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.

Linkage: Lineup, RBI’s, Workman, Beckett

Who’s genius idea was it to have night games in Spring Training? Sheesh…

Optimizing the Yankees’ lineup

Unless Joe Girardi does something completely crazy, there’s almost no wrong way for him to put his lineup together. He has eight better than league average hitters at his disposable, so there’s really nothing he can do wrong except bat the leftfield first or Alex Rodriguez last. Sky Kalkman took a shot at optimizing the Yanks’ lineup according to The Book, and he ends up with Derek Jeter batting sixth. I don’t know why he thinks Nick Johnson will only play against righties, but his lineup is:

1. Nick Johnson – high OBP
2. Mark Teixiera – high OBP
3. Curtis Granderson lots of homers & less likely to GIDP
4. Alex Rodriguez – high OBP & SLG, maximize his SB
5. Robinson Canoless likely to GIDP
6. Derek Jeter – maximize his SB
7. Nick Swisher
8. Jorge Posada
9. Brett Gardner

Again, there’s really no wrong lineup, but I wonder how the masses would take it if Girardi ran that lineup out there on Opening Day.

JoPoz on RBI’s

This one’s a few days old, but I finally got around to reading it this morning. The great Joe Posnanski gives his take on one of baseball’s most traditional metrics, the RBI. As you know, the problem with the ol’ run batting in is that it’s so dependent on the rest of your team. You can’t drive anyone in if there’s no one on base in front of you. For example, Joe Mauer came to the plate with 292 men on base last year, and drove in 69 of them, or 23.6%. AL RBI leader Mark Teixeira came to the plate with 420 men on base and drove in 83 of them, or 19.8%. If you gave Mauer the same number of baserunners as Tex last year, he would have had 99 RBI, not counting all the times he drove himself in with the long ball.

Anyway, Posnanski does a much better job of explaining why RBI’s suck than I ever could.

Another look at Brandon Workman

A few weeks ago I highlighted Texas starter Brandon Workman as a player the Yankees could target in June’s amateur draft, and now we get an updated look at him courtesy of Dustin McComas. Workman has apparently worked to add a cutter recently, and there’s a chance he could add a few more miles an hour to a fastball that already touches the mid-90’s by ironing out his mechanics. There’s plenty of high end high school talent in this draft, but if a team with a top 15 or 20 pick doesn’t want to be risky, they could turn to Workman.

As a bonus, we get a look at another Texas starter, righty Taylor Jungmann. He’s expected to be a top five pick in 2011, which means the only way the Yankees will have a chance to get him is if they sign Elijah Dukes and he destroys the clubhouse chemistry.

NoMaas needs your help

The crew over at NoMaas landed the sponsorship for Josh Beckett’s B-Ref page, and needs your help coming up with a snarky message. While you should go over there and give a suggestion, the real reason I posted this is because I want people to post links to their favorite B-Ref sponsorship messages. There’s plenty of great ones out there, but Marvin Benard’s still takes the cake for me: “I loved this guy. He couldn’t hit me with a tree trunk.”

2010 Season Preview: Strength from the back end

During their run through October in 2009, the Yankees made headlines for their pitching. Not only did their starters excel, throwing few clunkers in the 15 games it took the Yanks to grab their 27th headline, but they ran through the Twins, Angels and Phillies while employing just three starters. It was impressive, but it underscored a weakness in the back end of the Yankee rotation.

To address that problem, Brian Cashman made a pair of moves with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain waiting in the wings. The initial no-brainer was to re-sign Andy Pettitte to a one-year, $11.75-million. Instead of debating about retirement, Pettitte, coming off a season in which he won the clinching games for the AL East, ALDS, ALDCS and World Series, finalized his deal in early December. The second move was a big one. On December 22, the Yanks sent Melky Cabrera, Michael Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino to the Braves for Javier Vazquez. The righty last threw a pitch for the Yanks in the 2004 ALCS, and his return to the Bronx offers him a shot at pressure-free redemption.

With these two in tow for the third and fourth starter spots, the Yankees can mix and match with the best of them. The rotation will be fronted by CC and A.J., a lefty and a righty, with Andy Pettitte, lefty, and Javier Vazquez, a righty, picking up the slack. With four veterans in place, each capable of throwing over 190 innings, the Yanks can use their fifth starter as a no-pressure spot for one of the kids, and if this rotation isn’t the best in the game, it’s certainly in the top five.

Pre-season accolades sound well and good, but what can we expect from Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez? The doubters among us may be tempted to look at the negatives. Pettitte, after all, will turn 38 in June and has had a minor history of elbow problems. Vazquez had a stellar year in the NL in 2009, but he left New York after falling apart in 2004. Yankee fans remember him for surrendering a Johnny Damon Grand Slam in a no-win situation and not his 10-5 first half that netted him an All Star game appearance.

