Five Months

Sometimes life seems to fly by. But sometimes, things can slow to a crawl. It’s hard for me to believe that it was only a little over five months ago that I was sitting at Yankee Stadium hoping to see the Yankees extend the ALCS. They did, but that was the last home game of the year.

Now, I am headed up to The Stadium again hoping to see the first win of the year. One of the indelible truths of life is that each baseball season finds us a little bit more mortal than the last. When I started watching this game, there were players born in the 1930′s playing and guys born in the 1960′s just starting to populate the minors. Now, I look at the Yankees roster and other than Mo, the 1960′s are a thing of the past.

But that’s the beauty of baseball and of Opening Day. It is a time for renewal. It is a time when everyone feels younger than they are and every team is a pennant contender. It is a time to look ahead to the future and not be burdened by the past. It is a time for hope and a time to shake off the doldrums of the winter. 162 games await- Play Ball!

The Crystal Ball

As anyone who has seen my NCAA bracket knows, I would not put money on any of the following. But, just for fun, I figured I would take another crack at predicting the future of MLB this season. Last year, I predicted only three playoff teams and made some major mistakes, like picking the Rangers for last in the AL West, so you have been warned!

AL East

1- Boston I am going with the crowd on this one, but I still have a number of doubts about their starting pitching. Still, the offense will be more than enough to get them to October.

2- Yankees The funny thing about baseball is how often we forget how long the season is. On July 8th of 2010, everyone in New York was printing World Series tickets and wondering why Cliff Lee was even necessary. That team stumbled home, barely above .500 in the second half. I think this year’s club reverses that pattern with a mediocre first half and a great second half spurred on by a big trade. (See below)

3- Baltimore I like Buck Showalter and I am convinced the second half revival he produced in Baltimore wasn’t a fluke. They will finish above .500 and give fans a reason to see that beautiful ballpark again.

4- Tampa Free agency gutted them, especially in the bullpen. But, they have a lot of great pieces and will be very dangerous again in 2012

5- Toronto I bet the Blue Jays would finish third in most of the other divisions in baseball. That’s how deep the AL East is.

AL Central

1- Minnesota Think of what they accomplished last year without Morneau for a big chunk of the year and without Nathan for all of it.

2- Chicago I think they are just a step behind the Twins and a step ahead of the Tigers in what should be a three-way battle to the end.

3- Detroit See above, but some other predictions. Cabrera has a big year as does Jackson, but Coke flops in the rotation.

4- Kansas City They are starting to put it together but not yet.

5- Cleveland I don’t see a lot a happiness in Cleveland this year.

AL West

1- Oakland Love the rotation and I bet guys like Willingham and Matsui do enough offensively to get the club to the playoffs.

2- Anaheim Mike Scioscia is a great manager and I bet he gets this club to bounce back.

3- Texas The toughest thing to do is repeat as anything in sports and no one will be surprised by Texas this year.

4- Seattle They just don’t have enough pieces to compete and that will lead to a huge trade at the deadline- Felix Hernandez to the Yankees for Montero, Banuelos, Nunez and David Phelps.

NL East

1- Atlanta Yup, picking against the pitching of the Phillies may be dumb, but I think Atlanta has put together a nice team with some very good pitching of their own.

2- Phillies You didn’t expect me to go lower than 2nd with them did you?

3- Washington I know the big guy won’t be back until 2012, but I think they have some nice young pieces. Plus, Jason Werth will certainly help (though that is still a terrible deal)

4- Florida Watch out for Mike Stanton, I could see him having a huge year. The problem is, besides Stanton, Ramirez and Johnson who is going to step up?

5- NY Mets This one gives me no joy, but this team is in trouble. Huge problems off the field and not a lot of reasons to feel hope on it. I am afraid a fire sale will take place at the deadline as the Wilpons try and keep financially afloat.

NL Central

1- Cincinnati It won’t be the days of the Big Red Machine, but the injury to Wainwright opens the door in the Central for them.

2- St Louis As mentioned above, losing Wainwright will cost them the division. A tough last season in St. Louis for Pujols

3- Milwaukee I could pick them for any of the first three spots, but I have my doubts about some of their players repeating their strong 2010 campaigns.

4- Chicago Anohter season of futility on the North Side, but hope will come in November when they land the big kahuna- Pujols as a free agent.

5- Pittsburgh Still bad, but getting better. Then again, this will mark their 19th-straight season below .500. It’s a shame because they have a wonderful ballpark.

6- Houston I think the Astros are the worst team in baseball this year.

NL West

1- Giants No reason not to pick them with that pitching staff.

2- Colorado They will be hunting for “Roctober” again in Denver.

3- Los Angeles Tough first year for Donnie Baseball as the Dodgers barely scrape out a .500 record.

4- Arizona I bet Justin Upton has a monster year and Juan Miranda doesn’t disappoint either.

5- San Diego How’s this for a bait and switch- get your fans to renew their season tickets and then trade your best player? San Diego won’t have the chance to pull that trick at the end of this season.

