Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general


Can the Yankees Contend?

A month ago, I wrote that the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, needed to get off his duff and get to work retooling the Yankees roster. While I would like to take credit for the moves he made since, I doubt that had anything to do with it. But, other than a bolt-from-the-blue move (hello, Max Scherzer?) or some work on the roster fringes, Cashman has revamped the Yankees for the 2015 season. Now the question is, can the rebuilt squad contend?

First, a caveat: at this point of the year, a team would have to be facing serious problems to think they couldn’t contend. Between parity and the two wild-cards in each league, even seriously flawed teams have to think they have at least a puncher’s chance at earning a playoff spot. Even with the problems the Yankees face heading into 2015, contention is a definite probability. But then again, on paper the Marlins, Mets and Brewers are all contenders, too. No, these are the Yankees and what I’m talking about is actually being a force to reckoned with come October.

Well, the short answer is: probably not. It isn’t for lack of talent. The “back of the baseball card” theory of talent evaluation would lead you to believe that, if everything breaks right, the Yankees could win 105 games and sweep into the playoffs a prohibitive favorite to win it all. But there are too many questions, too many “ifs” and too many aging players on this roster to truly believe that will happen. Here’s a short list of things that need to break right:

*CC Sabathia‘s knee is fully healed and doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, it turns out the bum knee has been his problem for the past three seasons and he turns in a vintage 20 win, 200+ inning, 200+ strikeout season.
*Masahiro Tanaka‘s right elbow doesn’t reach home plate before one of his splitters some fine June afternoon.
*Ivan Nova comes back from Tommy John surgery with new found command and focus.
*Michael Pineda proves that last season wasn’t just a pine-tar induced haze and becomes the pitcher the Yanks thought they were getting when they sent the jar of mayo Jesus Montero to Seattle.
*Reports of Nathan Eovaldi developing a killer change up to go along with his 96 mph fastball are true and he realizes the promise that made scouts drool.
*Dellin Betances turns into the kind of closer that makes fans say, “Mariano who?”
*Rob Refsnyder plays an acceptable second base and hits around .290, while fellow rookie Jose Pirela turns into the type of super-sub Yankee fans were expecting to see from Martin Prado.
*Mark Teixeira stays healthy enough to play 140+ games and stops trying to hit every pitch into Hoboken.
*Didi Gregorius hits left handed pitching well enough, and Chase Headley’s back stays strong enough, to keep Brendan Ryan glued to the bench.
*Carlos Beltran plays less like Carlos Danger and more like Carlos Beltran.
*Alex Rodriguez realizes his time has passed and retires. Before Spring Training opens.

And that’s a short list of things that need to happen for the Yankees to be a major force this year. I actually think Pineda will be fine, that Eovaldi will prove to be a steal, that Refsnyder and Gregorius will develop into a very good keystone combination. I doubt any of the rest of the things listed above happen: Tex is a shell of the player the Yanks signed 6 seasons ago, Sabathia seems fated to being a sub-.500, over 5.00 ERA type pitcher these days and even if Nova comes back strong, he’ll remain the enigmatic headcase he’s been for the past 3+ years. Beltran is entering his age 38 season battered from his injury history. And sadly, A-Rod will never walk away from the $60 million still owed him, even if he’s hitting .150 without any homers on the ledger. As for Tanaka, the type of injury he’s nursing should have been addressed with surgery last summer, not the wing-and-a-prayer approach both he and the team are taking.

If things really go bad, the Yankees are looking to get 150 or more innings from an old Chris Capuano, and in all likelihood shuttle guys like Chase Whitley in and out of the rotation during the season. We’ll probably get to see the MLB debuts of stud prospects like Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino, a year early. Meanwhile, the cache of aging and injury prone players leaves Joe Girardi filling out a line-up card with Ryan, Gregorius, Pirela, Chris Young, Austin Romine and Mason Williams all starting for extended periods. If you want to say “yuck,” feel free. (You’re also excused if you’re unsure who those guys are. Trust me. They’re baseball players.)

That’s the conundrum facing both the Yankees front office and fans this upcoming season. Everything goes great, 95 wins and a division title. Everything goes wrong, 65 wins and the Hal is asking the Astros for directions out of the basement.


Where Art Thou, Brian?

It’s time to take a break from politics for a moment and concentrate on that other topic of extreme national importance: Baseball.

