The off-season begins with a look to the past and a look to the future

For my first off-season post of the year, I’m splitting my time talking about both the past and the future. I think the hardest part about off-season posts is that’s all you have to talk about — what was and what will (or may) be. It’s hard to believe it’s already November, but it certainly makes it easier to hold your breath until Spring Training. Thanksgiving is in a few weeks, Christmas just a month after that, the New Year, and then suddenly it’s February and the hopeful Baby Bombers roll into the Tampa complex with dreams of playing in the Bronx in 2015, sharing lockers and swapping stories with veteran Yankees. (By the way, season tickets for Spring Training are already on sale; single tickets will be for sale in January.)

Okay, looking forward first…

Yesterday was the Qualifying Offer deadline for those with a contract option for an extension on their current contracts. Two players had such an option — David Robertson and Hiroki Kuroda. Robertson was extended a qualifying offer of $15.3 million; he has 7 days to accept or deny this offer. (That number is set by MLB and the MLBPA, not the Yankees and is a 1-year deal and will allow the player to enter free agency following the end of the season.) Kuroda didn’t receive an offer.

Now, this is a tricky move for most players. If they think they can fare better on the free agent market (like a handful of players that made the postseason and offered yesterday), they will decline the offer and send their agents to the phones to wheel and deal. Should they be towards the end of their career or perhaps had a poor performance last year, they might choose to accept the offer and see if they can spend this next year improving their odds for next year’s free agency market. A declination of the offer (from either side) doesn’t mean the player won’t be playing for the same team next year, but rather it sends everything back to the negotiation tables.

Following that thought, there are some new developments on the free agent market, but the Yankees have already made it clear they aren’t going after many of the “big-ticket” players (for those interested, names like Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, James Shields, and Pablo Sandoval have all been crossed off the list). But I don’t hold much stock in rumors (as you know by now), so until all those guys have been signed elsewhere, anything can still happen. Personally, I don’t really see any of those guys playing in a Yankee uniform any time soon. I expect most of their current teams will try to negotiate contracts to keep their stars home.

However, two of last year’s players are in negotiations with the Yankees — Chase Headley and Brandon McCarthy. Headley’s name has been tossed about for retention since he was picked up by the Yankees in the middle of last season, and his performance since donning pinstripes has been outstanding, plus he’s very interested in staying in New York and with the team as long as he isn’t used as a bench-warmer. Not that I blame him on that line of thought, but the return of Alex Rodriguez does add a wrinkle to Headley. Word came last month that the team wants Rodriguez taking fielding practice at 1st base as well, so it looks a bit more promising for Headley. Perhaps the plan is to use Rodriguez as a DH and then relief at 1st and 3rd (for Teixeira and Headley, respectively) until he is back up to a daily playing routine in his age-40 season.

McCarthy comes as no surprise either as he became a crucial part of the dwindling, oft-injured rotation this past year. But he is considered one of the better free agent starters this off-season, so the Yankees could be in for a fight to land him. Tanaka, Sabathia, and Pineda will all be back for Spring, with Nova’s Tommy John surgery recovery completed by mid-2015 at the latest. So the starting rotation come Opening Day is still a big question mark. “Aggressive negotiations” with McCarthy seem like a good idea in that light.

There are some other players’ names being tossed about in the rumor mill, but between these qualifying offers, free agents, and arbitration-eligible players, it’s still fairly early in the off-season. Every year that I dive deeper into the contract business, I still feel a little overwhelmed by all the different aspects of the contracts. There is no such thing as a formulaic contract in baseball, though they all follow a similar basic pattern depending on the initial signing of the player. However, once they hit free agency, it’s really left to the most creative agents and lawyers and GMs to craft unique contract terms for the individual player. It almost makes me want to go to law school and study contract law just so I can get a better understanding. Almost…

“This Day in Yankees History” — Wednesday, November 4, 2009 — Yankees defeat the Phillies 7-3 in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium to claim their 28th title. Matsui was awarded the World Series MVP, for hitting 3 home runs, 8 RBIs, and going 8-for-13 during the Series. It was his last full season with the Yankees. It was the first year the Yankees played in the new Yankee Stadium, so this win was a great way to christen it. It was also the last postseason in which “the Boss” was alive; Steinbrenner would pass away the following July. In many ways, it was a send-off year for so many. But what I remember most is watching the Series with my mom at my place; my mom had just started liking the Yankees after I took her to her first Yankee game at Yankee Stadium that April. She and I intensely followed the team that year, something that was rather rewarding as they won 103 games and the AL East division that year. It was rather reminiscent of the late-90’s Yankees, except instead of my mom rooting against them in her Cleveland hat, she donned her new bright green NY cap and joined me in cheering on the likes of Posada, Jeter, Damon, Teixeira, and Swisher as they just plowed through to win it all that year. It was a very good year.

