The last RAB fantasy Baseball League (I mean it this time)

Update (11:08am): 6:30pm on Friday is a stupid time, my bad. I’ll run the sign up post Monday night, with details to come that morning.

11:00am: Okay, we put together a seventh league. I’ll post the sign up info at 6:30pm ET today, so check back then if you haven’t gotten into one of our other leagues.

A peek at some Spring Training numbers

Nick Johnson has been a bright spot for the Yankees offensively this spring. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

We don’t spend much time on Spring Training results. They are largely irrelevant, and the teams themselves are looking more at process, strength and red flags than who wins, who loses and who compiles the biggest stats. Some games end with tied scores and others have a bottom of the 9th after the home team has already won so that a pitcher can get some extra work in. It’s a relaxed atmosphere where players who start often don’t even know who won or who lost.

With their win over Tampa Bay last night, the Yanks wrapped up their 15th Grapefruit League game of the year, and in 16 days, 10 hours and approximately 35 minutes from when this post is published, the team will face off against the Red Sox in a game that counts. So at Spring Training’s halfway point, let’s have some fun with numbers.

NJ leading the way

Nick Johnson, the man atop this post who was brought back to the Bronx to the be the OBP machine at DH, has led the team offensively so far. In 18 ABs, he’s hitting .389/.478/1.000 with three home runs, a pair of doubles and four walks. Robinson Cano is having himself a nifty spring as well with a .400/.444/.520 triple slash line in 25 ABs, and Mark Teixeira is right there with him. The switch-hitting first baseman sports a .333/.417/.619 line in 21 ABs.

Of those not likely to make the team, Colin Curtis leads the way. He has just ten at-bats this spring, but two of them have resulted in three-run home runs. His seven RBIs lead all Yankees, and the 25-year-old has certainly flashed some offense this month. Jon Weber is 8 for 15, and Kevin Russo is 6 for 17. Juan Miranda, auditioning for a trade or a bench spot, is just 4 for 23.

The guys fighting for spots and playing time are faring a bit worse. Brett Gardner has four walks but is just six for 25. Jamie Hoffmann has three hits in 21 ABs but has just one strike out. At least he’s making contact. Randy Winn is four for 21 with six K’s, and all four of his hits were singles. Spring Training invitee Marcus Thames is three for 21 with seven whiffs.

Aceves strong in the early going

For the Yankee hurlers, Alfredo Aceves has led the way. He has tossed a team-high 10 innings and has allowed just one run on three hits. He hasn’t issued a free pass and has struck out five. He should again turn out a solid season from the pen as he morphs into this generation’s Ramiro Mendoza.

Beyond Aceves, Javier Vazquez has turned in an admirable spring as well. In three outings, he has unsurprisingly surrendered three home runs, but he has struck out nine while walking just three in eight innings. If he can maintain that K:BB ratio, he’ll be just fine this summer. Sergio Mitre, another year removed from Tommy John surgery, has impressed as well. In nine innings, he has surrendered three runs on seven hits while walking two and striking out seven. Mark Melancon — 5.2 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K — remains a sleeper candidate for the bullpen.

The guys who have struggled on the mound include some big names. CC Sabathia sports an ERA north of 8.00 right now, and Joba Chamberlain, coming off of a strong outing on Wednesday, has allowed 12 in 6.2 innings with a K:BB ratio of 5:7. Jonathan Albaladejo holds the title for worst of camp though. In 2 innings, he has given up 15 hits and 10 earned runs.

It’s tempting to draw conclusions from this numbers, but there’s nothing much here. Players have too few at-bats, and pitchers are working to get a feel for pitchers. As long as no one gets hurt, the results are secondary. We’ll worry about the results in April.

Photo credits: Colin Curtis via AP Photo/Brian Blanco. Alfredo Aceves via AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar.

Spring Training Trade Review: Wily Mo Pena

It seems that spring training trades tend to involve small-time players. After evaluating players over the first month of exhibition, some of these role players become expendable. This is what we saw in the Rondell White trade. Hideki Matsui‘s addition rendered White a reserve outfielder. Rather than spend $5 million on a bench player, the Yankees traded him for a high-upside arm. Yet this isn’t at all the type of trade Cashman pulled in the Spring of 2001. It involved two minor leaguers, Wily Mo Pena and Drew Henson. The players involved have quite a history with the Yankees.