Specifically, the only team that really matters to the sport: the New York Yankees. Because let’s face it, whether you live in Alaska or New York, the Yankees are the team that drives MLB. They’re kind of like Barack Obama. You either love them or hate them, but you can’t ignore them. The last thing MLB needs is for their premier team, the one playing in the $1 billion stadium in the largest media market in the world, is to be irrelevant. Remember how wonderfully well the sport fared the last time the Yankees were irrelevant, about 25 years ago? The team in Montreal folded. The Twins and Marlins almost disappeared. Attendance and fan interest waned across the land.

Well, I hate to break the news to MLB, but the Yankees are fast approaching the point of not mattering again. After two consecutive years of not being contenders (and really, the last time they put a serious contender on the field was in 2010), the only news coming out of the south Bronx is that the Human Steroid is attempting to salvage the $60 million owed on his contract. Baseball doesn’t need any more of Alex Rodriguez‘ shenanigans, not after 2+ years of his mea culpas and Fred Astaire impersonations.

What MLB does need is for the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, to stop sleeping and actually get to work rebuilding the team. The Yankees entered this offseason needing a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also had to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.

As of this moment, they need a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also have to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.

This is a nice way of saying that so far, Brian Cashman has done absolutely nothing to address the many roster holes left from the last 3 seasons of roster disasters. That might not be so bad in what is a declining American League East, except the American League isn’t declining any longer. In case you’ve missed it, Boston has done everything imaginable at this point to improve their club. Toronto has done an equally admirable job of improving. Tampa Bay has done what it needed to address the ennui that inevitably set in after a few overly successful seasons. Baltimore ran away with the division last year and made it to the ALCS.

It’s not that the Yankees need to go crazy on retooling, a la the Red Sox, and throw nearly $200 million at older players. But signing a Jon Lester or Max Scherzer would look pretty nice. It’s not that they need to swing a trade for Josh Donaldson, like Toronto, but a Ben Zobrist would look pretty good in pinstripes. It’s not that they need to to pry Andrew Miller away from Baltimore, but they can’t let David Robertson become a repeat of the Robinson Cano debacle from last year.

The Yankees made splashy, but ineffective moves last offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player, but wasn’t really needed – after all, Brett Gardner was rounding out into a solid center fielder with the same skill set. Carlos Beltran would have been a terrific signing – a decade ago. Brian McCann was a nice addition, but questions about how well the laid-back Southerner handles New York will continue until he proves he can. Besides, had Cashman not balked at resigning all-star catcher Russell Martin a few seasons ago, McCann wouldn’t be here.

In short, the front office pogues at MLB need to light a fire under Cashman’s butt. I say that, because it’s becoming more evident with each passing season that the Steinbrenner family can talk all they want about how they share their late patriarch’s desire to win, but the only thing they really care about is the money they’re making from their cash cow. But baseball as a whole needs the Yankees to be more than Hal’s personal ATM. As such, they need to tell Cashman to do something, anything. The roster is too bloated with over-the-hill player on bad contracts? Fine. Gut the roster. Pay off the old guys, bring up the kids for a season or two and start over. It might not be a win-now strategy but it would at least lend itself to some excitement in the Bronx.

Or if that isn’t palatable, then return to the “Steinbrenner Way” and aggressively pursue the best available talent. Go crazy, offer Lester and Scherzer $200 million each. Back up a Brinks truck to Nelson Cruz‘ door. Give Asdrubal Cabrera his own lane across the GWB. Heck, give the A’s everyone not named Gary Sanchez in exchange for Jeff Samardzija.

But whatever you do, don’t just stand pat – or even worse, let your own players walk away. This journey into nothingness does absolutely nothing for the Yankees or baseball.

Now, the Hard Part for the Yankees

The 2013 season has ended uncharacteristically early for the Yankees. Since 1995, the team has played October baseball 17 times. The only miss before this season was in 2008.

Well, this year may be the beginning of a new streak, one many fans aren’t familiar with: one where the Yankees are irrelevant to the postseason for a decade or longer. It’s happened twice in my lifetime. There was a 13 year drought from 1965 – 1976 and then a 15 year absence from 1981-1995. But for a fan under 30, odds are they don’t remember those periods of futility. They are as remote to their experience as the days of Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth. To them, I can only say: “Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

2013 is the season in which age finally caught up to the team. Baseball is a young man’s game, and trying to remain competitive when you’re starting line-up features 6 players over the age of 33 was going to be an adventure. That five of the six suffered serious injury isn’t a huge surprise. That the sixth, RF Ichiro Suzuki, played 148 games this year should be. 2014 will probably be the season when age and the salary cap finally sink the team. Ownership has repeatedly announced they plan to drop payroll below $187 million, a drop of $40 million from this season. Of that, about $93 million is already committed to a handful of players. That leaves precious little to shore up a team that is going to lose some key players, has two key contributors entering free agency and not much in the farm system. Let’s take a look at the internal options for next year – and what can reasonably be expected.

