Spring Postcard: Yankees' season will hinge on reconstructed staff
Nick Swisher's impact on the team's dynamic has already been deeply felt
Brett Gardner is well on his way to beating out Melky Cabrera at center field
With a refined curveball, Phil Hughes is quietly putting together a great spring
1) A sudden reversal of fortune. The Yankees entered last season believing they'd be carried by what they were sure would be a powerful and question-mark-free offense, and hoping that an ace-less pitching staff -- which was to include a bunch of rookies at its backend in Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy and (eventually) Joba Chamberlain -- would keep up. That structure quickly proved to be fundamentally flawed. The offense was shockingly average (seventh in the AL with 789 runs scored) and the rotation was even worse (its combined 4.58 ERA ranked ninth in the league). The result was a pedestrian 89-73 finish, which snapped a 13-year playoff streak. Now, after GM Brian Cashman dropped $243.5 million on CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the rotation appears to be fabulous, but it's the offense that's questionable, even with the signing of slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira. Can a 37-year old catcher,(Jorge Posada) hold up? How about Hideki Matsui, now an injury-plagued full-time DH at 34? Will second baseman Robinson Cano bounce back from a largely brutal year? Might Derek Jeter continue his slow, but noticeable, decline?
"Ultimately, if we're going to be successful, it's going to be because of the Sabathias, the Wangs, the Chamberlains, the Burnetts, the Pettittes," said Cashman, listing his new set of starting pitchers.
Chamberlain is particularly key: "Our plan is for him to be the fifth starter," manager Joe Girardi said. "If he falls on his face, we'll have to re-evaluate. But we don't expect him to fall on his face." If Chamberlain pitches to his potential, and the others perform to their recent career norms, the Yankees should sail into October even with a second middling year from their hitters.
2) The absence of A-Rod. Have you heard Alex Rodriguez had surgery? On ... his hip, was it? Yes, A-Rod will be riding a stationary bike and rehabilitating until, probably, sometime in May. As of right now, it looks like the Yankees will try to fill that significant void with journeyman Cody Ransom, who in parts of six seasons has hit as many home runs (seven) as A-Rod hit in a single week two Aprils ago. Cashman won't rule out acquiring a more seasoned replacement between now and Opening Day, but says the job will likely go to Ransom, of whom he says, "He can handle it [as] a short stopgap. I'm confident about that."
Ransom, for what it's worth, is "a hell of an athlete" (Cashman's words), one who can jump flat-footed onto the top of a 60-inch-high pile of boxes, as this YouTube video demonstrates. (Ransom says he's gotten as high as 62 inches.) "I'm not going to try and replace Alex," he said. "Can't do it, I don't think. He's not a player that you just go replace. You hope you can do a job and help the team win for awhile, but you're not going to do what Alex does."
In certain aspects, of course, it's not the best idea to "do what Alex does" ... but let's just refrain from getting into all of that, shall we?
3. The Swisher effect. The first thing one perceives upon walking into the home clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa is the mid-90s hip-hop music -- stuff like Warren G's Regulate and Skee-Lo's I Wish -- blasting from an iPod speaker in the back of the room. The iPod belongs to Nick Swisher. Swisher's role on the field is still to be determined (he'll probably play mainly right field, a little left and a little first base), and Cashman says that while his unusually gregarious and enthusiastic nature wasn't a factor in the decision to acquire him from the White Sox in November, his impact on the team's dynamic has already been deeply felt. "We're a little sterile now and then, and we need to be livened up," the G.M. said. "Swish is just the guy to do it. He's got a great personality."
The New York clubhouse has, at times, seemed businesslike to the point of somberness in recent years, but with Swisher aboard, it's hard to see that being the case in '09.
Center field: Brett Gardner vs. Melky Cabrera. While Cashman praises Cabrera for turning down an invitation to play for the Dominican Republic in the WBC in order to compete for the Yankees' centerfield job, it has been Gardner turning heads so far this spring. Through Thursday, he is hitting .417 (Cabrera is at .238), and is tied for third in the majors with three home runs -- not bad for a player who had hit a total of nine jacks in 1,456 minor league at bats. It's Gardner's blazing speed, ability to get on base (.389 career OBP in the minors) and phenomenal range in center that the Yankees -- who are still defensively challenged, despite the addition of the two-time Gold Glover Teixeira at first and the upgrade from Bobby Abreu to either Xavier Nady or Swisher in right field -- will value. And that's why Cabrera will likely be on the bench come Opening Day, despite his decision to stay out of the WBC (as short-lived as his participation would have been, thanks to those feisty Dutch).
Prospect to watch
Phil Hughes. The young man who was only last spring viewed as the Yankees' can't-miss savior went 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA in '08 and missed most of the year with a strained oblique and cracked rib. His situation this year is very different indeed. "I'm flying a little under the radar," Hughes said. "Not many people really want to talk to me, with CC and A.J. and everyone else."
Hughes is under no misconceptions about his current place in the Yankees' reloaded pitching corps -- "We've got five guys we're looking to go into the season with, and right now I'd be the odd man out" -- but even though he'll likely begin the season in Class AAA, he should be the first option should one of those five struggle or become injured. Yanks fans shouldn't forget that Hughes began last season as the second-youngest player in the majors, behind the D-backs' Justin Upton. When he gets another crack at the big leagues he'll bring with him a refined curveball, one that he's throwing roughly five miles per hour faster than before -- the idea being to sacrifice some break in order to deceive batters with an arm speed that more closely resembles that with which he throws his fastball. It's working so far this spring (he's thrown five innings without allowing a hit), and all in all it's far too early to write him off.
Gardner's wife, Jessica, gave birth to the couple's first child -- a boy named Hunter -- last November. One imagines that a child named Hunter Gardner will be the outdoorsy type. ... At least two Yanks -- Swisher and Sabathia -- post on Twitter. Swisher says that at first he was texting his messages to his marketing rep for her to post, but "then somebody wrote that it was not authentic, so I said the hell with it, I'm doing it on my own." So, if you were wondering what Swisher was up to at 6:24 p.m. on March 11th, you'll discover he was having "dinner with some good friends!"
MLB Truth & Rumors