February 2009

The Joba Rules revised

joba_250_022509.jpgBy Jon Lane
Interesting blog entry from Tyler Kepner of The New York Times:

Should Joe Girardi choose to not skip his fifth starter – the Yankees have an off day after opening the season in Baltimore on April 6 – Joba Chamberlain would line up to start the home opener April 16. The way I projected the lineup last week, I had Chamberlain being skipped and making his 2009 debut April 15 at St. Petersburg with CC Sabathia to follow. Time will tell how this shakes out.

Meanwhile, there will apparently be no serious flexing of any Joba rules with this talk about Chamberlain making roughly 30 starts. As Kepner points out, should Chamberlain average six innings per start, that would equal 180 innings – 80 more than he threw last season and well more than the Yankees want. That had Girardi admitting to times when he’d have to pull Chamberlain after five to keep down his innings.

“It’s tempting to want to leave him in, because he has the ability to shut people down,” Girardi said. “But you understand it’s a long-term project.”

Bring it on!

arod_350_022509.jpgBy Jon Lane
Finally it’s upon us, baseball! The Yankees open their Grapefruit season today at 1:15 p.m. against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., in which their full roster will be intact before many players leave to prepare for the World Baseball Classic.  

This game is neither televised nor over the radio waves – I wish it was because Alex Rodriguez is playing and it would have been interesting to gauge fan reaction – but we’ll do our best to provide periodic updates. A-Rod is braced for a hostile reception, but to him that’s nothing new.

News flash: Joe Girardi announced the order of his rotation this morning, reports The Journal News‘ Peter Abraham.

CC Sabathia
Chien-Ming Wang
A.J. Burnett
Andy Pettitte
Joba Chamberlain

Many of you were hoping Wang would be No. 2 between Sabathia and Burnett. You got your wish and it’s a good decision by Girardi to separate two power pitchers with Wang’s nasty sinkerball, which helped win 19 games in consecutive seasons. Not a bad No. 2, eh?

Furthermore, the plan is for Chamberlain to make roughly 30 starts. Chamberlain will be carefully monitored, but the last thing you want to do is handle him with kid gloves. Let him go out and show what he’s all about.

Today’s lineup:
Brett Gardner CF
Derek Jeter SS
Robinson Cano 2B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Nick Swisher RF
Shelley Duncan DH
Juan Miranda 1B
Todd Linden LF
Kevin Cash C

The starters: Brett Tomko vs. Brett Cecil

The Yankees agreed to a Minor League contract with Tomko on Friday and invited him to Spring Training.  The veteran right-hander turns 36 on April 7 and split last season with the Royals and Padres. In 12 seasons, Tomko is 95-99 and a 4.68 ERA in 368 games (260 starts) with the Reds, Mariners, Padres, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers and Royals. His chances at the making the Yankees are a longshot – and our Steven Goldman is not a big fan – but he’s another veteran arm that could be stashed away just in case.

Tomko, incidentally, will wear Bobby Abreu’s old No. 53.

The rotation: Tomko, Kei Igawa, Christian Garcia, Mike Dunn, Dave Robertson, Dan Giese and Jose Veras.

About the Blue Jays
Remain a middle-of-the-road team off a fourth-place finish in the AL East … pitching staff is anchored by Roy Halladay, who has thrown 220-plus innings in three consecutive seasons while averaging 17.3 wins … injuries limited five-time All-Star Scott Rolen to 115 games (.262-11-50), but he batted .307 with three home runs and 11 RBIs over his final 25 games … Vernon Wells suffered a left hamstring injury in drills on February 23, and might miss the remainder of spring training … manager Cito Gaston returned for his second stint as Jays pilot when he took over for the fired John Gibbons on June 20, 2008 and signed a two-year extension that September.

Yankee Doodles

posada_250_022409.jpgBy Jon Lane
A quick thank you to everyone who’s shared their comments, opinions and observations. Joe and I are appreciative of the amount of feedback already with this endeavor not even a week old. It’s great to be a part of the community, and trust us when we say a plethora of fun and creative projects are on tap.

