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(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The 2014 season is now one-third of the way complete. Well, technically it’s one-third plus one game complete for the Yankees. They played their 54th game of the season on Saturday, and through that game they were on pace to go 87-75 with a -30 run differential. There is still a pretty big disconnect between the win-loss record and run differential this time of year. The relationship usually doesn’t start to stabilize until the All-Star break or so, according to Russell Carleton.

Anyway, as is the case every year, the Yankees have had some players or parts of their game be a pleasant surprise this season. There have also been some disappointments as well. That’s just baseball. Things don’t always go according to plan, both for better and worse. So, with all that in mind, let’s review the Yankees’ biggest surprises and disappointments at the one-third (plus one game) point of the 2014 season.

Surprise: Yangervis Solarte
I can’t imagine anyone doesn’t consider Solarte a massive surprise this year. Even if you totally bought into his excellent Spring Training, I still don’t think you could have reasonably expected a .294/.363/.458 (127 wRC+) batting line through the first third of the season. How could you? This is best case scenario stuff. Solarte is not a total fluke either — he has a not outrageous .305 BABIP and is a high contact switch-hitter hitter with a solid approach (23/20 K/BB). That’s a good recipe for success. The infield was pretty unsettled coming into the season, but Solarte has emerged as a legitimate everyday player and a much-needed above-average bat to lengthen the lineup.

Disappointment: Hiroki Kuroda
Maybe Kuroda’s shaky start to the season shouldn’t be much of a surprise given his age (39) and the way he closed out last season (terribly). His 4.57 ERA is by far a career-high — he’s also allowed seven unearned runs because of the lol defense — yet his peripheral stats are right in line with recent years. Check it out:

K% BB% GB% HR/FB Whiff% Zone% BABIP
2014 17.3% 3.9% 47.2% 12.3% 9.8% 42.9% 0.311
2013 18.2% 5.2% 46.6% 10.3% 9.9% 38.8% 0.282
2012 18.7% 5.7% 52.3% 13.0% 9.6% 38.7% 0.281

There’s nothing really crazy going on there. The biggest difference between Kuroda this year and Kuroda the last two years might be that he is throwing too many pitches in the strike zone, which would explain the jump in BABIP. More balls in the zone means more strikes to hit. (The shaky infield defense would explain that too.) Anecdotally, Kuroda has really struggled with his slider and to a lesser extent his splitter. When he misses, he’s missed out over the plate and the ball gets hit hard. When he’s going well, Kuroda lives on the edges and manages contact, meaning lots of weak pop-ups and grounders. Now he’s missing his spots and those pop-ups are line drives. I don’t know if it’s an age thing or a mechanical thing or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it’s made Kuroda part of the problem for the first third of the season.

Surprise: Masahiro Tanaka
Man, how great has Tanaka been? He has taken over as the undisputed staff ace and has legitimately been one of the very best starters in all of baseball. I mean, the Yankees didn’t invest $175M in him because they thought he would be a solid mid-rotation workhorse, they expected him to be an ace. But this good, this soon? An adjustment period to life in the big leagues (and a new country) would have been totally normal.

Instead, Tanaka has been elite (2.06 ERA and 2.52 FIP), with excellent strikeout (10.07 K/9 and 28.7 K%), walk (1.37 BB/9 and 3.9 BB%), and ground ball (48.0%) rates. After allowing seven homers in his first six starts, he’s allowed zero long balls in his last five starts. Tanaka’s splitter has been as advertised (49.2% whiff rate!), ditto his toughness and poise. Dude is a stone cold killer on the mound. I expected Tanaka to be very good this year, but not this good.

Disappointment: Brian McCann
Yeah, he’s been much better over the last three weeks or so, but the Yankees absolutely did not expect a .229/.292/.380 (84 wRC+) batting line out of McCann when they agreed to give him $85M over five years. The homers have been there (seven so far), the other base hits (career-low .233 BABIP) and walks (6.7%, worst in seven years) have not. I’ve thought McCann was pressing more than anything — he is hitting .269/.363/.434 with an 11/9 K/BB in 21 games dating back to the start of the Brewers series, for what it’s worth — and it really isn’t ridiculous to think a guy who changed leagues and had to learn a new pitching staff needed a few weeks to adjust. McCann is trending in the right direction, but he was a negative in the first third of the season, there’s no doubt about it.

Surprise: Dominant Setup Crew
I had no concerns about David Robertson taking over the ninth inning, and yesterday’s total meltdown notwithstanding, he’s been pretty awesome as the closer. Getting the ball from the starters to Robertson looked like it might be something of a challenge when Spring Training opened, but, as has been the case the last few seasons under Joe Girardi‘s watch, setup men have stepped forward.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

Dellin Betances has been unreal, with a 1.38 ERA (0.86 FIP) and a 46.7% strikeout rate in 32.2 innings. I love that Girardi has been using him as a multi-inning setup man (I just wish it wasn’t every other day, fatigue in the second half could be a problem) and effectively turning it into a six or sometimes even five-inning game. Adam Warren has not been quite as dominant as Betances, but a 1.71 ERA (2.34 FIP) with a 23.8% strikeout rate in 31.2 innings plays just fine. Shawn Kelley had 3.52 ERA (2.35 FIP) and a 25.0% strikeout rate in 15.1 innings before hurting his back as well.