IF: Returning – 1B Mark Teixeira, SS Derek Jeter, SS Eduardo Nunez, UT Jayson Nix, C Chris Stewart, C Francisco Cervelli, C Austin Romine
Free Agents – 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, 1B Lyle Overbay, 1B Travis Hafner, 2B Robinson Cano
Limbo – 3B Alex Rodriguez
In the minors – 2B/3B David Adams, C JR Murphy, 1B Corban Joseph, C Gary Sanchez, 3B/OF Ronnier Mustelier

When you feature three shortstops on your major league roster, you realistically don’t have any. For a team that featured a future Hall-of-Famer at the position since 1996, it’s a strange place to be. Yet the Yankees would be insane if they think Jeter can be an everyday shortstop at age 40, especially coming off a season in which he never healed from a season ending injury in 2012. Do the Yanks stand pat, praying that the talented, but erratic Nunez can blossom while Jeter plays perhaps 30-40 games in the field? Equally concerning is the situation at third, where the safe bet is that PED King Alex Rodriguez will serve most, if not all, of his record 211 game suspension. He didn’t look like a major league caliber fielder during his abbreviated stint this season and the options behind him aren’t terrific. First appears set with the return of Mark Teixeira, but how effective will the 34 year old be coming off major wrist surgery?

But the biggest question of all is what to do about Cano. The guy is talented, but he’s always lacked the inner drive that transforms talent into greatness (ever watch him run out a ground ball or routine double?). He often looks bored and tends to press when the team needs him most. Still, without him the Yankees could face a total power outage in 2014 and beyond. Reports today have him asking for a 10 year, $310 million contract. Given their financial commitments, there’s no way the Bronx Bombers resign him at anything close to that price. But they really don’t have any options at second base, They could get a decent second sacker in free agency, but there aren’t any of Cano’s caliber, or even any viable long term solutions available.

OF: Returning – CF Brett Gardner, LF Alfonso Soriano, RF Ichiro Suzuki, OF Vernon Wells
Free Agents – OF Curtis Granderson
In the minors – LF Zoilo Almonte, CF Melky Mesa, OF Mason Williams, OF Slade Heathcott, OF/IF Addison Maruszak

The outfield could actually be okay next year, provided Soriano and Ichiro don’t break down. Gardner is never going to be a stud outfielder, but does possess speed and a great glove. Wells is a waste of a roster spot at this point, while Almonte showed signs of being at least a quality fourth outfielder in limited duty.

SP: Returning – LHP CC Sabathia, RHP Ivan Nova, RHP David Phelps
Free Agents/Retired – RHP Phil Hughes, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, LHP Andy Pettitte
In the minors – LHP VIdal Nuno, RHP Michael Pineda, LHP Manny Banuelos, LHP Nik Turley

This could be the worst starting rotation in baseball next season. No, really – I’m not joking. The team is losing three members from this year’s rather mediocre staff (unless GM Brian Cashman has aneurysm and resigns Hughes). That leaves an aging and increasingly ineffective CC Sabathia as the lone proven quantity. Ivan Nova has shown flashes, but not consistency. Phelps will probably develop into a reliable back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Adam Warren probably earned a shot at a starting spot with his strong effort out of the bullpen. Barring a free agent signing, that means the Yanks will hope that Pineda, Nuno or Banuelos can come back from injury plagued seasons and turn their talent into major league performance.

RP: Returning – RHP David Robertson, RHP Preston Claiborne, RHP Shawn Kelly, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Adam Warren, LHP David Huff
Free Agents/Retiring – RHP Mariano Rivera, RHP Joba Chamberlain
In the minors – LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Dellin Betances, RHP Brett Marshall

This was the strongest unit for the Yanks in 2013 and looks to be again in 2014. Of course, replacing Mariano Rivera is impossible, but David Robertson should be more than adequate as the closer. The setup corps will suffer from the promotion of Robertson and the likely move of Warren to the rotation, but adding Cabral (who has looked good as a LOOGY) and Betances should be adequate. Chamberlain is addition through subtraction at this point.

The New Yankees: Just like the 1965 Yankees

Ok, so it’s the weekend. Time to take a break from the serious stuff. Time to kick back, relax, drink a cold adult beverage and do something just for fun.

