The players we love to hate

The New York/Boston rivalry lost a familiar face on Tuesday when Jason Varitek and his scarlet C announced his retirement. Varitek had been all but pushed out by Boston and couldn’t find or imagine finding another job with another club anywhere else. And so he’ll join the long list of players who have left the game but served as familiar faces during the halcyon days of the great Yankee/Red Sox games.

Varitek, before I get too nostalgic for a player I could barely stand to watch, was one of those guys who seemingly defined the great rivalry years from the mid 2000s. He was the player Yankee fans loved to hate, and hate him we did. Ironically, his defining moment came when he went after a Yankee whom Yankee fans love to hate. After an ill-timed beanball, Varitek and A-Rod started shoving each other in a 2004 fight. Varitek kept his mask on, and the rest, they say, was history. Yankee fans could never speak of the Sox’s catcher again without referencing his fight.

Of course, Varitek’s place in this dispute was more than just about that fight. He was supposedly the Red Sox’s answer to Jorge Posada, but the comparison never was a good one. Perhaps his pitchers liked him more, but Varitek’s bat paled in comparison to Jorge’s, and despite some unfortunately memorable home runs, Varitek’s offensive career against the Yankees was subpar. In 172 games, he hit .226/.308/.388 with just an 80 tOPS. In 2005, he battered around a bruised Yankee staff, but during most years, he didn’t do much hitting.

Yet, he was always there, a reminder of what exactly for Yankee fans? A team that would fight with its masks on? An undeservedly smug attitude? Something dirty about Boston that Yankee fans hated? Whatever it was, Jason Varitek seemed to embody that ethos, that thing that we couldn’t stand.

These days, Yankees/Red Sox games are rote affairs. We must go through the overly dramatic production of a FOX game or an ESPN special. We’re forced to pretend to be outraged when the new Red Sox manager says something strange about a thing that happened 11 years ago. We try to get worked up as though beating one team during a regular season contest is about glory, life, baseball. Plus, there are only a few guys worth even somewhat despising on the Red Sox of 2012.

So today, perhaps we lost a part of a history we can’t decide if we want to forget or remember. Varitek was around in 2003 when the Yanks dashed the Red Sox’s hopes, and Varitek was front and center when the Red Sox stormed back for an historic victory in 2004. Then he hung around for years as the Yanks and Red Sox squared off now and then in a series of sometimes-tense and sometimes-tedious regular season series. Now, with his mask still on, he’s joined the long list of players who had a starring role in during the heyday of the rivalry. I don’t think I’ll be missing him too much, but I may begrudgingly tip my cap to him on the eve of his retirement from the game we all love.

Open Thread: 2/28 Camp Notes

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Here is the latest from Tampa…

  • As always, Chad Jennings has the day’s pitching and hitting groups. Ivan Nova, David Robertson, Boone Logan and a bunch of minor leaguers/non-roster guys threw live batting practice while Rafael Soriano threw in the bullpen. Everyone but Austin Romine (back) and Robinson Cano (death in the family) hit.
  • David Aardsma was in camp for apparently the first time, and said he’s been throwing off flat ground at 90 feet. He’s eyeing a return after the All-Star break. [Bryan Hoch]
  • Brett Gardner and Dewayne Wise worked on their bunting in a drill added to the workout specifically for them. Hopefully Brett drops down a few more bunts for hits this season, he was markedly better at that in the second half last year. [Jennings]
  • Joe Girardi hinted that Cano is locked in as the #3 hitter with the rest of the lineup around him still to be determined, and also said that CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are the only starters guaranteed rotation spots. Yeah, right. [Jennings & George King]

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Islanders and Nets are playing, but feel free to talk about whatever you want here. Anything goes.

Joba throws off full mound for first time since Tommy John surgery

Via George King, Joba Chamberlain threw off a full mound today for the first time since having Tommy John surgery last June. He threw just 15 pitches (all fastballs), but it’s a significant step. He’ll do the same thing on Friday. “We will see how Friday goes and how my arm recovers because there [are] different pressures when you throw off a full mound,” said Joba. “I won’t throw breaking balls at all this week. After Friday we will figure out a plan.”

If all goes continues to go well, Joba will be able to face hitters in batting practice and simulated games within four-to-six weeks. A minor league rehab assignment follows a few weeks of that, so think sometime in May.

Is the 5th starter competition rigged again?