Given the lack of offense and generally short outings from the non-Tanaka starters, the setup crew has been super important this season and they have been dynamite. Getting Kelley back will allow Girardi to spread the workload around a little more, which should make them even more effective.

Disappointment: Injuries, Again
The Yankees, once again, dealt with several injuries to key players. Some of them, like Michael Pineda going down with a shoulder issue and Mark Teixeira dealing with nagging wrist soreness, should not be surprising at all. They’re coming off surgery and complications come with the territory. Others, like Ivan Nova blowing out his elbow or Carlos Beltran developing (or, really, aggravating an existing) bone spur in his elbow, kinda popped up out of nowhere.

The injuries have stretched the Yankees thin and exposed their lack of offensive depth — they had four guys (Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian Roberts, Ichiro Suzuki) in the lineup yesterday who have spent the majority of their careers as leadoff hitters, and that doesn’t include long-time number two hitter Derek Jeter either — as well as forced them to play guys out of position. I mean, 21 games at first base for Kelly Johnson? Really? Injuries are part of the game and no one is going to feel bad for the Yankees. But these are real problems they have to overcome. Again.

Surprise: The AL East Sucks
Overall, the Yankees have been pretty mediocre this season. Let’s call a spade a spade here. At the same time, the AL East as a whole has been mediocre as well. The Blue Jays have been the best team in the division by a decent margin with a 34-24 record and a +34 run differential. The other four teams are 107-116 with a -65 run differential combined. The Rays are especially terrible. They’re a half-game worse than the Astros (!) at 23-34 with a -38 run differential. Can you believe that?

The Yankees are only 3.5 games back of Toronto, which is nothing with two-thirds of the season to go. They still have five head-to-head series to play. There does not appear to be that one great team that will run away with the division, which means New York’s general mediocrity will not sink them over the summer. This division could be decided by which team gets the most impact from a call-up or makes the best (not necessarily the biggest or the most) moves at the trade deadline.

* * *

Some aspects of the Yankees are not surprising and have played out exactly as expected. The bad infield defense and general lack of power, for example. Gardner again being totally awesome and one of the most unheralded players in the league is another one. The Yankees are a flawed team and there is no argument to be made against that. They are also a flawed team in an eminently winnable division full of flawed teams. The first third of the season revealed some very real cracks in the dam. The second third is for fixing those cracks and putting the club in the best position to make a run at a postseason berth, AL East title or otherwise.

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May
15

Chase Whitley’s Big Chance

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(Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

(Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

It’s only Mid-May, but the Yankees have already used seven different starters — all of them have made multiple starts too — this season. They will use their eighth starter tonight, when right-hander Chase Whitley makes his big league debut in the Subway Series finale. It remains to be seen how the Yankees will make room for him on the 40-man roster (Bruce Billings to the 60-day DL?), but Joe Girardi already confirmed he will get the start. It’ll happen somehow.

If you had told me about a year ago the 24-year-old Whitley would make his Major League debut as a starting pitching pitcher, I would have thought you were nuts. He was a reliever all through college — Whitley was actually more highly regarded as a hitter at Southern Union State Community College before focusing on pitching full-time during his junior season at Troy — and 135 of his first 138 pro appearances came as a reliever. The three starts were just spot starts in doubleheaders, nothing fancy.

Whitley made five starts for Triple-A Scranton at the end of last season out of necessity; they simply had no one else to start due to injuries and call-ups late in the year. He managed a 1.64 ERA with 18 strikeouts and five walks in 22 innings in those five starts, and impressed enough that the Yankees gave him another chance to start in 2014. In six starts this year, Whitley has a 1.61 ERA with 28 strikeouts and six walks in 22.1 innings. That put him on the map for a call up.

The move into the rotation worked (at least so far) because Whitley was not your typical bullpen prospect. Guys like Mark Montgomery and Danny Burawa are two-pitch pitchers with nasty breaking balls. That’s not Whitley. I ranked him as the team’s 25th best prospect before last season and here’s part of what I wrote:

A three-pitch reliever who isn’t a blow-you-away type, Whitley lives in the low-90s with his fastball and backs it up with both a slider and changeup. His control is fine and his delivery creates some deception. He doesn’t offer the same kind of exciting, shutdown reliever potential as some other players on this list, but Whitley is a big and physical — listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 lbs. — right-hander who throws strikes  and works both sides of the plate. He’ll pitch in the big leagues at some point as long as he stays healthy, possibly before the All-Star break.

My timetable was off, but hey, Whitley is a big leaguer. Baseball America ranked him as the club’s 29th best prospect before the 2012 season and said “both his changeup and slider are plus pitches at their best” in their Prospect Handbook. Whitley has a weapon for righties (slider) and a weapon for lefties (changeup), plus there’s a little funk in his delivery. (He pitches from the stretch exclusively from what I understand.) Here’s some video from earlier this month in which you can see all three pitches in action:

Because he’s only been a starter for a few months, it’s really tough to know what to expect out of Whitley tonight. There’s no track record. I thought he was going to be a good middle reliever and now he’s in the rotation. It’s weird. Whitley was passed over in the Rule 5 Draft this past offseason, which is an indication of how the rest of the league views him. If he succeeds as a starter, even temporarily, it will be quite an accomplishment on his part and a big developmental win for the Yankees. We’re talking about a former 15th round pick here.

