ST Game Thread: Number Two Starter

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The writing had been on the wall all Spring Training, but yesterday Joe Girardi officially announced that Hiroki Kuroda will start the second game of the regular season behind CC Sabathia. The veteran right-hander has flown completely under the radar since joining the Yankees, but that will happen when you sign the same day the team trades Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. Kuroda has been just as advertised so far, quietly effective and reliable. Can’t wait to see him in a game that matters. Here’s the lineup…

SS Eduardo Nunez
2B Robinson Cano
1B Mark Teixeira
DH Raul Ibanez
3B Eric Chavez
C Francisco Cervelli
CF Dewayne Wise
RF Chris Dickerson
LF Justin Maxwell

RHP Hiroki Kuroda

Available Pitchers: RHP Cory Wade, RHP Adam Warren, RHP George Kontos, LHP Juan Cedeno, LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Cory Arbiso, RHP Ryan Flannery, and SwP Pat Venditte.

Available Position Players: C Gus Molina, 1B Addison Maruszak, 2B Jayson Nix, SS Doug Bernier, 3B Bill Hall, and LF Tyler Austin will replace the starters. C Mitch Abeita, IF Walt Ibarra, SS Cito Culver, and OF Abe Almonte also made the trip and are available if needed.

Today’s game starts at 1:05pm ET and can be seen on ESPN. We’re going to chat for the first few innings of today’s game, so join in the fun after the jump.

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Yankees sign Jack Cust

Via Sweeny Murti, the Yankees have signed Jack Cust to a minor league contract. The Astros released the 33-year-old left-handed slugger just yesterday. He gives them some decent Triple-A insurance in case Raul Ibanez‘s bat speed continues to be measurable on the Molina scale. It’s also a pretty clear indication that Russell Branyan’s back isn’t getting better anytime soon.

Cust has hit .251/.379/.441 against right-handers over the last three years, though he’s a classic three-true outcomes type. Nearly 50% of his plate appearances since the start of 2009 have ended with a homer, a walk, or a strikeout (49.3% to be exact). Cust has negative defensive value, capable of faking left field and first base on the rarest of occasions. He’s a DH all the way. Chances are we’ll see him get a few at-bats before the end of camp next week.

Update: MRI on Granderson’s sore elbow comes back negative

Wednesday: Via Marc Carig, Granderson’s MRI came back negative. And exhale. Figure the Yankees will give him an extra day or two of rest just to make sure he’s 100% before returning to game action.

Tuesday: Curtis Granderson was a late scratch from tonight’s lineup due to soreness in his right elbow, and Jack Curry says he will head for a precautionary MRI tomorrow. When asked about his level of concern, Brian Cashman said it was a two on a scale of 1-10. Granderson, if you remember, dealt with a sore oblique late in Spring Training last year but was ready for Opening Day and even hit the game-winning homer in the opener. Hopefully we get a repeat performance.

2012 Season Preview: The Boston Red Sox

More of this, please. (photo by Chris McGrath/Getty)

Much has been made of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry over the years, although for my money the so-called “rivalry” didn’t really earn its name until the 2003 season, as the teams locked horns in the first of consecutive classic seven-game American League Championship Series. For a rivalry to exist, one presumes that both sides are relatively evenly matched, and prior to the 2000s this generally wasn’t the case for a good majority of Yankee-Red Sox teams.

In addition to the Red Sox of the aughts finally fielding a team as-good-as if not outright-better-than the Yankees, also helping dramatically ramp up the intensity between the two franchises was MLB’s implementation of the unbalanced schedule at the outset of the 2001 season. This of course expanded the number of times the Sox and Yanks faced off from 12-13 games a year to 18-19.

To illustrate just how closely matched the Yankees and Red Sox have become, the following two graphs depict the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ offense and pitching staffs since 1995, which seemed like a notable cutoff as it marks the advent of LDS play. There’s too much information presented to include labels, so if you’re interested in the raw data behind the creation of the graphs, please feel free to click here.

