Friday, November 30, 2012

Gaping hole at catcher for Yankees with Martin exit

I didn’t see this one coming.
In a surprising development, Russell Martin has decided to leave the New York Yankees for the Pittsburgh Pirates after the Yankees told him they could not afford to meet his contractual demands. Of all the notable Yankee free agents this offseason, Martin was probably the last one most people thought would leave New York.

In free agency, a player getting a lucrative offer from another team is always a possibility. But with their resources, the Yankees do not usually get outbid so this is a major surprise. There can now be no doubt that the Yankees are dead serious about coming in below that $189 million payroll threshold, given their unwillingness to match the two-year $17 million deal offered to Martin by the Pirates.

I never wrote much about Russell Martin on this blog, just a few mentions of praise here and there, namely with regard to his selfless decision to step aside and let a young Matt Wieters play in the 2011 All-Star game and about how his plunking helped bring the Yankees closer to together that year. Martin is one of those baseball players who is a steady presence behind the plate, beloved by his pitchers, but usually does his best work with little fanfare. The Yankees are going to miss him, even if he did struggle offensively through the first half of 2012, as their best catching prospects are still years away from the big leagues.  
At least Martin will have a familiar face to catch in Pittsburgh. AJ Burnett is with the Pirates and will probably welcome his former Yankee teammate with open arms.

Godspeed Russell!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pettitte and Yankees back together again

Well, that was easy!

Less than a day after Andy Pettitte informed the New York Yankees that he has another year of baseball in him, the two sides reached a fair deal that will bring the lefty back to the Bronx.

The deal was easy to negotiate because both sides really wanted each other. Pettitte could have decided to call it quits with no regrets after his comeback this year (he had a good year that was unfortunately interrupted by that freak ankle injury). But when he decided he wanted to keep pitching, the Yankees were the only option for him, especially with Brian Cashman reaching out early in the offseason to make sure Pettitte knew how wide the door was open for a return to the Bronx.

The Yankees desperately needed Pettitte to round out their rotation again. With Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda back in the mix, the Yankees have a solid 1-4 starting rotation and will roll the dice that one of their internal candidates can win the 5th man job. But without Pettitte, the Yankees would have had a gaping hole in the middle of their rotation that would have been costly to fill at a time when they are really trying to stick to a budget.
With the Yankees expected to reach a relatively painless agreement with Mariano Rivera soon, the Key Three (Pettitte, Rivera and Derek Jeter) will be back in the pinstripes together for at least one more year. And that’s critical if the Yankees hope for success in 2013. For all the talk about the Yankees trying to get younger and all the attention Alex Rodriguez and other players receive, the Yankees rely on their core, home-grown veterans more than ever.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Keep the drug cheats out of Baseball Hall of Fame

The next candidates for the Baseball Hall of Fame will be officially announced today, but we already have a good idea of who will make the list. Whether the drug cheats who will appear on the ballot are worthy of induction is another question that for many is difficult to answer, but for me is a no brainer.

I have long argued that baseball players linked to performance-enhancing drugs should not be allowed into the Hall. My position has not changed. But it will be tested for many of the baseball writers now that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will be on the ballot. There will be some writers who will attempt to separate their supposedly clean years when they started to build their Hall of Fame credentials from the latter years of their careers when they were linked to steroids or human growth hormone. That to me is a futile exercise so I have a hard-and-fast rule: if you cheated, you’re out.

That rule has allowed me to draw an unmovable line in the sand, even with players that I have had a great deal of affection for in the past such as Andy Pettitte (whose apparent decision to return for another year is great news for the New York Yankees). Pettitte, to his credit, admitted that he cheated and will likely be kept out of the Hall, even though his career postseason stats build a solid case for induction. I suspect Pettitte will receive a respectable number of votes given his resume and general likeability, but he will fall far short of the Hall of Fame, as he should.

But Pettitte’s probable return means he won’t even be on the ballot for five years after he decides to retire for good so his candidacy can be debated in future years. The writers will face the more immediate test on Bonds, Clemens and some of their contemporaries. There will be a lot of outside pressure from those who believe that rejecting such dominant players would make the Hall selection process a farce, but I hope the writers stick to their guns and keep the drug cheats out.   
Thanks to Keith Allison via Wikipedia for the Clemens photo.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Yankees give fans early reason to be thankful

Happy Thanksgiving fellow Yankee fans! Here’s your gift.

