Ben’s obligatory offseason wish list

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

It goes without saying that, as a Yankee fan, my off-season wish list revolves around a trophy. Right now, the San Francisco Giants are in possession of that trophy, and it’s been five years since the Yanks last celebrated this item, the third-longest World Series drought of my life. I want that trophy back.

Sitting where we are, after a disappointing and often dull 84-win season, it’s hard to see a short path 2015’s trophy, and with Derek moving on, the ties to even the 2009 team are being held together by ARod for now and Francisco Cervelli, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, CC’s knee and current free agent David Robertson. Flags fly forever, but leave them outside long enough and they’ll start to look a little tattered.

As far as Yankee needs go, it’s hard to disagree with Joe’s and Mike’s wish lists. Even as the Yanks faded into the middle of the pack this summer, they fell only four games shy of a Wild Card berth, and as the Royals demonstrated, get there and anything goes. Of course with the way the roster currently looks, the Yanks need three infielders, a starting pitcher or two and another reliever, and those pieces aren’t coming out of Scranton in April, Rob Refsnyder notwithstanding.

But you know what the Yanks need. Your wish lists is mine: the best players yesterday and that parade down Broadway in Lower Manhattan. For my take on the offseason, I want to talk about a different kind of wish list. This is about mystique and aura, no longer appearing nightly. It’s about the team’s image — their brand, if you will. Now that Derek Jeter has retired, the Yankees need to pass the baton, but to whom? Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill were there after Mattingly’s departure, and Jeter burst onto the scene. In 2015, the Yankees don’t really have a franchise face or up-and-coming star. It’s time to rebrand.

1. Do Something About Yankee Stadium

For better or worse — until the Yanks pull a Braves in twenty years — New Yankee Stadium is what we have, probably for most of the rest of my life. I tolerated it at first, and it helped that the Yanks won a World Series in the park’s first season. But as far as baseball stadiums go, it’s a nothing. There’s no charm or attitude to it. It’s sterile-looking with the feel of something you should look at but not touch.

In September, during Jeter’s last home stand, I went to a game with a friend of mine. We had comps — good seats in the 100s level that were supposed to be next to each other. Instead, we got to our seats to find a table in between the two of us. I have no idea why the Yankees decided they needed to remove seats to stick tables in between them. We all managed at baseball games for decades without tables. But my friend and I had a table, and we had to spend the whole game either leaning toward each other or shouting to be heard. These seats and that table seemed to be built with attendees who care more about the scene than the game.

The Yankees aren’t going to gut their new stadium and reconfigure the seating bowls to better resemble the Yankee Stadium of my childhood and teenage years. But they could find a way to make the stadium feel more inclusive and fan-focused. If the product on the field isn’t going to be impressive, the ballpark at least should be. Right now, with Painfully Awkward George Steinbrenner looming over everyone, it’s grand but lacking.

2. Change the In-Game Experience

This goes hand-in-hand with No. 1 on my list, but must we sit through another season of the grounds crew doing the YMCA dance, Cotton Eye Joe and “God Bless America”? Must we be bombarded with sound at every opportunity? At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, there’s something to be said for a simple game experience. I saw a Sunday matinee at Fenway this past year, and the only sounds were the PA announcer and the organist. I don’t expect the Yanks to sacrifice scoreboard revenue every day but doing so once in a while would be a nice treat.

3. ‘It is high…it is far…it is still broadcasting Yankee games!’

Every winter, I hope that John Sterling isn’t still broadcasting games come Opening Day, and every Opening Day, he is. We already know that the 2015 season will be no different, but I can dream.

Overall, the Yanks’ radio broadcast needs a rethink. It’s become an advertising vehicle for WFAN that also happens to provide some amount of play-by-play and the bare minimum of informed commentary. The Yankees and CBS make their money through endless sales of everything on the broadcast, and Sterling’s schtick can sometimes be enjoyable in that grandfatherly rolling-of-the-eyes sort of way. But as a way to learn about what’s happening on the field or gain insight into a baseball decision, well, you won’t find that on the John and Suzyn Variety Show. Maybe next time.

