Monday, February 28, 2011

Yankees have no choice but to put faith in A.J. Burnett

It was the snapshot that summed up a season: A.J. Burnett standing on the mound in disbelief, hands on top of his head, a pumped up Bengie Molina carrying his impressive gut around the basepaths at Yankee Stadium.

The Texas catcher's three-run homer in Game 4 of the ALCS neatly accomplished two feats — it effectively ended the Yankees' repeat hopes while also putting a bow on Burnett's miserable second season in the Bronx.

How awful was Burnett in 2010? He was Creed awful. He was 2001 Kobe Bryant rap single "K.O.B.E." awful. He was Dane Cook movie awful. You hear me? Dane Cook movie-awful, people! Have you ever seen My Best Friend's Girl?

Thirty-three starts, 186 2/3 innings, 204 hits, 5.26 ERA, a 10-15 record — and those numbers don't begin to do justice for how bad Burnett was for long stretches in 2010. When Dave Eiland mysteriously disappeared for six weeks last summer, perhaps we all missed the obvious explanation — Burnett had driven the beleaguered pitching coach into hiding.

Enter Larry Rothschild, whose principle job as Eiland's replacement is to somehow fix a very expensive broken piece of machinery. It's pretty much a sure thing that part of Rothschild's interview process involved a detailed battle plan for salvaging Burnett, who's entering the third-year of a getting-worse-by-the-minute five-year, $82.5 million deal signed in December 2008.

Rothschild has likely studied plenty of tape from Burnett's 2010 season, which I surmise was as pleasurable as watching The Human Centipede in 3D. What he saw was two pitchers — one very good (April, May, July) and one comically bad (June, August, September). After escaping the maniacal clutches of Carlos Zambrano in Chicago, Rothschild must be wondering what he did to deserve this.

Rothschild will quickly learn that when it comes to Burnett, it's all about taking the good with the bad. That's something Brian Cashman knew even before he brought the pitcher to New York. Sure, Burnett let Molina and the Rangers Molotov cocktail the 2010 postseason, but we can't forget starts like Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, when Burnett overwhelmed a loaded Phillies lineup over seven brilliant innings.

His performance that night was one of the best — and most important — in recent franchise playoff history. It makes it all the more frustrating when he goes through funks like last June, when he went 0-5 with a 11.35 ERA. It's hard to be that dreadful. It's almost as if there's an A.J. Burnett doppleganger out there pulling a Frank Drebin-Enrico Pallazzo move as the real Allan James lays hog-tied in the clubhouse.

Now the scary part. When Andy Pettitte decided to stay in Deer Park and Cliff Lee had his cheesesteak epiphany, Burnett suddenly, unbelievably, became the key to the Yankees' 2011 season. I peed myself a little just writing that last sentence. Seriously.

If Burnett can't figure out a way to turn it around, the Yankees have virtually no chance of going back to the postseason. As it stands, the team already needs something in the neighborhood of 40 wins between CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, the former coming off knee surgery and the latter armed with just one full season of starting experience. The back end of the rotation is a well-chronicled work in progress, making Burnett the link between both sides of the rotation.

You know with Burnett we won't get much in the way of middle ground. He'll either be the glue that holds the rotation together ... or he'll be the one who flicks the match on a haystack soaked in kerosene. In other words, if Burnett didn't already have enough pressure on himself to get his career back on track, he also holds his team's fate in his hands.

I need to go lay down.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yankees will lean heavily on the power of the comeback in '11

Considering how many Yankees had sub par seasons by their standards in 2010, it can be considered a minor miracle the team came within two games of returning to the World Series last fall.

Many of those slumping stars are back in 2011. Does having several key players with something to prove provide a perfect cocktail for success? Or are the Yankees closing in on a new season with a roster filled with soon-to-be has-beens?

River & Sunset is here to give you a list of the Yankees looking to improve on their season of a year ago.


A.J. Burnett: The tattooed one's ERA by month in 2010: 2.43, 4.03, 11.35, 2.00, 7.80, 5.60. There's a great pitcher locked away in there somewhere. Larry Rothschild, I present you baseball's Rubik's Cube.

