Developing the 25

First of all, a very Happy Easter to everyone! It’s only right (at least in my mind) that baseball season should start the day after a holiday celebrating new life and spring time.

Rosters have been submitted for Opening Day, which means that the 83 men who showed up back in February have now been whittled down to the select 25. Regular roster members that will begin the 15-day Disabled List are starting pitcher Phil Hughes (back), infielders Derek Jeter (ankle) and Mark Teixeira (arm), and outfielder Curtis Granderson (arm). All of these guys are estimated to see official play time end of April or May. Previously placed on the 60-day DL are pitchers Cesar Cabral and Michael Pineda and infielder Alex Rodriguez.

That being said, that leaves 25 spots to fill. So the starting rotation is CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova, and David Phelps. Manning the bullpen this year then are pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Cody Eppley, Shawn Kelley, Boone Logan, David Robertson, Adam Warren, and closer Mariano Rivera. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are slotted in the catcher’s role. The bench is filled with infielders Robinson Cano, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Lyle Overbay, and Kevin Youkilis and outfielders Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Vernon Wells.

To make room for Overbay, the Yankees designated pitcher Clay Rapada for assignment. In other words, another one bites the dust.

And that got me thinking again. I was reading a book recently about the development of specialized players. Its unfortunate side effect is that it actually weakens a player. They specialize in one particular area, so they never end up working on and strengthening all these other areas of a player and actually develop into a weaker player. So when the team needs someone who can, for example, pitch more than a handful of pitches every few days to get some solid return on their investment, they can’t depend on someone so specialized that they don’t have the stamina and longevity to do that job.

Perhaps there’s an overall life lesson in that after all. If we focus too much on strengthening one area (like work), we can actually weaken another area (like family). Of course, we can’t do everything perfectly all the time at the same time. But there is a lot to be said for finding a balance and exerting excellence in every aspect as you come across it, not neglecting all else to focus in on one part.

And maybe in baseball (at least on the Yankees), we’re shifting from specialized players to a team of well-rounded ability and skill players. Similar to previous championship teams, the Yankees may have developed a 25-man (or 40, really) roster that can work as a team, without focusing on the individual needs and whims of the superstars or divas-in-training. Of course, where we land somewhere in August may have a completely different look or feel. But for now and today, before Sabathia throws the first pitch of the season tomorrow afternoon, there is such hope and dreams for another championship team and that 28th ring.

Go Yankees!

Exhibition Game: NYY vs. WSH — The team, the cuts, the non-game

Andy Pettitte threw 6 strong innings in today’s exhibition game against the Washington Nationals, including striking out 6 batters. The Yankees won this afternoon’s game in D.C. 4-2 against was is estimated to be one of the best NL teams. And the Nationals can boast a regular lineup with superstars like Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and (USA Today’s cover story) Bryce Harper. But up against a well-seasoned workhorse like Pettitte, the Nationals might be glad they will never meet again this 2013 season outside of some fated World Series between the two.

It was the 4th inning today that made all the difference: a Youkilis solo home run, Hafner’s single, Wells’ double, a strike-out, a Nunez 2-RBI single (safe at 2nd on throwing error), a Chris Stewart RBI single, and 2 ground outs. And while the Nationals scored 2 of their own (both RBI singles), they never could quite catch the momentum that seemed to strike the Yankees for that brief 1/2 inning. Mariano Rivera also pitched the final three outs in what could be his last game at Nationals Park, notching the save. Honestly, that inning was the reason the Yankees are something to be reckoned with, as despite their injured stars, the team functioned as such — a team and raked up the runs to give Pettitte a decent lead to continue his start.

Now, while the critics are drilling into the team’s increasing DL, it’s really the pitching staff (particularly the starting rotation) that is the strongest factor of this season’s team. They always say, “if you don’t have pitching, you don’t have nothing.” Well, they got pitching, even when a starter is on the DL, there’s still excellent, solid pitching. So it sounds like we got something.

