Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hughes gives Yanks reason to believe

It's too early to say if Phil Hughes' fine debut against the Tigers will eventually be seen as a turning point in the young Yankees season. But there's no denying that the six shutout innings fired by the 22-year-old on Tuesday injected some Obama-style HOPE into the team and fanbase.

As far as early-season games go, this was a big one for the Yanks. A brutal Friday-night loss at Fenway had snowballed into a series sweep and CC Sabathia was unable to keep up with Justin Verlander in Monday's opener in Detroit. One of CC's chief jobs as the $161 million ace is to make sure losing streaks don't happen, yet he failed in that regard.

So, with the Wanger floating in some sort of rehab purgatory, the Yankees turned to Hughes, the prospect they heralded as the future of the parent club only a year earlier. Hindsight being 20/20, the decision to thrust Hughes into that spotlight was both unfair and unwise, but such strategies make more sense when you're passing up Hall of Fame left-handers who eventually sign in Queens.

Hughes and fellow wunderkind Ian Kennedy both failed miserably in '08, famously unable to win a game between them. But Hughes' struggles were particularly frustrating. Hughes and Joba were the chosen ones of the farm system. We had read all the stories about Hughes being the untouchable prospect, armed with a fastball that topped out at 94 and a knuckle-curve that reminded people of the Moose. He had won a playoff game in relief of Roger Clemens in '07, and the specter of that injury-curtailed no-hit bid in Texas still swirled.

Tuesday's performance reminded fans of Hughes' immense potential. He was economical (99 pitches) and showed an ability to put away hitters (a career-high six K's). He showed the killer instinct that we used to see in Joba.

And what about Joba? He's been quite the mystery this season, his plus- velocity and plus- swagger seemingly left somewhere in the old Yankee Stadium bullpen. There are people who continue their staunch belief that there's no way Chamberlain returns to the 'pen, but I'm of the opinion that this organization will do what it has to for No. 27 ... and I'm not talking about the manager.

If that means potentially stunting Joba's progress as a starter by sticking him back in the 'pen, so be it. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just saying it's a bit naive to think the Yankees will put Chamberlain's development over an opportunity to win a World Series. This is the epitome of a win-now team, and as the front office looks down the age column of its roster, I'm sure they are fully aware this is likely the last chance to win a title as presently constituted.

We will see Hughes for at least four more starts, so it's too early to get all worked up about his pre-determined ascent to greatness. That said, if he's rolling as the Wanger comes of the DL, I just don't see Hughes getting a pat and the ass and a ticket back to Scranton.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Making sense of the Stadium's debut

The first series at the new Yankee Stadium is in the books, and it was nothing if not eventful. To put it another way, it was kind of weird. A quick overview:

There was the pomp and circumstance of the home opener, followed by another troubling meltdown by the soft under belly of the Yankee bullpen. After Derek Jeter's late homer evened the series 24 hours later, that game happened, a 22-4 pukefest that has Yankee Universe legitimately concerned that the Wanger has gone Section 8 on us.

Things continued to get stranger. Like, Twilight Zone-marathon-on-WPIX stranger. Enter Carl Pavano, who was paid $39.95 million to win nine games for the Yankees. He made the start for Cleveland in the finale and was (of course) excellent, allowing just one run over six innings. A controversial two-run pinch-hit homer by Jorge Posada saved us this time and ... oh yes, about those home runs.

What in the BALLS is going on here? Seriously. I'm trying not to get too wrapped up in this whole situation, because the media has gone into absolute overdrive on this idea of the new Stadium being Coors Field East and frankly it's way too soon to know either way. As Pete Abe pointed out yesterday, the 20 homers in four games is certainly, well, a lot, but it's not unprecedented.

... There were 20 home runs hit at the old Stadium from July 31-Aug. 3, 2007. You can also find four-game, 20-HR stretches during the 2000, 2003 and 2004 seasons.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there were eight four-games spans of 20 or more homers at the old Stadium, some of them overlapping.
If there is indeed a problem with a "jet stream" the new Stadium, it needs to be fixed as soon as possible, even if as soon as possible means 2010. A team of engineers visited the Stadium on Tuesday, so clearly the organization is concerned. It will be very interesting how this all plays out.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Burnett has the makings of a stud

Count me as one of the many Yankees fans who were fairly resigned to the idea of A.J. Burnett failing in New York.

