Join the RAB Bracket Challenge

On Monday we introduced the first ever RAB Bracket Challenge, March Madness bracket pool hosted on ESPN.com. If you haven’t joined already, please do so by clicking here and adding your entry to our group. We’re giving away prizes from the RAB Shop, but no RAB hoodie can match the feeling of knowing you bested all your fellow readers. Either way, be sure to join and give it your best shot. For those of you who have joined and filled out a bracket already, it’s not too late to change your entry and have Syracuse getting knocked out a little earlier than you did before. Tough break for the Orange. We’ll be around to answer any questions in the comments.

ST Game Thread: Ivan Nova’s Third Try

You have to walk, Aviles. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Earlier today we briefly discussed Ivan Nova‘s recent fastball command issues, which is something he’ll try to correct against the Red Sox tonight. The game itself doesn’t mean anything, but because it’s part of the rivalry it will surely get more attention than it actually deserves. Hopefully Nova gets his fastball going where he wants, hopefully everyone makes it through healthy, and hopefully the Yankees win. If they don’t, no big deal. We’d all sacrifice the latter to ensure the first two go well. Here’s the starting lineup…

CF Brett Gardner
C Russell Martin
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
DH Raul Ibanez
RF Andruw Jones
2B Bill Hall
LF Jayson Nix
SS Doug Bernier

RHP Ivan Nova

Available Pitchers: RHP Mariano Rivera is scheduled to follow Nova. RHP David Phelps, LHP Boone Logan, LHP Clay Rapada, RHP Cory Wade, LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Adam Miller, RHP Ryan Pope, and RHP Chase Whitley are also available.

Available Position Players: C Gus Molina, 1B Jorge Vazquez, IF David Adams, IF Ramiro Pena, OF Justin Maxwell, OF Melky Mesa, OF Zoilo Almonte, and DH Chris Dickerson are scheduled to replace the starters.

The game is scheduled to start at 7:05pm ET and can be seen on YES, MLB Network, MLB.tv, or MLB.com. Enjoy.

3/13 Camp Notes: Nunez, Pitching, Bernie

The Yankees and Red Sox are playing a nationally televised night game in a little while, so we’ll have a regular game thread up when the time comes. Until then, here are the day’s notes from Tampa…

  • Eduardo Nunez was originally in tonight’s lineup, but he felt pain in his right hand during batting practice and has been scratched. He hasn’t played since getting hit by a pitch last Monday. Bill Hall’s chances of making the team get that much better. [Mark Feinsand]
  • Michael Pineda, Phil Hughes, CC Sabathia, and some minor leaguers/non-roster guys threw their scheduled side sessions while George Kontos threw live batting practice. It was his first time facing hitters in camp after being shelved by an oblique problem for a few weeks. [Chad Jennings]
  • Bernie Williams arrived in camp and will hang around as a guest instructor for a few days. [Pete Caldera]

And finally, the Yankees have announced that the Mastercard pre-sale of individual game tickets will be from March 22nd-25th. General sale begins the 27th.

Keeping Cesar Cabral

For the second straight year, the Yankees have a pair of Rule 5 Draft picks in camp this spring. Right-hander Brad Meyers hurt his shoulder working out over the winter and is behind the other pitchers at the moment, so chances are he will eventually be jettisoned like Dan Turpen and Robert Fish last season. Left-hander Cesar Cabral has a legitimate opportunity to make the team though, plus there’s a chance the Yankees may be able to keep him even without placing him on the Opening Day roster.

Cabral, 23, has already appeared in five exhibition games this spring, the most of anyone on the team. He’s allowed two runs on eight hits in 5.1 IP, striking out three and walking zero. The problem is that he’s given up hits to six of the 14 left-handed hitters he’s faced, including one homer. Obviously a small sample, but he’s got to win a job with that small sample and he’s not getting it done at the moment. I ranked Cabral as the team’s 29th best prospect last month because I like his size (check the photo), performance (2.65 FIP in 194.2 IP last three years), and stuff (low-90s fastball, changeup, slurvy breaking ball). The Yankees obviously like him as well, otherwise they wouldn’t have worked out a pre-Rule 5 Draft trade with the Royals to get him (for an undisclosed amount of cash).