Speaking of pitching… the roster cuts were announced today, and for most people, the biggest surprise was to see that relief pitcher David Aardsma had been designated for assignment. (For my non-baseball friends and family reading that, it means he’s been released from his commitments to the Yankees and is free to be picked up and contracted to another team should they want him.) This news really disappointed me. And while I understand why (Girardi mentioned they needed a long reliever rather than Aardsma’s specialty as short-relief), it’s never an easy thing to digest to be let go from a team, especially one who’s worked hard to come back from rehabbing after 2011 Tommy John surgery. He played a good Spring, so hopefully he’ll find a home for 2013 soon.

Predictably making the roster were outfielder Ben Francisco and infielder Jayson Nix. Another shocker was sending Vidal Nuno to AAA to start the season, after such a stand-out spring and winning the award, but I suppose he is prepared to be called up should the need arise. (And chances are with this year’s luck, the need will arise.) Melky Mesa is optioned to AAA to start 2013, despite some hard-earned outings and spectacular defensive plays.

Something tells me this year will be nothing short on spectacular plays and stories of all these amazing guys. Best of luck to all!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 29: NYY vs. DET — Hitting for history

Ben Francisco really cemented some Yankee fandom today in Lakeland during the Yankees’ 10-6 loss to Detroit, with 2 home runs to left-center field. In yet another game of high hits (16 for Detroit, 14 for Yankees), it seemed that almost every starter today got to slap the ball around the field.

Today’s starter Andy Pettitte allowed 4 runs (including a home run) off 8 hits, only walking one batter and striking out 5 over 6 innings today. And this would have been seen as a decent start for his second time starting in a Grapefruit League game, except his reliever Cody Eppley was very off his game today, allowing 5 hits and 5 runs (1 home run) in the single inning he pitched, affording himself today’s loss.

We are down to the last few games before Opening Day, so while nothing’s going to count as far as statistics go, so much is on the line for those not already nailed down with a definite contract for this season. Francisco, for example, may be starting to shape into a decent bench player with his strong bat. Defensively, he may need some fine-tuning, so I guess the club is going to need to decide what is more important offense or defense for this team.

I was reading some baseball history this last week and found myself drawn to stories of how every season’s winning team manufactured their wins by various measures. I know everyone thinks of the Yankees as the “Bombers”, which is there, but their winning dynasty of the 90’s was composed of hitters, bunters, and runners to score the runs and so many of their stars were on the DL with serious injuries (David Cone’s shoulder aneurysm comes to mind). Sound familiar?

So while the rest of the league is building teams scattered with today’s Sosa, McGuire, and Bonds, the Yankees seem to be focused on what they have that works: hitters, bunters, and runners… and Robinson Cano. It sounds like a winning combination to me, but I guess we shall see.

Go Yankees!

Two weeks

Two weeks from today is the official start of the 2013 baseball season, the final year for at least Mariano Rivera and the last contract year for some of the Yankee greats. A salute to America and the forthcoming season, the National Anthem, the welcome to the Bronx to all Yankee fans and a polite nod to the brave Red Sox fans who came out for the rivalry match-up, the hum of the crowd in preparation, the cheers as the boys take the field, the Bleacher Creatures in Section 203 prepping for their first roll call of the season, all leading up to that first pitch to start the game. Three hours later, as fans pour into the nearby B, D, or 4 trains, we will either be celebrating victory or commiserating being “cheated” out of a game by those “other guys”. I’m pulling for the former, of course.

In two weeks, we’ll see who made the 40-man roster, where our favorite Spring Training invitees land on the farm, who our 25-man team will be (especially in light of the absences of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson), and who gets the honor of that starting catcher position and that 5th rotation spot.

In two weeks, all the drama of Spring Training and the standing are wiped clean and the reset button is essentially pressed. All the season standing and postseason predictions really pick up but are really thrown out the window. It’s always anyone’s game and anyone’s guess. “It’s a long season,” as they say. Anything is possible.

And yet, so much can happen in those two weeks. We still have 5 home games, 4 away games, and 2 exhibition games before April 1st. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera still need a few more starts under their belts before being declared “fit for active duty”. Derek Jeter is still looking at a few more back-to-back games and longer time in the games before he is ready for the day-to-day. And the prospects are still trying to prove themselves worthy of Major League play time and a Major League paycheck, especially to cover for the stars on the Disabled List.

