Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Can Rafael Soriano hack it? We'll find out soon enough

It's probably unfair to think of Mel Hall when I see Rafael Soriano, but I really can't help it.

Hall, a top run-producer for some awful early 90s Yankees teams, was known as a malcontent who was eventually shipped out of town when the Buck Showalter/"Stick" Michael regime took hold.

Despite his decent production (he had back-to-back 80-RBI seasons in '91 and '92), Hall was a selfish player with a mean streak, particularly toward a shy rookie by the name of Bernabe Williams, who was driven to tears by the outfielder's insults.

"You can afford to have one asshole if you surround him with 24 good guys," Showalter once said, summing up one of his 43,000 roster philosophies. "But if you have more than that, then the assholes are going to befriend those who might be good guys, and pretty soon it's a problem."

(Buck Showalter, everybody!)

Of course, it's not entirely fair to put Hall and Soriano on the same island of misfit toys. Soriano lies in bed at night thinking if he made a mistake coming to New York. Hall lies in a prison cot pondering whether it was wise to have sex with a 12-year-old girl.

But during the non-statutory rape phase of his life, Hall exuded the same whiff of negative energy we see from Soriano now. Watching the reliever scowl and sulk on the mound Tuesday night was maddening — as if throwing a batting-practice fastball to Paul Konerko was somehow home-plate umpire Greg Gibson's fault.

Soriano's numbers speak for themselves. He has a 7.84 ERA. He's allowed eight walks and nine earned runs through 11 appearances. He's had exactly one 1-2-3 inning. The bridge to Mariano has become the bridge to nowhere.

And then there's the attitude. Deadly serious, dour even. Soriano may be the anti-Swichalicious. To his credit, Soriano faced the music on Tuesday, a step in the right direction after his famous blow-off of reporters following a poor April 5 performance against the Twins.

The over-arching question, of course, is this: Does Soriano have the necessary mental makeup to survive here?

No one's ever going to feel sorry for the Yankees when it comes to free agency, and they shouldn't. New York has such wealth in its piggy bank that the system is basically rigged to allow the franchise to remain successful.

In NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, many of his comments about the perceived dangers of the labor battle seemed to be thinly-veiled potshots at what baseball has allowed to happen with financially-mighty teams like the Yankees.

That said, the Yankees do have to deal with a variable most teams don't, that being the risk of an incoming free agent not having the personality to handle the market and expectations brought upon by salary. What makes it doubly dangerous for Brian Cashman and Co. is that you don't find out until after a guaranteed check has been cut.

It'd be unfair to file Soriano into the "can't-hack-it-in-NY" category after one month. But it might not be a bad idea to walk over to the file cabinet and open up a nice space between Rogers, Kenny and Weaver, Jeff, either. You know, just in case.

"It’s not been easy for me," Soriano said after the game. "I’ve tried to figure out how to do the same that I did last year. I’ve been struggling right now, but I’ll take it, forget all that tonight, come back tomorrow and find out."

Let's hope so, 35 million times over.

Dan Hanzus can be reached at or on Twitter @danhanzus.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An open letter to Lance Berkman

Dear Lance,

Hey bud, how are you? You don't know me, but I'm a Yankees fan who followed your three-month stay with the team last year.

I'm just checking in to say hi, and also to see what's been going on with you lately. I was at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, and I must tell you, I was shocked by your appearance. You looked like a new man — fit, muscular, a modern-day Thor in baseball pants. It made me wonder if you spent the entire winter on one of those Ivan Drago treadmills with the 87-degree incline. Do you have one of those machines? I bet LaRussa made you get it. That dude's such a commie!

Not to dwell on it, but I have to tell you pal, you don't look anything like the Lance I knew. That dude had the mobility of my 91-year-old grandfather. I remember one game last summer where you backpedaled to retrieve a pop up behind first base and tipped over like a 15-year-old girl at a keg party in the woods. I wondered if you'd ever be able to get up. You did. In a way, we all did. It was like a little snapshot of the human spirit.

Six months later, you're chasing down balls in the gap as the starting right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. Imagine that!

Your marked improvement in appearance and agility isn't the only thing that's caught my eye. I notice you're raking at a prodigious rate, which is a lot different than your Bomber days! You have six homers and 15 RBI this month, which — impossible as it may seem — is already four homers and six RBIs more than you had in 42 games in New York.