Joba Chamberlain: There's a growing legion of doubters when it comes to Chamberlain — will he use that as motivation to improve or ignore it and continue to wallow in mediocrity? The overarching question with Joba: Does he get it?


Curtis Granderson: Now here's a prime candidate for a comeback season. Some guys take a full year before they're comfortable and playing at their full capability in New York, and Granderson seems like the classic example. Fantasy owners be advised.

Mark Teixiera: Totally underrated subplot of the Yankees' failure to defend their championship last season was Teixeira's baffling fall from the ranks of superstardom. His numbers were hardly terrible (33 homers, 108 RBI, league-leading 113 runs), but his game sprung leaks that you'd ever expect from a T-800 cyborg. Perhaps the hand and foot injuries were more serious than he let on. I'm more of the feeling that (yet another) slow start led to some bad habits that snowballed on him. If Tex gets out of the gate fast this April, he's an MVP candidate.


Alex Rodriguez: He was still an epic run producer last season (125 RBIs in 137 games), but it's fair to ask if the superstar era of A-Rod's career is over. His OPS has declined in each of the past three years and he's missed 87 games since 2008 after missing just 19 in the seven years prior. The 35-year-old said he's feels like himself this spring, but you wonder if the hip condition is something that will prevent him from ever being that elite guy again.

Derek Jeter: Just to be clear, the captain doesn't need the insane ramblings of Hank Steinbrenner to get motivated. He's coming off the worst season of his career, and there's no way he didn't go nuts this offseason looking to wash out the taste of '10. The question is whether he has another classic Jeterian season (200 hits, 115 runs, 15 homers) in his 36-year-old bones. Count me as a believer.

Jorge Posada: I don't see much in the way of middle ground when it comes to Posada at this point. He'll either get 450-500 at-bats, hit 20-25 homers and drive 70-80 runs as the full-time DH/spot catcher, or he'll break down and enter the depressing late-period Jason Varitek phase of his career. I've made a lot of Jason Varitek jokes since 2008; I'm praying karma isn't going to take it out on poor Georgie.


Jesus Montero: The Yankees seem committed to taking it slow with Montero, but they should also be cognizant not to keep a Buster Posey-type talent in the minors just because they don't want to rush the process. If the kid hits in spring training, there's no reason he shouldn't replace Cervelli as backup catcher. If he keeps hitting, there's no reason he shouldn't replace Russell Martin as starter. Yep, I'm drinking the Jesus Juice.


Brian Cashman: It's been pretty tough sledding for Cashman since the Yankees' World Series win, with some failed acquisitions and two whiffs on Cliff Lee. Now he enters the walk year of his contract. If the wheels fall off this season, it'd be very interesting to see if the front office believed a change in culture was necessary.


No. 4 and 5 starters: The good news for the two guys that win these roles? Everyone already assumes you suck. So, yeah, the bar is pretty close to the pavement here. Whether you're Sergio Mitre, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, a Bronx garbage man, that guy with the riser in your Sunday morning softball league, Charlie Sheen, or one of Charlie Sheen escorts, understand that if you string a couple of quality starts together you'll get the Michael Kay equivalent of Al Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hank takes on Jeter, awaits word who fans will stand behind

At this point in the game, we've learned three irrefutable truths about Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner.

1) His stance on recreational nicotine use stands in sharp contrast to the Surgeon General's.
2) No one takes him even remotely seriously.
3) He cannot be shut up.

Steinbrenner added to his greatest hits collection on Monday, sharing his thoughts on a number of issues that came off, in print at least, as the rantings of a Daniel Plainview-level madman.

His money quote was an obvious shot at shortstop Derek Jeter: "I think, maybe, they celebrated too much last year. Some of the players, too busy building mansions and doing other things, not concentrating on winning. I have no problem saying that."

Perhaps realizing the incendiary nature of his remarks, Steinbrenner backed off, insisting he wasn't singling anyone out. Call me crazy, but I doubt he was referring to the lakeside manor Ramiro Pena has sitting in escrow.

Normally when a high-level member of management puts his biggest star on blast for no apparent reason, it's a huge story. But in the case of Steinbrenner, it will serve primarily as blog and Twitter fodder for a day or so before disappearing into the ether.