Yesterday we learned CC Sabathia has a “degenerative change” in his twice surgically repaired right knee and I don’t know what that means, but I know it sounds scary. He could be out longer than the minimum 15 days. Vidal Nuno has gotten roughed up in three of his five starts (and four of his last six appearances overall) and David Phelps has had one good start and one bad start so far. Hiroki Kuroda‘s been inconsistent at best and very ineffective at worst. The non-Masahiro Tanaka portion of the rotation is a mess right now.

That mess of a rotation is the opportunity of a lifetime for Whitley. The bar has been set quite low and he won’t have to do much to stick with the big league team. A good start tonight means he’ll get another one, almost guaranteed, and stringing a few good starts together means he’ll stick around for a while, even if it is only as a long reliever. The pitching staff is the land of opportunity right now. Whitley was in his third straight year at Triple-A and facing a stalled out career a few days ago. Now he has a change to help the Yankees win games and help himself secure a big league roster spot.

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May
06

The Derek Jeter Problem

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(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees have lost four of their last five games and seem to find a new way to give away a game each night. Last night it was the usually excellent bullpen walking five (!) straight hitters with two outs, the last three to force in runs. It was pretty ugly and a new low in a week that has been full of new lows. It’s hard to look much worse than the Yankees have these last few days.

One constant through the recent five-game stretch has been the complete inability to capitalize on run-scoring chances. I don’t have the energy to go back and look at how many times they have had men in scoring position with less than two outs and failed to generate even one run. Last night they had the bases loaded with no outs in the eighth inning of a tie game and didn’t score at all. A strikeout and a double play sent them back to the dugout empty handed.

The double play ball came off the bat of Derek Jeter, who has always had a knack for the unfortunately timed twin-killing. Even when he was at his absolute peak, he was always banging into double plays at inopportune times. It was pretty much his only flaw offensively. Last night’s rally killer capped off a solid 2-for-4 night for the Cap’n, a night that raised his season batting line to an unsightly .250/.318/.290 (71 wRC+). I swear, it felt like just a few days ago that he had a .380+ OBP. Things change in a hurry this time of the year.

Now, obviously there is lot to consider with Jeter. He will soon turn 40 and the history of shortstops that age is basically nonexistent. Jeter is very much unique in that regard. He also missed just about all of last season with some major leg injuries, so timing and rust could be an issue. Maybe he’s worn down already. Jeter has not spent a single game at DH and has played shortstop almost every single day this year. It could just be an early season slump, which happens to everyone at some point. One good week and he’d be back up to 100 wRC+ before you know it.

The facts are the facts though. There are 186 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title right now and Jeter ranks 160th with that 71 wRC+. His .040 ISO ranks 185th, better than only Ben Revere (.036), who hasn’t hit a homerun since he was in Triple-A in 2011. Among players with at least 50 at-bats, he has seen the highest percentage of fastballs according to Baseball Savant. The Rays are arguably the most well-prepared team in the game, and this past weekend they threw Jeter 31 fastballs out of 38 total pitches. They know he can’t handle the heat anymore, so they exploited that weakness. Jeter went 0-for-11 in the series and killed two rallies in the 14-inning game on Friday.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

Jeter doubled down the left field line last night and it was only his fourth extra-base hit of the season. All four are doubles — one legit blast off the wall, one legit blast to the warning track that hopped over the fence, and two ground balls down the line. He was almost thrown out at second on one. Here’s a GIF if you don’t believe me. Jeter has not been able to drive the ball with any authority, at least not consistently. He’s also been terrible on defense, but that’s nothing new at this point. The Cap’n has become an all-around liability.

So, where do the Yankees go from here? The easy answer is to drop Jeter in the lineup. Joe Girardi told Dan Barbarisi he has not yet considered it — “We address our lineup every day, but I haven’t yet. He’s not the only guy struggling,” he said — which is no surprise. Jeter never moved down in the lineup when he struggled through the 2010 season (93 wRC+) and it just feels like it is too early in the season for the team to consider that. Remember how long it took them to de-emphasize Jorge Posada in 2011? Posada actually hit worse than Jeter early that season and, as good as he was, he didn’t have nearly as much clout in the organization. Dropping Jeter to eighth or ninth does not seem imminent.

“There are other guys that are struggling in our lineup and we still put them fourth, fifth, third. We’re still doing that. I think it’s somewhat early to do that,” said Girardi while acknowledging “Derek is pretty easy to talk to. I’ve shared ideas with him before about things that I possibly might do and it’s never been a problem. Derek is about winning. Derek is probably going to tell you, ‘If you think that’s the best thing to do, then do it.’”

This whole mess would be easier if Jeter just volunteered to move lower in the order or into a reduced role like, say, Paul Konerko did over the winter, but I have a hard time seeing that regardless of Girardi’s comments. Jeter has too much pride and the Yankees have always catered to him — remember the raise they gave him this past winter? — and, in his mind, he’s still a world class player. Athletes are never good at admitting when their skills are no longer what they once were. At the same time, Girardi recently said he “wasn’t hired to put on a farewell tour,” and that winning comes first. Well, aren’t we at the point where batting Jeter so high in the lineup and playing him every single day is not giving the team the best possible chance to win? It sure feels that way.