The New York Yankees have re-signed pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who unexpectedly became the #2 man in the starting rotation despite coming from the National League West to the notoriously tough American League East in 2012. Truthfully, Kuroda pitched better than ace CC Sabathia at times and helped the Yankees survive Andy Pettitte’s unfortunate ankle injury. I had the pleasure of watching Kuroda pitch in person several times this year at Yankee Stadium, including in Game 3 of the American League Division Series (forever known as the Raul Ibanez game), and each time he was impressive.

This was a no-brainer for the Yankees. They would have had a sizeable hole in their starting rotation if Kuroda left to return to the West Coast or Japan. And for once the Yankees actually benefitted from baseball’s new labor agreement because it meant that whichever MLB team signed Kuroda would have given up a first-round draft pick, a seemingly high sacrifice for a pitcher they would only have for another year or two tops.  

These contract negotiations usually drag on so it’s nice to see the Yankees reach a deal with such a key player so quickly. Just something else to be thankful for.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Marlins betray South Florida again

Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has screwed his fans over once again.

Loria and his minions have orchestrated yet another trade to rid themselves of their remaining high-priced superstars: Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. Make no mistake about it, while the Marlins may have gotten some good, young talent from the Toronto Blue Jays, this trade was all about shedding most of the payroll that Loria agreed to take on only a year ago.

Not that many South Floridians are surprised by the salary purge. It has happened to them before twice with the Marlins gutting their team after World Series winning campaigns, most recently in 2003 against the New York Yankees (that one hurt after the thrilling Game 7 defeat of the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series). I suppose the most surprising thing about the move was that Loria didn’t even wait for the team to win a championship before dismantling it.

What probably hurts Marlins fans the most is that they will be paying for this beautiful new ballpark for years, with the costs potentially ballooning to as much as $2.4 billion, due to a deal that was considered both controversial and possibly illegal. And despite the sweetheart deal that gives the Marlins the bulk of the money from their new digs, the city and Major League Baseball do not have much leverage to force the Marlins to spend their cash on their payroll, especially with so many empty seats in the place.  

Marlins fans do share some of the responsibility as attendance was rather underwhelming in the first year of their brand-new ballpark when interest should be the highest, particularly after last off-season’s spending frenzy that bought Reyes and other superstars to Miami. I do give a small pass to Marlins fans in the sense that getting to and from that stadium is a transportation nightmare. Perhaps I’m spoiled by being a Yankees fan with three train lines that run to Yankee Stadium, but not having reliable public transportation to and from the ballpark and major South Florida hot spots seems to be a glaring blunder.

But, as the Tampa Bay Rays have seen for years, Floridians are just not as supportive as they should be even when their baseball teams are highly competitive. It’s probably past time for the Rays, a talented young ballclub, to find a home somewhere else. But with this brand-new ballpark, the Marlins and their fans are stuck with each other. Not exactly a match made in heaven.



Saturday, November 17, 2012

MVP voters miss the boat on Jeter’s value to Yankees

Derek Jeter came in seventh place in the voting for American League Most Valuable Player, three spots behind teammate Robinson Cano. The voters really missed the boat on that one. There’s no way Cano was more valuable to the New York Yankees this year than Jeter.

But Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News got it right. He placed Jeter third on his ballot, behind Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera first and Rookie of the Year Mike Trout second. Cabrera helped the eventual American League champion Detroit Tigers during some very rough patches this year and Trout saved the floundering Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (that name really annoys me, should just call them Anaheim Angels) and made them competitive again. As for the Yankees, they wouldn’t have survived a tough battle with the surprisingly scrappy Baltimore Orioles for division supremacy if it wasn’t for Derek Jeter. He carried the Yankees on his back this year, especially during times when the rest of the lineup, Cano included, disappeared.

Perhaps the voters rewarded Cano over Jeter because of his late-season surge or his sexier power numbers. But I think Feinsand got it right because he covers the team every day and could see how Jeter dragged his bruised and battered body out to shortstop every day. Cano, as great a player as he is, simply doesn’t have those leadership skills that make teammates want to follow him into battle. No one has ever questioned Jeter’s work ethic or his desire (except for George Steinbrenner, of course, who picked on everyone). Cano still regularly faces those questions despite years of putting up great numbers. Not really the definition of a most valuable player.