First, let’s tackle Pettitte. In 2009, Andy made 32 starts and went 14-8 over 194.2 regular season innings. He had a 4.16 ERA and struck out 148 while walking 76. In the postseason, he threw 30.2 more innings and sported an ERA of 3.52. His 2010 projections are rosy indeed:

Basically, as one of the Yanks’ mid-rotation starters — the labels third or fourth don’t really matter — Pettitte is expected to regress slightly. We could see the regular season ERA tick up by approximately 0.10 runs while the innings, strike out and walk rates dip by a start or so. If Pettitte can match his projections while pitching in the AL East, the Yankees would be thrilled.

So what to look for in Pettitte’s 2010? Well, the biggest concern for him is the way he approaches pitching in Yankee Stadium. Early on last year, Andy was vocal about his dislike of the new ballpark, and it showed in his numbers. His road ERA was 3.71 while his home mark was 4.59. He surrendered 70 percent of his home runs at home, and opponents OPS’d nearly .130 points higher in the Bronx. At home, Pettitte will have to be a different pitcher to enjoy greater success, and in 2010, we’ll see if he can continue to pull a Mike Mussina and reinvent himself as a strategic thrower. Knowing that he can’t throw the fastball past too many hitters today, he’s well on his way to that goal.

And then we have Javier Vazquez. In 2009, he was great. He went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. He threw 219.1 innings, struck out 238 and walked just 44. By issuing so few free passes, the 20 home runs he allowed didn’t come back to bite him. He is, however, third on the active home runs list, and that moniker Home Run Javy isn’t undeserved. His 2010 looks fantastic on paper.

The projections expect a top season for Javier Vazquez and numbers that would make him the team’s second best starter. The 23 home runs allowed may be on the optimistic side, but if he throws 204.1 innings with 196 strike outs and a 3.60 ERA, the fans would embrace him. For Javy, though, the key will be the bases on balls. Pitching at Yankee Stadium, he will, for better or worse, give up his fair share of long balls, but if he can limit the damage, much the better.

In a way, the Yankees are taking a gamble on their third and fourth starter tandem this year. The team could have opted to re-up with Pettitte and slot in both Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes in the fourth and fifth spots. At some point, after all, the team is going to have to develop its own pitchers and give the kids a chance to throw enough innings for a full season’s worth of work. On the other hand, when the team tried that in 2008, it backfired before April was over.

So the Yankees will head into 2010 with two guys pitching in their walk years occupying the middle spots of the rotation. We might be seeing Andy Pettitte’s final year in baseball. We might be watching Javier Vazquez’s redemption tour in New York City. We might worry about regressions and injuries, but that comes with the pitching territory across the board. The Yankees needed an arm to take the innings pressure off of CC, A.J. and Andy after a long 2009, and that’s Javier Vazquez’s job. There are worse men for the position. With two veterans in the back end, the Yanks’ rotation is sitting pretty for 2010.

AP Photo of Javier Vazquez by Kathy Willens. AP Photo of Andy Pettitte by Elise Amendola.

RAB Bracket Busters Reminder

In case you missed it, we’ve got a Tourney Pick’em Group on Yahoo!, so if you think you know your college hoops, sign up and compete for bragging rights against your fellow RAB readers. Here’s the sign up info…

Group ID: 99692
Password: riveraveblues

The games start this afternoon, so you have until 12:20pm ET today to register and get your brackets in. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.

Competition or not, Joba and Hughes a bright spot this week

For a team with not many issues at stake this spring, the Yankees continue to generate headlines. We discussed this a bit yesterday morning. After Phil Hughes pitched well the headlines declared him solidly in the fifth starter race, perhaps the leader. As a bonus, we got plenty of headlines on Joba Chamberlain‘s scheduled start, most noting that it was his last chance to remain a rotation consideration. He relished the opportunity, pitching very well and even needing a bullpen session afterwards because he was so efficient during the game. So where does this leave us?

Probably in the same place we were when the week started. Sure, both Chamberlain and Hughes instilled confidence in us, if not the Yankees’ brass, by pitching well in their appearances. Spring stats still don’t count, but even so no one wants to see their promising young pitchers get rocked, especially by the substitutes in the late innings. But, same as yesterday, I wonder if the starts had any real impact on the decision.

If there really is a competition — if the Yankees will use spring performances as one criteria for deciding who pitches behind Javy Vazquez — I’m not sure whether the results made the Yankees lean one way or another. If one of the two had pitched poorly perhaps it would have swayed them one way or another. But they both pitched well, so again, if they’re making the decision based on this it would seem that both Hughes and Chamberlain are on even ground. Perhaps Chamberlain would win the tiebreaker, since he faced presumably better hitters. But, as I said yesterday, I’m not sure the Yankees are evaluating the race on these terms.