The two teams have been in a near-dead heat offensively since 1995, with the Yankees leading all of baseball with a .351 wOBA during that time frame (112 wRC+) and the Sox boasting the second-most-potent offensive attack at .349 and 107 wRC+. While the Sox have generally out-slugged the Yankees, the Bombers have typically been a tad more adept at getting on base. Additionally, given the favorable offensive environment that comes with playing 81 home games at Fenway Park, the Yankees have led the Red Sox in adjusted offense (wRC+) in 12 of these 17 seasons despite only bettering the Sox in wOBA in nine of them. Perhaps even more impressive regarding the Yankee offensive attack is that it’s been above average (100 wRC+) in each and every season depicted here, while the Sox actually posted below-league-average offensive attacks in 2000, 2001 and 2006.

On the flip side, the rich offensive environment at Fenway makes pitching in Boston a tougher-than-normal task — that difficulty level has helped propel the Red Sox to tie or better the Yankees in adjusted ERA (ERA-) in 10 of these 17 seasons, and even more impressively, tie or better the Bombers in adjusted FIP (FIP-) in 13 of the last 17 seasons. However, one thing I was not expecting to find was that the Yankees actually lead the AL in both ERA and FIP since 1995, with 4.25 and 4.17 marks, respectively. The Sox are fourth in ERA, at 4.32, and second in FIP (4.19).

Even though the rivalry didn’t really heat up until the early aughts, if you go back to 1995 the two teams really have been quite even head-to-head over the last 17 seasons. Since 1995, the Yankees are 145-134 against Boston, with a 75-64 record at home and 70-70 mark at Fenway Park. However, if you change the cutoff to 2003, the Yankees have actually been slightly outplayed by the Red Sox, with an 82-84 record (42-41 at home and 40-43 at Fenway). Additionally, since 2003, the two teams each feature identical MLB-leading .352 wOBAs (though the Yankees get the slight edge after park adjusting, with a 114 wRC+ to Boston’s 111).

After years of essentially playing each other at a .500 clip, things spiraled comically out of control last season, as the Yankees started the year out losing eight of their first nine against Boston (a showing of ineptitude eerily reminiscent of the 2009 team’s 0-8 start against the Sox), due in part to an obscenely prolific Boston offense that was treating seemingly every member of the Yankee pitching staff as if they were Jose Cano in the 2011 Home Run Derby. However, instead of rallying to tie the season series like they did two years prior, the Bombers ultimately finished 2011 with a 6-12 record against the Sox — the Yankees’ worst winning percentage against Boston in a season since going 4-8 in 1999.

Despite dropping 12 of 18 contests against a heated division rival, the Yankees still managed to not only win the 2011 AL East, but also finished the season with the best record in the league, while the Fenway faithful had to endure perhaps the most historic (and horrific) late-season collapse in baseball history. Of course, even though the Red Sox have now missed the playoffs two years running — while boasting the top offense in baseball this past season (116 wRC+) and the second-best in 2010 (109 wRC+) — and haven’t won a postseason game since 2008, they remain one of the top teams in the American League and will undoubtedly give the Yankees fits again in 2012.

Starting Pitching

For one, if Josh Beckett can come close to approximating his 2011 against the Yankees — a season in which the Bombers acted as if they’d somehow never before seen Beckett, whose 1.85 ERA vs. New York in 34 innings was bettered only by Brandon Morrow’s 1.74 among pitchers who threw 20 or more innings against the Bombers — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable righty in probably five to six of the 18 games the two teams will play.

For another, if Jon Lester returns to his pre-2011 form, which saw him toss to a 1.19 ERA against the Yankees in 2008, a 4.43 ERA  in 2009 (if you take out the aberrant 2.1-inning, five-run outing on September 25 of that year, the ERA drops to 2.70) and a 2.13 ERA in 2010 — including carrying no-hitters into the sixth inning in both his August and September starts — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable lefty to take up another five to six of the remaining games, which means Boston will likely have a big-time pitcher on the mound in more than half their contests against the Yankees. Throw in Clay Buchholz, who has historically tended to struggle against the Yanks but appeared as though he’d finally figured something out in limiting the Bombers to two runs over seven innings in his last start against them on May 13, and Boston looks to have as formidable a top three in its rotation as any team out there.