Go Yankees!

Game 159: BAL vs. NYY — Jeter says farewell to the Bronx

photo credit: YES Network

Only for Derek Jeter could the Yankees script such a storybook farewell in the last game he would ever play in Yankee Stadium. It poured all over New York all day long, and suddenly as game time approached, the skies cleared, the tarp came off the field, the drying agent applied to the infield, and it was game time as scheduled in the Bronx. And there would be no rain, but instead a glorious orange sunset streaking across the sky as the Yankees warmed up for their final home game this season.

Hiroki Kuroda started tonight’s game, in what may be his own last game in pinstripes (as he has yet to announce his plans for next year). And despite a rocky start, Kuroda settled down and just put the Orioles in their place. In his 8 innings, he threw 95 pitches, gave up just 3 hits and 2 runs, and struck out 9 Baltimore batters. Those runs came as back-to-back solo home runs in the 1st inning. But after that, Kuroda became the Kuroda the Yankees know and love, just keeping those pesky birds from doing much in front of this sold-out crowd.

The Yankees, however, weren’t going to let the Orioles just have this game. In the 1st inning, Brett Gardner singled and then scored as Jeter doubled. Jeter then stole 3rd on a wild pitch and scored on a fielding error that got Brian McCann safely to 1st. The game was tied 2-2 at the end of the 1st inning.

Then came the 7th inning, which has to be the inning where the Orioles realized they weren’t going to win this game. I watched this inning and honestly wondered how a team so sloppy in their defense could possibly be where they are in the standings (much like I did in the first game of this 4-game series). Drew led-off with a strikeout, but ended up safely at 1st due to a passed ball (a rule I still don’t understand exactly, but I’m happy to watch it land in the Yankees’ favor). Ichiro Suzuki then walked, in what could also be his last game in pinstripes, as he too has yet to announce his plans beyond Sunday’s game in Fenway. And then Pirela singled on a bunt and the bases were loaded. Gardner’s groundout gets Drew trying to come home.

Bases are still loaded as the Captain steps up to the plate, and the Orioles bring in a new pitcher as this guy certainly wasn’t doing the job. Jeter actually has a really poor hit on a broken bat, but the Orioles’ shortstop bobbles it badly, so Ichiro and Pirela each score as Jeter and Gardner end up on the corners. Another new pitcher and it’s McCann again for a sacrifice fly to score Gardner.

And it’s 5-2 Yankees.

And into the 9th inning, Jeter takes his place at shortstop for the last time in the Bronx; chants of “Der-ek Je-ter” echo through the stadium, met with a couple of tips of the hat and waves with his glove; David Robertson on the mound for the 9th inning; Yankee fans just praying for those 3 outs to victory. A lead-off walk on base and one out, a 2-run home run to the 2nd deck of left field put the Orioles within 1 run. Another out. And then another left field home run to tie up the game. You could feel the air being vacuumed out of the stadium in an instant. Robertson would get out of the inning with a blown save.

No one moved like the usually do at this point. The guy they came to watch was up 3rd, and his family was right behind the netting, waiting for his final at-bat. Everyone in New York (and I’m guessing across the viewing audience) was praying for something spectacular. Pirela led-off with a single, before speedy Antoan Richardson was pinch-run for him. Gardner’s sacrifice bunt moved Richardson to 2nd. And the world waited. An 86 mph change-up was all it took — a single into right field, Jeter rounding 1st, ball thrown into home, Richardson sliding in… SAFE! WALK-OFF!! It’s what Girardi himself ordered for Jeter’s final at-bat. And when the boss puts in an order, the Yankees deliver.