One other quick note: Steven Goldman’s latest Pinstriped Bible entry is a must-read. He and non-roster invitee Jason Johnson share something in common that puts life back in its proper pecking order.

The Yankees enjoyed a break in the monotony on Monday when Joe Girardi arranged a pool tournament to build team camaraderie. Before I get into the positive aftereffects, a few baseball-related news and notes with the first Spring Training game one day away:

Jorge Posada made 15 throws from distances as far as 220 feet on Sunday. He’s targeting being behind the plate Opening Day on April 6 and insists he’ll catch 110-120 games.

“It’s night and day,” Posada said. “Last year, I couldn’t do the things that I’m doing right now.”

Posada will also receive a community award for his work with the Jorge Posada Foundation, which provides support to families with children affected by Craniosynostosis, from the Ted Williams Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., during a dinner at Tropicana Field to benefit the Children’s Dreamfund. He deserves it. This is a player who operates on talent, heart and guts, and extends those intangibles to charitable organizations.

Mariano Rivera’s surgically-repaired right shoulder is feeling great. He told reporters he’s building muscle while throwing and playing long toss, and that it’s getting better every day. This is coming from, in my book, the greatest closer of all time and an absolutely indispensible member of the Yankees who is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s yet to throw off a mound, but it never takes too long a time for him to be ready for a new season.

Rivera, by the way, won two titles in Girardi’s First Annual World Championship of Pool, an idea that was embraced by the Yankees and the media. Girardi took some jabs last season for showing a Type-A personality, but working with him while he was a YES talent and ghostwriting a few of his columns, I found him bright, friendly and interesting, and his heart has always been in the right place. The experiences he had in Florida and last year in New York will only help take his overall game to the next level.

We saw a different side of Girardi before he canceled practice at Steinbrenner Field and took his players to a billiards bonding expedition, writes Ken Davidoff.

Monday was so long GI Joe. Hello Gentle Joe, writes Sweeny Murti.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin was impressed with Girardi’s idea to build team unity through pool, writes George King. 

Be patient, the kids will be good

hughes_250_022309.jpgBy Joe Auriemma
Don’t give up on the young arms just yet Yankees fans. I know that Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy did little to convince everyone that they had the stuff to be good Major League pitchers last season, but I still think they need more time. Jim Kaat has always said that pitchers need at least 50 to 75 starts of game experience in the Minors before they are fully developed for the Major League level. This is definitely something I agree with.

Now I know some pitchers have made the leap to the Majors and done quite well with a lack of Minor League experience, but for most pitchers it takes that extra time to develop that devastating out pitch, the confidence to get Major League hitters out and build up enough arm strength to be able to go a full season.

In one year, the opinion of the Yankees Minor League system has gone from a top-tier system with many quality arms to one that most critics are calling an overrated group. I have been covering the Yankees Minor League system with our Down on the Farm features for the last three seasons and the one thing that I can safely say is that these pitchers are still the quality arms everyone thought they were just one year ago.

Was Kennedy ready for the Major League spotlight last season? No, definitely not. Does he still have good stuff? Absolutely. Will Hughes bounce back? Given the chance I think he will mature and be a very solid, if not very good pitcher for the Yankees for years to come. Am I the crazy person that not only asks himself questions, but also answers them? Apparently.

It’s not just Kennedy and Hughes. The Yankees are also very impressed with Mark Melancon, who they could actually be lining up as the closer of the future. Melancon has a good four-seam fastball that has hit 96 on occasion and a wicked curveball. He also has a changeup and is starting to open some eyes down in Tampa.

Phil Coke and David Robertson were pretty effective out of the bullpen last season. Coke has the versatility to be both a starter and reliever and the good thing about him is he’s a lefty. He also has terrific composure and could become a very nice option out of the bullpen this season. As for Robertson, he came on strong in the Majors last season going 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in his first 11 games and then faded in his last 14 games with a 2-0 record and an 8.00 ERA, but all-in-all he was pretty effective.

