Curry: Gardner to leadoff on Thursday

Via Jack Curry, the Yankees have said that Brett Gardner will be the team’s leadoff hitter when the regular season begins on Thursday. Derek Jeter will slide down a spot and hit second. Based on what we’ve heard this spring, this seems like this will be the arrangement against right-handed pitchers while Jeter will lead off against lefties with Nick Swisher hitting second. If Gardner’s going to get on base at the same (or even slightly below) last year’s clip, there’s no reason not to at least try it. I approve.

ST Game Thread: The Final (Spring Training) Game

Alex is ready to go back to New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

At long last, the Yankees will play their final game of the Grapefruit League schedule today. Once this one is over, the team will pack up and fly back to New York and prepare for Thursday’s season opener against these same Tigers they’re playing today. The weather still isn’t great in Tampa, so chances are the regulars will just get an at-bat or two and hit the showers. No sense in risking injury at this point. Here’s the starting lineup, which will probably be what we see against Justin Verlander on Thursday…

Brett Gardner, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robbie Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Andruw Jones, LF
Russell Martin, C

Available Pitchers: Freddy Garcia, Rafael Soriano, Bartolo Colon, Luis Ayala, Mark Prior, Wilkins Arias, Andy Sisco, Eric Wordekemper, and Pat Venditte.

Available Position Players: Austin Romine (C), Eric Chavez (1B), Eduardo Nunez (2B), Ramiro Pena (SS), Doug Bernier (3B), Ray Kruml (LF), Melky Mesa (CF), and Justin Maxwell (RF).

Depending on where you live, you can watch this game live on either YES or ESPN at 1:05pm. Remember, it doesn’t matter if they win or lose, just that no one gets hurt. Enjoy.

Note: Congrats to Manny Banuelos for winning the James P. Dawson Award as the top rookie in camp. Jon Weber, of all people, won the award last year, Gardner the year before.

2011 Season Preview: Boston Red Sox

(Charles Krupa/AP)

Stop me when this sounds familiar. Big market team invests tons of money into a team, but suffers from key injuries. The three-team nature of the AL East puts them out of the playoffs. Then, the following off-season they make a big splash by spending tons of money. That’s exactly what happened with the 2008 Yankees, and it more or less happened again last off-season with the Red Sox. They added two key players in big money deals (just wait for Adrian Gonzalez’s extension announcement) and appear to have a team just as strong as, if not stronger than, the Yankees in 2011.

Let’s just hope the parallels end there.

Strengths

(Charles Krupa/AP)

As has been the case for nearly a decade, the Red Sox draw great strength from the starting lineup. The only time in the past nine seasons that they’ve finished outside the top four in runs scored was in 2006. They might not be the powerhouse that led the league in runs scored from 2003 through 2005, but they’re going to give the Yankees a run for their money in 2011. Their lineup is just that deep.

While batting Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup might not be the best use of the team’s best bats, it makes little difference. It just slides everyone down a spot, meaning last year’s top DH, David Ortiz, hits sixth, and J.D. Drew, who even in a down year had a .341 OBP, seventh. Even at eight and nine they have Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who we know has talent, and Marco Scutaro, who is better than most No. 9 hitters.

Then there’s the heart of their order, the two-through-five that rivals any team in the bigs. It starts with Dustin Pedroia, who, with Chase Utley likely to miss a decent portion of 2011, figures to be one of the top two second basemen in the league. Following him is Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kevin Youkilis. I suppose they could flip Youkilis and Gonzalez, but it matters little. That gives the Red Sox two excellent on-base and power guys in back of the speedier Crawford and Pedroia.

The Red Sox bullpen, at least the back end, has become a strength, too. Last year the Sox lost a few games due to Jon Papelbon meltdowns, but that could be just a blip on the radar. He has been one of the league’s elite closers for four years now, and it will take more than one season with a few blown saves to downgrade his status. Last year Dan Bard was the only reliable setup man, but during the off-season the Sox added Bobby Jenks to the mix. The rest of the bullpen is full of question marks, including Matt Albers, but the Sox have a few arms on the farm — Al Aceves and Felix Dubront — who can step in if someone falters.

The bench, too, can be considered a strength, even if Jason Varitek again serves as the backup. Darnell McDonald produced a quality 2010 season and could be of use to the Sox as a fifth outfielder. Ahead of him is Mike Cameron, who would start on most teams and will probably take some at-bats from Drew or Ellsbury against lefties. Jed Lowrie, too, could eventually take over as the starting shortstop. That’s a clear sign of a strong bench: the presence of players who could start for decent teams.