I can't remember a recent free-agent signing who smacked so obviously as a descendant of the Kenny Rogers Memorial School of Suckitude. Burnett signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Yankees in the offseason, money befitting of an ace. But Burnett had never been an ace, his injury and perceived personality makeup made the deal reek as an unwise financial risk in the vein of Carla Pavano.

In fact, Burnett has had only two full Major League seasons that could be qualified as unmitigated successes. Last season with the Jays, when he led the AL in strikeouts and won 18 games, and 2004, a 209-inning, 198-strikeout, 3.44 ERA season with the Marlins. That both campaigns came in contract walk years was lost on no one.

He hasn't wasted any time trying to convert the non-believers. Just two starts in, A.J. Burnett has Yankee fans feeling bullish on his potential as an ace counterpart to CC Sabathia. Performances like the one he had against the Rays on Tuesday tend to do that, when he took a no-hitter into the seventh. He finished with eight innings of two-run ball, giving the bullpen a much-needed blow after the Wanger's latest meltdown. The Yanks got a needed 7-2 win, upping Burnett to 2-0 in his young Yankee career.

It's far too early to annoint Burnett as the next Cy Young winner, just as it's too soon to say that Wang is baseball's worst pitcher. But getting off to a productive start seemed to be an important step to Burnett's success here. A big contract has a way of making even the best players press, but we already know that hasn't affected Burnett. Shutting down the defending AL champs in their building is certainly something to get excited about, and health permitting, I'm beginning to think we may have a real stud on our hands.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Girardi should've left genius cap at hotel

Easter Sunday was shaping up pretty nicely for the Yankees. Joba delivered a solid first start, the offense got to Royals ace Gil Meche, and a series sweep was within reach -- all with Mark Teixeira on the bench with a brace on his wrist.

Unfortunately, manager Joe Girardi used the finale at Kauffman Stadium to prove to all the nice Midwesterners what a smart man he is. It ended up costing his team what would have been a very nice win.

The scenario: Joba goes six strong innings, departing with a 4-3 lead. Enter Brian Bruney, who looks great in a scoreless seventh. He throws just 14 pitches, and certainly appears capable of going longer.

No dice. Girardi instead opts to mix and match in the eighth. Damaso Marte takes over and gets two quick outs before Girardi emerges from the dugout. The righty swinging Billy Butler is pinch-hitting for Mike Jacobs, so Girardi naturally calls on Mariano Rivera for his first four-out save of the ...


Instead, Girardi opts to bring in the always unpredictable Jose Veras, who walks Butler on five pitches. In fairness to Veras, he appeared to get squeezed on ball four, but the bottom line is he didn't get it done. Again emerges Girardi, unknowingly about to bury his team. He calls on the untested Phil Coke, who gives up double, single, double and it's 6-4. Soria strikes out the side in the ninth and that was it.

Now ... you can say it's too early to bring in Mo for a four-out save opportunity, and I suppose you have an argument seeing as he is coming off offseason shoulder surgery. But you also have to keep in mind that Rivera is unlike most relievers in that he typically needs only 10-15 pitches to complete an inning. He's a strike-throwing machine, and against a weak-hitting Royals team it was unlikely Rivera was going to labor.

I just don't like how Girardi went about the whole thing. This Yankee 'pen has potential, but of the Bruney-Veras-Marte-Coke group, I'm always worried whether we get the good or bad version of each. To trot out all four them is take four chances that one of them doesn't have it. At a certain point you're spitting in the sky and on Sunday, Coke was the dud.

You'll never hear anyone call Joe Torre a magician in handling his bullpen -- I believe Scott Proctor is readying his class-action suit as we speak -- but I'd like to think that if Old Joe's in charge Rivera's coming in after Veras walks Butler there. Torre was a disciple of common sense, it was his best trait as a manager and it typically served him well.

Girardi, a promising manager in his own right, will hopefully acquire that trait in time. He'll review this game and replay the situations in his mind, because he is a classic tactician manager and because of that I'm sure this loss will eat at him. What I'm hoping will come out of that introspection in this particular case is the realization that you have the best closer in baseball history in your bullpen.

Sometimes, in life and baseball, it's best not to over-think things.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Yanks' pitching depth starting to show

Don't you hate when you see someone you're sure you know but can't match the face with the name? Isn't that the worst? I had the same feeling on Friday during the Yankees' opener against the Royals.

