Spring postcard: Yankees must answer a series of questions
The biggest issue facing New York is its unsettled starting rotation
Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia both say they are in better shape this spring
Brian Cashman didn't want Rafael Soriano but the GM is now glad to have him
1. The Yankees' unsuccessful offseason still stings.
So, Brian Cashman was asked: Did this offseason go according to your master plan? "No," said the Yankees' general manager, chuckling slightly. "Not at all." Cashman targeted free agent Cliff Lee pitcher and expected to sign him. "By the time he declared himself" -- the starter took less money than the Yankees were offering and signed with the Phillies on Dec. 14 -- "all the quality Plan B's, C's, D's, E's were off the board," said Cashman. "Now you assess what's available. My attitude is, patience has to be Plan B now. Let's not compound a problem by signing something that doesn't necessarily make sense or solve a problem, and might waste some money. Ultimately we've done low level, low risk moves in the meantime, until something obviously better comes along."
Those moves, intended to fill out a rotation not only not fortified by Lee but weakened by Andy Pettitte's retirement, included offering invitations to camp to former stars like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, who will compete for the Yankees' open No. 4 and No. 5 starter jobs with younger options including Ivan Nova and Adam Warren, Hector Noesi and David Phelps. "We missed out on Cliff, but we still have a good pitching staff," insists ace CC Sabathia, perhaps the only sure thing in a rotation that also includes still-developing Phil Hughes and the erratic A.J. Burnett. Sabathia did not try to convince his former Indians teammate to join him in New York. "There was really nothing to lobby or talk about," he says. "He's one of my good friends, but what is there to sell with the Yankees? You know what the organization's about. He knows my personality and knows if I like it here, then he would've liked it here. But he was more comfortable in Philly. Something to be said about going a place you've had success and that you love." Let this be said about the Yankees' rotation: It is worryingly shallow.
2. Last season, and the two before that, amounted to an aberration for A-Rod -- says A-Rod.
On Monday afternoon, Alex Rodriguez took questions from the assembled media under the tent the Yankees have constructed behind the third base stands at their spring home -- the same tent in which, two years and four days before, he had publicly admitted his past use of performance enhancing drugs. Monday's event was much more sparsely attended, and Rodriguez strove to keep things airy. "Did anyone watch the Super Bowl?" were his savvy (and perhaps scripted, perhaps not by him) first words, a reference to the fact that during the game TV cameras caught his girlfriend, the actress Cameron Diaz, feeding him popcorn, something about which he had reportedly been upset. "No popcorn endorsements yet, but our lines are open," he joked, a smile plastered across his face.
The thrust of Rodriguez's message on Monday, though, was why his 2011 season would be better than his 2010 -- and his 2009, and his 2008. "Those years weren't acceptable, though not too bad," he rightly said. Though he's averaged a very good 32 homers and 109 RBIs in those three seasons -- which, to be fair, included reconstructive hip surgery -- they did not equate with his 2007, in which he hit 54 homers with 156 RBIs and won his third AL MVP award. The reasons Rodriguez provided for why he expected to bounce back ranged from his off-season body fat and weight loss (from 230 pounds to around 223, he said, his weight in 2007) and the correction of a fuzzily-explained "hesitation" he had at third base over last season's final two months, which explained his defensive lapses.
Perhaps a three percent reduction in body weight really will lead to a rebirth for Rodriguez, or perhaps his recent performances -- which, to be sure, remain elite, though not singular (his .847 OPS in 2010 ranked 15th in the majors) -- were due to the fact that he'll turn 36 this summer, and that his diet has presumably for some time been devoid of "boli." This year should shed some light on that, as should the following six, all of which he will spend under contract with the Yankees.
3. Brett Gardner should be hitting leadoff
Everyone around the Yankees' Tampa camp -- Cashman, hitting coach Kevin Long, Rodriguez -- is certain that Derek Jeter will regain the offensive form he lost last year, when he had to go 2-for-5 on the season's final day to raise his average to .270, and in which he compiled an OPS of .710 that was 61 ticks below his previous career low. Rodriguez, in his press conference, predicted 200 hits for Jeter. Even if that happens for a shortstop who will turn 37 in June, Jeter should not hit leadoff in 2011, as they have a better option on their roster.
That option is Gardner, who is in many ways the prototypical leadoff man ("It does," Cashman said, when asked if it seemed as such to him). Last season, the leftfielder ranked eighth in the AL in on-base percentage (.383), was third in steals (47) and drew more pitches per plate appearance (4.61) than any other player has averaged in a season since STATS Inc. began tracking the statistic in 1988. All terrific attributes for a leadoff hitter, but manager Joe Girardi has insisted already this spring that Jeter will top his lineup.