If you catch a Yankee player in an honest moment, I bet every single one of them would say that Jeter was more valuable than anyone on the team this year, including Cano. It’s too bad the MVP voters missed the boat on this one so badly. Not that Jeter needs to add to his Hall of Fame resume. It just would have been nice if most of the voters had gotten this one right.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dickey lone bright spot in bad season for Mets

A hearty congratulations goes out to RA Dickey for capturing the National League Cy Young award in a decisive victory.

Dickey was the lone bright spot in a bad season for the New York Mets, the only reason I even bothered to watch Mets games this season (when they weren’t playing the New York Yankees of course). He joined legendary Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden as the only Cy Young award winners in New York Mets history by winning 20 games – on a bad Mets team that only won 74 games – and leading the National League in strikeouts, innings, complete games and shutouts.  

Aside from now being an award-winning pitcher, Dickey is a remarkable human being. He literally has climbed the highest mountains to help others. His bravery in writing a book detailing the sexual abuse he suffered as a child should be acknowledged and rewarded.

But that’s not why Dickey won the award. His was a season for the ages and deserved the recognition. It’s just too bad it happened in such a down year for the Mets. But it did give Mets fans something to hold on to and that should be celebrated.

Thanks to dbking via Wikipedia for the RA Dickey photo.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shocker! Trout, Harper Rookies of the Year

Congratulations to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, two young players who brought a lot of excitement back to the game of baseball, for their Rookie of the Year victories.

I had the pleasure of watching Harper play in his hometown when I went to a game at the Nationals ballpark in Washington, DC during the last week of the regular season (more from that visit later). What was really cool was the way the crowd embraced their players, especially Harper. There was a noticeable jump in energy every time he stepped up to the plate, even though he didn’t have a great game.

The New York Yankees don’t have the equivalent of a Harper or Trout, that very young exciting baseball player that completely energizes the crowd. They haven’t had that since a young Derek Jeter came on to the scene to take over the shortstop gig in 1996, becoming a unanimous Rookie of the Year winner himself in the process. Jeter is now a legendary veteran and a future Hall of Famer and while his importance to the Yankees cannot be overstated, he naturally doesn’t generate the same surge of excitement as he did when he first came on the scene.

Robinson Cano is a great talent, but his manner of play doesn’t elicit tremendous enthusiasm from the Yankees faithful, some of whom view him as lazy or just too laid back. And it’s not even clear if the Yankees will be able to hold on to Cano when he becomes a free agent next year, given what we’re hearing about his agent Scott Boras’ demands and the Yankees hard line on payroll. Of course, this is all early posturing, but it does not bode well for the possibility of a contract deal both sides can live with.

Brian Cashman has said he will not de-age his roster just for the sake of doing so, meaning that older veterans will likely continue to be the norm for the Yankees (not that they have a lot of choice given the contracts they are locked into). That’s a shame because young blood like Trout and Harper can do a lot to energize an aging team and their fans.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sad divorce for Jason Bay and Mets

Talk about a marriage that was doomed from the start.

The New York Mets have announced that they are parting ways with outfielder Jason Bay after three years of marriage. It’s not a surprising announcement given that Bay never turned into the player the Mets were paying him to be. And of late the Mets have been perfectly willing to eat contracts just to get a declining or problematic player off their roster.

It was never clear that Bay really wanted to play in Queens. He waited three weeks before accepting the Mets’ contract offer back in 2009. At his introductory press conference, Bay insisted that he really did want to play for the Mets. But I always had the impression that Bay only signed with the Mets because he could not get a better offer from the Boston Red Sox, even though he was a New York Yankees killer in his time with the Saux. I was perfectly happy to see him land in Queens, preferring the Yankees only face him six times a year instead of 19.

It’s really sad that the marriage between the Mets and Jason Bay didn’t work out. But the upside of a divorce is that both parties can make a fresh start. Hopefully, Bay will find his old self in a different uniform and the Mets can open up his spot to someone who can make a difference in that lineup.
Thanks to slgckgc via Wikipedia for the Jason Bay photo.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Soria to replace Soriano with Yankees?