Jeter is not the first aging former superstar to scuffle through a poor final season. I’ll never forget Cal Ripken Jr. dragging himself out onto the field to hit .239 with a 70 OPS+ his final season. He also spent most of that year batting seventh, not occupying a prime lineup spot like he had most of his career. Jeter is an all-time great player and maybe the best Yankee many of us will see in our lifetimes. That has earned him a lot of leeway — I thought he was done before 2012 and he sure proved me wrong — but the team needs to be honest with itself and trust what they’re seeing. He can’t catch up to a fastball, he isn’t hitting the ball with authority, and he isn’t making even the routine plays in the field anymore. The end of a star’s career is almost always messy, but the sooner the Yankees understand and accept they are a better team with Jeter playing a lesser role, the better off they’ll be.

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

The Yankees came into 2014 with some very real infield concerns, both in terms of production and durability, and sure enough those concerns manifested themselves within the first week of the season. Just not necessarily in the way I expected — Mark Teixeira caught a spike in the turf in Toronto and landed on the 15-day DL with a hamstring injury. Just like that, the team without a backup first baseman lost their starting first baseman.

Teixeira returned after the minimum 15 days and the Yankees managed to win seven of 12 games during his absence because the replacement infielders played well. Kelly Johnson was adequate (not great, not awful) at first base and Yangervis Solarte did a mean Bernie Williams impression for a few weeks, which made life a lot easier. Derek Jeter has been getting on base a bunch early on as well, and while Brian Roberts has been better of late, he’s been not so good overall. Three out of four ain’t bad, I guess.

Now that the Teixeira has returned, the Yankees have five infielders for four spots. Jeter and Teixeira are going to play no matter what because of who they are. That’s not something worth debating. That leaves Solarte, Johnson, and Roberts for second base and third base. Solarte has hit the skids lately and has seen more time at the bench, but Johnson has seen his playing time take the biggest hit. He’s started only three of seven games since Teixeira came off the DL. Roberts has started every game since Teixeira returned, though he was supposed to sit last night before Solarte’s shoulder acted up.

Because it has been only seven games, it’s unclear how the Yankees are going to squeeze all these guys into the lineup on a regular basis. I mean, yes, Roberts should probably sit because he is the worst player of the bunch, but that seems unlikely to happen right now. The Yankees appear to be determined to give him a chance to show he can have an impact from the bottom of the order. I don’t agree with that — is there even anything left to reclaim at this point? he hasn’t been good in a while now — but that seems to be the plan. Whatever.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Because Solarte and Roberts and switch-hitters, platoon problems don’t really exist and the Yankees have more flexibility. Johnson has been sitting against lefties given since Teixeira returned and I would bank on that continuing going forward. All three of these guys are part-time players to me. Guys who likely get exposed playing everyday but can be productive in say, 400 plate appearance roles. Except Roberts. I’m still not very optimistic about him. But, like I said, he’s going to play so they might as well make the best of it.

Juggling these three will be a difficult situation for Girardi. Maybe difficult isn’t the right word. It’ll be a juggling act though, that’s for sure. Solarte has swung the bat well overall, Johnson has legitimate left-handed power, and Roberts is the proven veteran. There is a reason to keep all three in the lineup. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. Three players for two spots is better than being short a player or two, but keeping everyone happy and productive is not easy. This isn’t a video game; sitting on the bench a few days a week and being productive right away when pressed into duty is pretty tough.

In all likelihood, this will be one of those “it’ll sort itself out” situations. Someone will play themselves out of regular at-bats or someone will get hurt. Heck, Roberts’ back and Solarte’s shoulder have already acted up. That’s usually how this stuff goes. Until that happens, Girardi will have to juggle Solarte, Johnson, and Roberts between second and third base. The two switch-hitters and the versatility of Solarte and Johnson give the manager lots of options. No one is married to position and Johnson is the only one who will see the platoon disadvantage. That we’re even having his conversation is good news. Three useful pieces for two infield spots was not something I expected to see this early in the season.

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(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

As you know, Michael Pineda was ejected from last night’s game because he had pine tar on his neck. This came less than two weeks after television cameras and the internet caught him with a big glob of pine tar on his hand against the same team, the Red Sox. Manager John Farrell did not play dumb this time, instead bringing it to the attention of umpires, who checked Pineda out and ejected him immediately. Farrell had to say something. It would have been irresponsible not to at that point.

Let’s start with the obvious here: it was pretty stupid of Pineda to use a foreign substance so blatantly. Both times, but especially yesterday. He had to answer questions about it last time and it was all over the media. Television, internet, radio, newspapers, everything you could imagine. He knew it was a big deal. Pineda knew everyone knew he was using something last time out and he still tried to get away with it again. Not the smartest move on his part. Here’s what he said after the game:

I dunno, he sounds remorseful to me. Maybe I’m just biased. Pineda said he apologized to his teammates and seems genuinely upset. He seems like a player who thought he was just doing what he could to help his team, really. I thought Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman said all the right things, that it was an embarrassment to the organization and everyone’s fault, not just Pineda’s. And it is. After the first incident two weeks ago, I don’t know how they let him get out of the dugout like that.

Girardi said they spoke to Pineda about using pine tar after the first start against Boston, but apparently they did not convey the message clear enough. That’s on the coaching staff. Pineda made a dumb mistake — note: dumb mistake =/= dumb person, no need make conclusions about his intelligence, we’ve all done embarrassingly stupid stuff — but I don’t see how anyone can blame this on him and him alone. The team failed him to some degree. Everyone said the right things, but at the end of the day, words mean nothing. Pineda is going to be suspended and deservedly so.