4. A Redesigned RAB

4. Re-Sign David Robertson

Okay, okay. Not everything can be a complaint about the in-game presentation. We do need to focus on the field too, and for me, keeping David Robertson around for a few more years is a top priority. I realize there’s a prevailing sentiment that Dellin Betances can close and for a lot less money, and maybe that’s true. However, moving Betances into the closer role has a cascade effect on the rest of the game and not in a positive way.

By the middle of the season, Joe Girardi believed in Betances to use him perfectly. He was the fireman when there was a problem in the 7th; he could handle the 8th with aplomb. He was a versatile reliever with a rubber arm and a 100 mph fastball. As a closer, he’ll take those last three outs, 3-run lead or 1-run lead, and his innings and utility will drop. Plus, someone else — Adam Warren? Shawn Kelley? — will have to pick up higher leverage innings.

Meanwhile, Robertson has been one of the best, most consistent relievers in baseball over the last five years. He can handle the 9th in New York, and he’s at a prime age for a pitcher. Simply put, Robertson gives the Yanks comfort in the 9th and a deeper, more versatile bullpen overall. I’d sign Andrew Miller too, but that’s just being greedy.

5. A Short Stop

Brendan Ryan is the only short stop under contract for the 2015 Yankees. Gulp.

* * *

All in an all, it’s a tough winter for the Yankees. They have a lot of dead or dying weight on the books for the next few seasons and aren’t rushing to add more. They have some promising high-ceiling prospects in their lower levels, and the best thing for the future of the club would be for the farm system to have an actually good year all around next year. For now, though, this seems to be a franchise in a holding pattern. The books closed on one great era of team history. We’ll see what comes next starting in April.

CC you later: Sabathia opts for season-ending knee surgery

Erstwhile Yankees ace CC Sabathia will miss the remainder of the 2014 season as he is set to undergo season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his injured knee next week, the Yankees announced this afternoon. On the bright side, Sabathia isn’t undergoing microfracture surgery yet, and the team is calling this procedure a “clean up.” But with a degenerative condition in his knee, it may be a matter of when, and not if, CC needs a more serious operation. Sabathia had consulted with four doctors — Neal ElAttrache, James Andrews, Yankees team doctor Christopher Ahmad, and Rangers team doctor Keith Meister — before making the decision. Although the Yanks and CC hope for a Spring Training return, the team and its lefty hurler are heading into a bit of an unknown with this latest surgery as the scope could lead to a more dire diagnosis.

For the Yankees, looking forward, this decision ultimately confirms what they had expected: They will get no more innings from Sabathia this year. With Masahiro Tanaka on the shelf indefinitely and Michael Pineda ever so slowly making his way back from shoulder inflammation, the team is thin on pitching right now and could use a lefty starter. Expect Brian Cashman to be working the phones over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, CC effectively has three years and $72 million remaining on his contract. Don’t think about it too much.

Sabathia, Solarte lead 10-2 attack against the Rays

Mike had some dental work done earlier today, and the rest of my day was busier than expected. We dropped the ball on the game thread, but it seemed to be a good luck charm for CC and the Yanks. The erstwhile ace won in Tampa Bay for the first time since 2010, and the Bombers turned a triple play behind him while also knocking out three home runs. It was, all around, a Solarte Party for a team that’s won five in a row.

CC’s Big Day

As Yangervis Solarte, Brian Roberts and Scott Sizemore turned a triple play in the second inning, CC shot his arms up in the air in celebration. The Yanks held a 4-0 lead, and for a minute, it looked like CC would crack. Yet, for the third time in his Yankee tenure, the infield turned a triple play. (The first involved A-Rod, Cano and Nick Johnson while the second was one of the zaniest rundowns you’ll ever see.) For a guy not known for his hot corner defense, Solarte had the presence of mind to head to the bag and flip to second. From there, it was nothing more than a routine play, and CC escaped.

From then on, it was relatively smooth sailing. A passed ball led to an unearned run while CC’s nemesis Sean Rodriguez lofted a home run in the 7th. By then, though, the Yanks led 8-1, and the Rays’ run was harmless. Sabathia again didn’t have much velocity on his fastball, but he hit his spots and changed speeds effectively. He ended the night throwing 72 of 107 pitches for strikes with six Ks.

