Camp Notes: Rotation, Burnett, Jeter, CC, More

(Photo Credit: Yankees PR Dept.)

Spring Training has officially begun. Pitchers and catchers reported to the team’s complex in Tampa today, and Joe Girardi held an opening “welcome to 2011″ press conference. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he didn’t really say anything groundbreaking, it was all pretty standard staff. But still, hooray for baseball.

With some help from the unparalleled beat writing crew, let’s recap the presser. Just about every link goes to Twitter, so in all seriousness you don’t have to click them. I’m just giving credit where it’s due …

  • “I feel good about the guys we have in that clubhouse,” said Girardi, with regards to his questionable rotation. “They can get it done.” I wonder if he said that with a straight face. (Mark Feinsand)
  • “[We’re] going to look at everyone in camp,” added the skipper, referring to the fourth and fifth starter’s spot. He called that it an “open competition.” (Erik Boland)
  • Unsurprisingly, Girardi feels good about A.J. Burnett‘s ability to rebound from 2010. “I just have a feeling in my gut that he’s going to have a good year … I know how much A.J. cares.” That and $2.50 will get him on the subway. (Feinsand & Boland)
  • In his second full year as a starter, Phil Hughes will be free of innings limitations. “It’s kind of nice,” said Girardi. I figured Hughes is good for about 200-210 innings last week. (Bryan Hoch & Boland)
  • Girardi was very explicit about who will hit atop the order this year. “[We] signed [Jeter] to be our shortstop and our leadoff hitter.” Surprised? You shouldn’t be. (Ben Shpigel)
  • Girardi danced around a question about CC Sabathia‘s opt-out clause, simply saying that “right now he’s a New York Yankee.” (Hoch)
  • Frankie Cervelli is not guaranteed the backup catcher’s job, supposedly. “That’s going to be a competition,” and Girardi acknowledged that kids like Jesus Montero and Austin Romine are “knocking on door.” Montero, sure, not so sure about Romine. (Boland)
  • Brett Gardner played hurt in the second half last year (wrist), which we knew already. (Boland)
  • “We wouldn’t come to Spring Training if we didn’t expect to win the division.” Amen, championships are not won in February. Yankees fans are far too familiar with that. (Hoch)

Here’s a few miscellaneous notes from throughout the morning…

  • Rumors of Sabathia’s weight loss have been confirmed; just about every reporter in camp said he was noticeably slimmer. “I’m 290, so I’m actually what it says on the back of my card,” said the lefty, who officially dropped 25 lbs and will probably lose another five to ten in camp. “I stopped eating Cap’n Crunch every day … I used to eat that stuff by the box.” CC added that he hopes to play another eight or ten years. (Hoch, Hoch, Feinsand & Boland)
  • Guest instructors this year include Yogi Berra, Tino Martinez, Lee Mazzilli, David Wells, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage and Ron Guidry. Boomer and Mazzilli are the first-timers. (Hoch & Marc Carig)
  • Last, but certainly not least, we have new uniform numbers. Eric Chavez gets 12, Andruw Jones 18, Mark Prior 22, Ronnie Belliard 26, Rafael Soriano 29, Pedro Feliciano 31, Freddy Garcia 36, Bartolo Colon 40, and Russell Martin 55. Cervelli now rocks number 17. How dare they disrespect Chris Basak like that! (Feinsand & Hoch)

CC not sounding as decisive about not opting out

(Paul Sancya/AP)

The first day of camp often functions as a frequently asked questions session. In years past we’ve heard reporters ask about the relationship between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and other similarly banal issues. This year they wasted no time in finding CC Sabathia and asking him about the clause in his contract that allows him to opt out after this season.

This topic gained some prominence earlier this winter, while the Yankees were still in pursuit of Cliff Lee. At first Sabathia kept his statements ambiguous, saying that he’s “not going anywhere.” During a TV appearance at Madison Square Garden CC was a bit more concrete in his language. Interviewer Jill Marting opened by asking him why he decided not to opt out of his contract. CC accepted the premise of the question, saying that, “that was an easy decision.” Case closed, right? Of course not. It won’t be closed until after the season ends. That means the question remains open, and that reporters will question Sabathia about it.

