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!

Spring Game 31: HOU vs. NYY — Settling for a spring tie

CC Sabathia started tonight by giving up 3 runs off 4 hits (3 doubles) in the 1st inning. Finally finding his pitches, we began to see the ace pitcher find his stride, only allowing a solo home run in the 4th to bring the score 4-0 Astros. Chris Stewart showed some nice defense tonight, throwing 2 runners out at 2nd base, and was even able to get a nice RBI single to tie up the game in the 6th. And that’s where the game remained for another 4 innings, with a Spring Training Tie — 4-4 in 10 innings for the final score.

Two new faces debuted in pinstripes tonight. Former Angels (and Blue Jays, if you want to really go back) outfielder Vernon Wells made his start tonight in left field and saw some defensive action there and notched a sacrifice RBI offensively. He definitely gives the Yankees some options in the outfield, and honestly, with his reputation with the fans out there, I’m kind of looking forward to some kind of truce or playful banter between Wells and the bleacher crowd. Recent Red Sox infielder Lyle Overbay jumped in halfway through the game to cover 1st base, doing a nice job tonight and coming in handy for shortened plays with relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain (who I think is now serving as the Yankees one-man welcoming committee). It looks like these two might really work out pretty well, especially for the beginning of the season.

I’m having a hard time not reading negative articles about the Yankees right now. Part of my job is to research and find out what’s going on with the team via Twitter, Facebook, ESPN, various sports networks and news outlets, and general team knowledge. And when I’m researching, it’s so easy to find things being written now about how people think the Yankees will be so horrible this year due to all the injuries or age or time or money or whatever they want to drum up today. And while I do appreciate opinions, and as a long-term Yankees fan I am accustomed to a lot of Yankee hatred, I think I’m just not in the right place personally to deal with the stress of these “analysts” and “columnists” who seem to want to discount a team that has made its name for being a something other than the normal baseball team.

Perhaps the team of the recent dynasty of Yankees (encompassing the 1996-2003 years, with 4 championships) is over, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut down all hope or start thinking of the Yankees in terms of the 1980’s again. On the contrary, I think we have every reason to hold out for another unexpected season. Because in my 18 years of following the Yankees, one of the things I have come to love about them is that we can always expect the unexpected. If they make the playoffs, it will be because they either blew away the competition (2009) or they just eked on in at the last second (2012). If they win the World Series, it will be because they either swept through the other guys (1998) or they took it all the way to Game 7 in the 9th inning for a one-run win (1962).

Expect the unexpected.

As recently as 2012 should remind us of that fact: Jeter has a bounce-back year, leading the league in hits (216), and then broke his ankle in extra innings of the ALCS; supposedly “older and washed-up” bench player-turned-regular outfielder Raul Ibanez homers 3 times in the post-season, becoming the “King of New York”; Rodriguez (suffering from hip issues) is benched and sharing a slump with other star players (like Cano and Granderson); mid-season surprise signing Ichiro Suzuki finds a home in NY and NY falls in love with him; and Mariano Rivera and Brett Gardner both miss most of the season and come back stronger than ever for 2013.

Expect the unexpected. You just never know.

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 21: MIA vs. NYY — Turning potential into excellence

CC Sabathia started for the first time this Spring and the first time since his elbow surgery last fall in today’s 7-3 win against Miami. Sabathia went five innings, allowing 2 runs in the 1st inning before finding his stride. Another few starts and we’ll be seeing the strike-out king in full force ready for that April 1st start.

Francisco Cervelli cleared a nice solo home run in the 2nd to put the Yankees on the board, plus added some fantastic backstop defense today. Travis Hafner earned his pinstripes today with a beautiful 2-run homer in the 3rd inning, after struggling most of the Spring to find his swing. I cannot wait to see him aim for the 4 train in the Bronx.

However, for me, the game belongs to the prospects. It’s kind of amazing what playing on the field with the veterans can do to boost their confidence, ability, standards, and fancy footwork. Corban Joseph started at 2nd base today and saw some nice defensive opportunities fall right into his hands, which he handled with excellence and encouragement from Jeter (who started at Shortstop again today). Filling in for Jeter in the 6th, Addison Maruszak once again began his march toward the big leagues with his hustle and defense; Maruszak really goes for every opportunity and rarely disappoints. Jose Pirela, entering the game for injured Ronnier Mustelier, proceeded to triple twice and earned an RBI, scoring two of the runs himself; his defense at the corners is pretty good too.

