2012 Season Preview: The Closer

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

By now, as he enters his 18th season, Mariano Rivera has had nearly every sports accolade showered upon him. Considered the greatest reliever of all time, Rivera has been a constant for the Yanks in the ninth inning since 1997, and he was a force the season before. Now, five World Series and five Presidential elections later, Rivera is just as good as ever. He just allowed his first Spring Training hit on Sunday.

Rivera’s career has been, by any stretch, an odd one for baseball analysts to comprehend. For years, they’ve predicted a decline. He threw 80 innings as a 31-year-old in 2001 and appeared in only 45 games the next season. Joe Girardi has limited Rivera’s innings over the last few years, but even while throwing around only 60 innings, Rivera is still at the top of his game.

Last year, at age 41, Rivera with his cutter managed to strike out nearly a batter an inning while issuing just eight walks all season — two of those intentionally. He gave up just three home runs all season and made his fourth straight All-Star team en route to a season with 44 saves and a 1.91 ERA.

So what can we expect from Rivera? Over the past few years, his velocity has dipped to the low-90s, but his pinpoint control and the movement he gets out of his pitches has allowed him to excel. As analysts see his pitches grow less fine and slow down, the end is always near for Rivera, but the end has never arrived.

We could then worry about what a 42-year-old closer may bring to the Yanks, but that’s not the storyline that will surround Rivera this year. Earlier this spring, with rumors of an impending final season and subsequent retirement swirling, Rivera announced, well, nothing. He knows what he’s going to do, but he’s keeping it to himself. We’ll just have to wait it out until Rivera is good and ready to announce his plans for 2013.

Of course, by saying nothing, Rivera seemingly speaks volumes about his future. Observers in Tampa feel he is savoring Spring Training more so this year than ever before. He has his family in tow, and he’s treating it like a year to remember. These are signs that scream “the end is near.”

If it’s the end, Rivera will earn his toasts. He’ll take his farewell tour through the league, and the calm professionalism with which he does his job will be long remembered. The Yanks will try to find another closer, something they haven’t had to do since the mid-1990s, but as life moves forward, so too will baseball. Rivera will become part of the Yanks’ rich history.

Maybe Rivera will surprise us all. Maybe he’ll announce that he’s never going to quit. But with Andy Pettitte set to return, the Yanks could be set up for a literal storybook ending. No closer has saved more games for a starter in baseball history than Rivera has for Pettitte. So the season — and Rivera’s career — could very well end with Number 42 nailing down a save for Number 46 one more time. What Yankee fan would have it any other way?

Reviewing the Yankees 2011 int’l signings

Unheralded international signing turned superstar. (J. Meric/Getty)

Baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement is going to put a serious damper on international spending, capping teams at $2.9M this year before shifting to a sliding scale in the future. To more you win, the less you get to spend. The Yankees have traditionally been one of baseball’s powerhouses in Latin America, and last year they dropped close to $3M on international prospects. Baseball America’s Ben Badler published his AL East spending review yesterday, looking at the players the Yankees and their division rivals signed in 2011. You do need a subscription to read the article.

The Yankees largest international signing last year was 17-year-old Dominican third baseman Miguel Andujar, who received $750k. “Andujar doesn’t have one huge carrying tool or do anything flashy, but he doesn’t have a glaring weakness either,” wrote Badler. “He’s a right-handed hitter with good bat speed, a sound swing and a good approach to hitting for his age. His hands are quick and he could hit for average and power. Andujar is an average runner and a solid defensive third baseman.” Expect him to spend this year in the Dominican Summer League before making his stateside debut in 2013.

Andujar headlines the position player crop, which also includes a trio of Dominican prospects — shortstop Abi Avelino ($175k), outfielder Wascar Rodriguez ($150k), infielder Victor Rey $135k) — and one Colombian catcher (Alvaro Noriega at $175k). Rodriguez offers big raw power while the others do their best work on the defensive side of the ball. Noriega does enough things well that he should remain behind the plate long-term and is likely the best all-around prospect of the bunch. Interestingly enough, the Yankees also signed catcher Dan Vavrusa for $10k out of the Czech Republic. He appears to be the team’s first real foray into Europe.

Right-handers Moises Cedeno (Panama), Luis Severino (DR) and Giovanny Gallegos (Mexico) highlight the pitching crop. Cedeno didn’t turn 16 until late-August, making him the youngest player to sign with any of the 30 clubs last year. He signed for just under $355k and already shows three pitches. The 16-year-old Severino signed for $225k and has touched 95 with a power slider. Gallegos, 20, was part of a package deal similar to one that brought Al Aceves and Manny Banuelos to the Yankees in 2007. He is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, but when healthy he’s sat in the low-90s with two breaking balls. Gallegos signed for an even $100k.