There was this guy on the mound for Kansas City, a husky fellow with the face of a drinker. His stuff and performance was the exact definition of average. In fact, if a list of 10,000 Major League pitchers were randomly generated and you were asked to rank them, this guy would rated at No. 5,000 -- right smack in the middle.

Still, as familiar as his beer gut looked, I couldn't figure it out. When every Google search of "chunky + Major League pitcher" led back to the kidnapping of Rich Garces, I nearly gave up. That's when I realized the mute button was on, so I turned up the volume to discover we were dealing with the immortal Sidney Ponson.

You remember Sidney, right? If not, I'll help you out. He was the portly right-hander who came to represent all that was wrong with the depth in the Yankees' starting rotation last season, a rotation that Ponson slotted in at the No. 3 spot for the better part of the second half.

Last season was fun, wasn't it?

What a difference an offseason makes. The Yanks' No. 3 starter is now 2008 AL strikeout king A.J. Burnett, who got the Yanks in the win column on Thursday. A 215-game winner in Andy Pettitte took the hill Friday, manning the No. 4 rotation spot once held by Darrell Rasner, who at last check was serving up those delicious meatballs to the grateful hitters of Japan.

Pettitte may be the Yanks' fourth starter, but he pitched nothing like it against the Royals on Friday, firing seven innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts. The bullpen then extended its scoreless streak to 10 innings to wrap up a relatively easy 4-1 win.

Pettitte was a bit of a mystery last season, mixing stretches of dominance with periods where you wondered just how badly he needed those HGH shots. Much of the riddle was uncovered when he admitted he was pitching through considerable shoulder pain down the stretch. If nothing else, we'll always know AP's a gamer.

Pettitte as a No. 4 tells you everything you need to know about how well this team has been constructed. In the past couple of seasons, if Wang, Mussina or Pettitte had bad starts, you knew the team would have to steal a win by the time it got back to the considerably weaker back end of the rotation. That isn't the case anymore, not with Pettitte and Chamberlain bringing up the rear. Sidney Ponson couldn't shine shoes for this version of the Yankees rotation.

This is a very different Yankees team than last season. Health permitting, the depth of the rotation will give Joe Girardi a huge advantage nearly every night out. You have to go back to 1999 to find a better collection of New York starters, a group that featured El Duque, Cone, Clemens and Pettitte. Sabathia, Wang, Burnett and Pettitte are certainly a group in that class, and that's before you factor in the Tyson-McNeeley showdown of Joba vs. Irabu in the No. 5 hole.

I saw one other really familiar face at Kauffman Stadium on Friday. There was this hulking relief pitcher for the Royals who looked exactly like Kyle Farnsworth, a former Yanks reliever who specialized in dousing flames with gasoline. This guy had the same face, same build, same delivery, same cheesy arm band tatoo, everything. But then this dude struck out the side on 16 pitches and I knew it couldn't be Farnsworth. Literally, it's not possible.

Okay, this makes more sense

Take a deep breath everybody. I think we're going to make it through this after all.

I knew something had to give heading into Thursday's series finale at Camden Yards. We were playing the Orioles after all, who haven't been able to beat the Yankees since Bill Clinton was destroying blue dresses in the White House. But CC and then Chien (Chien-Ming?) failed, and so it was that the retooled Bronx Bombers turned to their third ace in the hole, A.J. Burnett, to bandage a cut that had started to bleed out.

Burnett wasn't great ... but he was good enough against an Orioles team that seemed content to settle for a series win. He pitched in and out of trouble, eventually being lifted after allowing two runs on seven hits over 5 1/3 innings. He had six K's, which is six more than Sabathia and Wang combined for in their awful debuts.

The Yankees offense did the rest in the 11-2 victory, as Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano each connected for their first homers of the season to lead a 13-hit New York attack. The bullpen was excellent for a second straight game (4 2/3 scoreless), and a healthy-looking Mo even got in on the action with a clean ninth. With the win, New York avoided its first 0-3 start since 1998 (we all know how that disastrous beginning turned out).

Burnett deserves plenty of credit for ensuring this early slip didn't turn into a slide, but just as deserving was Swisher, who finished with three hits while tying a career high with five RBIs. You can count me as unconverted to Nady Nation, and it will be interesting to see how things play out if Swisher keeps up his hot start. He's the type of high-energy guy this team has been missing in recent years, and it would behoove the Yanks to keep him involved. Let's see if Nady shrinks from the challenge or rises to the occasion, because you get the feeling there could already be rumblings behind the scenes regarding right field.