Hank is kind of like the Asian dude who took over for Steve Perry in Journey in that respect: He may sound eerily similar to the famous man he replaced, but ultimately it's just irrelevant nonsense. Don't stop believin'? We never started.

I suppose I'm vaguely interested to see how Jeter will respond to the dig, but knowing the captain, the insult was too obtuse to warrant a serious response. Saying his sub-standard 2010 was tied to the construction of St. Jetersburg is like saying the people of Egypt revolted against their government because the pyramids are old. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. It's not like he was flying down to Tampa on off days to build the sucker himself.

You want to talk distractions? How about the period from 1996 to 2007 when Jeter nailed 87 percent of the hot chick population in Manhattan? Can you even imagine all the time he had to put into figuring out ways to get these women out of his bed in the morning? I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

El Capitan: All right -- (struggling to remember girl's name) -- sweetheart, I have to get to the Stadium for BP.
Hot chick: But it's December ...
El Capitan: Um, yeah, well they moved spring training up this year.
Hot chick: Isn't spring training in Florida?
El Capitan: (frazzled, searching for comeback) You're the one in Florida! (bolts out front door)

Steinbrenner did manage a few fleeting moments of clarity during his interview. He's unhappy with baseball's revenue sharing and luxury tax systems, and he thinks it's time Bud Selig did something about it. The Yankees were hit with an approximate $130 million tab in 2010 alone.

“At some point, if you don’t want to worry about teams in minor markets, don’t put teams in minor markets, or don’t leave teams in minor markets if they’re truly minor,” Steinbrenner said. “Socialism, communism, whatever you want to call it, is never the answer.”

Can't really argue with him there. Teams like the Pirates, Padres, and Royals have reaped the financial benefits of baseball's ruling class for nearly a decade now, but their payrolls remain near the bottom of the league. Something doesn't smell right.

Wait a minute. What am I doing agreeing with Hank Steinbrenner? Brainwashing, Stockholm Syndrome, whatever you want to call it, is never the answer.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Joba's gut says about Joba

It started out innocently enough.

Last Wednesday, Joba Chamberlain was among several Yankees pitchers to report early to the team's spring complex in Tampa, and some beat writers on the scene remarked on Twitter that the reliever looked as though he'd put on weight.

Only, nothing is really innocent when it comes to Twitter and reporting anymore. The two have converged suddenly — you could argue recklessly — in the past year, turning off-the-cuff thoughts into BREAKING NEWS. Chamberlain and Chubgate was just the latest example.

On one hand, it was hardly a big deal. Baseball is the last bastion for the beer-gutted professional athlete. Basketball and football have long since become workplaces where even punters and third-string power forwards look like T-800 Terminator models.

The majority of baseball players are also more fit than ever, but it remains the one sport — not counting bowling and golf ... never count bowling and golf — where you can be overweight and still be elite. Look no further than the top of the Yankees' rotation, where CC Sabathia — even after swearing off the salty tyrant of the breakfast table, Cap'n Crunch — tips the scales at 290 pounds.

If Chamberlain is carrying a little more heat around the midsection, so be it. He's a middle reliever anyway, designed for short bursts of efficiency. When I was in college in Boston, the Red Sox's most reliable setup man was Rich Garces, a dude whose fitness level was so ghastly he earned the mocking nickname "El Guapo."

But on the other hand, you can't help but wonder if this is just the latest red flag for Chamberlain. Right now, he's using the husky frat guy excuse ("Been pumpin' iron, bro, addin' mass, bro, just gettin' big, bro"), but it's not exactly convincing. Brian Cashman appeared to bite his tongue when asked about Chubgate, remarking, "He is heavier. Leave it at that."

Joe Girardi, a classic my-body-is-my-temple type and the guy who banned sweets from the Yankees clubhouse, reserved judgment in his chat with the media, but it's clearly the 800-pound middle reliever in the room right now.

What's most disappointing is that Chamberlain entered the offseason fully aware that this is a make-or-break season in his Yankees career. He was passed over for a rotation spot last spring, and was then slowly fazed from the bullpen hierarchy during the summer and fall. The most telling move came in December, when New York spent millions and a draft pick to make Rafael Soriano the world's most expensive understudy.

