Phelps — who made the Opening Day roster as the long man — obviously wasn’t going to happen for an all-glove backup catcher, and I still feel like even Kontos was a bit too much. Stewart is out of options and San Fran’s hands were tied, they either had to trade him or lose him on waivers for nothing. Did Austin Romine’s injury really take that much of a bite out of the catching depth?
This season starts right where last season ended. The last time these two clubs met, the Rays swept the Yankees and leapfrogged the Red Sox on the final day of the season to secure a playoff berth. I’m sure you remember that. The Yankees had already clinched everything they could have possibly clinched, so we were all able to sit back and enjoy The Collapse without having to worry about its impact on our beloved Bombers.
That’s all in the past now, and it’s time to look forward to 2012. Both clubs added some new players this offseason — in Tampa’s case a familiar face — and figure to again contend for the AL East crown. Winning the division is much more important now with the new playoff system, so right off the bat this is an important series. Every intra-division game will mean that much more this summer.
With the exception of Raul Ibanez, the Yankees return the same offense that finished second in baseball with a 113 wRC+ in 2011. Any improvement will come in the form of Alex Rodriguez staying healthy, Mark Teixeira pounding the ball the other way as a left-handed hitter, and Nick Swisher avoiding another two-month long slump to open the season. I wouldn’t expect Curtis Granderson to hit 40+ homers again, but that’s only because back-to-back 40+ homer seasons are very rare. He should still whack 30 dingers or so.
The Rays made some more substantial changes to their lineup. Their DHs have posted an unfathomable 94 wRC+ over the last three seasons, easily the lowest among the AL clubs during that time. They tried to rectify that by bringing in Luke Scott, who is coming off shoulder surgery but posted a 140 wRC+ in 2010, his last healthy season. I wouldn’t expect a repeat performance at age 33, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be anything but an upgrade at the DH spot if the shoulder is sound. Carlos Pena (119 wRC+ in 2011) replaced Casey Kotchman (125 wRC+) at first, meaning they’ll actually get some homers out of the position. A full year of Desmond Jennings (131 wRC+) will help as well.
The rest of the Rays offense is the same as it has been for the last few seasons. Evan Longoria (134 wRC+) and Ben Zobrist (131 wRC+) do the heavy lifting while Matt Joyce (129 wRC+) does most of his damage against righties. B.J. Upton (115 wRC+) is widely considered a disappointment, but he’s a productive player who is just entering his peak years and will again threaten 20-30. The shortstop and catcher positions are black holes. Tampa has some power and a lot of speed, and they managed to add some of the former this past winter without really sacrificing much of the latter.
Friday: LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Jamie Shields
Sabathia and Shields split a pair of head-to-head matchups last season, and both guys were brilliant. They each allowed two runs total across 17 and 15.2 innings, respectively. Sabathia is making his ninth career Opening Day start, including his fourth straight in pinstripes. This is Shields’ fourth Opening Day assignment in the last five years. The crafty right-hander likes to pitch backwards, specifically by using his curveball early in the count to batters on both sides of the plate. His put away pitch is that world-class changeup, which he’ll throw in any count. Shields is always a tough assignment, so let’s hope he’s still a little rusty from the offseason.
Saturday: RHP Hiroki Kuroda vs. LHP David Price
The Yankees haven’t been very kind to Mr. Price over the last few years. They roughed him up for six runs in four innings in last year’s season finale, and of course Derek Jeter took him keep for his 3,000th career hit back in July. Price is my Cy Young pick, however. His strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates all improved last year even though it didn’t show up in his ERA. I expect him to take another step forward this year and become that dominant, unquestioned ace. Price uses multiple mid-90s fastballs (four-seamer and two-seamer) and an array of offspeed stuff (changeup, curve, slider). Kuroda has never pitched against the Rays franchise in the regular season, though they did get a look at him in Spring Training a few weeks ago.
Sunday: RHP Phil Hughes vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
Both Hughes and Hellickson have something to prove this year. Hughes has to show that his dreadful 2011 season is a thing of the past and that he’s back to his 2010 form. Hellickson, despite winning the Rookie of the Year award, has to show that his ability to keep runs off the board despite underwhelming peripherals is a skill and not just dumb luck. A 1.49 run difference between ERA and FIP begs for a bigger sample. He could be the rare Matt Cain-esque exception, or he could be due for a huge regression. Hellickson is a changeup specialist like Shields, throwing the pitch nearly 33% of the time last season. He’ll mix in a curveball and two low-90s fastballs. The Yankees had mixed results against him in 2011, a few good games and a few bad ones.
Since this is the first series of the year, both teams have a pretty fresh bullpen. David Robertson is still rounding into form after missing close to three weeks with a bone bruise in his foot, so don’t be surprised if Joe Girardi takes it a little easy on him this first week. Boone Logan is dealing with some back spasms and might not be available right out of the chute. Everyone else is a-okay as far as we know.