Now, about that suspension. The rulebook says pine tar results in an automatic ten-game suspension in the minors, but MLB can hand down whatever penalty they want. They’ll talk it over with the umpires and look at the video and all that. Joel Peralta got eight games for having pine tar on his glove two years ago, and ex-Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly got ten games for the same infraction back in 2005. Because Pineda was so obvious about it and made zero attempt to hide the pine tar (twice!), I bet he gets ten games. Who really knows though. MLB tends to make up arbitrary suspension lengths.

The Yankees have an off-day on Monday, so even if Pineda gets ten games, he would only have to miss one start. If he appeals the suspension, it’ll get delayed until whenever the appeal is heard. Could be weeks. Again, because he was blatantly cheating (twice!), I’m not sure an appeal would do him any good. It would just delay the inevitable. They could get the suspension out of the way now, let David Phelps or whomever make the spot start, and that’ll be the end of it. And heck, it would give Pineda a nice little breather early in the season. The Yankees are going to have to monitor his workload anyway.

As for the pine tar itself, it doesn’t seem to bother players and coaches around the league, so it doesn’t bother me. It’s against the rules but apparently everyone does it, so that makes it okay. That seems to be part of the problem. It’s okay but against the rules at the same time. I don’t care if Pineda uses pine tar to improve his grip going forward but he can’t be so obvious about it. On the glove or the belt or whatever. Of course, now teams will be gunning for him, asking to have him checked even if he isn’t using anything just to throw him off. The Yankees will probably retaliate somewhere down the line by having a BoSox starter Clay Buchholz checked, but that doesn’t accomplish much.

Do we have to question Pineda’s strong start to the season after this? I guess. I mean, once a player is exposed as a cheater, we have to question his entire existence. That’s how it seems to go. Fair or not (fair), Pineda is going to be second guessed for the rest of the season and likely beyond that. Good start? He was hiding pine tar somewhere. Bad start? Didn’t use pine tar because he was worried about getting caught. The inches fill themselves. The coverage of this over the next few weeks will be insufferable.

Like I said, I don’t care that Pineda was using pine tar and I don’t care if the masses want to invalidate his first three starts. I care that he made a pretty dumb mistake and now a pitcher not as good as him has to take a turn or two in the rotation. Pineda’s return from shoulder surgery and early-season success was one of the most fun and exciting things about the Yankees this year. Now, instead of talking about that, we’re talking about pine tar. Pineda and to a lesser extent the Yankees brought this on themselves, and now they have to deal with the consequences.

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(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

I’ve been watching baseball pretty much my entire life, but I think the first season I can actually remember was 1992. Before that I just watched baseball. The 1992 season when I really started following the game on a day-to-day basis, if that makes sense. That’s when I started paying attention to statistics (wins and RBI, baby) and understood the pitching rotation, things like that. I certainly remember watching a ton of baseball before 1992, but that was the year it went from an interest to an obsession.

One of the things I remember most about that 1992 season was thinking the Yankees had a gem of a young shortstop in Andy Stankiewicz. He carried like a .310 batting average into July and it bothered me whenever he sat for Randy Velarde. I remember being bummed when Stankiewicz didn’t win the Rookie of the Year award, even. I didn’t understand what it meant that he was a 27-year-old rookie. The Yankees were bad and he was a new face, a symbol of hope going forward.

Stankiewicz obviously was far from the shortstop of the future. He didn’t even make the team in 1993, and by 1994 he was playing for the Astros. Guys like Spike Owen and Mike Gallego came and went at shortstop, then in 1995 the Yankees had whatever was left of Tony Fernandez’s career. Similar to how Kenny Rogers was an awesome pickup because he once threw a perfect game, I remember being glad the Yankees signed Fernandez because I had heard his name in an All-Star Game or two along the way.

* * *

The 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners was devastating to a teenaged Mike Axisa. It was one thing to root for a bad 1992 team or a good but not good enough 1993 team — the 1994 strike sucked, but, looking back on it, I wasn’t as upset as I probably should have been — but rooting for that 1995 squad was something different. I thought the season was over after a long losing streak in August, but the club reeled me back in with that insane finish (26-7!) to win the wildcard spot.

I can’t really explain how I felt watching Edgar Martinez’s double roll to the wall in Game Five, but I remember it. Helpless, I guess. Watching that ball roll and knowing the Yankees’ season was about to end is something I’m never going to forget. The 1995 Yankees were the first postseason team of my lifetime and that series, that double, was the first time baseball ripped my heart out. I was crushed. I didn’t know baseball could make me feel like that.

The relay throw on Edgar’s double was the last play Tony Fernandez ever made for the Yankees. He dove for a ball in Spring Training the following year and shattered his elbow, paving the way for Derek Jeter to become the everyday shortstop. I knew nothing of prospects at the time and I remembered Jeter from his cup of coffee the year before, but nothing more. I expected the Yankees to go out and make a trade, not go with the kid. That was crazy to me.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Unlike Stankiewicz, I didn’t get that “shortstop of the future” vibe from Jeter, at least not right away. He hit the homer on Opening Day and had a nice two weeks to start 1996, but Jeter was pretty mediocre from mid-April through the end of May (proof!), and it was kind of a blah first impression. He tore the cover off the ball from June through the end of the season and that’s when it hit me and I think a bunch of other people that hey, this kid was pretty good. The Yankees might have something here.

