Optimism running high in Yankees’ camp

Right now, every team is a contender. Even the Houston Astros, losers of 106 games and with nary an off-season upgrade, could make waves this year. It would take about a dozen things breaking their way, and at least half of them would be of the greatest improbability. But even then, chances are we’ve seen crazier things happen in baseball.

With the Yankees, though, the sense of optimism is justified. After winning more games than any other AL team in 2011, they’ve upgraded the team in the off-season. Acquiring both Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda to the rotation is exciting enough. Add to that a few optimistic reports from camp in Tampa, and it’s pure spring ecstasy.

The wave of optimism started before the Yankees officially opened camp. A few players showed up early, Phil Hughes among them. After a disappointing 2011 season, marred by injuries and ineffectiveness, Hughes reportedly dedicated himself to conditioning this winter. Reports surfaced last week that he showed up in much better shape, much to everyone’s relief.

Yesterday Chad Jennings added fuel to the fire when he quoted Joe Girardi on Hughes’s progress. “I think his curveball has been a little bit more crisp. I think there’s more arm speed there. I think the ball’s coming out better.” A healthy and effective Hughes in that last rotation spot would be a boon for the 2012 Yankees.

Another player with high expectations who delivered a disappointing 2012 is Alex Rodriguez. In December we learned that A-Rod underwent an experimental knee procedure — the same one that Kobe Bryant underwent after last season. Bryant, but most accounts, has bounced back considerably this year. He’s playing more minutes and is putting up superstar numbers. That makes it much easier to imagine A-Rod returning to form in a similar manner.

(That A-Rod is dedicated enough to bring his own food to restaurants is another optimistic sign. He knows the tabloids follow him everywhere, and surely knew they’d catch on to this and try to make it seem embarrassing. But all it is, is a guy dedicated to his nutrition so he can play baseball at the most elite level. Rock on, A-Rod.)

Want the mother of all optimistic reports? How about the one Buster Olney filed on Tuesday about Michael Pineda? Even Brian Cashman admitted that if Pineda never develops a changeup and doesn’t become an ace, he’ll have made a mistake trading Jesus Montero for Pineda. So it warms the hear to see the following paragraph:

But after Pineda arrived in the Yankees’ camp, pitching coach Larry Rothschild worked with him to alter the grip on his changeup. Rothschild mentioned to Martin that Pineda’s changeup is a work in progress before the veteran catcher crouched to work with Pineda in a bullpen session Monday, and Martin was taken aback by how good Pineda’s changeup is already. He turned to Rothschild and said, “Larry, what are you guys talking about?”

In other words: Pineda already has made strides with the changeup, a sign of his aptitude.

It’s not just the big names that are making splashes this spring. This morning Joel Sherman, in a column about Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame chances, drops some gems. By his account, Jones seems more determined than ever. He believes that the adjustments he made to his swing last season will help him not only mash lefties, but also handle righties as well — something he did well during his prime years. Apparently, one of the reasons Jones chose to come back to the Yankees, despite more lucrative offers from other teams, was Kevin Long’s influence.

The most telling line in the column, as Sherman writes it: “[Jones] told hitting coach Kevin Long last year to inform Yankees GM Brian Cashman that he was returning in 2012 to take someone’s job.” Can you imagine what the Yankees lineup would look like if Jones were indeed to the point where he could legitimately take at-bats away from Brett Gardner?

These types of stories appear every spring. They help us warm up from the cold of winter — metaphorical cold, of course, given this winter’s behavior. Still, the odds are long that all of these factors fall into place. It’s wonderful to jump back into baseball and imagine the Yankees with an effective Phil Hughes in the rotation, with an ace-like Michael Pineda behind CC Sabathia, with a back-to-form Alex Rodriguez, and with a rejuvenated Andruw Jones. It’s really the only thing that gets us through the last parts of the off-season and through the preseason. The harsh reality might be a bit less exciting, but it’s still nice to bask in these stories now, while they still bring us hope.