Andrew Brackman is another name that you are going to hear about in the near future. This 6-foot-10 giant certainly has the stuff to be effective with the big club, but control is something that needs to be worked on down on the farm.

Dellin Betances is another big time prospect and I mean that in every sense of the word. He is another tall pitcher at 6-8 and has the stuff to be a quality pitcher with the Yankees for many years to come. Again, control is an issue, but that is what the Minors are all about.

Humberto Sanchez, Zach McAllister and Christian Garcia are also pitchers that are definitely on the Yankees’ radar, so please don’t give up on the pitchers down in the Yankees Minor League system just yet. Let them develop and give them a chance.

Pen looks good, but far from complete

bruney_250_022309.jpgBy Jon Lane
How good the Yankees bullpen turns out is obviously to be determined, but on paper it’s deep and offers a strong support system for Mariano Rivera. Behind Rivera are two locks, Damaso Marte and Brian Bruney. Figure on either Alfredo Aceves or Dan Giese making the team as a long reliever and the underbelly being determined among a group of candidates.

The sure things
Marte wasn’t the reliable set-up man he was in Pittsburgh. His ability to strike out a batter per inning is neutralized by his 4.04 BB per 9 IP walk rate. I’d prefer him as a LOOGY and to see Phil Coke emerge as the second left-hander who can pitch multiple innings and get key outs late in games.

Bruney has meant business since reporting to camp last season 25 pounds lighter, but his 2008 campaign was interrupted when he injured his right foot trying to cover first base on April 22 in Chicago. Although it was the same injury that put Chien-Ming Wang out of commission, Bruney not only defied the odds and returned on August 1, he was brilliant, pitching to a 1.83 ERA with 33 strikeouts and 18 hits allowed in 34 1/3 innings. Any concerns over Joba Chamberlain starting should be assuaged by Bruney’s presence.

The underbelly candidates
Edwar Ramirez has tendinitis in his right shoulder and will be examined today by Dr. Allen Miller. I’m not sold on him anyway. Yesterday I mentioned there’s no middle ground with him; once opposing hitters figured out how to read his change-up, Ramirez was unable to adjust. He’s either real good or real bad, as indicated my these monthly splits once he became one of Joe Girardi’s key relievers:

May: 1-0, 0.77 ERA, 8 H, 5 BB, 10 K, 11 2/3 IP
June: 0-0, 7.36 ERA, 10 H, 6 BB, 13 K, 11 IP
July: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0 H, 3 BB, 16 K, 11.1 IP
August: 2-1, 6.94 ERA, 15 H, 4 BB, 13 K, 11 2/3 IP
September: 0-1, 8.44 ERA, 8 H, 5 BB, 6 K, 5 1/3 IP

Coke was a pleasant surprise last year, holding opponents to a .160 batting average while allowing one earned run in 14 2/3 innings. He whetted the Yankees’ appetites to where he was considered a candidate to start before the team re-signed Andy Pettitte. I’m excited to see a lot more of Coke, 26, who showed me in a small sampling of work and through brief discussions he’s emotionally equipped to handle pressure situations. 

Jose Veras is lights out when he’s on his game, but like Ramirez was vulnerable to the gopher ball (7 HRs in 57 2/3 innings) and issued 4.53 walks per nine innings pitched.

David Robertson will get a longer look for as long as Ramirez is on the shelf, but ultimately may fall victim to a numbers game. He turns 24 in April and may not be ready for significant innings, so more seasoning in Triple-A can only help.

The super sleeper
Mark Melancon earned a ton of press in today’s papers and for good reason. Despite the bevy of righty relievers vying for roster spots, Melancon showed off his electric stuff throwing 30 pitches during Sunday’s session, even getting Derek Jeter to whiff on a couple and breaking Robinson Cano’s bat. He is already being projected as the next Chamberlain in an eighth-inning role and perhaps Rivera’s successor in two years.

Melancon, the Yankees’ ninth-round pick (284th overall) in 2006, went 6-0 with a 1.81 ERA in 19 outings at Scranton – this after missing all of 2007 due to Tommy John surgery. He’s probably ticketed for Scranton in April, but Girardi said he’s “in the mix” and you could see him with the big club sooner rather than later, especially if the Yankees are looking for another Joba-like spark to their bullpen. 