With punching bag John Lackey out for the year and Daisuke Matsuzaka not expected back until late May, question marks abound surrounding the fourth and fifth slots in the Boston rotation — can Daniel Bard successfully make the transition from top-flight fireballing set-up man to successful starting pitcher? Will southpaw Felix Doubront or old friend Alfredo Aceves grab hold of one of the available holes in the rotation? And can the Red Sox’s starting pitching situation possibly be as bad again as it was in September of 2011, when they were forced to give nine of 27 starts to the troika of Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland and Tim Wakefield while watching their stalwarts turn in enough ineffective performances to let the Rays come all the way back and sneak past them on the very last day of the season? Fortunately for Boston — whose pitching staff turned in a 5.84 ERA in the month of September — the answer to the latter question is almost certainly no, although whether any of the in-house candidates can step up and solidify the team’s biggest area of need will likely determine if the Sox make it back to the playoffs or get relegated to their couches for a third straight October.

The Bullpen

Though they lost elite closer Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies during the offseason, new Boston GM Ben Cherington rebuilt his bullpen on the fly with a series of interesting moves, acquiring former Athletics closer Andrew Bailey for outfielder (and designated-player-who-gets-a-hit-every-time-up-against-the-Yankees-even-though-he-sucks-against-everyone-else) Josh Reddick, and replacing Bard with former Yankee wunderkind Mark Melancon, acquired for Jed Lowrie (see Reddick’s description). Given the fungibility of relief pitching performances, I wouldn’t expect the Red Sox ‘pen — which actually finished the year with the fourth-best ERA and top FIP in the AL despite a wretched April — to miss a beat. Expect Aceves to log his share of relief innings, while Michael Bowden, lefty Franklin Morales, Matt Albers and Andrew Miller appear to be on their way to at least starting the year in the Boston bullpen.

Offense

As for the 2012 Red Sox offense, while I’m certainly pleased as punch that flies-in-the-ointment Lowrie (.330/.423/.534 career against the Yankees) and Reddick (annoying walk-off hit) are gone, Boston’s offensive attack remains relatively unchanged from the relentless machine that pounded out an MLB-high .347 wOBA last season. Jacoby Ellsbury will look to prove the doubters that the adjustments he made are here to stay, while Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis (if he can finally stay healthy) and Adrian Gonzalez make for one of the most potent hearts of any order in all of baseball. Add in another presumed solid season from David Ortiz (who is apparently immune to the dead cat bounce) and a year that has no choice but to be better from Carl Crawford (whenever he returns from the DL), and the Sox have no holes from 1-6 in their lineup.

Additionally, as if they weren’t already potent enough as it is, this is a crew of hitters that seems to save its best work for when they play the Yankees — Pedroia hit .406/.463/.565 (!) across 81 PAs against the Bombers last year, and has a career .392 OBP (again, !) against the Yanks; Youk has a career .313/.442(!)/.498 line against the Yanks; Ellsbury tagged the Yanks for a ridiculous .375/.439/.708 line last year to bolster his .291/.356/.443 career line; and of course, there’s Big Papi, who hit .282/.378/.577 with five bombs against the Yanks in 2011 and has utterly annihilated the Bombers throughout his career to the tune of a .303/.391/.559 line across 741 PAs, including 800,000 (fine, 36) career home runs. Given these numbers, it feels like nothing less than a minor miracle any time a Yankee pitcher can actually retire one of these batters.

However, some cracks in the armor start to appear in the lineup’s lower-third, where new manager Bobby Valentine will generally be starting some combination of Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.319 wOBA in 2011), Cody Ross (.321), Ryan Sweeney (.306), Mike Aviles (.307 wOBA, though .338 as a Red Sock) and Nick Punto (a completely out-of-character .350 wOBA in 2011; .296 for his career). While Saltalamacchia looked like he was finally coming into his own last season none of these players seem overly threatening, although then again I’m sure I would’ve said the same thing about Mark Bellhorn had I been blogging during the 2003-2004 offseason, who rebounded from a .296 wOBA in 2003 to post a .360 mark in 2004 after he joined the Red Sox. For whatever reason, donning a Boston uniform seems to turn even the scrubbiest of players into superstars from time to time, so I’m prepared to eat my words when Boston’s bottom third starts tearing the cover off the ball.

Conclusion

CAIRO has the Red Sox at 92-70, tied with the Rays for second place in the AL East; PECOTA pegs them at 90-72, also in second place in the ALE; and Oliver has them at 92-70 and second-best record in the AL. All three of these scenarios would entail the Sox securing one of the two AL Wild Card berths and playing the one-game playoff to advance to the LDS round, and so barring another disaster, Boston is most likely playoff-bound in 2012.