This morning Sabathia held court. When asked about the opt out, he again walked the tightrope. According to Joel Sherman, Sabathia said that he wouldn’t exercise the opt-out, without actually saying the words. This is exactly what we’ve heard from him in the past. “I’m here,” he said repeatedly. But we know that: Reporters made it clear this morning when they noted the weight he lost this winter, around 25 pounds. What we’re all wondering is whether he’ll be here next year, and the year after. That question remained unanswered, and by Sabathia’s indications it will remain unanswered. He won’t speak about the issue for the rest of the season.

Yet he did speak to the New York Post after his press session. In that interview he came across as a many willing to explore his options. “Anything is possible,” he said. Later he said that he’s “not thinking about anything beyond Opening Day.” Those don’t sound like the words of a man committed to remaining in New York under the current terms of his contract. That isn’t to say that he’s going to leave or even that he’s going to opt out. It does mean that he’s going to wait on that decision and make it based on what’s best for him at the time.

There are indications that Sabathia will stick around beyond this season. He has established his family here, buying a house and making it his year-round residence. His kids go to school here, and apparently he has asked about high schools for his son, who is currently seven years old. But he could exercise his considerable leverage in order to work out a new deal with the Yankees after this season. Conceivably, he could go as high as Cliff Lee’s current contract. Sabahtia has a longer track record of success than Lee, and he’ll be a year younger than Lee when the latter reached free agency. After all, Sabathia did say that he wanted to pitch another eight to ten years.

I have confidence that Sabathia will remain a Yankee for the forseeable future. I can even see him retiring in pinstripes. But I do not think that he will play the 2012 through 2015 seasons under the original terms of his contract. The Yankees need him, and they have the resources to pay him. Thankfully, as with most hot stove issues, we can put this behind us until November. He won’t talk about it, so we can forget about it for the time being and enjoy his performances every five days. It’s just another sign that baseball is that much closer.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 14th, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

{democracy:139}

When the new house almost had a roof

A few days ago, someone I know pointed me to StadiumPage.com. The site was first established in 1998, and I’m sure I’ve run across at some point or another while aimlessly browsing the Internet. This time though I dug into the unrealized concepts page and found a treasure trove of material. Included on that page were models of a new Yankee Stadium with a retractable roof, and so let’s hop in the Wayback Machine.

A model of Yankee Stadium with the roof closed. (Photo via Stadium Page)

This is a tale that can begin in the late 1980s, the early 1990s or the dawn of the current century. Since the new stadium boom embraced baseball, George Steinbrenner had lusted after a new park. He saw the revenues and sellout crowds in Baltimore and Cleveland and wanted a piece of the action. After all, this was a time before the Yankee Dynasty, before A-Rod, before sellout crowds every night. The 1993 Yankees, in fact, averaged just 29,800 fans per game in a stadium without luxury boxes that could seat nearly 57,000.

As the Yanks won, Steinbrenner’s calls grew louder. He wanted to tap into the unrealized potential that a stadium with its new amenities, fine dining and corporate suites would bring into the Yanks’ coffers. Even after winning four of five World Series, the Yanks’ average attendance in 2000 was just under 38,000 fans per game, and Steinbrenner was quite content to blame it on the stadium.

The Boss knew as well that he had a sympathetic ear in City Hall. Rudolph Giuiliani was an unabashed baseball fan, and he took seriously the Yanks’ idle threats to move to New Jersey. In the mid-1990s, he promised a solution to the city’s baseball teams’ stadium woes, and in 1998, for instance, George Steinbrenner was eyeing the West Side as a new home for the Yankees. HOK had proposed the Hudson Yards area as a perfect site for a $1.06 billion with a retractable roof, and the Boss loved it.