If you keep up this pace, you'll finish with 54 homers, 135 RBIs and a 1.104 OPS. I definitely could have used that guy when my starting first baseman's hamstring exploded in the playoffs last year! Oh well!

Last thing: I'm supposed to let you know that, in addition to your probable berth on this year's NL All-Star team, you've also been named to the Carl Pavano Underachiever All-Stars, a team of MLB standouts who succeed everywhere but New York.

Pudge Rodriguez will speak at your induction dinner, an event at which you'll probably eat steamed vegetables and a protein shake before checking out early to get in some cage work. Hey, and if you see Rafael Soriano, can you tell him we've already extended an invitation for him to attend next year's event?

Good times!



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, April 14, 2011

Remember The Wolf when it comes to Burnett's fast start

In the movie Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) run into a serious problem when Vega accidentally shoots a man in the face while the pair are transporting the poor bastard from one location to another.

To solve this messy quandary, they call on The Wolf, played by Harvey Keitel, a guy who plays this cleaner-type character in 12-15 other 90s movies. The Wolf assesses the situation, calmly sets a protocol, and puts the two criminals on the path to continued freedom.

After Vega and Winnfield finish "brain detail" in the garage of abetting homeowner Quentin Tarantino, the homeowner remarks how he can't believe it's even the same car.

The Wolf makes it clear there's still work to be done.

"Well, let's not start sucking each other's dicks quite yet."

It's one of roughly four million classic throwaway lines in Pulp Fiction, and it reminds me of how a Yankee fan should feel about A.J. Burnett's 3-0 start.

Burnett was great for six innings of his seven innings on Wednesday, which was good enough for a 7-4 win over the Orioles. After last year's 10-15 disaster, Burnett's 3-for-3 start has been a blessing, even more so when you factor in the regression of Phil Hughes.

But as The Wolf intimated, we're not in the clear with Allan James. He's been a historically good April pitcher in his three seasons in New York — he's never had a losing decision — so really, we haven't learned much other than his ongoing love affair with crap weather in the South Bronx.

Burnett is 3-0 because Burnett has the stuff that most pitchers in baseball dream about. When he's able to harness it, he can be ace-like.

Of course, he's not good at the harness thing. His mechanics and mental headspace have a habit of going out of whack for months at a time. Last year it was June and August, when he went a combined 0-9 with an ERA close to 10.00.

Burnett will have a start when he struggles, just like every pitcher. It will probably come sooner rather than later. If he's able to put that behind him, and come back five days later with the same confidence he had in April, then we'll know we can count on Burnett in a season the Yankees have never had to count on him more.

Even then, I don't think we should do what The Wolf suggested. A high five will suffice, maybe one bro-hug, max. Good times.

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, April 12, 2011

And now a message from your dutiful Yankee blogger

A brief but important program note: I have joined the writing team of Pinstripe Alley, a popular Yankee blog that apparently decided alleys deserved decor like any other piece of architecture. You can find my introductory post right here.

Nothing will change here at River & Sunset, you'll get the same coverage as before. Part of my gig at PA will be posting some straight previews and game recaps, something that will be exclusive to their site. On those gamedays, I'll be sure to give a heads up so you can click over.

Ultimately, it's just another place for people to find my writing, which is always a good thing.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, April 8, 2011

Yanks have date with rival drowning in sea of expectations

With apologies to Tsuyoshi Nishioka's fibula, Thursday was a great day to be a baseball fan.

Well a Yankee fan, anyway.

The (possibly) revitalized A.J. Burnett picked up his second win in as many starts. The Three Amigos — Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano, and Mariano Rivera — made it another six-inning game. I came up with bullpen nickname The Three Amigos. The Yankees and MTA reached a fragile accord, restoring the The Great City Subway Race to its roots.

Best of all, New York's two biggest rivals each fell to 0-6 on the season.

The plight of the Rays is understandable. They essentially cashed in their chips in the offseason, dismantled a legitimate contender then sold the fanbase on the whole, "We'll be fine, our farm system is loaded!" angle.