Under The Radar: Ivan Nova

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Less than a week into Spring Training, most of the focus has been on Mariano Rivera‘s retirement teaser, Michael Pineda‘s golden arm, and CC Sabathia‘s massive but slimmed down body. Position players have yet to officially report, and the battle for the fifth starter’s job has yet to begin in earnest. Thanks to the Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez signings, there aren’t many other questions to be answered right now. And then there’s Ivan Nova.

The team’s number two starter heading into the postseason last year, Nova has gone through the first three days of camp with minimal fanfare. He’s thrown two bullpen sessions and fielded some grounders, but otherwise his rotation-mates have garnered all of the attention. Given his personality, he probably doesn’t mind at all.

“There’s a quiet confidence to him right now, and it’s good to see it,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild earlier this week. “I thought that last year early, we scored some runs for him and I think it helped him get some wins and then he got some confidence from that. Then you saw him pitch the way that he’s capable of.”

Those two bullpen sessions are important because as you remember, Nova finished last season injured. After climbing the minor league ladder with zero arm issues, a strained flexor in his elbow forced him from Game Five of the ALDS after just two innings. As Joba Chamberlain, Ben Sheets, and Stephen Strasburg can attest, strained flexors have a tendency to result in Tommy John surgery. Nova appears to have avoided the same fate.

“It’s perfect, 100%” he said after a winter of rest. “I was worried a little bit, but they said ‘you’re going to be fine.’”

Sabathia is the unquestioned and ultra-reliable ace, but both Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda will have answer some questions about transitioning to the AL East. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia have their own thing going on, and Nova has stood by idly. His spot in the rotation is all but guaranteed following a strong second half thanks to an improved slider, and if you ask him, he doesn’t care were he slots in.

“I just want to be in the rotation and I want to win games.” said Nova. “I don’t mind if I’m number one, two, three, four, five.”

This all nothing new to Nova, who’s flown under the radar his entire career. He never got the kind of prospect love that Hughes or Joba or Manny Banuelos or even David Phelps has received, was left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft a few years ago, and didn’t get his first crack at the big league rotation until Javy Vazquez and Dustin Moseley had exhausted all opportunities. I hesitate to call it a lack of respect, but Nova sure has had to earn everything he’s gotten in baseball.

I don’t know how the rotation will shake out come Opening Day, but the rotation order is only important at the end of the season, not the beginning. Along with Sabathia, Nova is going to be counted on for stability every fifth day as Pineda and Kuroda get their AL East feet wet and the fifth starter does fifth starter things. Looking ahead even further, the Yankees are going to need him to provide cheap, quality innings if they seriously intend to get under that $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. Nova’s flying under the radar at the moment, but make no mistake, he’s a very important part of the rotation and the team.

Breaking down the payroll, part four

"Can you believe those M-Fers called us cheap?" (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Now that just about all of the Yankees’ offseason business has been addressed, we can take one final look at the team’s (approximate) payroll for the upcoming season. A lot has happened since we last checked in, most notably the Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez signings. Brett Gardner, Russell Martin, and Boone Logan have since avoided arbitration as well, and yesterday the Yankees added David Aardsma for good measure. Here’s a look at the team’s commitments for the 2012 season…

The money listed is in terms of average annual value, which is what is used to calculate the luxury tax. The players’ actual salaries are slightly different in some cases, but nothing crazy.

All told, that gives us $205.05M for 25 players, three of whom will contribute nothing to the team this season. Joba and Aardsma are going to be out until midseason, so that $205.05M is filling 20 roster spots on Opening Day. The other five spots will go to guys making the league minimum — Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, Eduardo Nunez, Frankie Cervelli, and a mystery reliever — so that adds another $2.5M to our grand total ($500k each). The projected Opening Day 25-man roster will cost roughly $207.55M.

The remaining 15 players on the 40-man roster will cost less than the league minimum since they’ll earn a different salary in the minors, but let’s conservatively estimate their salaries at $500k each and $7.5M for the group. The brings the approximate cost of the entire 40-man roster to $215.05M. In reality, those last 15 players will end up making something like $4-5M combined, if that. Add in player benefits  — which are typically estimated at $10M and count against the luxury tax — brings us to a $225.05M payroll for luxury tax purposes. Last year the team was taxed on a $212.7M payroll, so at least we’re in the ballpark. This year’s luxury tax penalty would be $18.82M or so.

