What’s In A Number?

New faces, new numbers. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

One of the general rules of thumb in Spring Training is the higher the number, the less likely the player is to make the team. Chase Whitley (#96) and Graham Stoneburner (#95) should probably start looking for apartments in Trenton rather than start planning for life in the Bronx. Non-roster players with a legitimate chance to make the team like Bill Hall (#40) and Russell Branyan (#45) were issued numbers a little closer to respectability.

New faces Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda were given some old, familiar numbers. Numbers with tiny little bit of history, either for the Yankees or in general. During the number-issuing process, Andruw Jones got caught in the crossfire. Let’s review…

Michael Pineda – #35
For the first time since Mike Mussina in 2008, someone will wear #35 in pinstripes. Pineda wore #36 with the Mariners last season, but Freddy Garcia has seniority and got to keep his number. Moose was a great Yankee, but not great enough to have his number retired. Keeping #35 out of circulation for three years before handing it over to an extremely talented young hurler like Pineda is a fine tribute in my eyes.

(AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Hiroki Kuroda – #18
Believe it or not, there’s actually a little something behind Japanese pitchers and the #18. It’s the country’s recognized “ace number” according to NPB Tracker’s Patrick Newman (and his commenters), a tradition that started way back in the 1930s with Akira Noguchi of the Tokyo Senators. It was later popularized by Tsuneo Horiuchi of the Yomiuri Giants in the 1960s and 1970s. After Horiuchi retired, Masumi Kuwata was given the number and went on to have a lengthy career. The tradition spread and now most staff aces in Japan wear #18, though #11 has started to gain popularity as an “ace number” thanks to Kenshin Kawakami and more recently Yu Darvish. Daisuke Matsuzaka wears #18 with the Red Sox, and the recently signed Tsuyoshi Wada will wear it for the Orioles. So yeah, neato.

Andruw Jones – #22
I don’t know if he got dinner or a watch or something else out of it, but Jones gave up #18 to Kuroda and will now don #22. If you’re the superstitious type, I have bad news for you: the #22 has been worn by some sketchy fourth outfield types in recent years, including Greg Golson (2011), Colin Curtis (2010), Chad Huffman (2010), Randy Winn (2010), and Xavier Nady (2008-2009). Jones is substantially better than all of those fellas, plus I’m not usually one to worry about the bad vibes given off by certain numbers. I expect Andruw to do just fine in 2012, regardless of what number he’s wearing on his back.

* * *

Raul Ibanez will be issued #27 when he reports according to Jack Curry, which can’t be good news for Chris Dickerson. Last year’s #27 is out of minor league options (can’t be sent down without first clearing waivers) and on the outside of the roster bubble looking in at the moment. He’s been given #41.

The numbers 6, 20, 21, 46, and 51 remain out of circulation, and four of the five are likely to get retired at some point. I have a real hard time thinking Paul O’Neill’s number will be retired unless they’re planning some kind of grand, late-90s dynasty number retirement night, where all those guys have their numbers put in Monument Park at the same time. O’Neill’s been retired for eleven years now, it’s time for something to happen with #21, one way or the other.

It’s official: Yankees sign Raul Ibanez

The Yankees have official signed Raul Ibanez to a one-year deal, the team announced. Yesterday we heard that the contract was worth $1.1M with incentives that could push the total value to $4M. The Yankees had an open 40-man roster spot following the A.J. Burnett trade, so no other roster move is required. I don’t love the signing, so please go and prove me wrong Raul.

Yanks place four on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects List

Changeup! (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The third of the big three top 100(-ish) prospects lists was published today, with Baseball America revealing their rankings of the game’s very best future big leaguers. The list is free for all, you don’t need a subscription. Bryce Harper claims the top spot, followed by Matt Moore and Mike Trout. Those three have consistently been ranked as baseball’s three best prospects this offseason, just not always in the same order. Number four is Yu Darvish, who I don’t consider a prospect given those 1,200+ innings he threw overseas.

