be 25 when the season starts. The hoped-for rotation in May of Tanaka, Pineda, Sabathia, Eovaldi and Nova would have four guys in their 20’s with Sabathia as the grey beard at 35. The bullpen will probably only have guys in their 20’s when the season starts. What will the end result be? Your guess is a good as mine. I can make a case for them finishing first, and I can make a case for them finishing last. Let’s get through March and then assess where the team might end up.

For now, I think we can be cautiously optimistic that the Yankees are trying a new way of building a roster. There are some real benefits to that, but there will be hiccups along the way. The next two seasons will be some of the most interesting ones we have seen in a long time. Prospects are coming and the Yankees will have some tough choices to make with sunk costs like Sabathia, Teixeira, and you know who. How long do they run they out there based on their salaries and at what point do they simply move on?  As a fan, I am very excited to see it all unfold.