Game over. Yankees win 6-5. And the madness in the Bronx began. It was as if they had won a Championship. The entire team celebrated, hugging their Captain goodbye. Former Yankees Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Tino Martinez, Gerald Williams, and Bernie Williams were waiting to celebrate with former manager Joe Torre. Interviews, time alone on the field, greeting his family, more interviews, the customary Gatorade shower (by Gardner and Sabathia), and the final walk down the dugout steps to the clubhouse for the final time. And that was it.

Another farewell that makes me a little sad is that with Jeter’s final at-bat also goes the “Voice of the Yankees” Bob Sheppard. Before Sheppard passed away in 2010, three years after he stepped away from the microphone in 2007, Jeter specifically requested that his at-bats at Yankee Stadium were always going to be Sheppard’s voice announcing him: “Now batting, number 2, Derek Jeter…. number 2”. It’s as nearly familiar to any Yankee fan as Jeter himself. So as we in New York bid farewell to the one announced, we also bid farewell to the Voice that echoed through Yankee Stadium since 1951 announcing the likes of DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Rizzuto, and Jackson. It’s part of the old game that now fades into the history books and our memories.

Go Yankees!

Game 153: TOR vs. NYY — When you have good pitching, offense, and defense, a win just makes good sense

It took Hiroki Kuroda 100 pitches to complete his 6.2 innings and earn the win for tonight’s game against the visiting Blue Jays. He gave up 7 hits and 3 runs (2 earned) and struck out 7 Toronto batters. The 1st inning was rough on Kuroda, allowing a lead-off double; that runner was out on a fielder’s choice, but a 2-run home run jumped the Blue Jays ahead early. Add in an RBI ground out in the 5th (who technically advanced earlier on a throwing error, thus the unearned run) and that would be the only 3 runs the Blue Jays would score.

The Yankees had a slight advantage tonight because what the Blue Jays are certainly terrible at is their defense. No, seriously. This apparently is what they’re blaming their lack of postseason on this year. They have some decent pitching and some pretty good power-hitters, but the Toronto defense is a joke. And if I’m being honest, I kind of saw this coming way in Spring Training. Sorry, guys. Defense matters just as much as everything else if you want to play October baseball.

Anyway, the Yankees led off their 1st inning with Ellsbury’s double and Jeter’s single, so that Brian McCann’s single easily scored Ellsbury. Then in the 3rd, with Ichiro on base with a single, it was Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2-run home run that jumped the Yankees ahead of the Blue Jays, a lead they never surrendered. But as insurance, the Yankees loaded the bases in the 4th (Drew singled, then Headley and Ichiro each walked), so that things could get interesting. Ellsbury (again, I know!) grounded into a force out to get Ichiro going to 2nd because Drew and Headley both quickly scored. Like I said before, terrible Toronto defense; it’s just really sloppy. (To compare, here are a few great Yankee defensive plays just tonight — Teixeira leap, Teixeira dive, and Jeter.)

A throwing error left Ellsbury standing at 2nd clutching his leg. Ellsbury was removed from the game with hamstring issues and sent for an MRI; results are expected tomorrow. Fingers crossed for healthy results.

As the score was 5-3 by the halfway point of the game (the middle of the 5th inning), it was up to the pitching staff to keep the Yankees’ lead. In the 7th inning with 2 outs, when Kuroda threw that 100th pitch, a single landed a runner on base, and the Yankees turned to their bullpen, bringing Outman, who unfortunately gave up a ground-rule double. This was a hugely lucky play as it left runners at 2nd and 3rd, but no runs scored. It would be Rogers in for relief against his former team. Despite walking the first batter he faced and loading the bases, he was able to get a ground out to end the inning. (I think the entire 40,000+ fans in the Bronx let out a collective sigh of relief.)

Rogers gave up a single that ended up at 3rd by the time he got that first out of the 8th inning, so they called on Adam Warren to get the Yankees out of this jam, something he did in 8 pitches and 2 consecutive swinging strikeouts. Warren’s 9th was also a thing of beauty, just 11 pitches and earning his 3rd save of the season. Honestly, when Warren is on point, he’s truly something to watch.