However they are doing it, they have to be happy with what they’ve seen over the past few days. Both Hughes and Chamberlain still have challenges ahead. Joba, for instance, will face the Phillies starters next time around rather than their scrubs. Hughes will likely get a similar chance next week. Aceves will also get another audition in the next couple of days. If it’s a real competition, we could learn a bit in the next five days. If not, well, hopefully we’ll just enjoy some quality exhibition performances.

The obligatory Elijah Dukes post

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Nationals unexpected released Elijah Dukes yesterday morning, apparently after weeks of trying to off-load him in a trade. GM Mike Rizzo maintains that the move was strictly baseball related, however he also noted that shedding Dukes and his off-the-field issues will certainly benefit the team. “The clubhouse will be more united,” Rizzo said. “We’ll have a better feel around the ballclub. We’ll gain just by that alone.”

Clearly, Rizzo feels that having Dukes around had a negative impact on the team. It’s no secret that he’s a troubled person with a scary background that includes at least three arrests for battery, one for assault, and of course the infamous “You dead, dawg” incident. The Nationals went to great lengths to keep him in check after acquiring him from Tampa prior to the 2008 season, including hiring an ex-cop to the made up position of “Special Assistant: Player Concerns” to keep Dukes out of trouble by accompanying him wherever he went.

So after all that, why would I want the Yankees to sign him?

Right now, the Yanks have as good of a “clubhouse culture” as they’ve had in years, and while I can understand not wanting to poison that with a person like Dukes, I think this is exactly the kind of support system that could help him thrive. Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada provide the tough love, A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher would allow him to loosen up and be himself, and even guys like Alex Rodriguez and Joba Chamberlain, who’ve had their fair share of off-the-field troubles, can help him relate. I hate to bring race into it, but CC Sabathia and Curtis Granderson are two African American guys widely considered to be class acts and great people, and I can’t help but think they would be a positive influence on Dukes.

Of course, that’s just me speculating. I know nothing about Dukes and his personality other than what we assume based on his troubles, and who knows how receptive the team would be to having someone like that round for six-plus months of the year. Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden came aboard in the mid-90’s after their off-the-field problems, and while that was a different situation because they both had strong track records in the big leagues and problems that were self-destructive, they were welcomed because they could help them on the field. More recently, A-Rod and Jason Giambi went through the ringer and came out better for it.

Of course, none of this would be worth it if Dukes was unable to contribute something on the field better than what the Yankees already have in-house. He’s a freak athlete that was a legit prospect at linebacker with NFL potential before deciding to try his hand at baseball out of high school, and that athleticism affords him tremendous bat speed and power potential. That power is evident in Duke’s .180 IsoP in 970 big league plate appearances, which is on par with what notable mashers like Carlos Lee and Shin-Shoo Choo put up last year. He also has a selectively aggressive approach, meaning he’s more than happy to work the count, but will jump all over something early in the count if he likes it. All of his offensive prowess was on display in 2008, when he put up a .382 wOBA and accumulated 2.8 WAR in just 81 games.

On the defensive side of the ball, Dukes is capable of manning all three outfield spots, though he doesn’t have an much range as you’d expect from someone with his kind of athleticism. His arm is strong, but it’s clear the majority of his value lies in his bat. Leg injuries have been a problem in recent years, as Dukes has missed a total of 108 days in the past two years with hamstring issues in both legs. Hopefully that’s something that can be ironed out, or at least controlled, with a better conditioning program.

CHONE projects a .358 wOBA for Dukes in 2010, which is better than anything projected for Brett Gardner or Randy Winn. His projected 2.1 WAR is identical to Gardner’s, though he’s going to do it with his bat and Gardner will do it with his glove. If nothing else, he’s a massive upgrade over Marcus Thames and/or Jamie Hoffmann as the fifth outfielder. With just two years of service time, Dukes was slated to make $440,000 before the Nationals cut him, and that’s about what it’ll take to sign him. He also has minor league options remaining, which always come in handy. And, on top of all this, it would be an extremely easy to move to back out of. If Dukes acts up at all, they can cut him and lose nothing but a few hundred grand.

The Yankees are not above giving second chances, and given the personnel in the clubhouse right now,  I think this would be the time to try to cash in on Dukes’ talent. The Nationals are in a different place than the Yanks right now, which is why they parted ways with him. They’re trying to change an entire culture of losing that’s deeply entrenched within the franchise, and they felt getting rid of Dukes and his off the field issues were part of the process of changing that losing culture. His past is ugly, absolutely, but there’s nothing that can be done about it now. If he’s willing to put the work in, he could certainly help the Yankees. And the Yankees could certainly help him.

Photo Credit: Gregory Smith, AP