For me, that’s always meant baseball. These days, decrepit knees and faltering eyesight have ended what was once an almost promising career in an over-35 league. (We won’t talk about my misadventures on the field before I turned 35, either). Suffice it to say while my play has never reminded anyone of a major leaguer, I always enjoyed the game. These days, part of my summer routine is to put my feet up and watch my favorite team: the New York Yankees.

I’ve been a fan since the original bad old days, when Ron Blomberg and Fred Stanley were mainstays. I cheered when the team was great, suffered again when they got really bad and jumped for joy when they returned to the pinnacle. These days, turning on a Yankees game is almost a rite of self-immolation. Has the circle turned yet again?

In a word, yes. Last year’s team won their division. This year’s squad will be lucky to finish with an even record. What happened? Sadly, nothing a seasoned fan hasn’t seen coming for a couple of years now. Age, injuries and a depleted farm system have resulted in the current roster of cast-offs, has-beens and never-weres.

Age: Baseball is a young man’s game. Players once were considered on the downside of his career by the time they turned 32. Then, steroids and amphetamines kept guys in their late 30’s playing better than their younger counterparts. Baseball has done a good job on getting the drugs out of the game and once again, players in their mid-30’s are not producing like they did 3 or 4 seasons prior. On the other hand, a rule of thumb is that (except for the occasional phenom) young players need 2 or 3 seasons to become solid contributors.

This is troubling for the Yankees. They field the majors oldest team, with an average age of 32. On most nights, they put 4 players on the field over 35. Three of the starting pitchers are 34 or older and the closer is 43. Toss in that three rookies are playing regularly, while another 4 are pitching regularly, and age is a big problem for the team.

Injuries: The Yankees have an all-star team on the disabled list. It includes players who have transcended the sport to become cultural icons in Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the starting first baseman, starting center fielder and starting catcher, and the starting DH who was also supposed to be the primary backup at first and third base. It’s forced journeymen to play first base, shortstop, third base, catcher, DH and two outfield positions. The result is about what you would expect: going into play last night, the Yankees were next to last in the league in batting average and slugging percentage, last in total hits and doubles and in the bottom third in runs scored. The trends haven’t been positive, either: the team was second in runs scored in April, but dead last in June.

Farm System: The last time the Yankee farm system produced a solid position player was Robinson Cano, in 2005. That’s eight seasons since any Yankee farm hand has proven to be even a league average player. Necessity has forced the Yankees to play one rookie at third base, another about 30% of the time at catcher and they recently called up another to play left field. The combined batting average of those three is .211. Sadly, there isn’t a player in AAA or even AA that looks like a sure-fire major leaguer, either. There are hopes for three AA outfielders and a catcher in A ball, but those players are at least a year (and probably two) before being able to help the major league roster.

At least the pitching has fared better. The Yankees have had a pretty good crop of decent pitchers come up through the system, including mainstays Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova, David Robertson, Adam Warren, David Phelps and Preston Claiborne.

So how does all of this translate into the future? Not very well. Jeter is trying to come back from breaking the same ankle twice at age 39. He is a certain Hall-of-Famer once he retires, but few men have played shortstop at his age. Whether Jeter can remains to be seen; at this point he still hasn’t demonstrated the ability to even get through one game physically. Rodriguez, at 38, is trying to come back from a twice-repaired hip – the type of injury that ends most careers. Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis’s seasons are officially over. Of all the injured starters, only Curtis Granderson has a reasonable shot at coming back at anywhere close to the type of player he was before breaking his wrist. Now toss in the fact that the Yankees management has committed to shed about $50 million in payroll next season, nearly 20% of the team’s current budget. It means the Yankees will likely be finding bargain basement players to man the left side of the infield, catcher, an outfield spot and three of the starting pitchers. Teixeira will be back, but nobody is expecting him to be anything like the player he was five seasons ago. It’s likely that Granderson will be let go in free agency – and there is uncertainty if Cano comes back. Everyone thinks he will be, but his current asking price is actually too rich for this version of Yankee brass.

No, this is looking like the start of another run of futility in the South Bronx. The only question is, how long will this one last?


As some may have noticed, I’ve been writing for Zell’s Pinstripe Blog. Feel free to read my baseball musings there, at

You can still join me here for the latest in political conversation.

RIP George

In case you’ve been under a rock this morning, George M. Steinbrenner III, owner of the greatest sports franchise in history for the past 38 years, passed away around 9:45am after a massive heart attack.He had just celebrated his 80thbirthday on July 4.