The Yankees’ first set of the season against Boston is at Fenway Park from April 20-22, and as ridiculous as I find conspiracy theories, at this point I almost can’t help but wonder whether the schedule-makers have it in for the Yanks by once again scheduling an April series at Fenway. Since the advent of the unbalanced schedule in 2001, the Yankees are — believe it or not — a ridiculously bad 8-22 at Fenway Park in April, and have only won their annual April set at Fenway against the Red Sox once (back in April 2010)  in that 11-year span. Not only that, but prior to their April 2010 series win, the last time the Yankees had won an April set against Boston at Fenway was in 1975. So yeah, needless to say I’m really excited to be playing the Red Sox in April at Fenway again, you guys.

Thinking About Garcia’s Potential Relief Role

The Venezuelan Gangster? (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Barring something unforeseen, Phil Hughes is likely to break camp as the fifth starter. That will relegate Freddy Garcia to bullpen duty for the first time in his career, which I’m sure will be a bitter pill for him to swallow even though he’s reportedly willing to work in relief. A long man is a necessarily evil, especially early in the season when the starters are still getting into their routines and the weather can become a factor, but there might be a better way for the Yankees to deploy Garcia in relief. They could turn him into 2009 Al Aceves.

In essence, the Yankees could use Freddy as a multi-inning middle reliever. Traditional long men are saved for extra innings or blowouts or things of that nature, but that’s not what Aceves did three years ago. He was a jack of all bullpen trades, getting one out in a tight spot or throwing three innings to bridge the gap between starter and Mariano Rivera. Aceves was able to do that because he had a starter’s repertoire, bringing four pitches and command to the table. Garcia is the same way, with the stamina to throw multiple innings and the stuff to go through a lineup multiple times. Anecdotally, he seems to have the mentality for it as well.

Now, this is one of those things that sounds great in theory but is much more difficult to put into practice. Garcia, 35, is nine years older than Aceves was back in 2009, meaning it would be foolish to think he will be able to bounce back as well or as quickly. Add in those major shoulder problems from a few years ago, and his ability to rebound is a very real question. Aceves had a rubber arm and warmed up quickly, making him the ideal candidate for such a role. At this point it’s unclear if Garcia is physically capable of being used in this manner.

The Yankees have a rare luxury at the moment, employing six legitimate big league starters come Opening Day. Garcia is likely to get the short end of the stick and open the season as a reliever, but the team can do better than relegate him to low-leverage long relief spots. Freddy is a better pitcher than anyone in the bullpen other than the big end-game trio in the bullpen, so I’d like to see the Yankees give him a little more responsibility if possible. Again, it’s all about Garcia’s ability to do the physically. I don’t think there are any questions about his stuff, command, and mentality, it’s just a matter of his arm holding up.

JoVa reassigned to minor league camp

The Yankees reassigned Jorge Vazquez to minor league camp following tonight’s game. He never had much of a chance to make the team, so this isn’t a surprise. As you probably remember, JoVa came out last week and said he’s getting fed up with Triple-A and wants to play in the big leagues. I don’t blame him, but he’s unlikely to get his shot with the Yankees.

Minor League ST Notes: Video, DePaula, Adams

We had the big league notes earlier today, now let’s round up some of the more interesting minor league news from today…

  • Josh Norris posted a ton of video of yesterday’s workout. We’re talking Gary Sanchez, Ravel Santana, Dante Bichette Jr., Tyler Austin, and more. Make sure you check that out.
  • Rafael DePaula worked out with the Low-A Charleston group today. That doesn’t mean he’ll join the River Dogs when they break camp next week, but it’s an indication that he passed his physical and is officially a Yankee. Hooray for that. [Norris]
  • David Adams has been told that he will start the year with Double-A Trenton. That’s not terribly surprising, but it goes to show how much time he lost due to the ankle injury. He’s basically in the same place he was in March 2010. [Norris]
  • The Dellin Betances Experience was in full effect in his minor league start. He walked in a run before striking out the side. Good times. [Conor Foley]
  • The Joses — Campos and Ramirez — threw in minor league games today. Ramirez ran his fastball as high as 96. [Kiley McDaniel]