Big Question Marks

This section didn’t appear in Mike’s Orioles preview, because this is something unique to the Red Sox. In rating the Sox, I couldn’t decide whether to put the rotation in strengths or weaknesses. It has strengths for sure, and with a few lucky breaks the entire staff could become a strength. But as it stands they’ve got an ace and a bunch of question marks. It sounds like some other team we’ve come to know.

Jon Lester remains one of the game’s premier pitchers. Last year I picked him to win the AL Cy Young, and he really wasn’t that much worse than the winner, Felix Hernandez. This year Dave Cameron of FanGraphs rode my coattails with the Lester pick, and I don’t think it’s any less likely to happen than last year. If he puts it all together this year — high strikeout, low walk, low homer, and high groundball rates — he could be the pitcher we hate to love.

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Behind him, though, the Red Sox have little certainty. Clay Buchholz was the best pitcher behind Lester last year, but he greatly outperformed his peripheral stats. Is he due for a regression, or will he progress similarly to his teammate? Lester, remember, had a below-average strikeout rate in 2008, but experienced a huge jump in 2009. If Buchholz follows his lead he could be in for another excellent season. But if he doesn’t, I would expect his 2011 to look something like Phil Hughes‘s 2010.

Then there are Josh Beckett and John Lackey, who were disappointing for different reasons last season. Beckett pitched poorly and got hurt, and it stands to reason that the two are interrelated. At 31 he’s no sure thing to bounce back, but his track record demonstrates that it is entirely possible. Remember, he had a rough 2006 season when he came to the AL and then came to dominate in 2007. We’re four years removed from that, but it can still happen. It’s just a little less likely this time around.

John Lackey was a disappointment during his first season in Boston, with a reduced strikeout rate and inflated walk rate. Yet he underperformed his peripherals, a 4.40 ERA to a 3.85 FIP. As with Beckett, he’s a bit older and so a recovery isn’t guaranteed. I have a bit less faith in him to recover than Beckett, but that’s mostly a stuff argument — i.e., I think that Beckett’s pure stuff can help him produce another top-flight season, while I’m not as big a believer in Lackey’s stuff.

Weaknesses

(David Goldman/AP)

While the Red Sox are strong up front, they’re a bit week when we move deeper into the roster. That includes the bench, bullpen, lineup, and rotation. Some are a bit weaker than others, but each has a chink in the armor.

In the rotation the Sox have Daisuke Matsuzaka holding down the fifth spot. His track record has been unimpressive during his time in the states. This can even include the 2008 season, when he finished with a 2.90 ERA. his 5.05 per nine walk rate indicates that he got a tad lucky — there is no way he can sustain an 80.6 percent strand rate. The last two years have seen him spend time on the disabled list and in general pitch ineffectively. The Sox have a few pitchers who can come up and take his place, but they’re not exactly high-upside options.

In the bullpen the Sox might be strong in the late innings, but their other options do not inspire. Dan Wheeler has a quality track record, in the AL East to boot, so we might even count him as a strength. I don’t think we can do the same for Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes, or Tim Wakefield. The Sox might get something out of these guys, and as previously mentioned they have a number of arms in AAA who can fill in should these guys falter. That’s what I expect to happen. Even Wakefield, a Red Sox mainstay, could find this is his final year. I don’t imagine the Sox will continue to use him if he’s as ineffective as he was last year.

The starting lineup looks solid at the top, but the last two spots are something of weaknesses. Marco Scutaro is a fine shortstop, but his track record suggests that he’s not any better than he displayed in 2010. Jed Lowrie figures to take his spot at some point during the season, at which point there’s a chance that the lineup spot turns into a strength. Until then it’s a weakness — at least relatively so. Jarrod Saltalamacchia represents the biggest chink in the Red Sox armor. This is not only because he’s completely unproven, but also because they don’t have a strong backup option. In one way it takes guts to put so much faith unto a 26-year-old who hasn’t done a thing at the major league level. In another, more accurate, way, it probably wasn’t the best idea on the part of management.

Overall Outlook

While the Red Sox have weaknesses and question marks, they’re still among the best teams in the league on paper. That’s no different than last year, of course. The big difference this year centers on health. As a team the Sox are in basically the same position as last year. They merely replaced departing players Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre with Crawford and Gonzalez. Their relative performances should roughly even out, though Crawford and Gonzalez will probably be a bit better overall.