George was bombastic, argumentative and at times a bit crazy. But like your slightly off-kilter uncle, George was part of our family – and because he was always a fan first and owner second, we understood and accepted him, even when the rest of the world tried to shun him. We always knew we were part of the Yankees Family, as long as George was around. Yes, he made a ton of money, but unlike other owners in any sport, he put that money back into the team. Ask a fan in Kansas City or Pittsburgh if they would rather have their current ownership or a George Steinbrenner, and the answer is always “George.” As much as the rest of baseball cries foul every time the Yankees sign the best players on the free agent market to multi-million dollar contracts, MLB has never had to step in and force the Yankees to spend their revenue on improving the team (a la the Florida Marlins). Even when the media would hoist him on a petard of his own making, George remained the Boss: large and in charge.

And one thing remained constant throughout the years: winning. When he bought the team in 1973 from CBS, the Yankees had fallen to become a laughing stock. The great stadium was empty on most days and falling into disrepair, the team was terrible and without direction. From the start, the Boss was determined to restore the Yankee legacy. He convinced a broke New York City to repair the destitute field that had once seen immortals like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. He imported new stars to roam a revitalized Yankee Stadium: Mickey Rivers. Willie Randolph. Graig Nettles. Lou Piniella. Bucky Dent. Chris Chambliss. Catfish Hunter. Reggie Jackson. Within three years, the Yankees had returned to the World Series. The next season, the team rewarded George with the first of his seven world championships. In 2009, the new Yankee Stadium was completed and while we were all saddened to see the original go, it truly is worthy of the name Yankee Stadium. George struck again, signing CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Texeira. And once again, the team rewarded him with a world championship.

The public perception of George was of a man who didn’t care about those around him, but his legacy will be larger than the Bronx Bombers. Over the years, he created foundations that will continue to serve the needs of ordinary people throughout the Tampa and New York areas for years to come. As a veteran, the work George did for our servicemen and women, including sponsoring scholarships for the children of fallen heroes, will always hold a special place in my heart.

George Steinbrenner was not always a beloved figure in New York sports, but nobody ever doubted his commitment to winning. For that, Yankees fans everywhere will always love him. RIP, Boss – you earned it.

What a Week!

What a Week!

June 28, 2010

The Yankees are now home after completing a tour of the NL West. Well, a half-tour, anyway – and considering the way the games against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers went, I don’t think anyone in the Bronx is exactly sorry to have missed out on seeing the Giants and Padres. So, what did we learn about the Bombers this past week?

  1. Even when this team plays like crap, they’re still better than most. The series finales against Arizona and LA were hardly well-played, crisp games. Despite Andy Pettite uncharacteristically trying to literally throw a game away against the Dodgers, the team rebounded with four runs in the 9th and two more in the 10th to win. And after Dontrelle Willis and Javier Vazquez proceeded to try and walk everyone in the ballpark (including the hot-dog vendor in section 235); after both teams managed to run themselves out of big inning after big inning; the Yanks won a game that set baseball back to the Snuffy Stirnweiss era.
  2. Dave Eiland may be more important than anyone realized. While the rest of the pitching staff has rolled on this month while he took a leave of absence, AJ Burnett’s implosion worsened on this trip. He managed to pitch to a 16.71 ERA in two starts. The rest of the numbers aren’t any better (unless you’re masochistic enough to think a 1.432 OPSa is great). Most alarming is that as a strike-out pitcher, AJ only managed 13 total swings-and-misses over 7 innings. That’s less than two per inning. AJ simply cannot succeed if bats are finding his pitches. If Eiland’s imminent return doesn’t cure AJ it will be time for the Yankees to forget looking to the Marlins for pitching help. After Kevin Brown and Carl Pavano before, it may just be that the chemicals in Miami’s water cause combustion when mixed with NYC water.
  3. Forget Cliff Lee and David DeJesus. The Yankees aren’t desperate for starting pitching or outfield health. The emergence of stable play from farmhands Chad Huffman and Colin Curtis have given the Yanks solid OF options (which may be needed more than ever, depending on Brett Gardner’s health). And despite AJ Burnett’s problems (see above), I doubt he’ll continue to pitch this poorly. Infield depth, though, is another matter. I like Ramiro Pena and Kevin Russo, but they’ve proven their bats are not big-league ready. There are available infielders out there – Ty Wiggington, Jeff Keppinger, Garrett Atkins and Johnny Peralta, just to name a few. Will the Yankees get one? Time will tell, but it’s hard to imagine this team rolling into August without a veteran manning the reserve IF spot.