The backstories

Photo credit: Tony Tribble/AP

During the international signing period in 1998, the Mets signed 16-year-old Wily Mo Pena. That winter, however, Major League Baseball voided the deal. Why this happened I could not find, but whatever the reason the Yankees stepped in a month later and signed Pena with a $2.44 million bonus, the largest non-Cuban bonus ever at that point.

The Yankees drafted Drew Henson in the third round of the 1998 draft. A star quarterback at the University of Michigan, Henson chose baseball and the Yankees thought he had star potential. But, needing a pitcher in 2000, they traded him to the Reds for Denny Neagle. Also included in that trade: Ed Yarnall, whom the Yankees acquired just a year prior in exchange for Mike Lowell.

The trade

Photo credit: Chris O’Meara/AP

In the spring of 2001 Henson had recently completed his junior year at the University of Michigan, where he excelled at quarterback. He was still playing baseball, but it was clear that he could still choose to enter the 2002 NFL draft and try his hand there. His preference, however, was to play baseball, and specifically for the Yankees. As Buster Olney put it, the Yankees were convinced of his future stardom and wanted him back from the Reds before he had to decide on the NFL.

Pena had not impressed during his first two seasons in the Yankees’ minor league system. He played his age-17 season in the GCL, hitting .247/.323/.446 through just 186 plate appearances. He followed that up with underwhelming performances in low-A and A levels in 2000, hitting for a combined .651 OPS. He played mostly in class-A, Greensboro at hte time, where he hit .205/.268/.361 in 276 PA. The performance itself was disappointing, but Pena was all projection at the time. His raw power certainly enticed other teams, and the Yankees took advantage.

The two teams worked out a swap in late March, with the Yankees receiving outfielder Michael Coleman in the deal. This was not much of a consolation, as Coleman had no remaining options — hence Cincinnati’s willingness to deal him. His last at-bat of the season, and of his major league career, came on May 16.

The results

What started as a swap of two talented players turned into a swap of two busts. Pena appeared to be on his way in 2001, when he hit .264/.327/.485 in 565 PA at Class-A. He struggled at AA the next year, though, especially with his bread and butter, power. Still, he made his Major League debut that season. He hit well enough in 2003 to warrant a call-up, and in 2004 it appeared he was well on his way to mashing major league pitchers. He posted a .268 ISO in 2004 and .238 in 2005. Yet his plate discipline remained a big problem.

Pena was involved in another spring training trade five years after the Yanks traded him when Cincinnati sent him to Boston for Bronson Arroyo in 2006. His power numbers dropped that year, but his .301 average powered his OBP to a respectable .349. THat’s what a .400 BABIP will do. Of course, that’s unsustainable. After 172 poor plate appearances for the Red Sox in 2007 they traded him to the Nationals, where he picked it up. Unfortunately he stumbled again the next season. He spent 2009 at the Mets’ AAA organization, where he hit .276/.296/.414.

Though Henson played at three minor league levels in 2001, he spent most of his time at AAA, 281 PA, though he struggled worse than Pena. His .145 ISO was the only remotely bright spot that season. In 2002 he returned to AAA and showed improvement, hitting .240/.301/.435, again displaying power, a .195 ISO this time, but once again showing not much in the way of discipline. He did get one major league PA at the end of the season. He was even worse in 2003, hitting .234/.291/.412. He went 1 for 8 that september with the big league club and never played baseball again.

Overall, Pena produced 0.8 WAR in his career while Henson was -0.1, so the Yankees didn’t lose even one win by making the swap. I don’t remember much of the trade, though I understand what they were doing. They wanted the athlete over the power product. As it turned out, neither reached their potential.

Spring Training Game Thread: Under the lights

There’s nothing quite like baseball under the sun, but I’ve always had a soft spot for night games. The cool breeze, the lights, I dunno what it is, but I like it. The Yankees are playing one of their few night games of the preseason tonight, taking on the Rays’ B-team in Tampa. Javy Vazquez will be making his third televised start of the spring in as many outings. I guess he’s an attention whore.