The player who gets it comes into camp more determined than ever. He feels angry, disrespected even. The Revenge Factor is at Balboa-Drago levels. Roger Clemens once revitalized his career in Toronto with the help of a chip on his shoulder.

Chamberlain makes you worry that he's the type of guy who doesn't get it. Of course, it'd be unfair to pass judgment on the basis of a few tweets and a handful of AP photos. But when it comes to Chamberlain, the average Yankees fan has gone from dreaming big to expecting the worst.

What a fat waste that would be.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pitchers and catchers report, Cap'n Crunch loses his innocence

There are lessons to be learned from the first days of spring training, nuggets of information to be gleaned, processed and used to make your own life better.

For instance, I am now aware of the unspeakable evils perpetrated upon us by the salty tyrant of the breakfast table, Cap'n Crunch.

CC Sabathia reported to camp 25 pounds less of a hoss on Monday, and he attributed his svelte new figure to cutting out the Quaker Oats Company standard.

It was bittersweet revelation for me since a) I have a deep affinity for the Cap'n's treasure chest of sugary goodness and b) Sabathia's weight loss is a transparent precursor to his inevitable opt-out at the end of the season.

I won't ever be able to eat Cap'n Crunch ever again without the image of Sabathia's juicy man gut flashing through my synapses. As for the potential opt-out, it's not something a Yankee fan should get too worked up about. It's still (relatively) far down the line, and besides, there are enough problems with this year's rotation to waste time worrying about the next.

Other than that, it's been a relatively quiet first two days in camp thus far. A.J. Burnett threw 30 fastballs to Francisco Cervelli on Tuesday morning, then told the media his struggles in 2010 were all in his mind.

“Just mentally staying right,” Burnett said. “I think every time we talked last year, the good games, I was there. I was locked in. The bad games, I think mentally I wasn’t there. It’s a matter of staying on top of my game, paying attention to every pitch and doing what I did before last year, which was not letting anything bother me. Not worrying about a thing, going out there one pitch at a time until Skip takes me out. If I do that, I’ll be fine.”
If your eyeballs were rolling through the back of your head as you read that, you're not alone. I mean, he's really using the "mentally I wasn't there" excuse? This is a 33-year-old man who's been in the majors since 2001. Weak sauce, Allan James.

On the plus side, at least he can't passive aggressively blame Georgie Posada anymore. The veteran is also in camp, and he's referring to himself as the "third-string emergency catcher" now. I imagine on a pride-swallowing scale, this is akin to Kanye West labeling himself Jay-Z's third-string Courvoisier taster.

Georgie's a pro though, and he's trying to spin it positive. Just like me as I pour out a tasteless helping of Special K. Damn you, Cap'n Crunch. Damn you straight to a watery grave.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Cashman on uncertain ground as latest contract year begins

Ed. note: This column ran on the LoHud Blog this week as part of their annual Pinch Hitter Series.

Sometimes I wonder if Brian Cashman woke up one morning and decided he just didn't care what you thought about him anymore.

In an offseason where Cliff Lee dissed him, ownership undercut him, and Andy Pettitte Brett Favre'd him, Cashman has remained unflappable, disconnected even. Some in his position would've developed a facial tick from the stress by now. Cashman? He dresses up like an elf and shimmies down a building. He serves pints of Guinness in a Corey Haim wig. He makes half-hearted contract offers to Carl Pavano just to see if the internet can explode from snark.

It reminds me of Office Space, when the restless and disgruntled Peter Gibbons decides the way to escape the monotony of his droll life is to revolt against the system that shackles him. He accomplishes this by barely showing up for work, defying his superiors, and occasionally gutting a trout in his cubicle. In the movie, Peter's blunt insubordination is rewarded with a promotion by corporate lunkheads who mistake his disobedience for leadership.

Could Cashman be banking on the same result?

If Cashman is restless, perhaps it's understandable. The 43-year-old has been the general manager of the Yankees for 13 years. That's a long time to be a manager at The Gap, let alone a chief cabinet member for the most successful sports franchise in America. With The Boss gone and the organization in a controlled state of flux, Cashman — consciously or not — may be testing the limits of how entrenched he really is.