The bad news is that for every David Price there are 10 Delmon Youngs. Prospects typically need time to acclimate themselves at the big-league level. It's a process that can take seasons, not days.

I'm not saying the Rays are dead, but when you remove your best all-around player, your best right-handed starter, your biggest home run threat, and blow up your entire bullpen, you can't just hand out a bunch of new uniforms and expect the kids to save the day.

Sure, the financial limitations of the franchise played a big part in this, but that doesn't make it any better. The Rays built themselves into a bonafide powerhouse in the ultra-competitive AL East and now they're starting from scratch. You have to wonder if Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon understood what they were signing up for.

(Assuming Ramirez and Damon understand anything at all.)

As for the Red Sox ... wow. Back in January, I wrote a reaction piece to an article by senior editor Eric Ortiz titled: "2011 Red Sox Will Challenge 1927 Yankees for Title of Greatest Team in Major League History."

The headline says it all, but it's well worth the read anyway, if only for the part where Branch Rickey looks down on Theo Epstein from heaven with proud, watery eyes. It was a shameless piece of work, even for a fanboy posting on a team's regional network. And while the content of that story was (and is) ridiculous, it did provide an accurate snapshot of the level of expectations this Red Sox team is dealing with.

After signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez, Boston is facing a World Series-or bust campaign. The Yankees dealt with the same expectations after bringing aboard Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia in 2009. That they backed up those expectations with a 103-win season and World Series title is admirable. Some may even be able to picture Casey Stengel looking down on Brian Cashman with ... well, you get the picture.

It's easy to be the underdog. Being the favorite is an extra helping of grind piled on a season that has plenty to start with.

The Red Sox are learning that now. Over a 162-game schedule, six losses in April won't make-or-break a season. But dropping a six-pack out of the gate is different. It's a bad-vibe monster that can infect a club.

That's what makes this weekend's Yankees-Red Sox series the most compelling early-season meeting between the rivals since 2005. The Red Sox aren't playing for their season, but if they were to lose two of three, or gasp, get swept and drop to 0-9, it will become a national story.

I don't see that happening. Boston gets the soft underbelly of the Yankees' rotation the next two days in the potentially-injured Phil Hughes and unproven Ivan Nova. Playing at home will surely boost their confidence level, too ... unless they get booed out of the building during player introductions. The fact that we're even discussing this is pretty remarkable.

Being the favorite is a good thing. But with great hype comes great responsibility. I don't think I'm alone in hoping the Saux will need at least three more days to sort it all out.

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, April 5, 2011

Yankees let one slip away, Soriano has lesson to learn

Tonight we learned once again that unless it's an injury, roster move, or knee-slappingly hilarious DUI arrest, everything you read in spring training means nothing.

Take Rafael Soriano for instance. When Brian Cashman the Yankees signed the reliever away from the Rays in January, he brought with him a dominant recent resume but also a reputation for being something of, well, a dick.

We heard the whispers. That he was sullen, withdrawn, unable or unwilling to buy into the idea of team — essentially the exact type of player the Yankees purged from their clubhouse during the rise of the dynasty.

"Hey Mel Hall, you like making Bernie Williams cry because he wears funny-looking glasses? Have fun in Japan, champ."

Don't let the crooked hat and country boy gimmick you see on Yankeeography fool you. Gene Michael was a stone cold assassin.

The Yankees denied the rumors Soriano was a poor character guy, and to make sure of it, they put the $35-million setup man's locker right next to Mariano Rivera. It was as if they believed Soriano would go from moody outcast to noble champion by process of osmosis.

It made for a lot of spring training copy for the beat guys, but what was dubious then is laughable now. After Soriano helped kick away a sure win for CC Sabathia and the Yankees on Tuesday night, he was nowhere to be found in the clubhouse afterward. That's right — the Yankees' multi-million dollar closer-in-wait couldn't bring himself to face the media ... on April 5.

If he's pulling this crap now, can you even imagine how he'll handle failure when the games mean something? (Must. Ignore. Terrible. Feeling. Of. Dread.)

It was a bad night for several Yankees. An uncomfortable-looking Derek Jeter was blown away by a fresh-off-Tommy-John Joe Nathan to end the game. Dave Robertson couldn't pick up Soriano, and Nick Swisher couldn't pick up Robertson, misplaying Delmon Young's blooper into a three-run double. Boone Logan pitched scared, hanging the Yankees in the process.