Once A.J. Burnett got traded, the picture seemed clear. Instead of having three pitchers competing for the final rotation spot, the Yankees narrowed that down to two. And, considering their performances in 2011, the competition seemed legit. Freddy Garcia, who impressed the Yankees enough that they signed him to a $4 million contract early in the off-season, even seemed to have the upper hand. His performance, reliability, and experience seems, or at least seemed, perfect for the fifth starter role.

Phil Hughes, on the other hand, seems like the riskier pick. He might be younger than Garcia, and relatively young in general, but his MLB experience isn’t overly exciting. After pitching well out of the bullpen for half a season in 2009, he started off 2010 with a bang while pitching from the rotation. But he couldn’t keep up that pace throughout the year. Last year was a disaster, which left many of us wondering if there’s anything behind the Phil Hughes hype.

This isn’t the first time Hughes has been involved in a rotation battle. In 2010 he joined Joba Chamberlain, Sergio Mitre, and Chad Gaudin in competition for the final rotation spot. As we learned that spring, though, there wasn’t much of a competition at all. The Yankees viewed Chamberlain as a reliever, and had no intention of letting Gaudin and Mitre take a rotation spot away from their 24-year-old top prospect who had dazzled in the bullpen the previous season. Hughes was the chosen one, probably before any of them threw a pitch in the spring.

According to Joel Sherman, we can expect much of the same this year.

But understand this: The competition is rigged. If it is close, Hughes wins. If it is advantage Garcia, but only slightly, Hughes wins. Hughes can only lose this by doing what he did last spring, having his fastball go on a mysterious hiatus.

Sherman goes on to describe how well Hughes has thrown during the first few spring outings, signaling that he’s already won the fifth starter job. He also quotes GM Brian Cashman, who said of Hughes: “I think he’s a top-of-the-rotation starter.” Those are pretty heavy words for a guy who hasn’t had a full and productive season in the bigs to date.

In terms of the organization’s future, it makes enough sense to prefer Hughes in the rotation. He’s with the team for at least two more seasons, and will hit free agency before his age-28 season. That is, they could keep him in the organization, even at market price, if he succeeds this year. That’s just not an option for Garcia, who, at age 35, has a limited number of productive years remaining.

It’s the present that’s a bit tougher to judge. Hughes very well could be the superior option this year, which makes the decision to use him in the rotation a no-brainer. But, again, it’s hard to look back on his career and see the signs of someone primed for success. If the Yankees do hand him the ball and he falters out of the gate, they’ll be in an even tougher spot. Do they pull Garcia out of the bullpen and insert him to the rotation? That would likely be the end of Hughes’ days in the rotation.

It comes down to how quickly the Yankees are willing to pull the plug. There’s no harm in seeing what Hughes can give you early in the season. Again, his potential future in the organization is much easier to see than Garcia’s. But at some point there needs to be an emphasis on the 2012 team. If Hughes isn’t working out, the Yankees can’t wait long before turning to Garcia. That’s just the point they’re at with Hughes. It’s either come out of the gates strong, or realize a diminished role in the organization.

It’s no surprise, really, to hear of the rigged competition. There’s a lot at stake, not only for 2012, but in 2013 and beyond. Clearly, Hughes has the potential to play a part in future Yankees teams, while Garcia does not. The key to this situation is how the Yankees approach the 2012 team. They can’t punt the last rotation spot all season. They need to know when it’s time to pull the plug on Hughes in the rotation, even if that means a full-time banishment to the bullpen.

A Sign of the Catcher Contract Apocalypse

We’ve heard quite a bit about contract talks between the Yankees and Russell Martin over the last few weeks, though the two sides have mutually agreed to put negotiations on hold until after the season. Martin will earn $7.5M this summer before becoming eligible for free agency at the end of the season, which is something the team should try to avoid if they’re serious about keeping him around for another few years. As the Cardinals are about the show the baseball world, quality catchers are not cheap.

Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Cards and Yadier Molina — who is also scheduled to become a free agent after the season — are putting the finishing touches on a five-year extension worth $70-75M. Molina is an excellent catcher, one of the very best in the game, but is he $15M a year until he’s 35 excellent? Remember, this is a guy that was below average offensively (82 wRC+ from ’04-’10) even for a catcher (86 wRC+ league average) prior to his breakout last season (123 wRC+). That increased production could be real since he is in his prime years, and it’s worth noting that he hit way more fly balls than ever before in 2011, explaining how he doubled his previous career high in homers. Molina’s a fantastic defender, but Tony LaRussa also started him behind the plate 130+ times in each of the last four years. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

Assuming Yadi’s deal is finalized at the reported terms, the happiest people in baseball will be Martin, Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, and their agents. The catcher salary bar has just been raised substantially, to the point where these guys could ask for $10-12M annually before they even hit the open market after the season. Given the dearth of quality catching around the league, the bidding could get to be outrageous in free agency.