The job he's done in that time continues to be a lightning rod of debate in Yankee Universe. Supporters say he's a smart, hard-working executive whose earned the respect of colleagues around the game. Detractors believe he was simply along for the ride during the dynasty run, is a poor talent evaluator, and was directly responsible for the team's title drought last decade.

Wherever you stand, most will agree that no GM works under the same level of expectations. The Boss may be dead, but the Steinbrenner Doctrine — anything short of a championship is considered failure — lives on. Yes, Cashman is armed with the golden checkbook, but he also has the smallest margin of error. Call it a wash.

Cashman is entering the final year of his contract. During his 2005 renegotiation, he demanded, and received, the power to restructure the baseball operations. He said that the dueling factions in New York and Tampa needed to disappear, and they did. For a five-year stretch Cashman was El Hombre, every bit as vital to the Yankees enterprise as A-Rod, Jeter, or Sabathia.

That's what made the Rafael Soriano signing such an eye-opener. For the first time since he threatened to walk in '05, Cashman was publicly undermined on a key personnel decision. If Hal Steinbrenner has decided to take a more active role, is there room for both men atop the food chain?

It all makes for great theater as the 2011 season unfolds. By this time next year, we'll likely know the true alpha dog when it comes to the construction of the Yankees.

(Cut to Hank in his shadowy lair, cigarette dangling, bourbon in hand, black cat on lap: "That's what you think.")


Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Alex Rodriguez: All-Star. Popcorn Aficionado. Accidental Genius.

I've come to realize that the things that entertain me don't always jibe with the things that entertain the American public.

For example, Glee drew 26.8 million viewers for its post-Super Bowl special on Sunday night. The Nielsen Co. tells us that people love the show, yet the only way I'd watch Glee is if I was strapped into one of those torture chairs that had the metal tongs that hold your eyelids open.

Meanwhile, later that night I had no problem giving up two hours of my life to watch Disclosure, the tepid sexual-harassment-with-a-twist 1994 office drama starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. Disclosure's combination of Douglas' ferocious mullet, Moore's post-boob job sex appeal, and the outstanding use of cutting edge fiber optic technology (Electronic mail! Dial-up video chats!) gets me every time.

Which leads me to Alex Rodriguez, naturally.

As you probably know, 111 million Super Bowl XLV viewers witnessed Cameron Diaz feed the Yankees third baseman popcorn on Sunday. This angered many people for the simple fact that many people deeply dislike Alex Rodriguez.

I'm guessing the groans that emitted from house parties across the country could be heard from outer space. My voice was not among the chorus, however. My reaction was one of instant jubilation, my hands shooting skyward like Aaron Boone after making contact with a flat knuckle ball.

You have to understand, A-Rod has become my bastion for unintentional comedy. I believe the man's an accidental genius of the modern media. It took time for me to warm up to him — things were a bit loosey-goosey for awhile there — but now I honestly couldn't imagine a world without him.

You remember the old cartoon Mr. Magoo, featuring the titular hero as a blind (senile? incontinent?) elderly gentleman who stumbled into one mess after another without ever knowing the madness he left in his wake?

That's A-Rod.

I've come to appreciate how effortlessly he causes a scene. Most public figures who thrive on controversy — your Kanye Wests, Bill O'Reillys, Dustin Diamonds, et al. — do so by manufacturing a shtick that keeps people talking. Their currency is relevance at the water cooler.

Rodriguez stays in the conversation without even trying. He somehow manages to be both painfully self-aware and completely aloof at all times. Whether it's giving friendship-busting Esquire interviews, being unable to choose a nationality for the World Baseball Classic, spooking infielders with loud noises, dating muscular strippers (that includes Madonna), celebrating World Series wins by exclaiming "Now we're gonna party!" you name it ... the kid stays in the picture.

Sunday he did it again. On the biggest sports day of the year, A-Rod became a national talking point without being anywhere near the playing field. His legion of detractors were reminded why they loathe him, and all he had to do was be fed a snack by a beautiful, hugely famous celebrity worth tens of millions of dollars.