The difference is that they’re starting fresh. Last year they lost Pedroia in June and then Youkilis a bit later in the season. If those two stayed healthy last year’s pennant race would have evolved much differently. If they stay healthy this year the Red Sox will be in a much better position, even if they didn’t make wholesale upgrades. If they all stay healthy this will be a powerhouse of a team. Then again, we can say that about more than one other team in the league. Bad breaks happen. The Red Sox are just hoping that they experience fewer of them this year.

My Fifth Starter Mini-Rant

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Over the weekend, the Yankees announced that Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia will be their fourth and fifth starters when the season opens while Bartolo Colon shifts to the bullpen and does the long man routine. I don’t think anyone has an issue with Nova being in the rotation, he showed enough in his cameo late last year and continued to impress in camp. Given the alternatives, there was no reason not to give him one of the open spots. That last spot is a little more up for debate.

The decision was made with heavy influence from the 157 innings Garcia mustered for the White Sox last year. That part is pretty clear. They weren’t the best innings (4.77 FIP), but hey, a typical fifth starter is 14% worse than league average and Garcia wasn’t all that far off from that mark last year (16.9%). Colon didn’t pitch at all last season and has managed just 101.1 IP in the bigs since 2007. The Yankees need reliability at the back of the rotation and their decision reflects that based on each guy’s recent history.

However, my thinking about the fifth starter’s spot is a little different. We know that both Garcia and Colon have battled some major, major shoulder issues in the last few years, and I think we all expect both guys to break down at some point this season. Ironically enough, we consider them band-aids for the rotation. At some point, we’ll just rip them off and throw them away. So anyway, my thinking is that when you have two guys this close to the end of the line, two guys that slip right off the cliff at any moment, their recent histories don’t mean all that much. At some point you have to look at what you have in the here and now and ignore what happened last year or over the last three years or whatever.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Colon, by any measure, beat out Garcia (and really Nova too, for that matter) for a rotation spot in camp. We know that Spring Training stats mean nothing, but if you’re the kind of person that puts value in them, then you probably know that Colon’s 17 strikeouts leads Yankees pitchers this spring, and he walked just one batter in 15 IP (four runs). Garcia, on the other hand, had another ugly spring in a career full of them, allowing nine runs in 13.2 IP. He did strike out a dozen and walked just two, but he gave up a hit per inning. At a time when he had to pitch well, he was underwhelming.

Just looking at the stuff, and it was painfully obvious that Colon was better. He’s not the guy he was in his prime, when 96+ mph fastballs were the norm, but he was consistently at 92 and touching 94 on occasion with his four-seamer while his sinker sat just below that. His offspeed offering – whether you want to call it a changeup or splitter or forkball or junkball is unimportant – did the job of keeping hitters off balance. Garcia’s kitchen sink approach featured a lot of fastballs in the 80’s and various breaking balls just off the plate. The kind of breaking balls that get hammered if they aren’t located properly. Based on what we saw in camp (an albeit limited sample), Colon has much more margin for error right now. That isn’t to say he has a lot, but it’s more than Garcia.

Chances are I’m making too much of nothing, but I would have started the season with Colon in the rotation to get as much out of him as humanly possible before his arm explodes. He’s throwing the ball better than Garcia is right now, and I would have milked it for all it’s worth. Then again, it’s not my neck on the line, and we are talking about two guys brought in to be placeholders. The Yankees will eventually find someone better and move on, and we’ll all look back at this fifth starter/long man debate and laugh. But for now, I would have done things differently.

Late Night Linkage: Media, Offseason, Prospects

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Here’s some links for you night owls…

Surviving the Media

The New York media can be something else, to put it kindly, so Dan Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal took a look at what the Yankees are doing to help their players cope with all the attention. It wasn’t until 2007 that the team put some sort of media training in place, when Brian Cashman sat down with media relations guru Jason Zillo to hammer out a plan of attack. Now the club has mandatory training that includes mock interviews, guest speakers, and more, and young players (three or fewer years of service time) are stuck with even more intense training. I recommend giving it a read, stuff like that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

Yankees win 2011 Bobby Murcer Award

Two years ago, the Baseball Assistance Team announced the creation of The Bobby Murcer Award, which is given annually to the team whose players contribute the most to B.A.T. through MLB’s payroll deduction program. The Yankees announced yesterday that they have won this year’s award, just like they did in 2010 as well as in 2009. B.A.T. gives aid and support to members of the “baseball family” who are unable to help themselves, and this is an award I hope the Yankees win every year.