Big Bats vs. Price

Offensively, the Yanks made tonight’s game look easy. The Rays opted to hold David Price back a day to face the AL East leaders, and it backfired. Price gave up six runs in five innings, and of the ten hits he allowed, six went for extra bases. The Yanks hit two triples in one inning, and Soriano and McCann went back to back in the 5th. After missing three games with a back injury, Brian Roberts went 3 for 5 with a double and a triple, and in the 9th, April superstar Yangervis Solarte lofted a Grant Balfour offering into the right field seats for his first Major League home run. Solarte, who had doubled earlier, is now hitting .373/.448/.569. It’s hard to imagine it will last, but it’s been a fun ride.

Odds and Ends

Carlos Beltran took a nasty spill when he ran full speed over the wall in right field. He seemed OK, but it sure would be nice if the Rays could afford a real warning track…Dellin Betances had a tough time throwing strikes in the 8th inning, but he still struck out three of the eight batters he faced. He threw only 16 of 31 pitches for strikes, but his stuff, when over the plate, is nearly untouchable. He now has 11 strike outs in 6.1 innings but 4 walks too…Derek Jeter is very quietly hitting .295 with a .380 OBP. With a .364 slugging, the power isn’t quite there, but I’ll take the average and OBP with no complaints…These two teams face off again tomorrow as Hiroki takes on Erik Bedard, making his first start of the year.

Yanks acquire breathing human for Eduardo Nunez

Brian Cashman has turned the recently-DFA’d Eduardo Nunez into a minor league pitcher. As the Yankees announced a few minutes ago, the team has acquired Miguel Sulbaran from the Twins in exchange for Nunez. Sulbaran is a 20-year-old lefty pitcher who has put up decent numbers with both the Twins and Dodgers since arriving in the U.S. in 2012, and he has yet to pitch above Single A.

Sulbaran was the player to be named later in the Dodgers’ deal for Drew Butera last year, and at the time, Dodgers’ bloggers seemed to rue the trade. That said, Sulbaran is a 5’10” lefty who sits in the 89-90 mph range with breaking pitches described as “average.” Maybe he could one day be a bullpen arm, but for now, he’s org filler in acquired exchange for a bench player who was opportunities with the Yankees.

Arbitrator upholds 162-game suspension; AROD set to sue

Barring further court action, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will be suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating MLB’s Joint Drug Argument, arbitrator Fredric Horowitz has decided. Horowitz has upheld A-Rod‘s ban but has reduced MLB’s penalty from 211 games to 162 (plus any Yankee playoff games). Essentially, A-Rod was allowed to play out the 2013 part of his suspension while appealing, but the initial penalty has been upheld.

Rodriguez has issued a statement vowing to appeal the suspension in federal court, but his faces long odds as federal courts are reluctant to overturn arbitration rulings absent obvious factual issues, gross misconduct on the part of the arbitrator or if the award was based on corruption, fraud, or undue means. Even then, courts grant broad discretion to arbitration rulings, especially those that arise out of collective bargaining arrangements.

A-Rod released his statement on Facebook, and our own Mike Axisa runs down the background of the Biogenesis/A-Rod scandal in his post on CBS Sports. Here’s what Rodriguez had to say:

“The number of games sadly comes as no surprise, as the deck has been stacked against me from day one. This is one man’s decision, that was not put before a fair and impartial jury, does not involve me having failed a single drug test, is at odds with the facts and is inconsistent with the terms of the Joint Drug Agreement and the Basic Agreement, and relies on testimony and documents that would never have been allowed in any court in the United States because they are false and wholly unreliable. This injustice is MLB’s first step toward abolishing guaranteed contracts in the 2016 bargaining round, instituting lifetime bans for single violations of drug policy, and further insulating its corrupt investigative program from any variety defense by accused players, or any variety of objective review.

I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances as alleged in the notice of discipline, or violate the Basic Agreement or the Joint Drug Agreement in any manner, and in order to prove it I will take this fight to federal court. I am confident that when a Federal Judge reviews the entirety of the record, the hearsay testimony of a criminal whose own records demonstrate that he dealt drugs to minors, and the lack of credible evidence put forth by MLB, that the judge will find that the panel blatantly disregarded the law and facts, and will overturn the suspension. No player should have to go through what I have been dealing with, and I am exhausting all options to ensure not only that I get justice, but that players’ contracts and rights are protected through the next round of bargaining, and that the MLB investigation and arbitration process cannot be used against others in the future the way it is currently being used to unjustly punish me.