Sunday wrap

By Jon Lane

From the hold your breath department: Derek Jeter has a sore right hamstring. He took part in all drills except for running and told reporters in Tampa, “It’s no big deal” and “it’s really not an issue.”
Jeter could have a broken leg and insist he’d be back on the field the next day, but hamstrings are always a concern, especially this early in the Grapefruit season. And while he’s scheduled to represent the United States in next month’s World Baseball Classic, Yankees manager Joe Girardi is not taking any chances:
“We will talk and make sure he’s healthy,” Girardi said. “It’s awful early to be playing meaningful games. Is his hamstring bad? No. It does concern me because the last thing we want is some player getting hurt during the WBC because that affects our whole season.”
Expect the Captain to suit up for Team USA, but also for the Yankees to not fool around. Any trace of lingering discomfort and they will pull Jeter out of the competition without blinking an eye.
Other Sunday news and notes from Peter Abraham:
• Jorge Posada went through a throwing program, working his way out to 220 feet. All indications are that Posada is coming along very nicely from his shoulder surgery.
• The Yankees’ rotation for their first four spring games have been set:
Wednesday at Toronto: Brett Tomko
Thursday vs. Tampa (YES HD, 1:15 p.m.): Phil Hughes
Friday at Minnesota: Ian Kennedy
Saturday vs. Minnesota (YES HD, 1:15 p.m.): Joba Chamberlain 
• Right-handed reliever Edwar Ramirez cut short his bullpen session due to a sore right shoulder and will be examined by a doctor on Monday. I’ll get more in-depth on how the arms behind Mariano Rivera may line up, but given that there is no middle ground with Ramirez – he’s either real good or real bad – Dave Robertson and Mark Melancon, among others, will get extra long looks.
Updating a post from last Thursday: Forget about Garret Anderson. The veteran outfielder agreed to a one-year deal with the Braves worth approximately $2.5 million, reports the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tampa updates: Wang, Brackman

By Jon Lane

The Journal News‘ Peter Abraham shared some notes in his daily Yankees camp wrap. Chien-Ming Wang told Abraham his foot feels no discomfort and he’s throwing all of his pitches. I’ve been asked if Wang will be (or should be) between Sabathia and Burnett in the rotation. That’s very possible.

Andrew Brackman, the Yankees’ first-round pick (30th overall in 2007), has looked good, but don’t expect him in the Majors until at least the end of 2010. Remember that he had Tommy John surgery in August of ’07.

Your starting rotation (yes it includes Joba Chamberlain)

wang_250_022009.JPGBy Jon Lane
One story that received attention in the middle of the A-Rod melodrama was Chien-Ming Wang, a two-time 19-game winner recovering from a torn Lisfranc ligament now flying under the radar. Wang broke into the Majors at age 25 and made such an impact, erstwhile manager Joe Torre had to remind us – and himself – that he was still a youngster and a rookie not expected to carry a rotation. Yet he was the horse of the staff whose lone weakness remains his 1-3, 7.58 ERA record in four postseason starts.  With CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett here, Wang is a No. 2 or 3 starter teams would kill for to be their ace.

Barring an injury or a near-perfect Grapefruit season, Phil Hughes and
Ian Kennedy will begin the season in Triple-A. The worst-case scenario
is the duo pitches full and healthy seasons for Scranton and move into
the Major League rotation in 2010 a year older and wiser. Not too
shabby.

The Yankees’ projected starting rotation:
CC Sabathia
A.J. Burnett
Chien-Ming Wang
Andy Pettitte
Joba Chamberlain

If this holds form, Sabathia would start the Yankees’ home opener on April 16 and the rotation for the first series April 24-26 at Fenway Park would be Wang, Pettitte and Sabathia. Remember that the Yankees want to retain an innings limit on Chamberlain, whose health will be guarded more closely than Fort Knox. As the projected fifth starter, Chamberlain will be skipped whenever the Yankees encounter an off day.