Because he’s a Rule 5 guy for the second time — the Rays took him last year — the rules apply a little differently to Cabral. Rather than be offered back to his original team (the Red Sox) if he fails to make the club, he can instead elect free agency and leverage that into remaining with the Yankees as non-Rule 5 Draft player. The Diamondbacks turned this exact same trick with former Yankees farmhand and two-time Rule 5er Zach Kroenke in 2010, as Nick Piecoro explains…

After the Diamondbacks decided they were not going to put Kroenke on their 25-man roster, they placed him on waivers. Kroenke cleared, which then meant, as a Rule 5 pick, he had to be offered back to the Yankees before he could be outrighted to the minor leagues.

But as a second-time Rule 5 player, Kroenke had the option to elect free agency rather than accept the outright back to the Yankees. He said he would have elected free agency, prompting the Yankees not to request him back.

At that point, he no longer had the rights of a typical Rule 5 player and instead became the equivalent of a normal 40-man guy on the Diamondbacks roster. The Diamondbacks then optioned him to (Triple-A) Reno.

Cabral and the Yankees have the ability to do the same thing Kroenke and the D’Backs did two years ago. The player benefits by remaining on the 40-man roster (going unclaimed on waivers is a pretty strong indicator that no other team would give him a big league contract as a free agent) while the team gets to keep him without restrictions. Cabral has all three minor league options remaining, so if nothing else the Yankees would be securing an up-and-down second lefty reliever for the league minimum through 2014. Not a star, but a potentially useful piece.

As I wrote this morning, there is some merit to carrying a second left-handed reliever early in the season because of the schedule. Some regular Triple-A innings wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Cabral, who has yet pitch above Double-A and could use more time to figure out a breaking ball against same-side hitters. Clay Rapada or even Mike O’Connor probably makes more sense if the team decides to go with the second southpaw in April. Cabral has a nice, intriguing arm and is the kind of guy the Yankees should look into keeping beyond Spring Training. Clearing waivers is not a given, but otherwise the system works in their favor.

Ivan Nova’s Fastball Command Problem

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Yankees and Red Sox will renew their rivalry with a completely meaningless Spring Training game tonight, but meaningless only in terms of results. Boston will only play four regularsJacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Aviles, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia — and it doesn’t matter who wins and who loses. The game is more than meaningless for Ivan Nova though, who is making his third start of the spring.

“We are getting closer to [evaluation time],” said Joe Girardi yesterday. “You want to see some progress going into the third start. You take a hard look at the fourth and fifth starts … He struggled with [fastball command] the first couple [of starts] and that’s important to me,”

Nova, who just turned 25 in January, has allowed seven runs on seven hits and a walk in 4.2 IP during his first two exhibition starts, so the command problem isn’t showing up in the walk total. Nova’s been missing his spots and falling behind in the count, and hitters are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do when the pitchers make those mistakes. At this point it doesn’t really matter how command issue manifests itself, just that it exists and both the team and player are working to correct the problem.

“I am perfect in the bullpen, but I get [in a game] and try to do too much,” said Nova. “The fastball is a problem right now, but I know I will get it back … Hopefully, it will be there [tonight]. Whatever happens, happens.”

If you’re the worrying type, there is the matter of Nova’s strained flexor, the elbow injury that forced him out of Game Five of the ALDS last October. Elbow problems usually result in poor command while lack of velocity indicates shoulder issues. Nova is healthy, having rested his arm during the offseason and passing his pre-Spring Training physical. There are no reports of pain or soreness, and his velocity has been fine so the shoulder is apparently sound. He’s just fighting through a poor command phase at the moment, which is something that comes and goes for every pitcher during the course of the year.

Tonight’s game will be broadcast all over the place (YES, MLBN, MLB.tv, and even MLB.com), so we’ll get a chance to see Nova and his command in action. The results don’t matter on March 13th, the only thing that matters tonight is that he’s consistently hitting the target with his fastball and keeping his offspeed stuff down. If he starts to do that against the Sox tonight and continues to get better the next few times out before Opening Day, all will be well with the team’s projected third starter. If not, then Nova will just have to keep working on it and hope things click before the games start to count.