Like I said, the man's a genius.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Monday, February 7, 2011

To understand Yankee rotation woes, start at the roots

If you're looking for a scapegoat as you stare at the Yankees' funny-if-it-wasn't-so-sad starting rotation, you might as well go with Joba Chamberlain. The man's already a human punching bag at this point, so I doubt he'll mind.

Had Chamberlain developed as the team expected, the departure of Andy Pettitte wouldn't feel like such a cataclysmic event. In an ideal world, the Yankees would have entered 2011 with Chamberlain and Hughes already entrenched as established talents to pair with CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. The only issue — other than getting Burnett back on the grid, of course — would be finding a fifth starter, a problem they'd share with approximately 85 percent of the teams in baseball.

Hughes has held up his end of the bargain, an 18-game winner in 2010 who appears on his way to a productive career. But Chamberlain's struggles have become emblematic of the organization's failure as a whole when it comes to developing starting rotation talent.

Think about it. Between the time Pettitte arrived on the scene in 1995 and now, how many productive starters has the minor league system churned out besides Hughes?

(I'll give you a minute ... or two ... or three.)

Here's what I came up with:

  • Ted Lilly was a young lefty with talent dealt away in exchange for Jeff Weaver in 2002. (Obviously, an awesome decision.)

  • Chien-Ming Wang wasn't exactly homegrown (he was an amateur free-agent signing in 2000), but he developed into a legitimate front-line starter before injuries derailed his career and wiped out the team's Taiwanese fanbase.

  • Chase Wright was pretty great, if you define great as an ability to give up four-consecutive homers at Fenway Park then drop off the face of the planet like Ray Finkle.

  • Ian Kennedy was a promising right-hander with attitude issues who was shipped out of town as part of the Curtis Granderson deal.

And then there's this sobering bit of perspective: My buddy Howie pointed out that when Hughes won his sixth career game, he set the club record for victories by a first-round pick.

How is that possible?

As history and World Series flags indicate, this obviously hasn't hurt the franchise all that much. But the business of the game has changed in recent years. Teams now put a far greater emphasis on homegrown pitching talent, and they're less apt to let a young ace get to the open market. Ten years ago, the Yankees would have been licking their chops as Felix Hernandez entered his walk season. Now they'd probably have to give up Jesus Montero, Granderson and a Derek Jeter DNA sample just to get the Mariners in the same room.

The fact that the Yankees were able to get their hands on Sabathia was an anomaly in that respect. And the whiff on Cliff Lee hurts double since those opportunities simply don't come around as often as they once did.

This isn't to say the Yankees have no way of acquiring premium pitching from an outside source, but we're learning you'll probably have to pay outrageously for it. Remember when the Yankees acquired David Cone from the Blue Jays for a bag of baseballs and a signed Alanis Morissette CD? Those days are over.

The Yankees seem to have 400 catchers ready for the Bronx, but it's unclear what kind of pitching talent they have in the pipeline. Potential No. 5 starter Ivan Nova is a mid-level prospect at best. Andrew Brackman, their 2007 first-round pick, is 25 and yet to make any impact. Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances are raw prospects with potential, but neither are likely to make a big-league contribution until 2012 at the earliest.

So why haven't the Yankees been able to develop their own starting pitching ... and what needs to be done to change that? These are questions best directed toward Damon Oppenheimer and Mark Newman, the brains behind the Yankees' draft and farm strategies.

Whoever is in charge, it needs to be fixed, or the Yankees are about to become dinosaurs in more ways than one.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Core no more: Andy Pettitte calls it a career

If you're like me, watching Andy Pettitte sitting in front of the media to announce his retirement on Friday had the effect of your mind blowing out of the back of your skull.

Part of me will always see Pettitte and think of the 24-year-old kid who helped return the franchise to glory back in 1996. I'm 30 years old, which makes Pettitte the first great Yankee that I feel like I saw all the way through.

I grew up idolizing Don Mattingly, but he was already in his late-twenties and an established star by the time I truly started following baseball. With Pettitte, it was different. He entered the farm system in 1991, right around the time my parents got me a subscription to the team-published Yankees Magazine for Christmas.