“[Molina’s] contract gives you something to point to now,” said Martin’s agent Matt Colleran to Joel Sherman. “They are two really good all-around catchers. For Russell, you couldn’t point to Victor Martinez, who was more a catcher/DH and Napoli is kind of similar. … It could shape up as a unique situation. But all of that is speculation for the time being. Russell is a Yankee and he would like to stay a Yankee.”

Martin isn’t as good as Molina, Montero, or Napoli, but he’s certainly better than average and is still a full year away from his 30th birthday. If he stays healthy and puts together another 100 wRC+ season or (gasp!) improves during his second season in New York, he’d be foolish not to see what free agency has to offer. That’s bad news for the Yankees, because it will make it even harder to retain him.

I’ve been suggesting a three-year, $25-30M contract for Martin over the last few weeks, but that may have gone from “reasonable” to “best case scenario” for the Yankees thanks to Molina’s deal. Luckily they do have solid internal options in Austin Romine and Frankie Cervelli if they do balk at Martin’s price and let him go, but I have to think a contending team would prefer to have a (better than average) veteran catcher rather than roll the dice with kids behind the plate, especially with a generally young pitching staff. If the Yankees want to wait until after the season to restart negotiations, that’s fine. But chances are a new contract with Martin is something they’ll wish they would have worked out sooner come November.

[Photo via Nick Laham/Getty]

2012 Season Preview: Building Blocks

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

There is no such thing as rebuilding with the Yankees. They’re perpetually retooling, attempting to integrate young players into the roster while contending for the World Series every year. That’s much easier said that done, obviously.

Heading into 2012, the Yankees have a nice little collection of young players on the roster, including three with just one full big league season under their belt. Two of the three will be in the starting rotation while the third will see action off the bench and as an injury replacement, but they’re all very young and have a chance to assume very important roles with the team in the near future. The ages listed below are as of April 6th, otherwise known as Opening Day…

Michael Pineda, 23
The Yankees didn’t trade Jesus Montero (and Hector Noesi) to the Mariners just to improve their chances of winning in 2012, the move was geared towards improving their chances over the next half-decade. Pineda turned 23 the week of the trade and already has an above average big league season to his credit. He struck out more than a batter per inning last summer (9.11 K/9 and 24.9 K%) despite the lack of a quality changeup, a problem he has worked to correct with pitching coach Larry Rothschild early in camp.

They Yankees didn’t just acquire any ol’ young pitcher in Pineda. The CC Sabathia-sized right-hander combines high-octane stuff with surprisingly strong command (2.89 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%), hitting the mitt with his mid-90’s heat and wipe-out slider pitch after pitch. He’s not a finished product, but no one is at age 23. Pineda is starting from an extremely high baseline and still has plenty of room for growth, giving him scary upside and ace potential even in the rugged AL East. With five more years of team control remaining, the Yankees expect Pineda to form a dominant and historically large one-two punch with Sabathia for years to come.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Ivan Nova, 25
While Pineda was cutting his teeth with the Mariners last season, Nova was busy stepping up his game and serving as Sabathia’s running mate in the second half. A midseason demotion to Triple-A was largely undeserved but may have been the best thing that happened to him, as he improved his slider and gained enough confidence in the pitch to rely on it as his go-to weapon late in the season. Combined with his usual helping of ground balls, the right-hander exceeded all expectations in 2011.

Now that the curtain has been lifted on 2012, Nova will be counted on to not only repeat last year’s performance, but improve upon it. His walk rate (3.10 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) is fine, though the Yankees would surely like to see him beef up the strikeout total (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) going forward while maintaining his ground ball rate (52.7%). Like Pineda, Nova isn’t a finished product, but he is a bit more refined in the sense that he uses three pitches regularly (fastball, slider, curve) while working in the occasional fourth offering (changeup). With another five years to go before free agency, Nova has a chance to develop into that rock solid, mid-rotation workhorse that takes the ball every five days and gives the team quality outings each time out. With any luck, he’ll become more.

Eduardo Nunez, 24
It’s not easy to crack the Yankees roster as a young infielder, with a bench role being the only realistic way of making the team. Nunez got that chance last year and performed fairly well compared to most utility infielders, producing a .313 wOBA and a 92 wRC+ in 338 plate appearances. When Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez went down with injuries for weeks at the time, Nunez stepped in and hit .281/.333/.401 across two months. His offensive game revolves around putting the ball in play (10.9 K%) and stealing bases (22-for-28), two traits that suit a bench player.