Of course, the Yankees just landed what figures to be their most significant international prospect before the new spending restrictions kick in this July. That would be 21-year-old right-hander Rafael DePaula, who was finally able to secure a visa last week. DePaula still has to pass a physical before his long-awaited $500k deal is official, but he’ll instantly become one of the team’s better pitching prospects despite missing so much development time due to a suspension and his visa delay. He and his mid-90s gas could see time with a full season affiliate this summer.

Four of the Yankees top ten prospects originally signed as international free agents, not including trade import Jose Campos. The new spending limitations will impact the Yankees more than most clubs because they’ve relied on the international market to land elite talents like Jesus Montero, which usually aren’t available to them late in the draft. The worldwide appeal of the Yankee brand works in their favor, but there will be a much greater emphasis on pure scouting now.

Minor Moves: Duff, Corona, Mattingly released

Via The NY PostJosh Norris, the Yankees have released minor league RHP Grant Duff, IF Reegie Corona, and OF Preston Mattingly. Duff, 29, has thrown just 46.2 IP over the last two seasons while battling arm problems. He threw really hard and was one of the team’s better relief prospects back in the day. The 25-year-old Corona hasn’t played since breaking his arm in 2010. A no-hit, all-glove type, he managed to spend two full years on the 40-man roster and was even a Rule 5 Draft pick of the Mariners back in 2008. Never really understood that whole thing. The Yankees signed Mattingly — Don’s son — in January and he never played in an official game for them.

Open Thread: 3/26 Camp Notes

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The Yankees didn’t have a game today, but Phil Hughes remained on schedule and threw six innings in a minor league game. He allowed two runs and struck out four in front of Brian Cashman and Billy Eppler [YankeesPR & Erik Boland]. Frankie Cervelli played in the game as well, hitting a dinger. That’s pretty much it, the next time the Yankees have a day off it, it’ll be the day before Opening Day.

Here is your open thread for the night. The Knicks and Nets are both playing, plus MLB Network will air a game later. Talk about whatever you like here, go nuts.

Ravel Santana returns to game action following ankle injury

Via Frankie Piliere and Josh Norris, Ravel Santana played center field in his spring debut today and was moving pretty well. He was scheduled to play three innings in the field. The 19-year-old prospect is coming back from two fractures and torn ligaments in his ankle after catching a spike sliding into second base during a stolen base attempt last August. Needless to say, it was a significant injury.

Santana hit .296/.361/.568 with nine homers and ten steals in 185 plate appearances for the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League Yankees last summer, and was named the second best prospect in the circuit by Baseball America after the season. I ranked him as the tenth best prospect in the system last month, though Kevin Goldstein and Baseball America had him sixth and seventh, respectively. Santana is expected to start the season in Extended Spring Training before joining Short Season Staten Island in June.

Could the Yankees again turn to Abreu at DH?

(Via Reuters Photos)

Before the Yankees agreed to terms with Raul Ibanez, they explored the trade market for DH options. The thinking was that they might be able to offload A.J. Burnett in exchange for a left-handed hitter, fulfilling two organizational needs at once. While that never materialized, there were a few whispers about possible targets. Among them was former Yankee right fielder Bobby Abreu, who seemingly has been squeezed out of Anaheim’s lineup. But since Burnett could and did refuse a trade to the Angels, the situation never developed.

A month later, the situation has changed. While Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia spoke of giving Abreu 400 at-bats, that might no longer be the case. Kendrys Morales has come back strong, and the indication is that he’ll be the regular DH. With all three outfield spots spoken for, and with Mike Trout looming, there doesn’t appear to be any regular at-bats for Abreu. The Angels will almost certainly look to trade him before the start of the season. Might the Yankees match up?

The Yankees signed Ibanez to fill the DH spot against right-handed pitching, but the 39-year-old has done little to impress this spring. He has gone 3 for 40 with just two walks, though he did homer on Saturday. His bat looks slow, and there appear to be few redeeming qualities in his spring. We’ve received many emails to RAB lamenting Ibanez’s struggles and suggesting alternatives should he continue to flail. Since he earns just $1 million, he is expendable under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, Abreu’s situation is quite similar to Ibanez’s.

Abreu has 37 at-bats this spring and has just four hits. He has walked just three times, though chances are he’s not honing his discipline. Instead, according to Scioscia, he’s just working on his timing. Abreu, too, is writing off his poor spring performance, saying that he’s focused on getting himself ready for the season and not with his actual production. Still, it’s difficult to see how he’s in a better position than Ibanez. In fact, he might be in a worse position.