Finally, let's give a special River & Sunset FU to Peter Angelos, an owner who will in all likelihood deny another competitive season to his club's loyal fanbase. The Orioles' payroll is $134 million less than the Yankees', a figure that actually speaks more of Angelos' frugality than the Yankees' excess. Pete, I know Albert Belle screwed you or whatever, and I understand that way more people should have watched The Wire, but I think it's time you got over it and started spending some money again. Your ballpark is too perfect to be filled with empty seats every night.

(I'm sure Mr. Angelos will read this over lunch tomorrow and cry into his crab cakes. Positive of it.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Wang's consistency cuts both ways

Chien-Ming Wang is all about consistency.

There's nothing cool about consistency. He's not in any commercials. He won't win an ESPY. He'll never be on the cover of the media guide. But where consistency lacks in cool, it makes up for in comfort. And in sports, consistency and the comfort that it brings is a trait teams crave.

Wang, the Taiwanese legend, is no exception. He's been the one rock in the Yankees' perpetually patchwork rotation since his breakout 2006 season. He finished second in the AL Cy Young voting and won 19 games that season; his encore in 2007 resulted in 19 more victories. He was on the same track in '08 before a fateful trip around the bases in Houston derailed both him and the Yankees.

There's nothing sexy about how Wang piles up all those W's. It's just sinker, sinker, sinker until you ground out to second. A rudimentary formula, sure, but then again so is Mariano Rivera's. Wang is a known entity, a steady performer. As far as No. 2 starters go, you can't do much better.

But it's important to keep in mind that Wang is wholly capable of delivering a poor performance without any semblence of a warning. Sure, every pitcher has his bad days -- CC Sabathia was living proof of that on Monday. But when Chien-Ming Wang has a bad day, he really, really has a bad day.

I remember sitting in the right field upper deck for Game 4 of the 2007 ALDS, unknowingly taking in the final playoff game ever played at the old Stadium. Wang was destroyed by the Indians in the opener of that series, and the same thing happened on that unseasonbly warm evening in the Bronx. The Lake Eire midges may have gotten to Joba Chamberlain during Game 2, but on that night Wang's flat sinker was the only nuisance destroying New York's World Series dreams.

That's the thing about Wang. He's consistently good, of course. But that stinker is always bubbling under the surface, lurking like paparazzi outside Lindsay Lohan's front door. Wednesday was another example of this. Seven runs, nine hits, three walks, zero strikeouts over 3 2/3 innings in the Yanks' 7-5 loss to the Orioles. A 17.18 ERA after one start is no way to go through life, son.

Wang will bounce back, of course, because he's a high-quality pitcher and that's what high-quality pitchers do. But his stinker of a sinker provided another reminder to Yankee fans why signing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett was such a prudent move. As good as Wang can be, there's always that chance that things could go south in the blink of an eye. It's Russian roulette. Six chambers, one bullet. Wednesday we heard the big bang.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

False start nothing to worry about

If I had 10 cents for every half-arsed column I read this morning under the premise "Yanks have no early returns on investments," I would be a rich man ... in 1904.

Okay, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira were not very good in Monday's 10-5 season-opening loss to the Orioles at Camden Yards. To take it a step further, they were very not good. To go one beyond that, CC and Tex kind of, well, sucked in their Yankee debuts.

Sabathia was a mess, allowing six runs, eight hits and five walks over only 4 1/3 innings. The lefty struck out 251 batters in 2008, but couldn't manage a single punchout against the O's. Yikes. Teixeira, meanwhile, was the target of some serious cathartic booing by the Camden faithful, jeers that lasted through entire at-bats, not just introductions. The local boy went 0-for-4 with a walk, including meek forceout that ended the Yanks' final rally in the eighth.

It was clear from the outset that Sabathia wasn't comfortable. The mid-90s fastball that sets up his game was not his friend, and without it, the O's weren't biting on his breaking pitches. While it seems like an issue of simply overthrowing as opposed to any physical issue, you have to think the pressure will snowball into his next start at the Royals. It'll certainly be interesting to see how he rebounds.

We don't know if the boobirds were affecting Tex, but I was definitely surprised by how much animosity the fans had for the switch-hitter. It very well may have been just a situation where the jovial and amped up opening day crowd had an easy target on their hands. After all, could Orioles fans actually be upset by Teixeira's decision?