And then there was Joe Girardi. The manager stood by his decision to pull a cruising Sabathia after seven scoreless innings and 104 pitches, plugging in Soriano despite the Yankees holding a four-run lead at the time.

It was a curious decision to use Soriano in that spot, and a fairly clear sign Girardi isn't quite sure how to handle the most expensive non-closer in bullpen history just yet.

In a non-save, non-hold situation, the logical move would've been to let Robertson start the inning. After all, if you're not going to give Robertson the seventh-inning job, and you won't let him enter a 4-0 game in the eighth inning, then why exactly do you have David Robertson?

Girardi was nonplussed by the insinuation Soriano shouldn't have been in the game or isn't wired to enter non-save situations.

“Soriano is my eighth-inning guy,” the manager said, according to the LoHud Blog. “By no means is a four-run game in the bag, as we just saw.”

Well, you're kind of missing the point Joe ... but hell ... forget it. Better these losses happen now than September or later. Turn the page and move on. And if anyone sees a millionaire setup man moping around the city tonight, please tell him that facing the music is part of the job here.

You ain't at the Trop no more, kid.

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.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hughes, Subway Race open with thud in 2011

You've crossed me, Yankee Stadium. You've gone and done it real good this time.

Jacking up parking rates to $35 per car was dastardly enough. But messing with the Great City Subway Race? Have you no decency?

Not even George Costanza would have green-lighted this during his days in your front office.

What's next? Getting rid of the pinstripes? Letting Bartolo Colon change his uniform number to 3? I bet you made Mariano hike up his socks, too.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about — and really, shame on you if that's the case — the Great City Subway Race is a video interlude that has been played in the middle of the fifth inning for decades in the Bronx, a battle between the B (formerly the C), D, and No. 4 train, all on a race to Yankee Stadium.

As a kid, this was always a highlight of trips to the Stadium. Now it's been raped and pillaged by Subway, the race's official sponsor. The B, D and 4 trains have been replaced by the — wait for it — Road Gray, Midnight Blue, and Pinstripes. Blerg.

River Avenue Blues first broke the story on opening day. It made me sick to my stomach, not unlike how I feel after drunkenly wolfing down a meatball hero from Subway. In case I didn't make this clear: Eff you, Subway.

Luckily, the Yankees' series win over the Tigers helped eased the pain. They set a franchise record with nine homers through three games, with Mark Teixeira's fast start (three homers, seven RBIs) a welcome sight after the .135 average that buried the Yankees and my fantasy team last April.

The biggest concern right now has to be Phil Hughes. The right-hander has an enormously important role on this team, so watching him try to sneak a 88-mph fastball by Miguel Cabrera on Sunday was obviously disconcerting. Cabrera enjoyed it of course; it's not often you get to take batting practice during live game action.

I was particularly uneasy after reading about pitching coach Larry Rothschild's postgame admission that the team is concerned.

“There’s going to be concern until you see it,” Rothschild told the LoHud Blog. “That’s just natural. … When you get going and you start to see the velocity, then you can relax a little bit. But until then, we’ll try to figure out if there’s any routine that works for him.”

Let's not sugarcoat this: If Hughes is attempting to pitch through some type of arm issue and ends up getting shut down, the Yankees will have a potentially season-busting situation on their hands.

Joe Girardi has a borderline rotation as it is. There's simply not enough depth here to sustain losing Hughes, an 18-game winner last year who is being counted on to take the next step.

What we saw Sunday was a pitcher with Javier Vazquez-type stuff, and we all know that won't get it done in the American League. (Poor Javy, his stuff may not be good enough for the NL anymore either.)

The Yankees last missed the playoffs in 2008, a team that this year's Yankees have been compared to. That '08 team saw its season go up in smoke on a June afternoon in Houston, when ace Chien-Ming Wang stepped on third base and blew up his foot ... and career.

That '08 team didn't have the depth to make up for Wang's absence. If the Yankees were to lose Hughes, I imagine a similar scenario playing out here.

Like the new Great City Subway Race, we can only hope Hughes' issues aren't here for the long-term.

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.