Right now, every team is a contender. Even the Houston Astros, losers of 106 games and with nary an off-season upgrade, could make waves this year. It would take about a dozen things breaking their way, and at least half of them would be of the greatest improbability. But even then, chances are we’ve seen crazier things happen in baseball.
With the Yankees, though, the sense of optimism is justified. After winning more games than any other AL team in 2011, they’ve upgraded the team in the off-season. Acquiring both Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda to the rotation is exciting enough. Add to that a few optimistic reports from camp in Tampa, and it’s pure spring ecstasy.
The wave of optimism started before the Yankees officially opened camp. A few players showed up early, Phil Hughes among them. After a disappointing 2011 season, marred by injuries and ineffectiveness, Hughes reportedly dedicated himself to conditioning this winter. Reports surfaced last week that he showed up in much better shape, much to everyone’s relief.
Yesterday Chad Jennings added fuel to the fire when he quoted Joe Girardi on Hughes’s progress. “I think his curveball has been a little bit more crisp. I think there’s more arm speed there. I think the ball’s coming out better.” A healthy and effective Hughes in that last rotation spot would be a boon for the 2012 Yankees.
Another player with high expectations who delivered a disappointing 2012 is Alex Rodriguez. In December we learned that A-Rod underwent an experimental knee procedure — the same one that Kobe Bryant underwent after last season. Bryant, but most accounts, has bounced back considerably this year. He’s playing more minutes and is putting up superstar numbers. That makes it much easier to imagine A-Rod returning to form in a similar manner.
(That A-Rod is dedicated enough to bring his own food to restaurants is another optimistic sign. He knows the tabloids follow him everywhere, and surely knew they’d catch on to this and try to make it seem embarrassing. But all it is, is a guy dedicated to his nutrition so he can play baseball at the most elite level. Rock on, A-Rod.)
Want the mother of all optimistic reports? How about the one Buster Olney filed on Tuesday about Michael Pineda? Even Brian Cashman admitted that if Pineda never develops a changeup and doesn’t become an ace, he’ll have made a mistake trading Jesus Montero for Pineda. So it warms the hear to see the following paragraph:
But after Pineda arrived in the Yankees’ camp, pitching coach Larry Rothschild worked with him to alter the grip on his changeup. Rothschild mentioned to Martin that Pineda’s changeup is a work in progress before the veteran catcher crouched to work with Pineda in a bullpen session Monday, and Martin was taken aback by how good Pineda’s changeup is already. He turned to Rothschild and said, “Larry, what are you guys talking about?”
In other words: Pineda already has made strides with the changeup, a sign of his aptitude.
It’s not just the big names that are making splashes this spring. This morning Joel Sherman, in a column about Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame chances, drops some gems. By his account, Jones seems more determined than ever. He believes that the adjustments he made to his swing last season will help him not only mash lefties, but also handle righties as well — something he did well during his prime years. Apparently, one of the reasons Jones chose to come back to the Yankees, despite more lucrative offers from other teams, was Kevin Long’s influence.
The most telling line in the column, as Sherman writes it: “[Jones] told hitting coach Kevin Long last year to inform Yankees GM Brian Cashman that he was returning in 2012 to take someone’s job.” Can you imagine what the Yankees lineup would look like if Jones were indeed to the point where he could legitimately take at-bats away from Brett Gardner?
These types of stories appear every spring. They help us warm up from the cold of winter — metaphorical cold, of course, given this winter’s behavior. Still, the odds are long that all of these factors fall into place. It’s wonderful to jump back into baseball and imagine the Yankees with an effective Phil Hughes in the rotation, with an ace-like Michael Pineda behind CC Sabathia, with a back-to-form Alex Rodriguez, and with a rejuvenated Andruw Jones. It’s really the only thing that gets us through the last parts of the off-season and through the preseason. The harsh reality might be a bit less exciting, but it’s still nice to bask in these stories now, while they still bring us hope.