So who’s to say what this year holds? What’s the old saying — “prepare for the worst, but hope for the best”. Sounds like a plan to me. So let’s shoot for that 6th ring for Rivera, Pettitte, and Jeter and the 28th flag bearing “2013” over the stadium this year and deal with the rest as we come to it.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 19: PHI vs. NYY — Core Four Mini-Reunion

The Core Four were at it again… well, in a way. Derek Jeter started at shortstop tonight for the first time this Spring, exactly 5 months to the day after his season-ending broken ankle in the ALCS last year, playing 4 solid innings. Andy Pettitte made his Spring debut tonight on the mound, throwing 3 innings, striking out 3, and only allowing 1 of the Phillies’ 2 runs tonight. Mariano Rivera came on in the 5th inning to throw 3 straight, quick ground outs. And Jorge Posada (the only retired member) watched from the coaches’ den by the dugout, enjoying his role as Guest Coach and good friend to so many on the team. It was quite a fun mini-reunion to watch in a game tonight for those of us used to rooting on the Core Four for nearly two decades now.

WestPoint Team
Yankees honor West Point’s baseball team
The two teams meet for March 30th Exhibition game

The Yankees topped the Phillies 6-2 tonight, much of that is due to the 5 errors made by the Phillies. Newly signed minor leaguer and outfielder Ben Francisco made a big splash tonight with a 2-out RBI. Melky Mesa also is stepping up as an outfield contender, with some nice offense including a 2-out RBI hit in the 3rd and some good base running and outfield defense.

Also in Yankees news tonight, the Yankees sent infielder Corban Joseph, outfielder Zoilo Almonte, and pitcher Adam Warren back to AAA camp. Though we know cuts have to be made, all three are solid pinstripe material that could easily see any Bronx time later this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these three names on the September expanded roster.

Another fun thing about tonight was the addition of the West Point baseball team to their pre-game workouts and honored at the 7th inning stretch during the Yankees’ traditional “God Bless America”. The teams will play an exhibition game on March 30th at West Point. I love that the Yankees have kept the tradition of honoring America and the troops that serve our nation during every home game and support programs like the Wounded Warrior Project. It’s part of why I love the Yankees because it serves to remind us that we are not on one side of things, but a bunch of citizens united together who owe a debt of gratitude to an amazing group of men and women who choose to voluntarily serve our country. It’s good to remember all that we have (including baseball games) is because someone else fought for us to have it.

So I thank all those (including some of my family members) who have served and know that I think about you and am grateful for you every time I hear Kate Smith’s vocals over the loudspeaker and see the thousands of people honoring your service.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 16: NYY vs. TOR — Finding the groove

David Phelps is continuing his strong campaign for the 5th starter’s position on the rotation. He allowed only 3 hits and 1 walk over 5 scoreless innings in today’s 3-0 win over Toronto. He was truly outstanding, facing some of the Jays’ regular players like Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera, and Rajai Davis. It will be interesting to follow this story’s progress over the next few weeks leading up to Opening Day. Though if Phil Hughes takes longer to recover, Phelps might just be a shoo-in for a semi-permanent spot. But he’s proved he can do it all and can always be a great long reliever if Girardi chooses Ivan Nova over Phelps. Either way, he is a great example of what the Yankees are developing in their younger pitchers. They always said if you don’t have pitching, you don’t have anything. So I guess time will tell.

It was prospect Juan Rivera, starting at 1st base today, that made the biggest dent on the score board. After loading the bases, Jays’ pitcher Brett Cecil gave up a 3-RBI double to Rivera. The sunburned crowd in Dunedin was pretty split in its loyalties, but that play exploded the crowd along the 3rd base line (behind the Yankees dugout). Rivera is certainly making a name for himself this spring both offensively and defensively. It will certainly be interesting to see where he lands at the end of March.