Three wins in a row? What year is this? And why couldn’t we have this a lot more earlier this year? Well, based on the other games I’m watching, it looks the Yankees are still squeaking their way into the Wild Card race, kicking and screaming and clawing their way at times. But if the ultimate goal is to win and to win it all, nothing less than a championship is worth it. This team is the “never give up” team, isn’t it? I’ve got to say that I’m oddly proud of them right now.

Go Yankees!

Game 148: NYY vs. BAL — Former Yankees sometimes do the most damage

Prior to tonight’s game, the last game in Baltimore this season, the Orioles had their own “not-a-farewell-tour” ceremony for Derek Jeter. With Annapolis Naval Academy just a few miles away from Camden Yards, the Orioles invited a representative of the US Navy to gift the Yankees captain with a naval captain’s hat. The Orioles also made a large donation in Jeter’s name to a non-profit group near the Orioles’ spring training home in Sarasota (about an hour south of Jeter’s off-season home). And then there were the food-related gifts — a cake shaped and decorated as Jeter’s jersey, a bucket of steamed Maryland crabs, and an oversize, customized crab mallet (made of the same wood from the Louisville Slugger bats).

And then there was the game…

Hiroki Kuroda did a rather outstanding job as tonight’s starter — 94 pitches, 7 innings, 6 hits, 1 run, no walks, and 5 strikeouts. It was rather flawless, and Kuroda was on track for the win until he gave up his lone run — an RBI double in the 6th to tie up the game. It’s always a shame when a great outing gets tossed aside into a no-decision. But it was fun watching Kuroda pitch like Kuroda again. He’s really been the most consistent of the starters, being the sole remaining, season-long starter since the beginning of the season.

Martin Prado gave the Yankees hope early in the game, the 2nd inning, with a solo home run to put the Yankees up 1-0. Even when the Orioles tied up the game in the 6th, it was still a really tight game, with both sides pitching and defending like equals, rather than one team that’s 11 games ahead in the standings.

Dellin Betances got a chance in the 8th inning to keep the tied game rolling, which also meant he was on the hook for the win when Brian McCann smacked his 20th home run of the season in the top of the 9th inning. All the Yankees had to do was hang onto that 2-1 lead and they’d leave Baltimore one step closer to hope for October.

It was not meant to be… David Robertson struggled his way through the 9th inning in just 14 pitches. Back-to-back doubles tied up the game again; that RBI came off the bat of a former Yankee (Steve Pearce, briefly a Yankee in 2012). Then recent Yankee Kelly Johnson (who ended up on the Orioles recently after a small stint with the Red Sox) helped his new team defeat the old team with his own double and a walk-off win. 3-2 Orioles

Today was also the 200th anniversary of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, and the Orioles honored the anniversary tonight by wearing red-based uniforms with touches of stars and stripes. The inspiration for the lyrics being very nearby at the famed War of 1812 Fort McHenry. As the story goes, Francis Scott Key, seeing the stars-and-stripes flying in the midst of flame and destruction, felt an overwhelming rush of patriotism and penned those famous words as a poem (later converted to lyrics over a popular drinking song of the day) on this day exactly 200 years ago.

The National Anthem and baseball have been linked almost since baseball’s inception, though it wasn’t until April 1941 that it became a daily occurrence before every baseball game in (where else?) the Bronx at the first Yankee Stadium. Now the anthem is a staple before every major sporting event at stadiums, sandlots, and sports arenas across America every day.

And after 9/11, that small display of patriotism became so much more dear in the hearts of Americans than just another obligation to get to “play ball”. It meant that together as a people, we were united for something greater than individual accomplishments, something that is represented in the battleground of the playing fields across the country, that unity and strength and courage to strive for victory and camaraderie and resolution.

It’s so easy to become rote over something we hear on a daily (or near-daily) basis, but let us never forget the why we have such an anthem — the freedoms we enjoy and celebrate daily, and the people we have to thank for them. We have a long history in this country (well over 200 years) of people who willingly gave their lives for such freedoms. Without them, Key’s words and the material on the flag wouldn’t mean any more than any other words or materials; there would be nothing to substantiate their meanings and representation.

So the next time you stand, remove your cap, place your hand over your heart, sing those centuries’ old words, and cheer its end into a game, pause for a moment and give thanks for the who and the why behind the what. And then go thank someone in uniform or someone who wore a uniform. Because you can… because they did.