Finally, what are the Yanks to do with Chan-Ho Park? In two appearances, Chan Oh-No proved to be more arsonist than fireman. It’s hard to imagine the team cutting bait on this guy. Brian Cashman hates admitting mistakes and after having to DFA Randy Winn earlier this year, dumping Park would be another admittance of failure. But at this point, the manager has expressed reservations about using him in anything other than a mop-up role. My bet is once either Alfredo Aceves or Sergio Mitre comes off the DL, Park should pack his bags in anticipation of a one-way ticket out of New York.

(No) Freedom of Speech

When I titled this blog Political Baseballs, I was using a common euphemism that I thought explained my two great passions in life. (Not discounting my wife, but I think she understands). That is to say, I’m passionate about baseball. And I’m passionate about politics. I never thought the two topics would wind up in the same post. After all, the last time politics and baseball met in the Twilight Zone we were subjected to Mark McGwire suddenly forgetting how to speak, Sammy Sosa suddenly forgetting how to speak English and Raffy Palmeiro suddenly forgetting how to tell the truth. I’ve always relied on baseball to take my mind off the drudgery to which everyday life subjects all of us. I’ve reveled in the game’s unique characters and their antics. I mean, who can forget Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Dick “Dirt” Tidrow from the ’70s? And who didn’t become enthralled with Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record (yes, even I, the lifetime Yankees fan found myself rooting for him)?

But thanks to the Lords of Baseball and their unrepentant zeal to one-up Roger Goodell and Co. over at the NFL, here we are again. It seems that in their quest to make major league baseball apolitical, they’ve stepped right into the issue of First Amendment rights. Or perhaps I should say, stomped on the First Amendment altogether. And now, MLB is facing the prospect of alienating a whole segment of their fans. Shortsightedness certainly can go a long way.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, last week MLB banned all employees from using their Twitter accounts from commenting on anything other than games or their teams. What seems to have been the inspiration behind this dubious edict is a little known reliever for the Oakland A’s, Brad Ziegler. Ziegler was posting comments on his Twitter account regarding his non-support for a potential sports boycott of Arizona, following that state’s passage of SB1070. As a result of Ziegler’s non-political speech, baseball got nervous. What if other players or writers started using Twitter to voice non-political ideas? Ziegler was adamant over a series of posts that he couldn’t support the ban because he hadn’t read the bill and didn’t know enough about it to take a position. Horrors! Imagine – a public figure stating that the bill should be read and understood before everyone started going loco!

Of course, baseball couldn’t stand for this expression of First Amendment rights. Why, what if ALL of their employees decided that they should tell people to think before they act? What a travesty!

Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit. In the end, baseball’s executive office was trying to prevent the firestorm around this bill from consuming the game. Let’s face it; regardless of where you officially make your stand on this, you’re going to alienate one of baseball’s two core constituencies – either the suburbanites who attend most games, or the Hispanic community, which produces half of MLB players. Rather than take a stand and risk alienating ticket buyers or most of their players, baseball decided it would be best to trample on everyone’s inalienable right to expression. Only, it’s not inalienable if your paycheck is signed by Bud Selig, I guess.

By shutting off a reasonable place where fans and players could voice their opinions, they’ve invited their doomsday scenario. Over the weekend, the MLBPA formally requested that Baseball’s All-Star Game for 2011 not be played in Phoenix. Uh, oh. Financially, baseball can’t really afford to do that – it takes 2-3 years to put the shindig together. Baseball’s executives also don’t want to seem as if they’re caving to player pressure – ever. At the same time, they can’t really risk alienating their players. The last time baseball had acrimonious player relations was in the mid-1970’s through early 1990’s. That period saw 4 work stoppages, including the loss of the World Series in 1994. During that time, baseball slipped in popularity from “America’s Pastime” to fall behind football nationally – and has even slipped behind basketball in some cities.

I don’t know how MLB can extricate itself from this mess. My guess is, they can’t.

I’m looking at it this way: Jefferson wrote that our rights were granted by our Creator. Obviously, the Creator is showing Bud Selig the meaning of “inalienable.”

Vazquez the Bust

As anyone who knows me realizes, I was never a fan of bringing Javier Vazquez back to the Yankees. I’ve always thought his failure to win during his last go-round, in 2004, was more mental than mechanical. Those suspicions were furthered when, two years ago while pitching for the White Sox, his manager basically threw him under the bus; challenging his manhood and daring him to be aggressive prior to a playoff start against the Rays. Javy’s response was, well, certainly not full of machismo:

“You know what? It’s not going to [change a lot of opinions] because I’m really the type of guy that when I retire, I’m going to be home in Puerto Rico with my family. I’m not looking to have to change minds if people feel that way.”