With Jeter’s help, the Yankees went on to win the World Series that October and to this day, that is my favorite sports memory and favorite Yankees team. I think everyone feels the same way about the first championship team they witness, regardless of sport. It’s a great feeling, that first title. And, to be honest, I don’t think the 1996 World Series would be nearly as memorable for me had Edgar Martinez not ripped my heart out the year before. As much as it sucked, Fernandez’s no-chance relay throw and the heartbreak of 1995 made 1996 that much sweeter.

* * *

Jeter was outstanding throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, though he was never my favorite player. I’ve always gravitated towards pitchers for whatever reason, so I enjoyed watching Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte more than Jeter. David Wells was a fave too. I was pretty upset when they traded him for Roger Clemens. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike Jeter, but he was never my favorite player the way he is for so many others. That doesn’t make me weird or anything. It’s just my opinion.

For a big chunk of his career, I think I took Jeter for granted. I knew I was watching a great player, but it wasn’t until … I dunno … 2002? that it dawned on me I was watching a historically great player. Maybe it was because he came up at the same time as Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra in an age of super shortstops. I hadn’t suffered through enough Stankiewiczes and Gallegos to grasp how special Jeter was. There was not enough of a scar to make me fully appreciate his greatness, no Edgar Martinez double of shortstops to better put things into perspective.

Year after year, Jeter put up great seasons and the Yankees won, but not like they won when he first came up. The roster had turned over as it tends to do, but Jeter was the mainstay. Pettitte only pitched once every five days. Rivera only pitched when the game was close in the ninth inning. Jeter played everyday, batted in every first inning. There was comfort in that. The Yankees had changed over the years but they were still Derek Jeter’s Yankees. To borrow a phrase, he was the straw that stirred the drink.

Jeter has been a constant for so long, putting up the same great numbers every year and playing every day. Looking back, it’s really remarkable he stayed so healthy for as long as he did. His only significant injury from 1996-2010 was a fluke play, when he slid into Ken Huckaby at third base in 2003. Other than that, he was out there every game. These last four years have been rockier though, both with injuries and poor performance. Seeing Jeter battle baseball mortality has been … weird. Not sure how else to describe it.

(NY Times)

(NY Times)

I wasn’t terribly surprised when Jeter announced his plan to retire a few weeks ago. The announcement itself was surprising, but the idea that he would soon walk away was not exactly unexpected. At age 39 and after what he called a “nightmare” injury-plagued season in 2013, retirement had to cross his mind. How could it not? This is a guy who has accomplished everything imaginable in baseball and the game wasn’t coming as easily as it once did.

In a weird way, I think last season helped me prepare for life with Jeter. The same was true with Mariano Rivera when he got hurt in 2012. He was not around on a daily basis anymore, which was a new experience. This year, not seeing Rivera come out of the bullpen will be different but not unfamiliar. That same will be true at shortstop next season. Last year did a good job of showing everyone how the Yankees will look without Jeter.

We watched Don Mattingly walk away back in the day, and more recently we’ve watched guys like Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada and Pettitte (twice) and Rivera retire. All were great and beloved but none were as great and beloved as Jeter. Only Rivera is close. Jeter is on another level in every way, both on the field and off the field. It’s possible if not likely he will be the greatest Yankee of my lifetime, which is amazing to sit back and think about. You and I may never see another player of this caliber in pinstripes again. It’s cliche, but you know we’ll all be sitting around as grumpy old people in 50 years saying “yeah he’s good, but he’s no Jeter.”

I have absolutely no idea what to expect out of the Captain in his final season. I thought 2008 was a sign he was slipping, then he was an MVP candidate in 2009. I thought he was done after 2010-11, then he rebounded to hit like his old self in 2012. What happens after all the leg injuries? Who knows. He’s an important part of the team and the Yankees need him to produce, but at his age and after what amount to a year away from the game, he’s a real question mark. Maybe his body will be refreshed following the year off. Maybe his bat speed is beyond the point of return. We’ll find out soon enough.

All I know is that I plan to make an extra effort to sit back and appreciate Jeter this year, something I did not do enough over the years. Appreciate him for the player he’s been, for the leader and ambassador he is and has been, and for being the final tie to that 1996 club. Jeter is last remnant of this remarkable stretch in franchise history; the Yankees didn’t feel the same without him in 2013 and once he retires after the season, they won’t ever feel the same to me again.

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

I can’t think of another high-profile trade that went as bad as quickly as the Jesus Montero-Michael Pineda blockbuster two years ago. Both teams have gotten nothing from the deal — an especially painful nothing considering the opportunity cost of trading a top prospect or then-23-year-old starter — as all four players involved have either disappointed or gotten hurt. Some have done both. The trade has gone so wrong for both sides that it’s actually kinda fascinating.

That is all about to change, knock on wood. Michael Pineda, who showed up to his first camp with the Yankees overweight and was arrested to DUI soon thereafter, is finally healthy following a May 2012 procedure to repair a torn labrum, the kind of injury that can derail a promising career. The now-25-year-old made his first Spring Training start of 2014 yesterday and looked very much like an effective pitcher, striking out five of eleven batters faced in 2.2 scoreless innings. He also looked pretty rusty, but that is to be expected after such a long layoff.