I will continue to work hard to get back on the field and help the Yankees achieve the ultimate goal of winning another championship. I want to sincerely thank my family, all of my friends, and of course the fans and many of my fellow MLB players for the incredible support I received throughout this entire ordeal.”

For MLB, this suspension is largely unprecedented. The JDA allows for a 50-game ban for an initial failed test, but it also grants the commissioner power to suspend a player for “just cause.” Horowitz has apparently upheld a broad grant of power in this “just cause” provision, and ARod’s suspension becomes the largest in MLB history over PED use, suspected or otherwise.

For the Yankees, this leaves a gaping hole on the left side of the infield. Already filled with old or fringe players, the infield has no third base anchor, and the remaining free agent market is weak, to say the least. (Just say no to Michael Young.) The team will get to save $25 million of A-Rod’s salary, less a $3 million signing bonus, but I’d rather see a better team on the field than Plan 189 or more money in the Steinbrenner family’s pockets. The gap his bat leaves in the lineup is significant as well, and the team is, as currently constructed, worse without A-Rod than with him.

The Players’ Association, meanwhile, issued a statement as well: “The MLBPA strongly disagrees with the award issued today in the grievance of Alex Rodriguez, even despite the Arbitration Panel’s decision to reduce the duration of Mr. Rodriguez’s unprecedented 211-game suspension. We recognize that a final and binding decision has been reached, however, and we respect the collectively-bargained arbitration process which led to the decision. In accordance with the confidentiality provisions of the JDA, the Association will make no further comment regarding the decision.” They are, in effect, washing their hands of this mess and, it seems, ceding power to Bud Selig and the Commissioner’s Office. That’s a risky move.

Some fans who despised A-Rod will rejoice; others who loved him, warts and all, and loved watching him hit will not. It’s not a good day for baseball though as shady dealings and PED use remain in the headlines.

Mystique, aura and Robinson Cano

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

A big part of being a Yankee fan is buying, hook, line and sinker, into the concept of mystique and aura, so mocked by Curt Schilling during the 2001 World Series. We expect dramatic victories, World Series titles and every player to thank the good Lord for making him a Yankee. We expect the Yanks to pay what it takes to retain their players, and we expect those players to embrace their time with the Yankees and stay in the Bronx to earn their spots in Monument Park and, for some, a plaque in Cooperstown. So what happens when they leave?

When Robinson Cano jetted for Seattle, of all places, it was more than a little bit of a shock to fans of the Bombers. Here was a player in his prime with multiple All-Star appearances, 1649 hits, 204 home runs, and a .309/.355/.504 slash line, all at the ripe old age of 31. The Yanks offered him seven years and were willing to pay him $25 million a year with an annual salary higher than everyone but A-Rod‘s. But it wasn’t enough, and now Robbie is Seattle’s, and Seattle’s problems are Robbie’s.

As the reactions from Robbie’s departures have come in, we’ve heard about disputes with Joe Girardi over lineup philosophy, and now, CC Sabathia has joined the fray with comments that stick to the heart of the Yankee legend. In comments to this weekend, CC spoke about the power of the pinstripes. “Just a player like that, putting on the pinstripes, and being able to play your whole career in New York means something – to me, obviously. It didn’t mean that much to him,” CC said. “It’s a difficult choice being a free agent. And he made a tough choice. I know he’s happy with his decision, and his family’s happy. So that’s good.”

Over the years, plenty of Yankee legends have had the opportunity to leave, and most didn’t. They earned their dollars because George Steinbrenner was willing to pay and because they wanted to stay. Derek Jeter hasn’t put himself into a bidding war, and Jorge Posada stuck around. Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, to differing degrees, both nearly left the Bronx but backed away from Boston at the last minute. Andy Pettitte left only to return while Reggie Jackson left never to return. Some players have walked away to avoid donning another uniform when their tenures were over, by their choice or the Yanks’, but I can’t think of someone else who walked away mid-career for another team who outbid the Yanks.