He then went out and proceeded to give up 6 runs on 8 hits, including two moon-shot homers, in a miserable 4 1/3 innings. Regardless of how much Kenny Williams may not like Ozzie spouting his opinions in public, he must agree with his manager. After all, the following off-season the White Sox shipped him to Atlanta in exchange for 4 minor leaguers. Of those, only Brent Lillibridge has had any lasting power at the major league level – that is, if you call a .177 batting average in 75 games over parts of two seasons “lasting power.”

Vazquez has been known as baseball’s greatest enigma during his career. When playing for 2nd-division teams, his stuff is electric and he posts eye-popping numbers. But the moment a contender trades for him, he goes into the tank. Consider this chart:

Javier Vazquez Teams in Contention Teams not in Contention
W 38 41
L 105 101
Win % 48.1 50.97
ERA 4.94 4.00
WHIP 1.36 1.23
SO/BB 3.05/1 3.98/1
HR/9 1.83 1.14
CG% 1.98 8.33

And you quickly appreciate what Ozzie and other baseball people have long realized: Javy has the stuff, but neither the heart nor the stomach to be a quality big league pitcher. So imagine my horror when I read this in Joel Sherman’s blog yesterday:

“The Yanks did not consider Javier Vazquez a perfect fit. There were members of the organization who felt it was never worthwhile to reunite with a player who had failed previously as a Yankee. There were members of the organization who thought Vazquez had, at the least, a bit of the loser gene; that knack to pitch below his stuff and to give up the crushing hit at the worst time.

‘But for their purposes, the Yanks saw Vazquez as the best possible situation. The Yanks were worried about how hard CC SabathiaA.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte worked last year between the regular season and postseason, and feared that there could be a diminishment in their stuff/effectiveness. Vazquez, they figured, would at the least be a league-average innings eater, at a time when that species would be of incredible value.”

If true (and I have no reason to doubt it; Joel Sherman has usually been dead right on his sourcing), then that means the sabermatricians in the Yankee front office won out over the baseball people – again. Because let’s face it, Javy Vazquez has been far from league average. His ERA now stands at a nine – dead last among 111 league starters who qualify for the ERA title; the league average is 4.75. I’d rather not get into the rest of the numbers. You can pick up today’s columns from Marc Carig, Paul Bourdet and Mark Feinsand if you’re masochistic enough for that. The most disconcerting thing about Vazquez is that the Yankees brought him back in the hopes that with a reduced role – being a league-average innings-eater – he wouldn’t feel the pressure that has always cooked his goose. Unfortunately, it seems as though Javy can’t get out if his own way. He should have realized from his first tour in the Bronx that blaming the fans for his failures is not the way to get them off his back. Yet, that’s exactly what he did after his last start at Yankee Stadium, when the fans booed him off the field. If he expects better treatment in his next start after those comments (likely on Saturday), then he’s living in fantasy world.

Look: it’s really very simple for Javier Vazquez to get the fans and media off his back. All he has to do is start giving some quality starts. You know, 6+ innings, 3 or fewer runs. String 3 or 4 of those together, and he can start to solidify his hold on the #4 rotation spot. The problem is, I don’t think he’s capable of it, at least not while wearing  pinstripes. And already, the rumblings are being heard from the front office that it may be time to cut and run on the whole experiment. Even staunch supporters like Mike Francesa are beginning to jump off the bandwagon (which may be the first time I’ve agreed with him in  a long time). The simple fact is, Javy had a horrendous April. But unlike past bad Aprils by  CC Sabathia (a proven winner everywhere) or Chien Ming-Wang (who had been a winner before running the bases in Houston), Yankee fans have one indelible picture of Vazquez in their minds, and it’s similar to that of a cowed schoolboy who was just sent to the principal’s office. It doesn’t help him that he was traded for Melky Cabrera – a very popular player. But that’s his reality; he’d better start living it or find another city to play ball in.

The question the Yanks need to ask is, how many more starts are they willing to give him to demonstrate he has the heart, the mental toughness and the desire to pitch in New York? Is it one more? 5 more? 10 more? Right now, the rest of the rotation is pitching well enough to carry him, but nobody really expects Andy Pettite to keep pitching to a 1.29 ERA and nobody really expects Phil Hughes to throw one-hitters every time he takes the mound. Once they come back down to earth, the Yanks will need Vazquez. Will he be up to the challenge, or will they be forced into looking at other options?