The Rays could be without closer Kyle Farnsworth, who is battling an elbow strain that is likely to send him to the DL. They have until game time to make a decision. Righty Joel Peralta and lefty J.P. Howell figure to serve as platoon closers in Farnsworth’s stead. Former Tigers closer Fernando Rodney could also see some ninth inning work. Ground ball specialist Burke Badenhop and hard-throwing lefty Jake McGee fill the middle innings while displaced starter Wade Davis will handle long-man duties. Of course, we have to mention that Tampa’s pitching staff plays up because their defense is so good. Jennings and Upton are fantastic in the outfield while Longoria, Zobrist, and Pena are no worse than rock solid on the infield.
For all the latest info on the Rays, we recommend checking out DRays Bay.
As soon as the Yankees traded Jesus Montero, we knew they were going to have some sort of platoon at DH this year. Andruw Jones was the obvious choice against left-handers, and after a few weeks of rumors, the Yankees settled on Raul Ibanez against right-handers. He’ll be in the lineup this afternoon against Jamie Shields. The DH platoon isn’t that straight-forward, however. Eduardo Nunez is going to be a factor as well.
Joe Girardi confirmed yesterday that Nunez will start Saturday’s game either at shortstop or third base against the left-hander David Price. Either Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez will then serve as the DH, and Andruw figures to step into left field while Brett Gardner rides the bench. Girardi also said that this will be his regular alignment against southpaws. We discussed a similar setup at various points this offseason, but now we know the team is putting the plan in place.
Since last summer, the Yankees have insisted on giving Nunez more playing time this season and this is probably the most logical way to do it. Jeter and especially A-Rod could use the regular rest, and although Gardner’s defense will be missed, his bat won’t be (career 84 wRC+ vs. LHP). Besides, it’s only for a few innings. He’ll surely replace Jones in the later innings of a tie game. Nunez’s bat against southpaws isn’t much better (94 wRC+), but we’re only talking 147 big league plate appearances. His minor league numbers suggest he could be a little better than that going forward.
I’m not Eduardo’s biggest fan, but the Yankees are going to play him whether we like it or not. There’s no harm in seeing what the kid could do given semi-regular at-bats, especially with all this talk about the 2014 payroll and the need to inject some youth into the lineup at some point relatively soon. If it doesn’t work out, then so be it. The Yankees can adjust and figure out a new arrangement. Nothing’s permanent. I do like that they’re being somewhat creative and aren’t employing a straight platoon though, this could yield some big results if it means a healthier A-Rod and Nunez proves useful.
Baseball America has two items of interest to Yankees fans: an article on the Triple-A stadium situation and a quick little roster breakdown of the farm system. You don’t need to be a subscriber to read either piece, they’re both free. Josh Norris also posted a great interview with LHP Jeremy Bleich, who spoke about the shoulder injury that has kept him on the shelf since May of 2010.
Now for some housekeeping. RHP Jairo Heredia, RHP Diego Moreno, RHP Dan Burawa, 1B Luke Murton, OF Damon Sublett, C Jeff Farnham, RHP Matt Daley, RHP Adam Miller, IF Jayson Nix, 2B Corban Joseph, DH Russell Branyan, and Bleich will all start the season on the DL. Some (Heredia, Moreno, Burawa, CoJo, Branyan, Bleich) are actually hurt, others are on the phantom DL. Both IF Yadil Mujica and RHP Craig Heyer have been promoted to Triple-A, and OF Dewayne Wise is currently on the inactive list because his wife is giving birth. Congrats to the Wises.
With that out of the way, welcome to Minor League Opening Day. All four full-season affiliates kicked off their seasons tonight, marking the seventh year of DotF. As per tradition, here are the full lineups…
Triple-A Empire State (3-0 loss to Lehigh Valley)
SS Ramiro Pena: 0-4, 1 K, 1 E (throwing)
CF Ray Kruml: 1-4, 1 2B, 2 K — they were getting perfect game’d until he doubled with one out in the seventh
1B Steve Pearce: 0-3, 1 K
DH Jack Cust: 0-3, 1 K
3B Brandon Laird: 0-3, 2 K
RF Colin Curtis: 0-3
LF Cole Garner: 0-3, 2 K
C Frankie Cervelli: 0-2, 1 BB — poor Frankie
2B Doug Bernier: 0-3, 1 K
RHP Manny Delcarmen: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, 1/1 GB/FB — 24 of 45 pitches were strikes (53.3%) … was sitting 91-95 early on … this was his first start since August of 2004
RHP Craig Heyer: 4.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 8/3 GB/FB — 37 of 58 pitches were strikes (63.8%) … kept them in the game in his Triple-A debut … gotta think he’ll start next time around, not Delcarmen
LHP Juan Cedeno: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K — nine of 12 pitches were strikes
RHP Jason Bulger: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1/0 GB/FB — seven of eleven pitches were strikes
I’m not a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan, but I am a Parks & Rec fan and Ron Swanson is the greatest television character since Homer Simpson. The Alec Baldwin/Jim from The Office commercials were getting a little stale late last season, and I think these new New Era commercials will have a bit more staying power.
Anyway, here is your open thread for tonight. The Dodgers and Padres open their seasons on MLB Network (7pm ET, Kershaw vs. Volquez), plus the Rangers, Islanders, Devils, and Knicks are all playing as well. Talk about whatever you like, go nuts.