For Robbie, the choice was purely dominated by dollars, and I won’t begrudge him that. While the Yanks were willing to give him more per year, they didn’t want to give a middle infielder entering his age 31 season a ten-year commitment. Cano, meanwhile, figured that the guaranteed money today — the $65 million difference — is something he wouldn’t make up at the end of the seven-year deal the Yanks offered him. He didn’t want to gamble against his own age-related decline, and in today’s world where baseball teams are flush with cash, that’s certainly his prerogative and a fine choice.

But where it hurts is with that mystique and aura. It’s something fans buy into far more deeply than many players do, and it’s a stark reminder of the business of the game when a fan favorite and pinstripe native leaves. Maybe Cano didn’t think the Yanks during his career would ever be more than Derek’s team. Maybe Cano saw ten years of executive office upheaval, various team-building approaches and just one World Series win and simply decided there was nothing particularly compelling keeping him around that didn’t have a lofty price tag. Maybe we all overrate mystique and aura anyway. It hooks the fans, but what does it mean to the players anyway?

Without Robbie, Yankee life will go on. Brian Cashman says he’s disappointed, but he’s not $65 million worth of disappointed. The post-Robbie era will feature a Yankee team with a new look and a new approach. For nine years, Cano was the next great Yankee bound for Monument Park, and now he’s just another guy on the hapless Mariners. It may not feel good now, but it’s all part of the game, mystique, aura and free agency.

What Went Right: Robinson Cano, #KabakHat

On a cold day in February, I made a bet that I thought would be a sure thing. In a fit of Twitter arrogance, I threatened to eat my hat if Robinson Cano reached 80 walks. His previous career high had been 61.

How could things go wrong, I thought. The Yanks didn’t have a great lineup entering the season, but they seemed to be able to offer up Cano enough protection that he wouldn’t blow past his 2012 walk total. And the things went south in a hurry. Derek Jeter wasn’t ready to return really at all this year while Curtis Granderson suffered two freak accidents. Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner were total busts, and Cano was left holding the Yanks’ offense on his shoulders.

For a few months, things looked dicey. As Robbie emerged as the only real slugger in the Yanks’ lineup, his walk totals rose precipitously. After walking only 18 times in April and May combined, Robbie drew 18 free passes in June, and this four-walk affair at the hands of Joe Maddon and the Rays seemed to represent my nadir. Would I be able to eat an inedible item made of sponge and wire?

From May 24 through July 28 — a span of 59 games — Cano drew 39 free passes, ten of which were intentional. That’s a pace of over 100 in a 162-game season, and the hat seemed doomed. Even accounting for his slow start, Cano was on pace to draw 81 walks, and I figured all was lost. But then Alfonso Soriano arrived and Alex Rodriguez returned. It was all wine and roses from there.

From July 29 through the end of the season, Cano returned to his free-swinging ways. He drew just 13 walks while still hitting a robust .346/.391/.528. The intentional walk well fell dry as well since he now had protection in the lineup. Opposing mangers IBB’d Robbie just twice over the final two months of the season.

And so the hat was saved. Despite sweating out a tough summer, despite a short-lived Tumblr with hat recipes and an RAB Countdown, the hat has survived the winter. Robbie ended the year with 65 walks — a new career high but a far cry from the 80 he needed to achieve for us to see what happens when man eats toxic sponge. I’d say that’s a season that went very, very right.

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)
(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

Outside of the walks, though, Cano’s season was a bright spot. He hit .314/.383/.516 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs. He played a spectacular second base and seemed to be a leader in the clubhouse when the top veterans were injured. After hitting 21 dingers prior to the All Star Break, he launched only six more longballs all year but still hit .331/.379/.494. He appeared on his fifth All Star game and placed fifth in the AL MVP voting.

What comes next though is more important than what he did. We’ve followed the saga of Robbie very closely. He’s a premier offensive player who can man his position with the best of them. He’s Jay-Z’s first client and star in New York City. He’s also turned 31 a little over a month ago and wants a long-term commitment with lots of dollar signs attached. The Yanks can’t afford to let him go but may not want to pay. Yet for all the public posturing, they need Robinson Cano. I won’t say I’ll eat my hat if he doesn’t sign with the Yanks; I’ve learned my lesson there. But I’d be very, very surprised if the team’s best player in 2013 isn’t wearing his Yankee pinstripes come April.