What? Me Worried?

Our beloved Yankees are 8-3 and regardless of today’s outcome, have won their first four series of the year. So why be worried, right?
The last time the Pinstripers won their first four series was 1926. Guys named Ruth and Gehrig anchored that roster and the pitching staff was led by 23 game winner Herb Pennock. They won the AL pennant by 3 games. They were the precursor to the team that many think was the greatest team ever assembled, the 1927 Yankees.
They also lost the World Series that year, 4-3 to the Cardinals.
As anyone who has watched baseball knows, April greatness does not necessarily translate to October success. Last season, the Yankees went into May in 4th place in the division and Toronto and Baltimore were battling for top dog. Toronto wound up in fourth and the Orioles last, with neither even in the conversation by the end of July. Two seasons before, the Mets came out of April looking like the kings of the road, with a ML best 17-6 record. We all know how that season ended – with one of the most infamous collapses in baseball history. I point out these example only to illustrate the point that God has a strnage sense of humor – and he loves to use baseball teams as his punch-line.
Great opening months are, of course, better than lousy opening months. Except for good teams, sometimes going through an early baptism of fire can forge the toughness needed in the postseason. Consider the 1998 Yankees, probably the best team of the divisional era. Few remember how that season started – with the Yankees at one point 1-4 and not looking anything like a playoff team. There came a closed door meeting and what was actually said in the clubhouse remains a mystery – nobody will actually say – but the result was the Yanks winning 14 of the next 15. As they say, the rest is history. Or take the 1978 Yankees – the team that couldn’t get out of their own way. Everything finally came to a head one infamous day in Boston, when on national TV, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson decided to let a season and a half’s tension explode in the dugout. But afterwards, the newly cohesive Yanks made up a 14 1/2 game deficit, forced the Bucky Dent one-game playoff, smoked the Royals in the playoffs and won the World Series.
So, while the Yanks should certainly enjoy their opening two weeks, the fact is that several of the questions about this team coming into this season haven’t really been answered yet:
1. Can Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner hit lefties? Call it mixed reviews so far. After two weeks, Gardner finds hinself in a platoon with Marcus Thames and only hitting .230. As the saying goes, you can’t steal first base. If he doesn’t start to hit, can the Yanks live with a Randy Winn/Thames platoon? As for Granderson, he’s currently killing right-handers to the tune of .357 and holding his own against lefties at .267. Although he hasn’t displayed much pop against lefties, if he can keep his average against them around .260 and continue to play an above average CF, there probably isn’t much concern there.
2. Can Javier Vazquez vanquish the 2004 demons? So far, the answer is “NO.” His first start was atrocious and his second not much better. The one thing about Vazquez that concerned many observers, myself included, isn’t Vazquez’ physical talent – it’s his mental make-up. This is, after all, a pitcher who has managed to crack in every pressure situation he’s ever been presented with. For the Yanks sake, he better get his head on straight – or else the answer to the number 4 spot in the rotation could end up being…Uh Oh Mitre.
3. Who is the 8th inning guy? Two weeks in, and still no answer. Joe Girardi seems to be leaning towards Chan Ho(me Run) Park, but the Pepto Bismol Kid has yielded three homers in 6 innings. and in one two inning stint should have given up three more (thank a stiff wind blowing in for saving him there). Joba Chamberlain has only had one great outing, although he has been effective in two others. David Robertson, who seemed to have the early lead for the job, has demostrated a penchant for striking guys out but also giving up flurries of base hits.Stay tuned on this one.
4. Can Robbie Cano handle the 5 spot in the order? This one gets a “YES.” Through 11 games, Cano is hitting .356 and has an OPS of 1.083. Those are Albert Pujols type numbers.
5. When will the ageless wonders (Jeter, Mariano and Posada) begin to show their age? We won’t get an answer to this one until, well, they start playing like guys who are closer to 40 than 30. But so far, Jeter and Posada are hitting over .300 and showing some serious pop in their bats, and Mo just keeps on being Mo. Let’s hope this remains a question in 2011, too.
In short, enjoy the season as it’s unfolded so far. But keep in mind that it’s long season – we’re barely 5% of the way in. The battles haven’t really begun and nobody knows what will wind up being this team’s iron forge. But I’d prefer it come early. 1926 was a very good year, but it ended on a pretty sour note – with Babe Ruth standing on second base after being caught stealing and the Cardinals celebrating a World Series championship.