Go Yankees!

Game 142: TB vs. NYY — Sometimes, it’s just not enough…

It’s that time of year again where basically the only games left to play are against division rivals — so lots of Tampa, Baltimore, Toronto, and (everyone’s favorite rival) Boston. To kick off the last 20 games of the season, the Rays came to the Bronx for a mid-week series against the Yankees. The Rays are not in any kind of race as their are much too far behind the division leaders (Orioles) to have a chance at October baseball. But the Yankees are still in it, going into tonight’s game just 5 games from the second Wild Card spot.

Tonight’s game certainly didn’t help their chances…

Hiroki Kuroda took the start for tonight and had a really great 1st inning. Things were looking up, promise lingered in the air. But things progressively crumbled and just didn’t get better. Kuroda threw 67 pitches over his 3.1 inning outing, giving up 9 of the Rays’ 11 hits and all 4 of their runs, striking out just 5 batters. In the 2nd inning, he allowed a lead-off solo home run, but still managed to keep the Rays in check. In the 3rd, two back-to-back singles ended up scoring on another pair of back-to-back singles. Then in the 4th, 3 consecutive singles scored another run, pushing the Rays up to 4 runs scored.

So the Yankees opened the floodgates that would be their bullpen tonight. David Huff took the rest of the 4th for Kuroda and threw the 5th, keeping the Rays to those pesky 4 runs. Whitley took the 6th, continuing what Huff began. And then the bullpen dance began — the 7th was split between Whitely, Hill, and Rogers; the 8th between Rogers, Outman, and Kelley. And Robertson did an absolutely flawless job in the 9th, but it seemed that no matter what the Yankees tried to do, it wasn’t going to be enough (is that the theme for this year’s team?).

On the other side of the field, the Yankees did their best to at least attempt to win this game, offensively that is. Jacoby Ellsbury smacked a nice solo home run in the 4th inning. But it was the 5th inning that had the Yankees pushing back against the Rays. Bases loaded and no outs, newcomer Chris Young hit a long single that scored both Headley and Ichiro. Then Ellsbury singled and Drew was sent home from his spot at 2nd, but the left fielder threw a sharp throw to the catcher waiting at home plate to tag out Drew. Initially, the play was ruled an out, but Girardi did challenge it as a blocked-plate call (something I believe was correctly challenged). But upon review, the call stood as originally called.

This is the second time that I’ve disagreed with challenged plays (or the results of them), and both times have been over the plate-blocking new rule this year. I thought I understood it clearly when they announced the rule change earlier this year, but it seems in both of these instances, I don’t because the umpire HQ guys seem insistent on turning my understanding upside down.

I’m the first to admit I that while I do know a lot about baseball and all its rules and “unwritten rules” and the oddities that make up the sport, there’s still some that seem to baffle me from time to time. I guess, I can now add this blocked-plate rule to my list of unknowns with baseball. I was really excited about the new rule, preventing home plate collisions and the injuries that often result in such crashes,. But if there’s no consistency in calling these plays, how exactly are we supposed to understand the new rule?

Well, yet another reason my job is just to write my opinion on the game and not personally have to sort out all these little details. Sometimes, that’s just how things end up happening despite our best efforts, our hopes, our dreams. Sometimes, it’s just not enough… And tonight, not enough added up to a 4-3 loss to the Rays.

But on a brighter note, I had the absolute pleasure of being at the Yankees game tonight as it was also my birthday. Of course, it’s always a pleasure to watch a game, especially the Yankees. But on my birthday, there are few places I’d rather be than at Yankee Stadium watching a baseball game. Thanks for the memories today, boys! I look forward to next year… and how do I set up a win then?

Go Yankees!

Game 137: BOS vs. NYY — McCann & Kuroda dominate

After yesterday’s near meltdown, it was rather refreshing for the Yankees to act like, well, the Yankees tonight. Hiroki Kuroda dominated the defense, while it was definitely a Brian McCann offensive night against the visiting Red Sox.