2012 Season Preview: After the Starters

Garcia could play a significant role out of the pen (via Reuters Images)

When we talk about bullpens, we’re usually speaking of the closer and his one or two primary setup men. Rarely do we have time to dive into the guys who bridge that gap between the starters and the setup men. That’s largely because we expect the starters to bridge their own gaps. But it’s also because these middle relievers just aren’t cut from the same cloth as their late-inning counterparts. Still, they can prove valuable, or detrimental, during the course of the season.

In the past few years the Yankees have built up their bullpen. That includes not only their setup men, but their middle relief corps. This year they could have an especially strong crew, thanks, in large part, to their fifth starter competition.

The Long Man

The Yankees will choose the winner of the fifth starter competition by the end of spring training, but that doesn’t mean the competition will cease. The loser will head to the bullpen and take on the role of long reliever. The best chance for him to get innings will come when a starter gets knocked out of a game early. Who is the most likely Yankees starter to get knocked out early? Chances are, it will be the winner of the fifth starter competition.

A long reliever can be more than a mop-up man early in the season. Managers tend to go easier on their starters in April, often lifting them after the sixth inning. Last April that happened all too often. It led to an incredible burden on the bullpen. With the long man this year the Yankees can ease that burden. That’s not only because they’ll have a bonafide multi-inning reliever in the pen, but that reliever will actually be good (unlike most long man/mop-up men).

Sure, the starter’s role will be more important in both the short and the long terms. But if the long man can go two innings twice in a single rotation turn, he can provide plenty of value. That will help the Yankees bridge the gap between the starter and the endgame. The longman can also, in some instances, finish off the game. In games where the Yankees are losing, or are winning by four or more (since Girardi plays it by the save rule), the long man can pitch those final three innings, giving the rest of the bullpen the day off.

The only question is of whether Girardi will choose to deploy his long reliever in this manner. If he saves the long man for failed starter situations, it seems like a wasted bullpen spot.

Cory Wade

It might have seemed as though Cory Wade came out of nowhere last year, but he had previously experienced success in the majors. Unfortunately, he followed his successful 2008 season — 2.27 ERA, 3.78 FIP in 71.1 innings — with an ineffective and injury riddled 2009. Those two factors kept him in the minors for all of 2010, after which he became a six-year minor league free agent.

Here’s the kicker, though: the Rays signed him to a minor league contract, which included a mid-June opt-out date. He pitched exceedingly well for their AAA affiliate, a 1.23 ERA and 3.34 FIP, but they declined to promote him. The Yankees snatched him up after the opt-out date, and, well, we can all remember the rest.

Wade will essentially act as the bridge to the bridge to Mariano this year. He’s not a knockout reliever, in that he won’t come in when the Yanks need a strikeout. But he can come in to plenty of situations and challenge hitters. That might be his greatest virtue, in fact. Throughout his career Wade has sported a low walk rate; last year it was 1.82 per nine innings for the Yankees. That is, he doesn’t work himself into trouble too often. That’s a valuable, and uncommon, trait for a middle innings reliever.

Boone Logan

For a guy who throws about 40 innings per season, Logan is quite the polarizing character. Some fans loathe his every appearance. Others take him for what he is, which is a situational lefty. Or, at least, that’s what he had been prior to 2011. Something changed with Logan last year. In 2010 he was quite effective against lefties, hitting them with a fastball-slider combination that resulted in plenty of whiffs. But in 2011 he saw fewer whiffs on his slider from lefties. Instead it was righties who were swinging and missing when he did go to the slider.

It’s one thing to note that Logan performed better against righties than he did lefties last season. It’s quite another to think that this is a repeatable trend. After all, it happened over the course of one season, in which time Logan faced just 185 batters. Additionally, the entire performance difference comes from home runs: he allowed four against lefties and zero against righties. At the same time, he struck out far, far more lefties and walked far fewer. That is to say, Logan is still pretty much a situational lefty.