The stadium model shown here with the roof open. (Photo via Stadium Page)

As the late 1990s dragged on, city agencies though started pushing back against Giuliani’s plan. He wanted to give major subsidies to both the Mets and the Yankees for the new stadiums, and the Citizens Budget Committee pushed back hard in 1999. Much to the chagrin of the mayor, they proposed a cap on the city giveaways. Much to the detriment of late-2000s New York City, the CBC would be last major governmental opposition to city subsidies for the two baseball stadium.

By early 2001, Giuliani had yet to come through on his stadium vows, and with his two-term stay in Gracie Mansion nearing an end, he had to act fast. In April, he recognized that his successor wouldn’t be so generous with their grants and vowed to find the dollars before the year ended. ”I think it is good for the city if we get them wrapped up now,” he said, “because I do have a different view than at least some of the people who would like to succeed me.”

In July, stadium rumors reached a crescendo as rumors of a July 4th announcement swelled. As then-Times columnist Murray Chass noted, many in the New York sports world expected the city and Yankees to announce a new stadium, complete with a retractable roof, in the Macombs Dam Park. It did not come to pass.

As the summer wore on, the mayor kept up the pace. A September 9 article made it clear that Rudy was staking part of his legacy on the new stadiums. One opponent spoke out against what he feared would be “a midnight deal that is inherently against the public interest.” Two days later, history intervened, and the stadium issue would escape much public scrutiny until the waning hours of Giuliani’s term.

An overhead shot of the open roof. (Photo via Stadium Page)

On December 29, 2001, armed with models complete with retractable roofs, Guiliani, the Yankees and Mets neared stadium deals. For a combined cost to the city of $1.6 billion, the two clubs would build their stadiums where their new homes currently sit today. Each team would receive $800 million in tax-free municipal bonds, and the city would keep various stadium revenues. When the deal became official, Steinbrenner seemed annoyed that he — and not the city — would have to pay for the stadium costs, and the price tag — with roof — was set at $800 million.

These deals rapidly unraveled. Mayor Michael Bloomberg worked to torpedo the deals in 2002 because they were too team-friendly, and he eventually worked out a new arrangement in which the Yanks would front more — but definitely not all — of the costs associated with the construction. Gone from the plans that emerged in 2004 and 2005 was the roof. The Yanks decided to save the $200 million and build an open-air park instead.

When I see the renderings from early 2001 and the plans that emerged, I’m struck by how similar they are. Perhaps I shouldn’t be though. HOK designed the stadium with a roof, and HOK designed the current stadium without a roof. For the most part, they simply took the roof off of their earlier models and changed the outfield configuration. The plan to reimagine and recreate the original look and feel of old Yankee Stadium had been a part of the replacement plans since Steinbrenner got the new stadium itch.

Should we rue the lack of a roof? I know in 2009 a lot of fans were bemoaning the price tag. For one point whatever billion dollars, couldn’t they stick a roof on that thing? But of course, the Yanks saved some money keeping the park roof-free, and they saved the atmosphere of the game. When it comes to baseball outside, I’m a traditionalist. I’ve seen games in a dome, and it’s surreal to watch baseball on a carpet with a roof over your head. Even with the roof open, it hovers over the stands and the field. Furthermore, the space needed for the roof would likely have stretched further into the Bronx parkland. I’m happy to take games in the new stadium without that hulking contraption overhead. The Yankees were too once the city made them pony up the dollars.

Open Thread: Drew Henson

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Man, I thought Drew Henson was going to be a superstar back in the day. Baseball America drooled over his athletic ability, ranking him as one of the 24 best prospects of the game in 2000, 2001, and 2002. And yet, the guy has one career big league hit to his credit in a whopping nine plate appearances. That was long before I realized that striking out in a third of your at-bats in Single-A was a bad sign. As an added bonus, Henson also busted in football, but his career earnings total something like $20M. That’s like, nine hundred and fifty grand per MLB hit and NFL pass attempt. Henson turns 31 today and was pretty much my first prospect crush, but that first bust always cuts the deepest.