Kuroda’s 95 pitches took him through 7 innings, allowing just 4 hits and 1 run, and striking out 8 Red Sox batters. That lone run came in the 6th inning after Kuroda plunked a batter on the knee; that runner would score on a double. It was the only run the Red Sox would score all evening. And for the Yankees, there could be no better news.

In the meantime, the Yankees found their swing again. In the 2nd, with Teixeira on base with a single, Brian McCann smacked a 2-run home run into the 2nd deck right field seats to put the Yankees on board early. Then in the 5th, with bases loaded (Headley, Drew, and Ichiro), Jacoby Ellsbury’s sacrifice fly scored Headley. So even when the Red Sox scored their lone run in the next inning, it was still 3-1 Yankees.

(No, I’m not going to talk about whatever that double play was in the 1st inning with some sloppy base running by the Yankees; you can watch the clip instead and try to figure out what happened. Fortunately, it didn’t negatively affect the Yankees.)

But, you know, just for some added insurance, the Yankees went to town in the 7th. With 1 out, Ellsbury tripled, Jeter walked, and Gardner singled home Ellsbury. Beltran grounded into a force out, Gardner out at 2nd, with runners on the corners. McCann (he went 4-for-4 tonight) singled and scored Jeter; Beltran, trying to beat the throw at home, was tagged out to end the inning. But the damage was done, and it was 5-1 Yankees.

To keep this going, Dellin Betances took the 8th and David Robertson the 9th (even without the opportunity for a save), and like usual, they delivered a solid slam on whatever door the Red Sox hoped to rally on through. It was going to be a Yankees’ victory tonight. It was just one of those nights that felt decisively that way from the beginning and never deflated. There are just some games like that, and it could not have come at a better time.

Always glad for a win, especially against the Red Sox. Because, hey, the rivalry never dies…

Go Yankees!

Game 132: NYY vs. DET — 9th inning high and then a crumbling

It’s always a shame when a starting pitcher has a great outing and then doesn’t get the win because of a weak offense. Today’s matinée featured Hiroki Kuroda on such an outing — 91 pitches over 7 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs, 1 walk, and 4 strike outs. Kuroda even threw several very quick 1-2-3 innings, keeping the Tigers from doing much of anything. A sacrifice fly score the Tigers’ first run in the 2nd, and an RBI single in the 5th scored the second one.

In response, the Yankees played almost a parallel game offensively, getting 4 hits and 2 runs off the Tigers’ starter. In the 3rd, with 2 outs, Wheeler singled and ended up at 2nd on a throwing error; he would go on to score on Jacoby Ellsbury’s single. And in the 4th, Prado and Beltran on base with a single and a double, Prado then scored on Brian McCann’s ground out.

So from the 5th inning on, the game sat tied 2-2, both teams not really even reaching a threatening level at any point prior to the 9th inning. Dellin Betances got the call for the Yankees in the 8th inning, keeping everything status quo. In the top of the 9th, the Yankees got 2 base runners on, a runner at 3rd dancing, itching to cross that plate. But a strikeout ended that possibility. So the Yankees turned the game over to the Shawn Kelley in the bottom of the 9th to push it into extra innings.

Kelley, however, struggled his way through 27 pitches in that inning. A lead-off double immediately sparked a rally, and a walk further fanned the flames. Two strikeouts later, both teams crossing their fingers praying the wind would blow in their favor, a Tigers’ batter singled home the winning walk-off run. It would be 3-2 Detroit.

And now the Yankees head north of the border to play a weekend series against Toronto. It’s almost September, the finish line is almost in view, that race to October is tighter than ever. There are very few certainties at this point, and we are in the last moment of infinite possibilities. I scanned through the standings today and saw the first team will get eliminated from the Wild Card race in 11 losses (for this team, that could mean in 11-15 games). So by that math, we are going to go down to the wire.

The very last day of the regular season is September 28, exactly 31 days from today. And almost every race in every division across the league are still way too close to call. This isn’t like most years where there is at least one obvious steam-rolling winner. This is a muddled field, and maybe it’s better that way. It certainly enhances every game, every inning, every play with an extra layer of competition and anticipation. And if you’re anything like me, that added tension of competition is what really makes it worth it. Competition pushes you to the breaking point and then pushes you even further that you thought possible. Those who fight all the way to the end win, and those who crumble along the way don’t.

Go Yankees!