MLBTR’s Offseason In Review

We’ve written countless words about the Yankees and their less than stellar offseason here at RAB, but sometimes it’s good to see an outsider’s opinion. Tim Dierkes tackled the subject at MLBTR yesterday, and started out by stating the obvious: “Only the Yankees can spend $130MM on free agents and have it seem like they didn’t do much during the offseason.” He gave the team credit for landing Pedro Feliciano on a two-year deal when inferior relievers were getting three years, but in the end, Tim draws an all too common conclusion: “The main goal may be to wring a couple of good months out of the rotation candidates.” Hopefully the trade market takes shape sooner rather than later.

FanGraphs Top 100 Prospects

Marc Hulet at FanGraphs finally got around to posting his list of the game’s top 100 prospects on Monday, and Jesus Montero came in at number five overall. He trails only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Jeremy Hellickson, and Domonic Brown. Manny Banuelos placed 18th, Gary Sanchez was 40th, Dellin Betances was 57th, and Austin Romine just made the cut at number 100. Five top 100 prospects seems to be the consensus this offseason, even if it hasn’t always been the same five names in the same order.

Open Thread: Injury Updates

Kevin Millwood made it to Tampa. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

All of the roster and transactions news was posted this afternoon, but Chad Jennings offered up some injury updates as well. Let’s recap it here…

  • Tonight’s game was canceled because it’s pouring in Tampa, so Curtis Granderson was unable to do his scheduled work this afternoon. “Very close to it, if not on it,” said the center fielder, referring to being ready for Opening Day. Grandy wants to play in a game before Opening Day, but the final game of the Grapefruit League schedule will be played tomorrow afternoon. I guess the good news is that he’s not far off from returning. (Update: John Flaherty says Grandy took batting practice inside and could play in a minor league game tomorrow, weather permitting.)
  • Once healthy, Pedro Feliciano says he’ll only need “a couple of bullpens” to get himself into game shape.
  • Chris Dickerson’s hamstring injury is “manageable” and doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.
  • Frankie Cervelli will be free of his protective walking boot for good tomorrow.

Anyway, that’s it. No game tonight like I said, so you’re going to have to dig around for something else to watch. The only local team in action is the Knicks, who’ve managed to lose nine of their last ten games. Same ol’ Knicks even with Carmelo, eh? You all know what to do, so have at it.

The Bench Takes Shape

Update (5:43pm): Lots and lots of updates via Bryan Hoch and Ben Shpigel. First of all, that Sanchez trade? Forget it. He’s being sold to a team in Japan, where I assume he’ll have a much greater opportunity. Good luck to him. Fat Sanchezes 4 life.

We also have ourselves a bench now. Jesus Montero, Ramiro Pena, Justin Maxwell, and Doug Bernier were all sent to Triple-A this afternoon while Austin Romine went back to Double-A Trenton. Ronnie Belliard was released (nice knowin’ ya), and Mark Prior is going to hang around in Tampa for a while, which I assume means Extended Spring Training. Based on all that, the big league bench will consist of Chavez, Andruw Jones, Eduardo Nunez, and Gustavo Molina. Curtis Granderson‘s replacement is still TBD, if one is even needed.

Original Post (4:30pm): As Spring Training nears an end, the Yanks’ Opening Day roster and 40-man are starting to take shape. We have a few afternoon updates including news of a new addition to the Yanks. As they announced in their game notes release this afternoon, the Yankees have signed Eric Chavez to a Major League contract and have added him to the 25-man roster. Chavez had been in camp on a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite, and he has impressed everyone this spring. He hit .405/.432/.571 in 42 at bats and will spell A-Rod and Mark Teixeira at the corners this year.

Via Mark Feinsand, we learn that Romulo Sanchez was seen shaking hands and saying his goodbyes in the clubhouse, indicating that the out-of-options right-hander has been traded or released. Problem is the Yankees haven’t announced where to or for what yet, so stay tuned. We first heard that something was up with Romulo yesterday.

Via Bryan Hoch and Ben Shpigel, lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano will stay behind in Tampa when the team heads north for Opening Day and begin the season on the disabled list. He expected to be there “for a few weeks,” which doesn’t sound good but could easily mean the 15-day minimum. Feliciano’s been dealing with a triceps issue and hasn’t appear in the game in about two weeks now. That’s a shame.