“The best thing is, my shoulder is feeling great. When my shoulder is feeling good, I can pitch, I can compete. I’m happy with that,” said Pineda to Mark Didtler following yesterday’s start. His fastball velocity is more upper-80s/low-90s right now, a far cry from the mid-to-high-90s he showed with the Mariners three years ago, but it is only March and he should add a few ticks as the season progresses. That he is already touching 93 is promising. As a fastball-slider pitcher, velocity is pretty important to Pineda.

Now for the kicker: we have no idea what to expect out of Pineda this summer. He looks good now, but how will he look facing actual big leaguers every fifth day? What happens once he get 50 or 100 or 150 innings under his belt? Can he hold his stuff for 100+ pitches per start? These are all questions we can’t answer. Remember, the Yankees said they expected Pineda back last June. That didn’t work out. They can’t count on him for anything. Whatever he provides has to be treated as gravy.

And yet, if the season started today, I’m pretty sure Pineda would be the fifth starter. He’d have to be, right? He’s healthy and throwing well enough, plus he has the highest ceiling of the fifth starter candidates by frickin’ far. Actually, forget about ceiling. Pineda might be the best pitcher for the 2014 season out of the lot, nevermind 2015 and beyond. I also think there’s a “let’s finally get something out of this trade” line of thinking as well. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but I do think that mentality exists.

Even though he’s on a staff with an unknown in Masahiro Tanaka and the enigmatic Ivan Nova, Pineda is the biggest wildcard in the rotation heading into 2014. Probably on the entire roster, really. He could be a non-factor like the last two seasons or he could be their best pitcher. Well, maybe not. That’s probably a stretch. Pineda could wind up being their second best starter though, legitimately too. Not in a “everyone else fell apart so he’s number two by default” way. That ability is there. It’s just unclear if we will actually see it this summer.

The Yankees sunk a ton of money into Tanaka this winter to be the future of their rotation, but that does not lessen Pineda’s importance to the franchise going forward. It would be a big blow to the organization if he is unable to re-establish himself this season. The farm system doesn’t have much impact pitching on the immediate horizon and free agency is becoming a less effective to build a roster with each passing year. Pineda can still be rotation solution in both the short and long-term, but until he shows he’s up to the task, the Yankees can’t count on him.

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(Mike Carlson/Getty)

(Mike Carlson/Getty)

In more ways than one, the Masahiro Tanaka signing was the Yankees’ biggest move of the offseason. They ventured back into the big name international market for the first time since the Kei Igawa disaster and they landed a premium, 25-year-old starting pitcher. Someone who has been a workhorse and played on winning teams throughout his career. The kind of player who rarely becomes available for nothing but money, basically.

The Yankees committed a total of $175M to Tanaka back in January, giving him a seven-year contract worth $155M on top of the $20M release fee they will pay his former team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. That contract includes an opt-out after the fourth year, but that isn’t worth worrying about or discussing right now. We’re hear to discuss what Tanaka can do right now, for the 2014 Yankees.

So far this spring we’ve had two chances to see Tanaka in action, and he was impressive both times. He threw two scoreless innings against the Phillies the weekend before last, and then last week he held that same Phillies squad to one solo homer in three innings. Tanaka has allowed just the one run on four hits and no walks in his five innings so far, striking out four and getting seven ground ball outs compared to four in the air. His third outing of the spring was a simulated game against some minor leaguers yesterday.

By all accounts, Tanaka has handled the transition well so far. He threw the first simulated game of his life yesterday, just to give you an idea of how new this all is to him. Tanaka has handled the baseball part of it well and seemingly the cultural change just fine too, though we can’t know that for sure from where we sit. I think the best thing I can say about him right now is that he’s looked very much like a veteran pitcher going about his business and getting ready for the season. He’s not trying to light up the radar gun or impress onlooker with nasty breaking balls. Tanaka has been doing what he needs to do to prepare, nothing else.

Before the Yankees landed Tanaka, I compiled this post with everything I could find on the guy. Scouting reports, statistical evaluations, video, workload questions, the whole nine. If I thought it was reliable, I put it in there. It’s everything we knew about the guy coming into Spring Training and right now we don’t know much more. The whole “number two starter pretty much right away” expectation still exists. For a jumping off point about his possible performance, here are the various projections from FanGraphs:

Tanaka Projections

Right away you see how little value the projections provide thanks to Oliver, which has Tanaka starting 39 games in 2014. I’ll bet the under on that. If he had been playing in the big leagues for a few years now, projections would have a bit more value. Because he’s coming over from Japan and changing leagues, these numbers don’t help us much. It’s pretty great to see that all of them expect him to a +3.5 WAR pitcher right away, I’d rather see than +1.0 WAR or something, but ultimately it means nothing.

There are three reasons why I think Tanaka can pretty damn successful right away for the Yankees. One, he pounds the zone. The scouting reports indicated as much and we’ve seen it so far in his two outings. Tanaka’s shown a very no nonsense approach, getting ahead in the count and not nibbling. He controls the at-bats when he’s on the mound. Two, Tanaka has two above-average offspeed pitches. We all know about the splitter …

… but he also throws a very good slider. It’s not as good as the splitter, but it’s not a show-me pitch either. Tanaka isn’t some two-pitch pitcher. Far from it.

And the third reason why I think he can be successful right away is his makeup and competitiveness, which people smarter than I have rated as through the roof. The grind of a baseball season is tough enough, but going through that grind for the first time in a new country with a new team in a new league against new batters in a new ballpark and yadda yadda yadda can be overwhelming. Does his makeup and competitive guarantee he will be successful? Of course not. But they do make me feel better about his chances.