On a side note here: I enjoyed watching the young Blue Jay outfielder Anthony Gose play last year, as he plays with such enthusiasm and speed. He continued the streak, coming into the game in the 6th, making some great defensive plays (one impressive sliding catch to rob Addison Maruszak of a nice hit in the 9th), and adding to his offensive hit (1 of 7 from the Jays). At 22 years old, it will be interesting to watch this young outfielder develop and fine-tune his skills, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays on the radar for a few more years. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Yankees end up with him in the future. (Oh, what Kevin Long could do for his offense!)

Honestly, it was certainly nice after yesterday’s “Big Day” for the Yankees to just pull a win out of today’s game, still close to the bottom of the standings for Spring with a record of 5-11. But again, what happens in Spring Training, stays in Spring Training.

Pettitte is supposed to start on Wednesday night and Sabathia is now slated for Friday’s game. It looks like all the pieces are falling into place, and even though some are out “for repair”, so to speak, the team is still starting to work as a team. I guess there’s two parts of Spring — one is to look at the guys in the farm system and see who’s “on deck” for some major league play time; two is getting the regular guys back into the team mode. Something that for the Yankees, doesn’t usually come slowly; but with this year adding some new pieces (Kevin Youkilis, who had his first hit as a Yankee today) and finding the right players to replace the temporarily injured ones, building that team momentum and camaraderie sometimes can take some time to find its groove. But for now, I think we’re on the right track.

Go Yankees!

Once a Yankee, always a Yankee

Full squad reporting for duty today. The first official warm-up starts tomorrow with all 83 men, roster players and invitees. Team Captain Derek Jeter did his first official press conference for the season, talking a good portion of the time about his recovery and expected return (Opening Day is just around the corner!). At the end of the it, Jeter was asked about Kevin Youkilis’ recent comments about whether Youk still considers himself a Red Sock, which he has since clarified and explained that he is glad to be donning the pinstripes this year and looks forward to beating them on April 1st in the Bronx. Jeter’s response, with an amused smirk, was simply, “Welcome to New York.”

This got me thinking about that old saying (something Youkilis actually referred to in his clarification interview): “once a Yankee, always a Yankee.” I know you cannot erase your history; in fact, you should embrace it as it helped make you into the person you are today (for better or worse). In that case, once a player’s been a Yankee, it’s not something they can deny any more than they can their other teams or heritage or family life or whatever. It’s part of your make-up, your identity, and you can either accept it or deny a part of who you are.

For example, there were a few years where Andy Pettitte played for another team, closer to his hometown, or even a brief retirement in 2011. But when he came back to New York, it wasn’t a denial or shameful betrayal, but rather a point of fact. Once a Yankee, always a Yankee. No one really even pictured Pettitte as anything but a Yankee who was temporarily reassigned to Houston or his home.

Even Babe Ruth played for another team his final year of baseball (Boston Braves in 1935), but he is enshrined at Cooperstown as a Yankee, even though his career with the Red Sox for the first 5 years were stellar. (Side note: many people thought he would never amount to anything in New York and wrote him off as a lost cause, thinking Boston was the only place where he could be a superstar.)

DiMaggio Sign
The sign, autographed by Yankees players from
the 1977 World Series Championship team

There is a well-known sign to remind the players as they approach the dugout from the locker room is Joe DiMaggio’s famous 1941 quote: “I thank the good Lord every day for making me a Yankee.” And what a reminder!

I think DiMaggio’s saying serves to remind the players that being a Yankee is a privilege, not an obligation. You can play on any of the other 29 professional teams and still be a million dollar athletic celebrity. But only a select few can call themselves “Yankees”. Much like anything in the world, the moment something becomes an obligation is the moment we lose passion and open the doors to burn out or sell out. This obligation to fulfill a contract or push for a certain statistic robs players of the joy and the privilege of being first a ball player and second proud to wear their team’s colors (especially the pinstripes).

There is an award the Yankees give out every year just before their season opener to a former Yankee who emulates everything it means to be with the team both on and off the field. They call it the “Pride of the Yankees”, after the Lou Gehrig-inspired 1942 film (former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada won the 2012 award). Giving this award prior to the season is a reminder for all current players as to what a privilege it is to wear the pinstripes and the level of leadership and responsibility that is required of the men who do, whether it be for one season or twenty with the club.

And I, for one, am proud to be a Yankees fan.

Go Yankees!