Ronnier Mustelier was rushing for a popped up foul ball when he ran smack into the press pen and its metal barriers at full speed. Shaken a little, bruised on both legs, he trudged his way to the clubhouse, replace by Jose Pirela. Girardi said later he’ll be back by Tuesday. Thank God for nothing serious, but we wish him quick healing and rest to see him back on the field. This is another one with such potential.

Potential seems to be the word of the day, and the advantage of the veterans like Jeter playing on the field with them that potential became excellence. And that’s what should happen in the farm system. Any known player will tell you that’s where they learned their best stuff, where they went from a possibility to a reality. And that’s what I saw today, what I think Girardi and the coaches and scouts see in those higher numbered guys. Like I said yesterday, there’s a thin line between what makes a player ready for the Bronx and what keeps him in Scranton, and today, we saw the next generation of Yankees step up their game and prove why they might be ready for the Show in the very near future. If I had one on, my hat would be off to you guys!

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!

Surgeries, Stories, & Sluggers — the 2012-3 Off-season

We left yesterday off with Jeter’s fractured ankle and Game 1 of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, which the Tigers won in extra innings following the Captain’s injury. Three games later, the Tigers swept through the deflated Yankees before they themselves got swept by the waiting San Francisco Giants, led by Buster Posey, Pablo “Panda” Sandoval, and a slew of remarkable pitchers. (About 3 months later, another San Francisco team tried to win another championship, but it was Baltimore who took home the Superbowl rings that night. There must be something in the water there…)

Derek Jeter’s fractured ankle and subsequent surgery to repair it the following week was the first of several colorful off-season stories. Shortly after the season ended for the Yankees, pitching ace CC Sabathia underwent surgery on his elbow to repair a bone spur. A doctor finally put a cause to Alex Rodriguez’s decline (much to the chagrin of the haters) and scheduled a January surgery on his left hip, similar to a 2009 procedure on his right hip. While Sabathia will be ready for Opening Day, Alex will be out until at least the 2013 All-Star Break (July 16 is exactly 6 months from his surgery, so a solid recovery and rehabilitation should get him back on the field by August at the latest).

Yes, there is an ongoing investigation into some links with the now-infamous South Florida clinic regarding the possibility of PED usage or consultations. But until the MLB completes their investigation, I don’t want to opine or stipulate or assume. PEDs are evil on their own merit, so until there are conclusive statements from officials, I won’t give it another thought or comment on this blog.

The Yankees picked up their options (predictably) on Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, re-signed several key players (Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Ichiro Suzuki), and saw many other good free agents get snapped up by waiting teams — Eric Chavez (Arizona), Freddy Garcia (San Diego), Raul Ibanez (Seattle), Andruw Jones (Japan), Russell Martin (Pittsburgh), Nick Swisher (Cleveland), and Rafael Soriano (Washington).

The two biggest pick-ups for the team were Kevin Youkilis (long-time former Red Sox) to fill in for Alex Rodriguez at 3rd base while he recovers and DH Travis Hafner (long-time former Indian) to fill in the role left vacant by Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones. Already Youkilis is finding the media around the Yankees is much different from what he’s used to with Boston, but I’m willing to bet that with a little encouragement from the veterans, Youk can learn the art of the cliché and vague comments we’ve come to love from the Bronx. Hafner has yet to make an official appearance at Spring Training, so we’ll find out soon enough how these two veterans in their own right settle into their Pinstripes.

I know there was a lot of flack regarding the relatively quiet off-season, but I have to agree with some of the remarks made by the front office recently. First, the Yankees weren’t in a position to grab a high-priced free agent because they are trying to cut their expenses and not pay that luxury tax again (how did this not get resolved 20 years ago during the strike I’ll never know, but that’s for another day’s entry). And second, there were only a handful of really quality free agents this year (which they weren’t going to spend the money on anyway), and if the Yankees are known for anything, it’s going after the quality acquisitions, perhaps with some minor missteps along the way, but quality still overall. 2014 does have quite a few free agents ready to ask for the moon come the off-season — including Cano and Granderson.

With the high possibility of several big retirements coming at the end of this year or even in 2015, this could be the last full year of this team as is, steeped in the history-makers of the last 20 years of the game. 2014 may have a completely different clubhouse, which could cause much disturbance among the “message board managers”.

But right now, we’re still looking at the core team we love for this year. The first week of Spring Training is nearly over and its stories are minor in comparison, predictable even. But isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from the team? Predictability, stability, and hard-work? That sounds exactly like what’s happening in Tampa to me.

Go Yankees!