After a terrible season in 2011, Ibanez has worked to get himself back into playing shape. There have been no concerns about his weight, his preparedness, or his work ethic this spring. Abreu, on the other hand, has constantly chirped about his dissatisfaction with his role. He also gained weight, another concern for a player his age. Essentially, his words this spring have brought into question his attitude. Ibanez has never come under fire for such character issues. In fact, he is often lauded for his clubhouse personality.

Abreu can turn to his recent performances, but even those fall short. For the last two years he’s seen his average drop to .250, which has in turn dropped his OBP into the .350 range. His power dropped off considerably last year as well, further damning his case. Indeed, he might have a point about his treatment by the Angels; there’s little doubt that Abreu is a better offensive player than Vernon Wells, who will continue to start in left field. But his diminishing performance, combined with his spring numbers and his combative attitude, all work against him.

Perhaps a change of scenery would brighten things for Abreu. Maybe that would spur him to a season that resembles his 2009 and 2010 campaigns. Unfortunately, a match just doesn’t seem to be there with the Yankees. They already have someone like that in camp, and he didn’t show up overweight while throwing jabs at the organization. If Abreu were performing well this spring, maybe the Yankees would consider it. Even then, the Angels would probably have to release Abreu, since the Yankees won’t want to trade useful players for him or pay part of his $9 million salary. But with Abreu struggling similarly to Ibanez, there seems to be no point. The Yanks will just stuck with who they have and monitor the market for upgrades if they feel they need one.

Justin Maxwell’s Big & Meaningless Spring

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Late-March is a cruel time of year for baseball fans. Spring Training games have become dull and monotonous while regular season games are still two weeks away. It’s a horrible limbo of meaningless baseball, and we often wind up spending too much time trying to find meaning in games that don’t count. We know we shouldn’t do it, but subconsciously it’s unavoidable. We want to believe the big breakout is coming or that so-and-so really did develop another pitch. It’s just a natural part of Spring Training.

Yankees camp is no different this year. Career journeyman Clay Rapada looks like the answer to our LOOGY prayers, Phil Hughes has been throwing the best changeups of his life, and both Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez look like the best hitting shortstop in the American League. Perhaps the most impressive player in camp has been career up-and-down guy Justin Maxwell. He’s hit .414/.485/.586 in camp after putting together a .418 wOBA with 16 homers in 204 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton in 2011. His performance has been so impressive that some are wondering if he should break camp with the team rather than someone like Raul Ibanez.

I think there is some merit to that line of thinking, especially since Maxwell is just 28 years old and has significant tools. He passes the eye test at 6-foot-5 and 235 lbs., and all throughout his lengthy Triple-A career (924 PA) he’s shown power (.192 ISO), patience (12.4 BB%), and speed (62-for-79 in stolen base attempts, 78.5%). Maxwell is also capable of playing all three outfield spots, though his throwing arm isn’t anything to write home about. His biggest drawback is his complete inability to make consistent contact. Maxwell has struck out in 30.6% of his Triple-A plate appearances, and that big Triple-A performance last year came with a 35.3 K%. That’s unfathomable. It’s a Mark Reynolds strikeout rate against minor league pitchers.

Back in December I wrote about the possibility of Maxwell serving as the Yankees fourth outfielder/lefty masher should Andruw Jones sign elsewhere, and my opinion of him hasn’t really changed. Thirty-three plate appearances in Spring Training shouldn’t sway your opinion about any player. Hell, 33 regular season plate appearances shouldn’t change your opinion. It’s a week’s worth of playing time, that’s it. Maxwell has done the majority of his work off the bench this spring, which means a lot of that damage has come against the opponent’s second string, minor league pitchers we already know he can mash. The only thing we’ve learned about Maxwell this month is that his shoulder is healthy after he tore his labrum making a catch at the wall last May.

If nothing else, Maxwell has been an interesting story this spring. I have a hard time seeing him as anything more than a backup plan at the moment, and the Yankees are going to be forced to make a decision about his future pretty soon because he’s out of minor league options. With so many teams looking for outfield help — Braves, Mets, Nationals, Marlins, and Indians, among others — there’s bound to be a trade match somewhere. Out of options players usually don’t command much in a trade, but maybe Maxwell’s big spring means the Yankees can get a Grade-C prospect in return rather than a Grade-D prospect. It is Spring Training after all, a man can dream.

I think last year’s shoulder injury really derailed whatever Yankees career Maxwell may have had. Had he stayed healthy all year, we certainly would have seen him with the big league team last summer, perhaps instead of Dickerson for all that time. We never got a look at him as a September call-up and never got to see what could come from extended work with Kevin Long. There’s a non-zero chance the Spring Training performance is a sign of things to come, but I wouldn’t put money on it. The Yankees don’t have much time left to evaluate him, but a decision about his future is due soon.