Scott Boras: Okay, Tex, here's your choice. You can take $180 million to play for a perennial contender in a new, perpetually sold out, state-of-the-art stadium orrrrr you can take $80 million less and play for your hometown team that hasn't had a winning record since 1997.

Tex: Um, are you serious, Scott?

Scott Boras: No, not really. (lights up cigar with $100 bill and cracks up)

Tex (in curious T-800 mode): Why do humans smile?

So, no, mark me as a sane and reasonable fan who won't get too worked up about opening day. It was still disappointing though. My biggest concern was actually Brian Bruney, who carried his dreadful spring training into Baltimore (1/3 IP, 1 H, 2 ER, 2BB). The Yanks' bullpen is a bit suspect and they're going to need the right-hander to perform. Monday was a bit distressing in that aspect.

Then again, he can throw a shutout inning tomorrow and all will be well. 'Tis the beauty of baseball.

Notes: Nick Swisher had a pinch-hit double in the eighth inning in his first Yankee plate appearance. I have a sneaking suspicion he'll be taking at-bats from Xavier Nady before long. ... Brett Gardner singled, scored a run and laid down two bunts on Monday. I think Girardi's going to have some fun with his No. 9 hitter. ... Vice President Joe Biden dropped by the ESPN booth and was oddly candid, he said "hell" a few times and generally acted like he was three scotches in. He may have tried to kiss Jon Miller, too. ... From the Joe Morgan Is A Towering Idiot file: The ESPN color man said that Melky Cabrera was too great a talent to be wasted on the bench. Funny. Morgan also opined that Marlins superstar Hanley Ramirez was the most underrated player in the game. To which I ask, by whom?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ten predictions for the 2009 New York Yankees

This little blog venture of mine isn't quite a year old, as such, this will be the first opening day for River & Sunset. I figure now is as good a time as any to start a new tradition with 10 predictions for the 2009 New York Yankees. If any or all of these prognostications are correct, I will take complete credit for them. If not, I will say that prognostications are stupid.

1. Derek Jeter ain't dead yet - Talk about blasphemy, I was listening to a podcast this afternoon in which American hero Derek Jeter was said to be "Placido Polanco with four more homers" at this point in his career. How dare you. I, like many of you, lament Jeter's losing battle with Father Time -- my PeteAbe guest blog dealt with that very topic -- but I don't think he's falling off the statistical cliff just yet. Pencil our boy in for another one of those .310, 12 homer, 18 steal, 110 run-type seasons and just be glad we get another year of watching one of the great Yankees.

2. Hell, A-Rod ain't dead yet either - It'd be easy to mark off 2009 as a lost year for Alex Rodriguez, and I couldn't really blame you seeing as it's already been the longest one of his life. But understand this: A-Rod may be a douche, but he's a proud douche. This reality means he's going to do everything in his power to prove he isn't some product of a Dominican lab. That's why Sunday's report that he may be back in the lineup by late April is hardly surprising. He is dying to get back on that field, and that will likely mean good things for the Yankees. A lot of people will be surprised if he hits 40+ homers and gets MVP buzz this year. I won't be one of them.

3. The new Yankee Stadium will continue to torture me with Cotton Eyed Joey - I hate Cotton Eye Joey. I hate 1990s novelty pop hits (unless you're Skee-Lo, of course), I hate that people sitting around me get amped up by this abomination, I hate that stupid hat Joey wears. To further clarify my position, I straight-up hate Cotton Eyed Joey ... and I don't think I'm alone. Yet the Yankees have continued to trot out this tired eighth-inning bit for years now and I guarantee the little bastard will show up across the street on April 16. I may seriously do something about this. Mark my words.

4. Chien-Ming Wang will win 20 games - I don't understand why people don't have more love for the Wanger. Sure, he's not that strikeout guy you like and there was that pesky epic meltdown in the 2007 ALDS, but besides that this guy has been nothing less than the best Yankees' pitching farm product since Andrew Eugene Pettitte. I look for him to crack 20 victories for the first time this season, important since I have this nagging feeling Burnett and Joba may not combine to equal that figure.