While there is no star potential here, the offensive bar at shortstop is very low — league average at the position was a .303 wOBA and an 88 wRC+ in 2011. If Nunez can tighten up his throwing and become a passable defender at short, he’s by far the best in-house replacement candidate for Jeter. If that doesn’t happen, he can still be a viable part-timer as the two players on the left side of the infield continue on the path towards the glue factory.

* * *

The Yankees have a number of other players that appear to have long-term places on the roster — Robinson Cano, David Robertson, Brett Gardner, etc. — but none of them are under contractual control through 2016 like Pineda, Nova, and Nunez. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are friendly reminders that these things can veer off course, since both of those guys looked to have long-term roles with the team as recently as last spring. Now they’re question marks, question marks just two years away from free agency.

As always, the farm system has a chance to supply the Yankees will more long-term building blocks. Austin Romine and Manny Banuelos could spend the next six years as a battery if things break right, and 40-man roster guys like Dellin Betances, George Kontos, and Zoilo Almonte could force their way into the picture as well. Pineda and Nova are very clearly the future of the Yankees rotation at the moment, and Nunez’s importance to the club is dependent on the healthy of Jeter and A-Rod. Those guys may not form the next core of the Yankees when it’s all said and done, but they will be given every opportunity to assuming important roles on the team going forward.

Does Zimmerman’s extension help us gauge one for Cano?

Good form, McCann. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

This weekend the Nationals made headlines when they signed Ryan Zimmerman to a six-year, $100 million extension. That contract will keep him in Washington through 2019, with a club option for the 2020 season. In the meantime, Zimmerman will continue to play out his previous contract, which pays him $12 million this year and $14 million in 2013. The obvious question, from the Yankees angle: Can this be a barometer for a Robinson Cano extension?

While the Yankees have made public their policy of not negotiating new a contract before the old one expires, they don’t follow it to a t. If the situation is right, they’ll consider extending any player. Since Cano is probably their best hitter, chances are they’d hear him out if he wanted to explore an extension beyond the 2013 season. If he’s willing to take Zimmerman’s terms, the Yankees just might have a match.

There are plenty of similarities between Zimmerman and Cano. Both, for instance, have more than six but fewer than seven years of service time. Both play infield positions that aren’t particularly deep with quality hitters. Both are highly regarded around the league, both for offense and defense. They also both signed extensions early in their careers: Cano when he was about to become a Super Two, Zimmerman as he was about to hit his first year of arbitration.

Yet there are a number of differences between the two players. Zimmerman is two years younger than Cano, which might seem to play in his favor for contract negotiations. His six-year extension will cover his age-29 through age-34 seasons; a similar extension for Cano would cover his age-30 through age-35 seasons, assuming they rip up the last year of the old deal and replace it with the new one.

On the other side of the ledger, Cano has produced better offensive numbers than Zimmerman. Since Zimmerman’s full-season debut in 2006 he out-wOBA’d Cano only once, and that was Cano’s poor 2008 season — and even then it wasn’t by much. Cano has hit for more power, especially in recent years; his ISO has risen while Zimmerman’s has fallen. There’s also a matter of staying on the field. Cano hasn’t gone on the DL since 2006, and has missed very little time with day-to-day ailments (according to Baseball Prospectus, just two days since ’06). Zimmerman, on the other hand, has a much longer injury list. He missed 58 games just last year with an abdomen injury, after missing 19 games in 2010 with thigh problems (and an intercostal strain that ended his season a little early). In 2008 he missed 48 games to the DL, which he increased to over 50 with day-to-day stuff.

Unfortunately, the performance and injury information wipes out any advantage Zimmerman’s age afforded him in this comparison. While he does receive high praise from baseball writers, and from other players, he simply is not as good a player as Cano. If the Yankees were going to explore extension possibilities with Cano they’ll surely turn to Zimmerman’s deal as a comparable, but Cano’s agent, Scott Boras, will likely have none of that. Cano’s durability and performance will put him in line for a much bigger extension.

Still, we can use Zimmerman’s deal as a base. If the Yankees do want to extend Cano after this season, rather than waiting for him to hit free agency, it’s probably going to cost them in the range of seven years and $140 million. That accounts for Cano’s superior production, his durability, and his agent. The Yankees could well pass on the deal then, getting their last bargain year out of Cano before dealing with him as a free agent. But if he has another good year then, what happens? The answer to that question is just one reason why we might see this come up again following the 2012 season.