[h/t Kevin Kaduk]
Via Marc Carig and Joel Sherman, left-hander Andy Pettitte is going to remain in Tampa and is scheduled to throw two innings in a minor league game on Monday. He’ll pitch for High-A Tampa, who is on the road at Clearwater that day. It’s only a 20-minute trip, no big deal.
It appears as though Pettitte is on a normal five-day schedule and will increase his workload by one inning each time out. Typical Spring Training stuff. If he stays healthy and on schedule, he’ll get up to six inning by the end of April and become a big league option in early-May. That’s a big “if” though, remember we are talking about a 39-year-old pitcher who is coming off a year-long hiatus. Everything has gone well so far, let’s hope it continues.
In 24 hours, the Yankees will take the field for the first time in the 2012 season. It’s a moment we’ve been waiting for since that painful evening last October when the Yanks dropped Game 5 of the ALDS to the Tigers. Finally, we can put the off-season fully behind us. We can forget about who did what in spring training. Everyone gets a fresh slate.
On paper the Yankees have one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the league. But as we see every year, from every team, teams face difficulties and obstacles throughout the season. Some players don’t perform to expectations. Others exceed them. What is the best team on paper can turn into the third or fourth best in the standings.
While there are no sure things in baseball, the Yankees have a few players that are as close as it gets. CC Sabathia will be a highly effective workhorse. Robinson Cano will put his sweet swing on display and hit for average and power. Mariano Rivera will continue being the greatest of all time. Sure, things might go wrong there, but there’s enough history that we needn’t worry about them from the start.
There are, however, a few things that the Yankees need to break in their favor if they’re going to overcome a powerhouse AL East — and a loaded American League in general.
Offense: Keeping Alex Rodriguez healthy
True, the Yankees scored the second most runs in the AL last year while essentially missing Rodriguez for half the season. But it’s not as simple as that. The Yankees did get a half season of quality, if not elite, production from Rodriguez. It’s easy to see, especially when examining him against his replacements, that the Yankees would have scored many, many more runs had he remained in the lineup.
Part of the reason the Yankees scored so many runs last year was Curtis Granderson’s behemoth production. Chances are he won’t reach those heights again this season. That’s not to say he’ll be bad. But we’ve so often seen players surge for a career year and then revert to their career averages the next year. Adding Rodriguez’s offense throughout the season can help balance out Granderson’s regression.
If that’s not enough, remember that an injured Rodriguez means a Nunez and Chavez platoon at third base. While there are worse replacement units, they’ll hit nowhere near Rodriguez’s capabilities. The Yankees need him to stay healthy this year, perhaps more so than in the past few seasons.
Rotation: Hiroki Kuroda’s transition to the AL East
Heading into camp, the Yankees claimed that just two starters had set-in-stone jobs: Sabathia and Kuroda. Both made sense. Sabathia has been the Yankees’ ace for the last three seasons, and Kuroda signed as a solid No. 2 or No. 3 option. Yet despite Kuroda’s job security, he faces heavy questions in his transition from the NL West and its specious parks to the AL East and its world-class offenses.
The good news is that Kuroda has peripherals that suggest he can make the switch. Maybe he strikes out fewer hitters without having the pitcher in the ninth spot — he did strike out 29 of 80 9th-spot hitters he faced (though he also struck out 24 of 97 3rd-spot hitters, so there is that). Maybe he walks a few more batters, but he’s been so far below the league average that he has room to maneuver. And maybe he allows a few more homers.
The question is if this turns him into a league-average pitcher, or if he can still produce better than most AL pitchers despite the handicaps. If he continues inducing ground balls at a high rate, maybe he can continue outperforming his peripherals. But it’s not a guarantee at this point. All eyes will be on Kuroda to start the season.
Bullpen: David Robertson’s dominance
Only two relievers in all of baseball struck out hitters at a better clip than Robertson last year. Despite his high walk rate, he boasted the fourth-lowest FIP among all relievers. That bodes well for his 2012 campaign. Yet at the same time, he managed to get through the entire season allowing just one home run. He also boasted the second-highest strand rate of any reliever. Those things, as we’ve seen from countless other pitchers, aren’t necessarily sustainable.
Every pitcher has his own tendencies, though, so perhaps Robertson has discovered something that he exploits in hitters and keeps his home run rate low. Maybe he does have an extra gear that he can use to get that one important batter in that one important spot, leaving runners stranded. That is to say, 2012 will tell us a lot about Robertson as a pitcher. Was he a good reliever who had a fluke 2011? Or is he really just about this good?
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Every team has questions heading into every season. Really, everyone on the roster is a question mark. Players get hurt all the time, even players with clean injury histories. Every year we see good players perform below expectations. Yet there are specific things that the Yankees need to go right this year if they’re going to claim the AL East crown again. While Cano, Sabathia, and Rivera are plenty important, it’s the question marks surrounding Rodriguez, Kuroda, and Robertson that could make or break the season. Thankfully, we’ll start getting our answers in under 24 hours.