That can change at any point -- "We can always push it at some point, but that's the manager's call," Cashman said -- but Gardner should be elevated and Jeter pushed down, even to number two, to start the regular season. The Yankees' captain should suffer no significant psychic wound due to the move. After all, while he has 3,069 career at-bats at his club's leadoff man, he has 5,188 from its lineup's second spot, and the Yankees won World Series in 1996, '98, '99 and 2000 with him batting largely in that position.
Rafael Soriano, RP
Cashman, unlike his club's owners, did not want to sign Soriano to the three-year, $35 million contract to which the Yankees signed him in mid-January. On Monday, he further explained why. "Nobody had any disagreement with the assessments of what type of player he was," he said of the 31-year-old who saved 45 games with a 1.73 ERA last season as a Ray. "But I have a budget that I'm required to work within, even if it's bigger than anybody else's. There's a cap to it, and obviously we've already got multiyear commitments and projected arbitration numbers that take us to a certain level. We were having disagreements as to how to allocate the resources that remained. Whether you put $11-plus million a year into an eighth inning guy is something I disagreed about. Especially with how we've proven we can build a bullpen the past few years in a very shoestring, very cheap way."
The Steinbrenners overruled him, though, a fact he revealed at Soriano's introductory press conference. Of his decision to do so, he said, "I'd already been on the record with the media that that wasn't something I'd have done. I'd been on the record with other GM's that I wouldn't acquire players and pay them that kind of money. I said the same to Bobby Jenks's agent, Kerry Wood's, all the other [middle relievers'] out there. So I had to take that forum to explain that I didn't do this -- to maintain my credibility, that's all."
With that said, Cashman is extremely confident in his eighth and ninth inning relievers, as Soriano will be followed by Mariano Rivera. "We've got a lot of power there," he said, smiling.
Andrew Brackman, P
At least one column of the Yankees' spring pitching roster reads like that of a basketball team's. The major league clubhouse currently features no fewer than eight hurlers who measure 6'5" or taller, including rotation members CC Sabathia (6'7") and Phil Hughes (6'5") and a few non-roster invitees, such as prospect Dellin Betances (6'8") and retreads Mark Prior (6'5") and Andrew Sisco (6'10"). This is not an accident, says Cashman (5'7"). "I always like big, tall, hard throwing guys," Cashman says. "The more the merrier."
The tallest of them all -- by a few fractions of an inch, according to a more earthbound eye -- is Brackman, the Yankees' 6'10", 2007 first-round pick out of North Carolina State. Brackman, a center for two seasons with the Wolfpack basketball team, looks as if he's happened upon the Shire when entering the home clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field, as he has to duck each time he passes through its door, which has a strangely low clearance. "I need to ask one of the hitters if I can borrow a helmet -- then I'll be all right," he says. His eyes widen slightly. "Dugouts," he says. "Dugouts are awful."
Brackman underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2007, and something simply felt off for the first two-and-a-half years of his pro career. "Last year when I was throwing bullpens here, I was all over the place," he says. "I was kind of embarrassed to be in camp, because everybody else around me is doing so much better." That changed, suddenly, this off-season: "Right when I picked up a ball, it felt completely different." His pre-surgery feel had finally returned. On Monday, Brackman threw a batting practice session against Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner, Justin Maxwell and Francisco Cervelli that Cashman, who watched from behind the cage, later deemed "tremendous." Brackman will still likely start the season in Triple-A, but, as a potential No. 4 or 5 starter, he might soon be a very big solution to the Yankees' big problem.
One off-season-weight-loss story that might have something to it: that of Sabathia, the Yankees' historically heavy ace. Sabathia weighed around 315 pounds last year, but lost 25 of those over the winter, and he looks visibly slimmer, if not svelte -- and it's a good thing he dropped that excess body-fat, as he'll have to carry more of the Yankees' pitching load than ever. The goal, Sabathia says, was to reduce the stress on his right knee, on which he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in October. "Stopped McDonalds, any cereal with a cartoon on the box I cut out," he said. "Worked with my chef. It was easy." The personal chef, of course, making it easier... The Yankees are suddenly extremely catcher-rich: aside from Russell Martin, Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli, the organization also boasts top prospects at the position in Jesus Montero, Gary Sanchez, and Austin Romine. "That'll serve us well, whether it's in terms of depth or for trade purposes," Cashman said... Several Yankees objected to the idea that they are now the underdogs, in the AL East, to the Red Sox -- "I always feel like we're the team to beat," said Sabathia; "You never feel like an underdog when you put on the pinstripes, man," said Nick Swisher -- but Cashman seems to be relishing the role. "Within our own division, if someone asks who's the lead dog, you've got to say Boston," he said. "I saw [Red Sox manager] Terry Francona talking about our $200 million payroll. I think their payroll's right there with us now. I've got to double-check, but I know that before the Soriano signing they were ahead of us. That includes the automatic extension that Adrian Gonzalez has yet to sign, but everybody knows is there."