Had the Yankees kept Burnett and instead used him as that last mystery reliever, the luxury tax payroll would have been $229.55M assuming they would have still signed Ibanez, Aardsma, and Chavez. I don’t know if /how much the Yankees have in reserve for a potential trade deadline addition, and chances are they don’t either. That’s probably one of those things Brian Cashman brings to Hal Steinbrenner on a case-by-case basis. The roster is pretty much set right now though, barring injury or something completely unexpected. I don’t anticipate any significant changes to the 25-man roster or payroll through the rest of Spring Training, and this year’s Yankees figure to be the most expensive baseball team in history.

Last call (this time around) for the RAB fantasy leagues

It’s been a week or so since we last visited the RAB fantasy leagues. As I can best tell from emails, all of the leagues I’ve posted are full. Emails also indicate that some people might have submitted leagues that never got posted. If this is the case, send me an email or leave a comment, and I’ll add them to this post. Hopefully we’ll have a few by tomorrow morning.

Yankees sign Robinson Cano’s cousin, Burt Reynolds

Via Kevin Goldstein, the Yankees have signed utility man Burt Reynolds. Apparently he’s Robinson Cano‘s cousin, and yes his name is really Burt Reynolds. The 23-year-old spent some time in the Nationals and Rays farm systems back in the day, but played for the independent Newark Bears last season. He hit .232/.291/.445 with 13 homers and 95 strikeouts in 286 plate appearances. All I know is that having a dude named Burt Reynolds in the organization is pretty badass.

Side note: Burt’s Twitter account is the greatest thing ever.

Open Thread: 2/22 Camp Notes

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Day three, complete. Here’s the latest from Tampa…

  • As always, Chad Jennings has today’s bullpen and hitting groups. Every member of the projected big league pitching staff threw off a mound today except for Mariano Rivera. Andruw Jones, David Adams, and Justin Maxwell were again the only non-catchers to hit.
  • Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, D.J. Mitchell, and Cesar Cabral are ahead of schedule and threw live batting practice today. They faced Ray Kruml, Kyle Roller, Ronnie Mustelier, and Shane Brown, who came over from minor league camp.
  • Joba Chamberlain was supposed to throw off a full mound today, but he instead threw off a half-mound again, saying it went “really, really good.” Joe Girardi agreed. Joba will throw again on Friday, but it’s unclear if it’ll be off a full or half-mound. [Jennings & Mark Feinsand]
  • Bill Hall, Brandon Laird, Ramiro Pena, Jayson Nix, Jorge Vazquez, Doug Bernier, and Corban Joseph all took infield practice at the minor league complex. Hall worked at second while Laird spent time at both first and third. [Jennings]
  • “It’s really hard to talk about someone being gone when they’re still here. I think we’ll just appreciate him while he’s here,” said Derek Jeter ominously when asked about Mariano Rivera’s future. The Cap’n knows what Mo plans to do after the season, but isn’t telling. [Mark Feinsand]

Here is your open thread for the night. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, but talk about whatever’s on your mind here. Have at it.

Piniella officially joins YES Network

Back in December we learned that Lou Piniella would be joining the YES Network, a move that was officially announced today. Piniella will be a “special contributor” to YES, working 20-30 events throughout the season. “I’m honored and excited to join the Yankees network and be part of the Yankees family again,” said Piniella in a conference call. Sweet Lou will work as an analyst in the booth — including Spring Training games and on Opening Day — as well pre- and post-game work from the studio. He’ll also contribute to YESNetwork.com and do a CenterStage.

Just in case you were wondering, Piniella laughed when asked if he was gunning for Joe Girardi‘s job. He made it clear that he’s retired from managing and loving it, though he is looking forward to getting to camp to see some of team’s young players. Piniella mentioned Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova by name. Hopefully that leads to more enjoyable broadcasts throughout the spring and regular season.