5. Brett Gardner will stick around all season - If this were 10 or 15 years ago, Brett Gardner would never be getting this opportunity. This simply wouldn't have gone down on the watch of the Big Stein. But the poor old Boss isn't really with us in the tangible sense these days, and so it is that a guy who looks like your high school buddy who loved paint ball has come to man one of the most glamorous positions in sport. Lil Brett can run like hell and he can go get it in center. If he can figure out how to hit .270, he's going to be a big help to this team. I'm saying he pulls it off.

6. Premio Sausages won't taste quite as sweet at the new Stadium - Listen, I'm as excited as anyone about this castle of opulence and desire known as the new Yankee Stadium. It sounds exactly like how they described the Titanic, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if the thing struck a South Bronx iceberg (later determined to be Joe Torre: Curve Balls Along The Way star Paul Sorvino). I'm going to sample all the new digs have to offer when I get a chance to visit, specifically the in-house Brother Jimmy's rib tips. Basically what's happened here is now I can go watch the Yankees in person and eat Brother Jimmy's rib tips. Yes, I think I'm going to love the new place. Doesn't mean I won't shed a tear for the ol' girl across the street, however.

7. The Yankees bullpen is going to need reinforcements - A full season without Kyle Farnsworth will be like a full season without a gunshot wound to the abdomen, which is to say it will be awesome. That said, the Yankees didn't do much by way of fortifying the bridge to the immortal Mariano Rivera, who we say is immortal but is actually going to be 40 in November. Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte are the setup men here, and forgive me if I just had an accident thinking of Marte trying to retire Big Papi in a big spot in September. I know the Melk Man no longer delivers, but perhaps he can bring back a quality 'pen arm?

8. A-Rod and Kim Jones will engage in a torrid affair - Picture this: It's August 5 and A-Rod is fresh off being named American League Player of the Month for both June and July. With the Yankees set to begin a key four-game set with the Red Sox, Rodriguez realizes it's been four months since he was a huge miserable distraction for his team. He turns on the charm to bag the YES Network's enchanting sideline reporter, and then leaks the info to the NY Post in an effort to make Jeter think he's cool. People will make fun of A-Rod for three straight weeks, before Phil Mushnick writes an unfavorable column about Mike Francesa that signifies everything is back to normal. Seriously, you can't see this happening?

9. The AL East will be a two-horse race - Everyone seems to be big on this whole, "Baseball's three best teams are all in the same division"-angle, but I'm not so sure the Red Sox are going to be any good this season. I'm not saying this because I hate the Red Sox, which I do with the strength of a thousand Giambinos, but more because they are a team just loaded with question marks. Is Papi in decline? Will Lowell bounce back? What's the deal with Ellsbury? Which Josh Beckett will they get? Will J.D. Drew be able to stay on the field? Can Smoltz come back from surgery? How many months before John Henry's young bride destroys everything he holds dear? All these questions make me think it will be a dark October at Fenway, and it'll be the Rays who the Yanks jockey with for AL East supremacy. All of which would kind of be disappointing since I really want to get some sweet ALCS revenge on those monsters.

10. The Yankees will claim that elusive 27th world championship - "Oh, huge freaking surprise. The dude who writes a Yankees blog picked his team to win the World Series." I suppose this is a fair argument, but the truth of the matter is this Yankees team is loaded. The lineup got a huge boost with Cashman's deft Teixeira acquisition, while the rotation may be better than any assembled during the '96-'01 dynasty. Age is a concern, particularly amongst the old guard -- Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, Rivera -- but you don't get the feeling any of those players are in for a precipitous decline over the next six months. Let's say Yanks over the Phillies in six games, with Mo winning the World Series MVP before riding off into the sunset.

Let us now play some ball, as they say. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What we've learned from spring training

A particularly long spring training is in the books. Here are five observations I took from Tampa.

The WBC is an admirable but fatally flawed concept.

Full disclosure: There were times when I was kind of feeling the second edition of the World Baseball Classic. I was into the opening U.S.-Canada slugfest (by into I mean I was in a bar watching the SportsCenter highlights), I enjoyed that excited walk-off win against Puerto Rico when the nice baseball men were nice to that one Iraq veteran for like 45 minutes. But when the U.S. was mercy ruled -- seriously -- in a semifinal game against those same Puerto Ricans, I essentially cashed out. The U.S. team was loaded -- even with injury issues and bushels of big stars opting to sit out the tournament -- and to see Jake Peavy get wrecked over two innings and the offense muster two runs on seven hits, it shows you that these guys simply aren't ready for the competition. March is too early for an event that's goal is to crown the world's best baseball country. If you want actual American baseball fans like me to take it seriously, you have to take it seriously, MLB. Every four years, shut down the regular season for 10 days around July, name your All-Stars and have them play in the tournament, and knock this thing out when your stars are in playing shape. Otherwise, fans like me will continue to see the WBC for what it is, a gigantic marketing ploy to corner the Asian market. I like Asian chicks as much as the next guy, but let's up the effort level here, okay Bud?
A-Rod should be separated from teammates in a Hannibal Lector-type prison cell when not on the field this season.