It’s starting to look more and more likely that the New York Yankees will hire a new guy to set up for Mariano Rivera.
Rivera’s decision not to retire was very welcome, especially by yours truly. But it did quickly take the fun out of what would have been a fascinating negotiation between the Yankees and Scott Boras, with Boras eager to help the Yankees spend their millions to preserve their brand (translation: to help Rafael Soriano strike it rich again). Since the Yankees seem relatively confident that Mo will recover from his injury, the only question left by letting Soriano walk is who takes his place as the primary set-up man and replacement for Mo if he can’t pitch for whatever reason. If you believe Joakim Soria’s agent, and you should take anything any agent says with a grain of salt, Soria wants to be that guy.

The Yankees have been infatuated with Soria for years, reportedly once trying to trade then top-prospect Jesus Montero for him. They were never able to pry him away from the Kansas City Royals, but now that he is a free agent, perhaps he is eager to leave KC for the bright lights of the Big Apple. Soria apparently worships Mo and would be willing to relinquish his job as a closer just to pitch alongside the Yankees legendary closer, according to this report. And Mariano, being the great guy and teammate that he is, would happily mentor the youngster who could one day permanently take his place, just as he has mentored David Robertson and other young Yankee pitchers.
It seems like Soria could be a good fit for the Yankees. But it’s a big question if he will sign a contract of the length and money that fits within the Yankees newfound budget austerity. I hope it comes together. Stay tuned, folks and Happy Election Day. Go vote!

Thanks to Keith Allison via Wikipedia for the photo.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sigh of relief as Mo will return to Yankees

I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief now that Mariano Rivera has decided he will return to the New York Yankees for at least one more year.

In my heart, I know that the day will come when Mo decides to hang up his spikes and go home to his family for good. But I’m not quite ready for that so I anxiously awaited word about whether Mariano would call it quits or come back to close games for the only team he has ever played for.

All Brian Cashman was waiting for was Mo’s decision. Now that Mo has made that choice, Cashman has indicated that he and Mariano’s agent will move quickly to finalize a new deal for the Yankees legendary closer. Mo’s return from his devastating injury does not appear to be a major obstacle as Joe Girardi & Co were pleased with the progress Mariano was making in his rehab. Mo’s last contract negotiations also went so smoothly, they were over before you could even blink, namely because Mariano, probably generous to a fault, had no desire to squeeze every last dollar from the Yankees, even though he had so much leverage over his team (including competing interest from the Boston Red Sox).

Mo’s return warms my heart, but Scott Boras probably didn’t have the same feelings of joy when he heard the news. Boras would have had tremendous leverage to negotiate a rich, multi-year deal for his client Rafael Soriano had Mariano decided to retire. But the chances of Soriano staying with the Yankees took a significant hit once Mo decided to come back. Hal Steinbrenner seems determined to get to that $189 million payroll threshold, which means he will not be able to pay both Rivera and Soriano $14-$15 million each. He’s going to have to choose one and Cashman’s public eagerness to work up a new deal for Mo tells me the Yankees have already made their choice.

Not that there’s much of a choice to be made. Soriano filled in nicely and I wish him well, but there is only one Mariano Rivera and he will be back where he belongs next year, on a mound for the New York Yankees. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Game on for Yankees and Rafael Soriano

Rafael Soriano officially opted out of his contract with the New York Yankees yesterday. That means the chess game between his camp and the Evil Empire (I’ve always loved that nickname) starts now.

I can’t blame Soriano for wanting a richer deal after the year he had, seamlessly stepping into Mariano Rivera’s legendary shoes to help the Yankees clinch the American League East title. But unlike during his last free agency, Soriano and his agent Scott Boras should not expect a last-minute lucrative offer from the Yankees to bail them out.

When Hal Steinbrenner signed Soriano, he did so over the objections of general manager Brian Cashman, who thought it was a mistake to lose a draft pick to sign Soriano as a set-up man and openly said so. I doubt Steinbrenner is going to overrule Cashman this time around, especially if he expects the general manager to meet his mandate to cut payroll to that $189 million threshold and avoid the penalties that would come due under the new collective bargaining agreement. The Yankees don’t have a lot of payroll flexibility and letting Soriano walk away would help reduce their salary commitments.

But Soriano and Boras do have the leverage of uncertainty surrounding Mariano Rivera, both on his desire to pitch for another year and his recovery from a devastating knee injury. It’s still unclear what Mo’s plans are and while I hope he returns to the Yankees, Cashman & Co might be worried about not having a closer if he ultimately decides to retire and may give in to Boras demands.

These negotiations will be fascinating. Let the battle begin!