I remember sifting through a relentless number of ads from Nobody Beats the Wiz, Citibank, and Hitachi to read about the prospects in the system, among them a left-hander who was dominating the minor leagues the way the franchise thought Brien Taylor would.

By the time Pettitte reached the Yankees in '95, he had run up an impressive 51-22 mark in various levels of the system. Pettitte knew how to win even when he didn't know what he was doing yet. He won 21 games in his first full season in 1996, and had he never played another year, he had already created a legacy with his unforgettable 8 1/3-inning performance in Game 5 of the World Series against the Braves.

Pettitte compiled some impressive numbers over 16 seasons, statistics worthy of Cooperstown consideration. He retires at 240-138 with a 3.88 ERA over 3,055.1 innings. He won 14 or more games 12 times and never posted a losing season. He has a Major League-record 19 victories in the postseason, including six wins in clinching scenarios, also a record. He owns five World Series rings, the most for a Yankee starter since Whitey Ford.

It's easy to forget parts of Pettitte's career that don't fit True Yankee™ criteria. He authored one of the worst starts in Yankees postseason history in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series. He left town for three years to pitch for the Houston Astros. And there was the HGH admission in 2007, a black mark that may ultimately keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

But we never held any of Pettitte's faults against him, mainly because he took ownership of his mistakes. He made no excuses following his disaster in Arizona, even as we learned he had been inadvertently tipping his pitches. He left for Houston in 2004 to be closer to his family, and his respectful exit from New York left the door open for his return three years later.

As for the PED admission? Pettitte provided the template for which all busted users should follow. Own up to it, explain why you did it ... and move on. His buddy Roger should have taken notes.

Pettitte said on Friday that Cliff Lee's decision to sign with the Phillies made him feel like he had "an obligation" to come back. Ultimately, he decided his time had come, however, and you have to respect a guy who retires one year too soon rather than one year too late.

Pettitte heads off into the sunset, reducing the Core Four to the decidedly less-catchy Core Three. Jorge Posada will probably be next to go, and maybe now he'll finally begin to receive the level of admiration he deserves. Pettitte's importance to the team has always been understood, which is why his exit already has fans trying to figure out what it means for the 2011 Yankees.

Not here, though. Today is all about No. 46, a player who always made following the Yankees better. I'm proud to say I got to see him all the way through.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Yankees hope quantity begets quality in back-end rotation hunt

The Yankees agreed to terms with Freddy Garcia on Tuesday, the latest in a succession of bargain basement signings of once-great pitchers rendered ordinary (or worse) by age, injuries — or in the case of Bartolo Colon — the soft late-night glow of the refrigerator.

This strategy was last employed with success by the 1989 Cleveland Indians, which would be cause for encouragement if it didn't occur in the fictional world of the movie Major League.

(Seriously, this is the only example I can think of where this strategy was effective.)

Signing ostensibly "over-the-hill" players with the hope of a return to form is a very un-Yankee like move. These are the types of transactions usually reserved for luxury tax-pocketing bottom-feeders of baseball. Witnessing the Evil Empire pulling the same routine is jarring to say the least.

It gives you an idea of how thin the pitching market really is this offseason. As long as Andy Pettitte keeps up his Brett Favre routine, Brian Cashman has little choice but to throw crap against the wall and hope something sticks.

The Yankees had a similar dearth in rotation depth back in 2005 only to be miraculously bailed out by Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon, two men now remembered as one-hit wonders on the level of Hoobastank.

Cashman is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again this season. If Pettitte stays gone, Garcia, Colon, Mark Prior, Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova will all get their shot to claim the final two spots in the rotation.

There's no hiding that this is a huge gamble for the Yankees. This is a potentially season-wrecking problem for which there's no easy solution. If none of the pitchers prove up to the task — and let's face it, that's certainly possible — the Yankees will be staring down the barrel of a dark October.

They're going to need some luck. Like with Prior and Colon, the Garcia signing is an admission of that on some level. Cashman knows he doesn't have any ideal fits, but the more pitchers he involves in the process the better his odds that he hits on another Chacon or Small.

It's the same story, different day for the Yankees, who continue their scramble to create a rotation while simultaneously praying Pettitte decides Deer Park can wait another year.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.