One of the odder subplots of this very long spring has been the numerous stories we've read about the newfound camaraderie in the Yankees clubhouse. The starting pitchers are all watching each others side sessions and cheering (which is funny in an uncomfortable bromance kind of way), Nick Swisher is a wacky cut-up that makes everyone realize that baseball really is just a game, man, and meanwhile, CC Sabathia is supposedly like the best dude ever, befriending teammates and basically being the exact type of dude you'd want to tailgate with. All of which is even funnier when you remember that Alex Rodriguez has been essentially shipped off to rehab Siberia, aka Colorado. I can picture a scenario on May 10 where Hideki just served an amazing dinner cooked on the new Yankee Stadium hibachi grill, Swish just told a particularly good howler that has everyone slapping their knees and CC just ripped a big one that even cracks up Girardi when all of sudden A-Rod walks in and ... everything ... gets ... quiet. Then the Yankees will lose in the ALDS.

Joba Chamberlain may or may not be a horrible disappointment this season.

Does anyone else have a weird feeling in their stomach regarding Joba? The Yankees' No. 5 starter is about to begin his first full season in the rotation, but I have a nagging feeling this is going to be a difficult year for hoss. There are, of course, the velocity concerns, though on Tuesday he was said to have hit 94-96 MPH consistently. But I'm also worried about his inability to finish hitters, and how he doesn't seem like he's ready to pitch late into games. Add the fact that he was shut down for a month last summer with shoulder problems and the random stories you hear that his dad Harlan may actually be a dick, and I'm not so sure that Phil Hughes won't be pitching in Joba's spot at some point this season. Of course, now that I've written this, Joba will go 17-5 and throw seven shutout innings in the World Series clincher. Perhaps this was my plan all along.

Mark Teixeira doesn't seem like he'll be affected by the dreaded New York Transition Period.

A unifying theme of many big ticket Yankees acquisitions in recent memory has been early struggles to get comfortable in baseball's biggest fish bowl. Guys like Giambi, Sheffield and A-Rod all initially struggled to adjust, while stiffs like Kenny Rogers, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano were swallowed whole. Perhaps there's a link that the latter three names are pitchers. It kind of makes sense; everyday players have more opportunity to get comfortable while pitchers get one shot every five days with the spotlight shining directly on them. Mark Teixeira will get the benefit of playing every day, and robot that he is, I expect him to put up numbers representative to previous seasons. He just has that look. And back to the robot thing, I'm dead serious in my belief that Teixeira is a T-800 model Terminator. I guess we'll know for sure on opening day if smoke and electric current surrounding first base clears to reveal a totally nude Tex in a weird crouching position. To Cody Ransom: "I need your uniform, your bat, and your glove."
Joe Girardi's newfound mentality toward players, media will be tested quickly.

Joe Girardi didn't make many friends in his first season as Yankees manager, running a tight clubhouse where candy and ice cream was outlawed (it was kind of like Footloose) while being short, and at times, untruthful with the media. So it may not be coincidence that the second-year skipper entered camp this season with a new, sunnier disposition. There was the team field trip to play pool, and the mini-golf/baseball-putting thing, all while initiating a noticeably more open dialogue with the same media that wanted to wring his neck by last September. I kind of see the transformation having been played like this:

Hal: Hey skip, you got a minute?
Girardi: Affirmative.
Hal: You did a good job last year, but you're going to have to stop being such a dick or we're going to fire you. Understood?
Girardi: Affirmative.

Girardi's seat may be hotter than some people realize. With a new team, a new stadium, and huge expectations, heading into July at 38-38 may not cut it. He's kind of like the non-tenured elementary school teacher who all of a sudden is super nice and attentive because the principal is sitting in on the class. Once the season starts and the pressure builds, it will be interesting to see if his nice guy shtick holds up.