Playoffs

In the AL I predict the Yankees earn the wild card and face Minnesota in the first round which they win. Oakland beats Boston in the other ALDS, setting up Oakland and New York in the ALCS. New York has two aces with CC and Felix, but just like last year, they fall to an AL West opponent in six games.

In the NL I predict the Phillies earn the wild card and knock the Reds out in the NLDS while San Fran outlasts Atlanta to setup a NLCS rematch. This time, the Phillies prevail and make their 3rd World Series in the last 4 years where they steamroll the youthful A’s 4 games to 1.

Almost all of the above won’t come true, but that’s the prediction business. What are your guesses for 2011?

Backup Plans

From reading the morning paper, I have deduced that the Yankees will scour the waiver wires in the next 48 hours to try and find a backup catcher. If that effort is unsuccessful, they will then anoint Gustavo Molina as their backup. In the scheme of things, that isn’t a huge deal. Cervelli will heal up and return and the Yankees will keep going. What I can’t figure out is why they won’t use Jorge Posada as their backup?

You may remember Jorge. He has caught over 1,500 games for the Yankees, a fact they seem to have forgotten. I am not saying that Jorge is currently, or ever was, a great defensive catcher, but the guy can still hit- something Gustavo Molina has never been able to do. Wouldn’t it be better for the Yankees to put Posada in the backup role and use Chavez as the DH for the first few weeks of the year?

I can’t come up with a good answer to that question, other than pure speculation. I would guess that the Yankees and Jorge Posada are far more worried about his concussion history than they have let on.
That’s why he has been designated as an emergency only catcher. If that is indeed the reason, I don’t understand why the Yankees just aren’t up front about it.

We Almost Have A Roster

LoHud is reporting the Yankees have optioned Montero and Pena to AAA and Romine to AA while signing Eric Chavez. That means the Yankee bench will be Jones, Nunez, Chavez and Molina. It’s disappointing that Montero didn’t do well enough to earn a spot, but he is only 20. The only remaining question is will Curtis Granderson be healthy enough to start the season?

It also sounds like Steve Garrison will open the season with the club because Pedro Feliciano is going on the DL. It seems like Garrison is more of a default choice because he is on the 40-man roster and the Yankees need to do some tinkering with that to get Colon, Chavez, Molina and Garcia on it. They have two open spots and they are trading Romulo Sanchez somewhere which opens a third. I would assume the fourth spot will be created by putting Damaso Marte on the 60-day DL. Personally, I would have released Reggie Corona and given Mark Prior the bullpen spot. He isn’t a lefty, but he certainly knows how to pitch in the bigs and 11 K’s in seven innings this spring is a good sign. For now, it sounds like he will stay in extended spring training.

Mixed Results

Spring Training has been a mixed bag for the Red Sox.

The good:
– Adrian Gonzalez is healthy and hit his first home run of the spring on Saturday.

– The overall health of the team including guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Josh Beckett.

– No major controversies.

The Bad:
– Although healthy, Beckett has been terrible. Dreadful. He has posted a 6.64 era but claims to feel terrific. Terrific if he is going to be a batting practice pitcher.

– Jonathan Papelbon has been equally dreadful. His 10.50 era is disturbing but if you look at the results, he has been either lights out or bad. Nothing in between. In addition, he has pitched some minor league games this spring and I’m not sure if those are factored into his 10.50 era or not.

– Many of the regulars have hit poorly in the spring. Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford, David Ortiz and JD Drew have paltry slugging percentages this spring. The team as a whole seemed to lack power.

Spring stats don’t mean much usually, but they do cause concern, at least to the psyche.

We are really close to opening day and the only puzzle pieces left are the middle relievers. It is coming down to Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes, Hideki Okajima and Alfredo Aceves. I think Aceves and Okajima have options left, so you might seen them get demoted and either Albers or Reyes get dealt with the other making the team.

Pitching will be the key this year, as always, but if Beckett struggles this could be a hugely disappointing season.

Our Long National Nightmare Is Over

Sergio Mitre is a Brewer! Who did that Yankees get for him? Who cares!

Actually, it was Chris Dickerson, an outfielder who put together parts of two solid seasons with the Reds and then fell apart last year. He can play all over the outfield and run a bit, so let’s call him a better version of Greg Golson.

That’s enough for me to call this trade a win.

“Help” Is On The Way!

Jon Heyman is reporting that the Yankees are close to signing Kevin Millwood to “an incentive-laden” minor league contract.

I can’t get too upset because it is a minor league deal, which means no harm is done if he doesn’t leave the minor leagues, but the idea that someone thinks Millwood could help scares me. The Yankees should have seen enough of him last year when he went 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA in Baltimore to know better.

Now I imagine the Yankee decision makes would point to his .320 BABIP last year and compare it to the .275 he had in 2009 when he put up a 3.67 ERA with roughly the same peripheral stats as evidence he could bounce back. But, he is also 35, threw 85-mph in his tryout last week and gave up more flyballs in ’10 than ’09. Signs point to this move failing in spectacular fashion.