If, by some stroke of luck, he can continue inducing righties to swing through his slider, he could become more of a bridge piece. He won’t take late inning situations away from David Robertson or Rafael Soriano, but he could toss a sixth inning here and a seventh inning there. Chances are, however, that he’ll continue being the pitcher he’s been his entire career: effective enough against lefties, perhaps enough so that you’d intentionally walk a righty between two of them.

The last spot

If we play with the safe assumption that the Yankees will, as they have in the past, carry 12 pitchers, there is but one bullpen spot remaining. This morning Mike examined one candidate, Clay Rapada. Given the Yankees’ follies in finding that elusive second lefty in the pen, Rapada’s chances probably get a slight boost. There’s also Cesar Cabral, who could have a leg up because he’s a Rule 5 pick.

Brad Meyers, another Rule 5 pick, presents another option. He got a late start to the spring, but seems almost up to speed at this point. George Kontos and D.J. Mitchell are really the only other options, since they’re on the 40-man roster. Essentially, the Yankees have a competition here without many inspiring candidates. It’s hard to see how the Yanks will get much out of this last bullpen spot — which is why I feel they’re more likely to carry the extra lefty.

As Mike said this morning, the spot isn’t of the greatest consequence. The Yanks do have a few guys who could fill in this spot — remember, pitchers such as Lance Pendleton, Buddy Carlyle, and Amauri Sanit pitched out of the bullpen at points last season. Eventually, Joba Chamberlain will return and reclaim this spot. So whoever fills it, should the rest of the bullpen stay healthy, will likely be out of a job by the end of June.

* * *

It’s easy to remember the mid- to late-aughts and cringe at the woeful bullpen behind Mariano Rivera. They had few effective setup men, never mind middle relievers. Now, though, they have the back of the bullpen pretty well set. Even the middle portion of the bullpen has formed nicely. When the only real concern is the 25th roster spot, something has gone right.

The Clay Rapada Option

Barring injury, the Yankees really only have one spot up for grabs in Spring Training this year. That’s the final bullpen spot, assuming the loser of the Phil Hughes/Freddy Garcia fifth starter “competition” is made the long man and not traded or sent to the minors or released or something. There are no shortage of bullpen candidates in camp, though the team has yet to give any kind of indication of which way they’re leaning. Given the early-season schedule, non-roster invitee and left-hander Clay Rapada might make the most sense.

The Yankees open their regular season schedule in Tampa for a three-game set with the Rays, who will have lefties Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, and Matt Joyce in the lineup and ready to be matched up against. Three games against the Orioles (and lefties Nick Markakis, Chris Davis, and possibly even Nick Johnson) comes next, then three games against the right-handed heavy Angels, four games against the Twins (Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau), three games against the Red Sox (Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Carl Crawford), three games against the Rangers (Josh Hamilton), and three games against the Tigers (Prince Fielder, Brennan Boesch). A second lefty would sure be a nice option to have during that stretch.

Rapada, 31, is a funky little southpaw with a low arm slot (video), a mid-80s fastball and a mid-70s slider. He’s held the 136 big league lefties he’s faced to a .153/.252/.220 batting line with 36 strikeouts (26.5%), 15 walks (11.0%), and a 42.0% ground ball rate, so solid peripherals but not overwhelmingly awesome. Rapada has appeared in three exhibition games so far, allowing just two of the 12 batters he’s faced to reach base (single and walk). He’s struck out four of the five left-handers he’s faced (the other was thrown out trying to bunt for a hit), and although it’s a miniscule sample that means absolutely nothing, Rapada is going to have a win a job based on these small samples. So far he’s done nothing to hurt his chances.

Ultimately, that last bullpen spot is just being kept warm for Joba Chamberlain, who is expected back in mid-June or so. The Yankees will have some flexibility until then and can use that spot to carry an extra lefty for the first 22 games of the season, which will be played against a number of left-handed heavy teams. Cesar Cabral could also be an alternative to Rapada, though he’s a fastball-changeup guy that isn’t a great candidate for matchup work. Plus he hasn’t stood out in camp so far, and unfortunately that’s the name of the game when it comes to winning the last roster spot. Unless one of the extra righties really emerges over the next three weeks, Rapada could be the best option for that final spot come Opening Day. How long he lasts is another matter entirely.