Anywho, here is the open thread for the night. None of the hockey or basketball locals are playing, but there’s usually something good on TV on Sunday. You’ll survive. Talk about whatever you want here.

Food For Thought: Andruw Jones

It’s too bad the Yankees aren’t getting the 20-something version of Andruw Jones, huh? Of course, he and Reggie Jackson accumulated their WAR in very different ways. The fielding component of Jones’ WAR (+24.0) is the third highest of all time, trailing only Brooks Robinson (+29.4) and Mark Belanger (+24.1). Ozzie Smith is right behind him at +23.9. That’s some serious company. Reggie was all offense (just +7.5 defensive WAR), but a run scored is the same as a run saved in the end.

Jones should be a fine fourth outfielder in pinstripes, but a far cry from his days in Atlanta. That assumes the Yankees will actually, you know, get him under contract one of these days. He agreed to terms about three weeks ago now, and we’re still waiting on the physical and signature. There’s a chance the team is just waiting until Spring Training begins, so they could simple slide Damaso Marte on the 60-day DL rather than sacrifice someone of the 40-man roster. That’s pretty much all the official business left for the offseason, which happily ends tomorrow.

(related graphs)

Small Sample Smackdown: Shane Vs. Shelley

Shane Spencer displays the sweet swing of a future hall-of-famer - or a fourth outfielder. (AP Photo/John Dunn)

I fell hard for Shane Spencer in the summer of 1998. These were the days before B-ref and Fangraphs were standing by, 24-7, to challenge my snap judgments and gut my deluded visions of spunky fringe players one day morphing into perennial all-stars. Not that it would’ve mattered. In my eyes, Spencer represented the next wave of talent produced by a Yankees farm system that was starting to grow suspect. Like Jeter, Bernie, Pettitte, and Posada before him, Shane Spencer would blossom into a homegrown superstar, a five-tool phenom when finally given the opportunity.

Spencer indeed solidified his presence on the Yankee roster with a 5-for-5, 2-homer demolition against the Royals on August 7th. He would follow this rookie performance for the ages with a four-week exhibition of offensive dominance during which the small sample size gods played Trading Places with Spencer and budding superstar Magglio Ordonez, who slugged an eye-gouging .354 during the same span. In addition to slamming clutch home runs, Spencer performed admirably at all three outfield positions and gave the veteran Yankees a needed dose of versatility and athleticism in a push that culminated with a 24th World Series championship. In the end, he crushed 10 homers in 67 at-bats in 1998, posting an absurd 1.321 OPS.

Nevermind that Spencer was having his way with a pile of September call-ups, feasting on obscurities like Albie Lopez, Tim Byrdak, Matt Whisenant, and Mike Sirotka. Knowing this now, it’s little mystery why he didn’t skip a beat from his .967 OPS showing in Columbus prior to his call-up.

In reality, Spencer was organization fodder from the beginning, despite his month-long destruction of American League tomato cans. Drafted in the 28th round in 1990, he did put up some impressive power numbers in the minors, including a .967 OPS at Triple-A Columbus in 1998. But the Yankees organization must’ve seen something ominous about the hulking outfielder, whom the New York media predictably likened to Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, whatever other big, white, countrified sluggers they could invoke from yesteryear. For one thing, there was the fact that he couldn’t hit right-handed pitching: over seven major league seasons, Spencer slugged .392 against righties verses .497 when facing southpaws. And then there was his age. At 25 and after toiling in the bush leagues for a decade, Spencer had reached his prospect expiration date. In fact, he’d actually played on the same Class-A Greensboro Hornets squad with Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, and Jeter. He wasn’t the next generation of Yankees prospects; he was the prospect who never was.

