RAB Bracket Busters

Just a heads up, I’ve started a Tourney Pick ‘Em group over at Yahoo! that everyone is free to join. Just go here and join Group ID #169695 with the password “riveraveblues.” There are no prizes (though you can win up to a million bucks through Yahoo), just bragging rights over your fellow RABers. I’ve got UConn over BYU with Notre Dame and UNC also in the Final Four. Don’t as me why, my college basketball knowledge is seriously lacking this spring.

Update: You have until 12:15pm ET today (Thursday) to sign up and submit your brackets, so get on it if you haven’t already.

Ivan Nova’s New Toy

Slider! (AP Photo)

It’s only Spring Training, but we were treated to a pitching gem last night. Ivan Nova, the youngest member of the fourth/fifth starter’s competition, threw six hitless innings against the Orioles, allowing only two baserunners (one hit-by-pitch, one error). Eleven of the 14 balls put in play off of him were grounders, and four other outs came on strike three. Nova threw just 59 pitches (41 strikes), so he had to head to the bullpen to throw another 15 after leaving the game just to reach his pitch limit.

After the game, Nova told Marc Carig that he’s working on a new pitch at the behest of pitching coordinator Billy Connors, a pitch he broke out last night. “My slider is like a new toy,” said the right-hander. “I have to start playing with it some time, not too much, but I feel comfortable with all my pitches.” Connors and Nova were originally trying to add a cutter, but the ball just kept moving too much. So they kept it, called it a slider, and here we are. Three of Nova’s four strikeouts came on the pitch, and as you’d expect, he’s going to keep using it in the future.

Nova’s scouting report has been the same basically his entire career. He’s a fastball-curveball-changeup guy, usually sitting 92-94 with the heat (though last year we saw some unexpected 97’s). Although the two offspeed pitches are solid offerings, neither is a legit swing-and-miss pitch right now, which is why his ceiling has always been limited to that of a back-end starter. Adding a put-away pitch in the form of that cutter/slider would be a major development for Nova, boosting his stock and future projection a great deal. Having a go-to pitch is a surprisingly rare luxury.

Although he says he’s going to focus on the changeup next time out, it’ll be interesting to see if the pitch takes a backseat to this new slider. It wouldn’t be ideal, but if Nova has to sacrifice one solid pitch for one above-average pitch, then so be it. You make that trade every day of the week. Joe did some quick research last night and found a few pitchers that rely on both a slider and curveball (at least 12% of the time each) but not a changeup (less than 10%), and came up with a nice mix: Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd, Tommy Hanson, and both Cardinals’ aces, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. That doesn’t tell us anything about Nova of course, but it gives us some examples of pitchers that survive (and thrive) with two breaking balls and a nascent changeup.

“Working on a new pitch” is the pitcher’s equivalent of “the best shape of his life,” so take this report of Nova’s slider with a grain of salt. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying attention to though, so definitely keep an eye on if/when/how he uses the pitch during what should be his final two Spring Training outings.

Rationalizing a tough decision

The Yankees and Cliff Lee just can’t seem to avoid each other. The 32-year-old lefty nearly found himself in pinstripes on July 9, 2010 before the Seattle Mariners backed out of a deal with the Yanks. Brian Cashman then pushed hard to land Lee during the winter, but as we know, his offer fell short not because of money but because Lee simply wanted to go to Philadelphia. It sent shockwaves through baseball and had a deep impact on the Yanks’ winter.

Since that fateful day when the Phillies emerged as the mystery team intent on locking up a starter they wanted but didn’t need for a lot of dollars, both Cliff Lee and his wife have tried to rationalize the decision. Perhaps they truly wanted to be in Philadelphia because Cliff enjoyed his time there and his wife liked the city. Perhaps they are trying to justify leaving dollars, even a few, on the table. Whatever the case may be, their public statements have ranged from strange to flat-out mind-bogglingly wrong.

In Wednesday’s podcast, Joe and Mike went to town on Lee after his latest statements. They weren’t alone. So too did Brian Cashman, and it helps to put these latest words about the Yankees — in Lee’s mind, an old time — in context.

Since arriving in the City of Brotherly Love, Lee has done his part to mention the edge Philadelphia has over New York City at nearly every turn. In December, Lee’s wife Kristen seemed to take some responsibility for the designer. She was upset at Yankee fans’ behavior during the ALCS (as though Philly fans are the model of polite) and also said she appreciated the city’s amenities. “We liked the easy travel on a train for our kids to other cities and the good cultural experience for them here,” she said. “It was fun to live in a city and have a whole different lifestyle than in Arkansas.”

Of course, New Yorkers took this personally. If the Lees truly wanted a “whole different lifestyle” than in Arkansas, they needed to look no further than New York City. We have more trains and more “cultural experiences” than Philadelphia. If anything, it was a rationalization. Fine.

But Cliff wouldn’t let it lie. While speaking with a Philadelphia radio station last week, he again brought up the Yankees and placed them third behind the Phillies and Rangers in the off-season sweepstakes. Why? Because as he put it, “some of the Yankeee guys are getting older.” Of course, everyone is always getting older.

Lee continued in this strange vein: “Texas probably finished second to be honest with you. Just as far as the quality of the team and the chance to win a World Series ring, I think they’re a better team. That’s just my opinion. The Yankees can do anything at any moment to improve and they’re not afraid to go do things. That was part of the decision-making process, too, but I felt like with what the Red Sox had done and it seems like some of the Yankee guys are getting older, but I liked the Rangers.”

Brian Cashman responded vehemently. “Clearly I’ve made an effort to make the team younger,” he said to The Post. He added, “Some of our core guys that we have relied on have gotten up there, but we have a group of young players that we’re excited about. All we care about is being called champions. You can say anything else you want about us. When you call us old, that’s fine.”

As many others pointed out on Wednesday, Lee is simply wrong. The Yankees, on average, are a year younger than the Phillies, and whereas the Yanks have an aging left side of the infield, Placido Polanco is three months younger than A-Rod. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins might be younger than Derek Jeter but doesn’t play like it, and Chase Utley’s knee appears to be on the verge of giving out on him. The age difference is an illusion brought on by the Core Four media narrative, and nothing more.

Ultimately, Lee’s words don’t matter that much. He didn’t want to come to New York, and he didn’t come to New York. He also gave up job security and dollars to go to Philadelphia. If he has to talk his way out of it at our expense, so be it. When the dust settles, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Yanks with as many if not more World Series rings than the Phillies over the course of Lee’s contract. As with any baseball dispute, this one will be resolved on the field.

Yanks send down Brackman, five others

Via Chad Jennings, the Yankees have optioned Andrew Brackman, Brandon Laird, Melky Mesa, Kevin Russo, Steve Garrison, and Ryan Pope to various levels of the minor leagues. All six guys are on the 40-man roster, and the actual level they were assigned to isn’t important. They’re just paper moves for the time being. By my count, there’s still 40 players in camp, but that doesn’t count the injured Frankie Cervelli, Reegie Corona, and Colin Curtis.

Yankees watched Millwood throw today

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees were the only team to watch Kevin Millwood work out at UC-Irvine today. They clocked his fastball at just 85 mph, though Millwood says he still wants a guaranteed big league contract. The Yankees continue to maintain interest in nothing but a minor league pact. Given the way Ivan Nova threw tonight (six no-hit innings) and how Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have been throwing in camp (not great but good enough), the Yankees have zero reason to cave into Millwood’s demands. The name value does nothing for me.