This move is certainly not a vote of confidence for guys like Garcia and Colon. I can certainly understand that, but it would be nice if the Yankees showed some more confidence in guys like Phelps, Warren and Noesi, who will be left in Scranton if Millwood gets a shot with the big club.

Ouch

Check out this blurb from Jason Stark’s latest piece

Scouts watching the Yankees predict they’ll add a veteran backup catcher in the next week, now that Jesus Montero’s lackluster spring has torpedoed the idea that he could be that guy until Francisco Cervelli gets healthy. Those scouts have been reporting that Montero’s defense has regressed all spring, almost from the moment that Cervelli got hurt. One called Montero “an entitlement guy, who takes a lot of things for granted.” Two others say they felt Montero eased up on the accelerator pedal the moment he thought he had made the team. It’s clear this guy has great tools, but one scout said, firmly: “He doesn’t have a catcher’s makeup for me.”

There’s not a lot of good in that and it definitely lines up with the reports coming from camp that Montero has regressed defensively. However, I don’t think the Yankees would go the veteran route unless it meant picking someone up on waivers. Francisco Cervelli probably will be back sometime in April and they have Gustavo Molina if they really want a veteran back there.

More importantly, what are the Yankees going to do about Montero? In the short term, sending him back to the minors should light a fire under him, but if this is a sign of things to come, the Yankees have a bigger problem than filling Cervelli’s shoes for the next few weeks.

What Do They Do Now?

Sergio Mitre stunk today. It’s not really a shocker, the guy has a 5.27 career ERA in the bigs, but worth noting because it probably eliminates him from the rotation competition. I say probably because Joe Girardi has a weird affection for Mitre. Not sure why, but you have to say he does.

Assuming Mitre is really out, that leaves Garcia, Colon and Nova as the remaining candidates. I have said this many times over the past few months and I will say it again now- the Yankees are nuts if they don’t give Nova one of the spots. Nuts because Nova has only allowed two earned runs this spring, but even more nuts because Nova is a legitimate option for the future while Colon and Garcia are not. Nova in the 2011 rotation means you probably only need one guy to break into the 2012 rotation. It’s such an obvious decision, you can only hope the Yankees make the right one.

But what do you do with Garcia and Colon? Personally, I would cut Mitre and keep them both, but even if you do that, which one goes into the rotation? From what my eyes have seen this spring, the answer is Colon. From what my head can analyze, the answer is Garcia.

Remember, the last time Colon actually made more than 18 starts was when he won the Cy Young in 2005. Garcia did manage 157 big league innings last year and those should count for something. Realistically, both of them will either get bombed or get hurt long before September rolls around, but the Yankees need to think about the first half of the season for now. Which one of these guys gives you the best chance to win every fifth day right now? Despite Colon’s spring numbers, I still say Garcia is the answer. If it were up to me, I would add them both to the roster, release Mitre and see what Garcia does in the rotation. If he bombs, Colon is right there to take over. If they both bomb, you have to hope that a Phelps, Warren or Noesi is ready to step up.

The 2011 Lineup

I find it amazing that the Yankees are seriously debating whether Derek Jeter should bat first or second. Last season he had the second-worst OBP of the starters and grounded into 22 double plays. Based on that, he should be in the bottom of the lineup and not the top.

I know, I know, he is “The Captain”. He is the guy who is going to get his 3,000th hit this year and is “Jeterian” according to Michael Kay. But, none of that matters to the 2011 Yankees and wherever he hits in the lineup this season won’t change the fact that his number will be retired, his plaque will be put in Monument Park and he will go to the Hall of Fame one day. His legacy is already cemented as a great baseball player, his place in the lineup is simply about vanity.

I fall somewhere between traditionalists and sabermetricians when it comes to thinking about lineups. While I agree with the numbers crowd that a lineup is a way to allocate playing time (The top spot gets about 20 more plate appearances than the 2nd spot over a year, the 2nd 20 more than the 3rd and so on.) I also believe there is value to putting certain players together. I wouldn’t want to stack my lefties together or put a fast guy in front of an impatient player. Personally, I would do something like this for the Yankees lineup:

Gardner
Swisher
Cano
A-Rod
Tex
Posada
Jeter
Granderson
Martin

I think that is a pretty good mix of traditional and non-traditional thinking. You have your speedy guy leading off, but your speedy guy also gets on base a lot and saw the most pitches per plate appearance in baseball last year. Swisher is a switch hitter who had a .359OBP/.511 SLG last year and also looks at a ton of pitches. Cano is simply a better hitter than Teixeira right now, so I flipped them. Putting Jeter-Granderson-Martin at the bottom keeps the lineup split evenly between righties and lefties.

I have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing that lineup anytime soon. I can almost guarantee that Tex and Cano aren’t flip-flopping and Jeter is going to be in one of the top two spots, at least to start the season. The question is, what is the performance threshold to keep him there? As I mentioned before, Jeter got on base 34% of the time while grounding into 22 double plays last year and the Yankees kept him right at the top of the lineup. Obviously, if Jeter rebounds, this is a non-issue, but if he doesn’t, expect a lot of lineup talk throughout 2011.