Anyway, here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Granderson, CF
Swisher, RF
Posada, C
Cano, 2B
Thames, DH
Winn, LF
Miranda, 1B
Pena, 3B

Scheduled Pitchers: Javy Vazquez, Chan Ho Park, and David Robertson. Dustin Moseley, Mark Melancon, Romulo Sanchez, and Boone Logan are also available.

Also scheduled to play: Reegie Corona, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, Reid Gorecki, Eduardo Nunez, P.J. Pilittere, Austin Romine, Kevin Russo, and Jon Weber.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET. You can watch locally on YES, or out of market on MLB Network. Enjoy the game.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Report: Yanks’ brass to meet Sunday to discuss the fifth starter

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees have a meeting planned for this Sunday to discuss the fifth starter situation. The prevailing thought seems to be that Phil Hughes is at the front of the line for the job, sending Joba Chamberlain back to the bullpen, but I can’t imagine that the brain trust is going to base the decision on each player’s first three Spring Training appearances if it is in fact a true “open competition.” Stranger things have happened, I guess.

Either way, there might be some progress towards a resolution with this mess situation soon, and Mo knows we’re all looking forward to it. Maybe they’ll talk about the trade partner they found for Sergio Mitre following his strong exhibition season. Wishful thinking?

Catching up with Mark Newman

John Sickels of Minor League Ball sat down to talk to Mark Newman, the Yankees’ farm director, and needless to say, it’s a must read. Some of the many topics they discussed were Gerrit Cole, how to pronounce Jeremy Bleich‘s name, sleepers, all sorts of great stuff. The most interesting part, to me at least, was Newman explaining how they use the Latin American market as a way to acquire premium young players that normally wouldn’t get to them in the draft. When it comes to drafting risky players like Cole and Andrew Brackman, Newman had a great quote: “… to be extraordinary involves risk, and our goal is to be extraordinary.” Amen, brother.

The interview was conducted this morning, so it looks like Newman won’t be getting the Steve Swindal treatment after his DUI.

To be 12 and a Yankee fan as the Mariners won

When I was 12 years old, the Seattle Mariners broke my heart. A perfectly-placed double by Edgar Martinez in the bottom of the 11th inning on a Sunday night in early October sent the Yankees home after a thrilling ALDS. It was the first Yankee playoff appearance of my life, and while the memories of it would be erased by a half a decade of World Series dominance, it was a crushing, stinging defeat for this young baseball fan.

Now, that series with Ken Griffey’s tremendous display of power, David Cone’s gutsy pitching, the emergence of Mariano Rivera, Don Mattingly’s last hurrah, the Martinezes’ — Edgar and Tino — constant bludgeoning of the Yankees and, of course, Randy Johnson’s relief appearance, has been immortalized by Chris Donnelly in a wonderful new book. Called Baseball’s Greatest Series, Donnelly explores how the 1995 ALDS match-up between the Yankees and the Mariners, in his words, changed history. It brought about key changes in New York that led to a dynasty and saved baseball as we know it in Seattle.

What most Yankee fans sitting 3,000 miles away from Seattle know about that 1995 series concerns the way it changed the Yankees. The Yankees left New York up 2-0 on the Mariners and had to return east losers of three straight, the first of the three great Yankee collapses during their magical dynasty run. That loss — with the shaky John Wetteland in the bullpen, with Mariano Rivera underutilized, with Jack McDowell on the mound, with a tight and tense Yankee clubhouse and a cantankerous owner — led to the ouster of Buck Showalter and the dawn of a new day. Getting to that point, though, was a battle.

Donnelly begins his tale in New York with a history of the Yankees from 1981 to 1995. It is a sad tale and one we’ve told in bits and pieces this winter. George Steinbrenner turned from a crazy win-now owner into a meddlesome and obsessed win-at-all-costs-yesterday owner. The Yanks fell just short of the playoffs in 1985 and couldn’t recover for nearly a decade after Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball and the Yanks’ baseball minds could put together a better team.