New York Daily News columnist John Harper is cautiously optimistic, but provides plenty of reasons to get excited about A.J. Burnett.

Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote this in January and I agree wholeheartedly:

To me — and to the Yankees, from what I can tell — there’s really no debate anymore about Joba Chamberlain’s role. Look, the Yankees already have a lights-out setup man: Brian Bruney. In 31 games from the bullpen last season, Bruney’s earned run average was 1.95, and opponents hit .153. In 30 games from the bullpen last season, Chamberlain’s E.R.A. was 2.31, and opponents hit .211. So, Bruney was actually better. Besides, if the Yankees make the playoffs, Chamberlain will probably have thrown so many innings as a starter that he’ll have to be a reliever in October, anyway. Chamberlain has the stuff to be an elite starter, and Bruney has the stuff to be an elite setup man — with the top prospect Mark Melancon poised to contribute as well. To me, it’s really pretty simple.

Joba is a future ace and you don’t put that big of a talent in an eighth-inning role. Many people don’t want to accept it, but Chamberlain is a starter today and tomorrow. Case closed. 

Today around the Yankees

By Jon Lane
Jerome Preisler offered a positive yet compelling take on Alex Rodriguez in his new Deep in the Red, while also looking back on a September 2005 game we worked together.

Meanwhile, some notes and nuggets from another day in Yankees camp:

• George Steinbrenner paid a visit. Asked by a New York Post reporter how he was doing, The Boss said, “I feel good.”

• Bernie Williams returned to his old digs and will remain with the Yankees until March 2 when he meets the World Baseball Classic’s Puerto Rican team. Tyler Kepner has the details with quotes from Williams and Joe Girardi.

From Peter Abraham’s LoHud Yankees blog:

• Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras (Dominican Republic) won’t be going to the WBC. You can probably count Damaso Marte (hamstring) out too. The righty reliever won’t be running for at least the rest of the week.

• CC Sabathia’s first Grapefruit start will be March 6 against the Tigers at George M. Steinbrenner Field. That lines him up for Opening Day on April 6 in Baltimore.

Negron's latest hit


onelasttime_375.jpgBy Jon Lane
Yankees senior advisor Ray Negron has his third book coming out March 17. One Last Time: Good-Bye to Yankee Stadium bids a fond farewell to the venerable Yankee Stadium after 85 years of epic history and tradition. As the new Stadium opens across the street, Ray the bat boy and George Steinbrenner summon some of the greatest players who have worn the pinstripes to this hallowed field for one last game. Think of it as “Field of Dreams” meets the Bronx.

In terms of connecting baseball, children and their parents, few if anyone do it better than Negron. His first two books, The Boy of Steel and The Greatest Story Never Told are both listed in Amazon’s Top Ten list of children’s books. The story of Negron’s life is well-known. At age 16 he was caught by Steinbrenner spray painting a Yankees logo on a Yankee Stadium wall and taken to a police station within the building. While Negron awaited his fate, Steinbrenner decided he would not press charges. Negron was to work off the damages as a batboy, cleaning shoes and doing clubhouse chores. He since lived through the Bronx Zoo years of 1977 and ’78 and remains a close confidant of The Boss through today.

Come August, Negron’s next book will reflect on the 30th Anniversary of the tragic passing of Thurman Munson.

One Last Time: Good-Bye to Yankee Stadium is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. All proceeds will be donated to Yankees Universe and its affilated charitable organizations.

For posterity’s sake, here was the Yankees’ lineup the night of September 21, 2008, the last game to ever be played at the old Yankee Stadium:

Johnny Damon CF
Derek Jeter SS
Bobby Abreu RF
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Jason Giambi 1B
Xavier Nady LF
Robinson Cano 2B
Hideki Matsui DH
Jose Molina C

Here’s the projected 2009 lineup, assuming everyone is healthy:

Johnny Damon CF
Derek Jeter SS
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Hideki Matsui DH
Jorge Posada C
Robinson Cano 2B
Xavier Nady RF
Melky Cabrera/Brett Gardner CF