Anyway, Manny Banuelos leads all Yankees’ farmhands at #29, which is right where Keith Law (#23) and Kevin Goldstein (#29) had him. Hooray for consensus. Dellin Betances is ranked #63, Gary Sanchez #81, and Mason Williams #85. Opinions on the club’s second, third, and fourth best prospects are pretty split, both in their rankings within the system and through the game. All four are considered legitimate top 100 guys though, and that’s better than most.

The Yankees were one of 13 teams with at least four players to make the top 100, but they were one of only three teams to originally sign six players on the list. Jesus Montero ranks #6 behind Harper, Moore, Trout, Darvish, and Julio Teheran while Arodys Vizcaino is a little further down at #40. The Cardinals and Rangers are the only other clubs to originally sign six top 100 prospects, but again they’re counting Darvish as a prospect. Former Yankees’ first round pick Gerrit Cole is #12.

Since we’re in prospect mode, I’m going to point you towards Jason Parks’ article about what could go wrong for each of the Yankees’ top five prospects. It’s part of his series taking a pessimistic look at each club’s best farmhands, a little dose of reality to temper expectations in prospect fantasyland. You do need a subscription to read the entire thing, but non-subscribers will still be able to read the Sanchez and Banuelos write-ups. Much to my surprise, he considers Angelo Gumbs the team’s fifth best prospect. “My eyes told me Gumbs had star potential, a future you don’t often envision when watching short-season baseball,” he wrote. “I’m probably a few years too early with this ranking, and I understand if people wish to question my sanity.”

While I don’t bother with a top 100 list, I did rank the Yankees’ top 30 prospects last Friday. So check that out, in case you missed it. Even if you didn’t, go read it again. If you’re yearning for more prospect knowledge, you can participate in BA’s free top 100 chat later this afternoon (2pm ET).

A.J. Burnett’s Five Best Starts As A Yankee

(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The Yankees said goodbye to A.J. Burnett over the weekend, eating a big chunk of the $33M left on his contract in order to send him to the Pirates. He seemed like a nice enough guy but was one of the most frustrating pitchers to watch that I’ve ever seen, and while we appreciate his contributions to the 2009 World Championship, none of us are going to lose sleep over his departure. It’s just the way it is.

A.J. did have some fine moments as a Yankee, though over the last two seasons the team had a knack for giving him zero run support whenever he did throw a gem. Of the 12 times he threw at least seven innings and gave up no more than two runs since the start of 2010, the Yankees lost four times. That’s just not supposed to happen with this offense and bullpen. Anyway, we’re going to look back at Burnett’s five greatest starts as a Yankee using a simple metric called Game Score. Wikipedia has the nuts and bolts, if you’re interested. Fifty is an average Game Score, and the highest ever recorded was Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game (105). Anything above 75 or so is pretty stellar.

Game Two of the 2009 World Series does not make this list; it was the eighth best start of Burnett’s three years in the Bronx with a Game Score of 72. That said, it was easily his biggest moment as a Yankee given the pressure and everything riding on that game. As you’ll notice, four of Burnett’s five best games came back in 2009, which isn’t surprising given how awful he’s been over the last two years.

5. July 27th, 2009 @ Rays (box) (video) (RAB recap)
Pitching Line: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 114 pitches
Game Score: 74

The Yankees were in cruise control by this point of the season, already well on their way to clinching the AL East title in late-July. The lineup gave Burnett an early three-run cushion by starting the second inning with a single, a double, and a triple off Jamie Shields, allowing their right-hander to pitch around baserunners in the first (walk), second (walk), and third (single) innings. A.J. was perfect in the fourth and fifth before allowing a run to score on an Evan Longoria ground ball double play in the sixth.