Necessarily, the New York part of the story focuses on Don Mattingly. A lynch pin for the Yanks throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, by 1995 he was a shell of his former self, and that 1995 ALDS was his only playoff appearance as a player. Mattingly hit .417/.440/.708 in his last games as a Major Leaguer, but with the likes of Dion James, Randy Velarde, Tony Fernandez and Ruben Sierra all faltering behind him, it wasn’t enough.

In Seattle, meanwhile, the story is more vital for the Mariners. While the Yanks’ loss led to a dynasty, the Mariners’ victory ensured the Pacific Northwest that baseball would survive there. Prior to 1995, the Mariners were a sad franchise that never enjoyed much success. They played in a dreary dome that remained mostly empty for decades, and as 1995 dawned, the team needed a new stadium or they would decamp for Tampa Bay.

As the Mariners climbed back from a late-season 12-game deficit to make the playoffs, Seattle became, in the span of one year, a baseball town. The story ends not with a Mariners’ loss to the Indians in the ALCS, but with a new stadium for the team and a decade-long rivalry with the Yanks. As hard as it is to believe now, but the Mariners were three outs away from leaving Seattle. The Yankees just couldn’t get those three outs.

The Yankees, meanwhile, blew it. As would be the case in the desert in 2001 and in Boston and New York in 2004, the Yankees were on the precipice of playoff victory and couldn’t seal the deal. They headed west triumphant with a two games to none lead in the best-of-five series. They went down against Randy Johnson in Game 3. The Big Unit, a playoff bugaboo both pitching against and for the Yankees through 2006, struck out 10. In Game 4, the team jumped out to a 5-0 lead and was outscored 11-3 over the last six innings. Scott Kamieniecki, Sterling Hitchcock, Bob Wickman, John Wetteland and Steve Howe just couldn’t get it done.

And then there was Game 5. It was a tense affair for the Yankees. George Steinbrenner had grown to hate the popular Buck Showalter, and Showalter’s tense managerial style clearly had an impact on the team. But the Yanks had a lead heading into the late innings. They went up 4-2 when a Don Mattingly double unfortunately bounced over the wall. Much as he could not when a Tony Clark double bounced over the wall in Fenway nine years later, Ruben Sierra was not allowed to score on Mattingly’s ball. It was the first bad bounce to change baseball history.

David Cone stayed in too long, and the Mariners tied it up in the 8th. Mariano Rivera came in to clean up the mess, and the Yankees finally recognized the weapon that would fully emerge in 1996. When the Big Unit came in to pitch in relief, the Yankees were in trouble. They eked out a run in the 11th, but Jack McDowell couldn’t hold it. Joey Cora singled, Ken Griffey singled, and Edgar Martinez roped a double down the line. It was all over.

Donnelly’s storytelling as the games unfold is a pleasure. More than once, I had to put the book down to gather myself when I knew the inning or the game wasn’t going to end for the Yankees. As the team gathered in tears in the visitors’ clubhouse in Seattle, I thought back to my frustrations as a young baseball fan. After the strike-shortened season of 1994, baseball needed a thrilling postseason, but Yankee fans wanted wins. We knew Mattingly would retire; we knew Showalter would be fired. But we didn’t know what glory awaited.

Baseball’s Greatest Series doesn’t dwell much on the game past 1995, and it doesn’t have to. It’s a great complement to Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty in that it dissects a transformative moment in baseball — and Yankee history — and shows how it led to a different era for the game. It’s heartbreaking to read about the stunning Yankee losses, and Edgar’s double burns just as badly as Luis Gonzalez’s single. But it’s a more interesting read than a profile of the 1990s dynasty teams.

Donnelly’s story, in the end, is about baseball’s redemption after a pointless strike. It’s about the way George Steinbrenner loomed over the Yankees and how the team’s loss in Seattle turned them into a winner despite the Boss’ crankiest moments. It’s about how the Mariners needed that win and how, with a bounding ball into left field, Seattle erupted, New York cried and we had to wait, without knowing what 1996 would bring, until next year yet again.

Chris Donnelly’s Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History is available for sale at Amazon and your local bookstore. If you use the link in this paragraph to buy the book, we earn a few pennies on the sale. It’s a brisk 287 pages, and you’ll find yourself yet again cursing the Mariners by the end of it.