Ultimately, Spencer’s career probably split the difference between the Yankees organization’s ceiling for him, which was Triple-A lifer, and my own hysterical expectations. He turned out to be a useful major league platoon outfielder, playing solid defense, getting on base at a decent clip, and running into the occasional gap double (.326 wOBA). Other than a rapid decline that was accelerated by injuries and substance abuse, the biggest hindrance to Spencer’s game was the absence of one standout offensive tool. He was a nice player to have around. But corner outfielders need to rake. Unless they play for the Mets.

Like Spencer, Shelley Duncan exploded onto the scene with an all-out assault on American League pitching in 2007. Except unlike back in ’98, I was now nine years older and wiser and remained cautiously optimistic about the raw, rowdy giant’s long-term prognosis. Although he’d been a second round pick in 2001, it quickly became apparent why Shelley remained mired in the minors despite impressive power numbers, which included a .926 OPS in 387 plate appearances prior to his 2007 call-up: he was the quintessential all-or-nothing slugger. Although Duncan had crushed 148 homers in seven minor league seasons, he’d done so while amassing 606 strikeouts. And while he proved early on his ability to destroy an average major league fastball – while scaring the soul out of opposing infielders as he careened, crazy-eyed, toward them – Duncan was prone to flailing at breaking pitches in the dirt or fastballs at his numbers.

I was tempted to buy into the narrative of Duncan as a crazed Frank Howard whose dose of WWE moxie was precisely the ingredient that the methodical Yankees had lacked since their championship string of the late-90s. But I refused to bite. Still, it would be interesting to see the degree to which he adjusted when major league pitchers started finding the inevitable holes in his looping swing.

Duncan’s rush to glory also lasted about a month. Between July 20th and August 21st of ’07, prior to him being exposed as a poor-man’s Dave Kingman on speed, Shelley posted a Playstation-like 1.072 OPS and played solid corner outfield defense (0.4 UZR). In addition to unleashing his maniacal energy, Duncan also brought back the forearm bash from its late-80s cocoon. As a kid, I’d always been envious of the Canseco-McGwire mullet-fortified version. Now, two decades later, there was Shelley, plotting in the dugout, ready to pounce on the next wincing, flinching teammate trotting toward the plate. Judging from the expressions of players who were forced to placate the uber-rambunctious Duncan, the 2007 iteration of the Yankee forearm bash had literally nothing to do with anyone on the team beyond Shelley. As soon as he was gone, it was gone. But really, who was going to be the one to tell this 6’5” monster to cut it out?

Unlike Shane Spencer, who can always brag to his kin of helping the Yanks capture a World Series ring in his rookie campaign while simultaneously playing on one of the greatest dynasties ever assembled, Shelley Duncan’s 2007 season appears insignificant to the casual observer in retrospect.

Despite Shelley’s four-week window of dominance in ‘07, then-manager Joe Torre, perhaps sensing that Duncan’s early success had been an aberration, scaled back Shelley’s playing time for the balance of the season. While there were few decisions that Joe Torre made in 2007 that I didn’t find maddening, Shelley Duncan’s inconsistent usage was a battle I was willing to concede. In hindsight, Torre was probably right: As a hitter, Duncan had already been exposed, and in his final 12 games of the season, he hit just .200 with a .646 OPS. As a Yankee, Duncan’s early promise as a long-ball threat never fully materialized, and he ended up signing with Cleveland in 2010, where he put up a serviceable .722 OPS in 259 plate appearances while reaching base almost never (.317 OBP).

And now for the small-sample-size throw-down for the ages:

I think we have a winner, and it’s not close. While Shelley was superb, Shane was freakish.

Sample size notwithstanding, both Spencer and Duncan captured the excitement of Yankees fans and the attention of hero-mongering sportswriters. But even when accounting for significant regression, neither player’s output would prove reflective of their actual skill sets or prologue to their future production. Yankees fans know this now and probably even grudgingly realized it then. It’s funny, though: As pro sports become even more fraught with cynicism, the unheralded farm-filler call-up who makes a big initial splash has a way of turning us into quixotic dreamers.