The Phils – Coke and Hughes – were both unavailable that night, so the bullpen was pretty thin. Joe Girardi sent Burnett back out for seventh with his pitch count already over the century mark, but he got three outs on just ten pitches. He gave up only two ground ball singles (one towards third and the other between first and second), though he did allow one other baserunner when B.J. Upton reached base on a wild pitch following a strikeout. The offense blew things open late and the Yanks sailed to an easy win.

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Mariano’s last waltz

Mariano winds up to throw one of the final pitches at old Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Once upon a time, there was a pitcher named Mariano. He was no ordinary pitcher, you see. Every night, when the Yankees had the lead, he and his cutter would arrive to the famous guitar strains of a famous song and save the day. In and out, the cutter would dart and dash as another Yankee game would end in favor of the good guys.

The pitcher named Mariano arrived one day in 1995, and no one quite knew what to make of him. He began his baseball journey as a starting pitcher and as a top prospect, was nearly traded a few times before he developed the ability to throw in the upper 90s. Flashing glimpses of brilliance during the Yanks’ first playoff run in a baseball generation, Mariano came of age in the 1995 ALDS as he threw some key innings under some tight pressure.

The next year, that pitcher named Mariano matured into his own. He was the game’s best setup man, and a year later, he became the Yanks’ closer. Despite a home run by Sandy Alomar in 1997, the pitcher named Mariano has held down that role since the days before AOL. He has outlasted closers around baseball, racking up more saves than anyone in baseball history and five World Series rings. With that illustrious résumé, we forgive him some games in 2001 and 2004 because even the best are sometimes mortal.
Over the years, Pinstriped personalities have come and gone. He played with Don Mattingly, with David Cone and Paul O’Neill, with Bernie and Tino and Giambi. He saved more games for Andy Pettitte than any other tandem in baseball history, and for his latest trick, he even outlasted A.J. Burnett in the Bronx.

But now it sounds as though the end is 162 regular season games and, hopefully, a playoff run away. While speaking with reporters in Tampa on Monday, Mariano waxed poetically about his career. This is his golden season — number 42 is 42 years old — and the end may be near. “I know now,” he said. “I just don’t want to tell you. I know now. I will let you guys know when I think I should tell you.”

He spoke about life this winter when vocal surgery had the Yanks’ closer and all of his fans worried about the C word. “It scared me,” he said of his surgery. “I thought it could be cancer. I was relieved when everything came back negative. But it tells you how quick everything could be gone.”

He spoke of the finality of his own personal decision. “Even if I save 90 games. Even if they want to pay as much money as they want to, any team. I know what I’m going to do,” he said as Jack Curry’s own reporting suggested retirement.

The pitcher named Mariano, a religious man devoted to his family, could pack it in soon. Yankee fans around the globe could watch an icon step away from the game when he’s still good enough to get out the toughest hitters. We could watch the teflon closer call it a career. We could watch the pitcher named Mariano, a favorite to generations of Yankee fans who have never seen anything quite like him or his prized cutter, take that final curtain call.

If the 2012 baseball season were a movie of Mariano’s life, it would fade to black with only one ending. The skinny balding guy with his cool and calm demeanor would fire one more strike past one more batter to record the final out of the World Series. It’s baseball’s equivalent of Hollywood’s ride into the sunset. But in baseball as in life, there are no guarantees of an easy championship, and so if this is indeed Mariano’s last season, we’ll treasure that pitch. One day, we’ll tell our grandchildren of how we grew up watching that pitcher named Mariano, and it was always a real treat.

Sherman: Yankees have no interest in bringing Damaso Marte back

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees don’t have any interest in bringing the still unemployed Damaso Marte back to the organization. This might sound obvious, but the Yankees love their lefty relievers and he can be had on a minor deal now following his various shoulder problems over the last few seasons. Southpaws Cesar Cabral, Mike O’Connor, and Clay Rapada are all in the fold, and at some point enough is enough. We’ll always have the 2009 playoffs, Damaso.