On the other hand, there are some reasons to think Tanaka might not be so successful this season. First and foremost is the the five-day schedule rather than a seven-day setup. Tanaka had some big individual game workloads with Rakuten over the years but he also had two extra days of rest between each start. The Yankees won’t ask him to throw 130+ pitches each time out, but how will he adjust to pitching every fifth day instead of every seventh? Seems like everything is going well so far, but what happens in a few months when it’s 90 degrees with 90% humidity every start? It’s something to watch, no doubt about it.

(Mike Carlson/Getty)

(Mike Carlson/Getty)

Secondly, Tanaka likes to pitch up in the zone. That was the report coming over from Japan and he’s done it in his two spring starts so far. He had one high pitch smashed into the right-center field gap for a double and another hit out to deep right for a fly out in his last start, a ball that might have been gone in Yankee Stadium. Pitching up in the zone is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself — it’s a great way to get swings and misses — but in the Bronx more fly balls mean more homers. I don’t think Tanaka will be Phil Hughes when it comes to fly balls and dingers or anything, but the potential for the ill-timed gopher ball is there.

I don’t think there is any way we can reasonably estimate what Tanaka will do this season. Can he give the team 180 innings of 3.50 ERA ball? I’d love that in his first year in the show. The first year has typically been a transition year for recent Japanese imports with the second year being the big breakout, so I’d take that 180/3.50 performance no questions asked. Based on everything we’ve heard and the little bit we’ve seen, Tanaka has the tools to be an excellent starting pitcher in MLB. Not just good, but one of the top 20-25 pitchers in the game. There are more factors at play here than stuff and command though. The new culture and routine will affect his performance.

Given his age — Tanaka turned 25 in November, so he’ll spend the entire season at that age — the amount of money the team sunk into him, and the rest of the roster (both MLB and MiLB), I think Tanaka is the single most important player in the organization. Not necessarily for 2014, but going forward. He’s not the only one trying to make a transition, you know. The Yankees themselves are transitioning out of the dynasty years with Mariano Rivera retired and Derek Jeter following him after the season. Tanaka is the key player going forward, the young cornerstone player they can build around in the future. That’s a lot of responsibility and his first step towards becoming the next great Yankees begins this year.

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For most of these season preview posts, we’ve been lumping players together based on similar skills or roles or whatever. I was planning to do the same for the breakout candidates as well, but looking over the projected big league roster, not many guys fall into the category. David Phelps and Adam Warren? Yeah, maybe. But how high are their ceilings, really? Michael Pineda and Dellin Betances? They haven’t had an extended stint on the Yankees’ roster yet.

When I think about players who could be in store for a breakout season, I think about guys who have been in the show for a year or three and appear to be ready to take that next step. David Robertson broke out in 2011. Brett Gardner broke out in 2010. Robinson Cano broke out in 2009. Those are breakouts to me. Not someone who is getting their first taste of the big leagues. As far as I’m concerned, there is only one true breakout candidate on the Yankees’ roster this year.

(Leon Halip/Getty)

(Leon Halip/Getty)

These last three years have been really up and down for Ivan Nova. He has alternated being excellent and awful, which, really, isn’t all that different from most young pitchers. We’ve seen enough flashes of dominance to think Nova can pitch near the front of a rotation down the road, assuming he puts it all together at some point. Does that mean he’ll be Max Scherzer or Felix Hernandez? No, of course not. Those guys are very rare. Can he be as valuable as Anibal Sanchez for a few years though? I think we’d all take that. I know I would.

Unfortunately, taking that step forward to become a consistent, top flight starter is really tough. Many have tried, most have failed. Nova does two things that make you think he can one of the few to take that step forward: he misses bats and he gets ground balls. Or at least he’s shown the ability to do those things at various points over the last three years. After striking out 13.9% of batters faced with a 6.6% swing and miss rate in 2011, Nova has bumped it up to 20.2% and 9.1%, respectively, the last two seasons. He also sandwiched an okay 45.2% ground ball rate in 2012 around 52.7% and 53.5% ground ball rates in 2011 and 2013, again respectively.

The ability is there, we’ve seen it every so often. Nova needs to find a way to marry that 2012-13 strikeout rate with the 2011 and 2013 ground ball rates to be the best possible pitcher he can be. He did that last summer, at least for a little while. He was pretty terrible before going on the DL with a triceps problem, but he resurfaced in late-June and pitched well through the end of the season. That’s the guy the Yankees want to see all the time, the late-June through September version of Nova. That guy racked up both strikeouts and ground balls*.

* Nova’s walk rate (2.97 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%) has been pretty consistent over the last three seasons, in case you’re wondering. If he and the Yankees want to try to cut down on the free passes, great. He’s fine right where he is right now though.

I think that, in general, Nova is a tough pitcher to wrap your head around. He looks like he should be one of the best pitchers in baseball because he’s got some really good stuff, the big frame scouts love, and confidence that borders on arrogance, but there’s a disconnect between what he looks like and what he actually is. I think part of the reason why he’s so difficult to understand is the way he’s changed just over the the last three seasons. Look at his pitch usage, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Look at how much it changes from year to year. When Nova dominated in the second half of 2011, it was because he emphasized his slider. Less than two full seasons later, the slider was a non-factor and the curveball became his go-to secondary pitch. The red and yellow lines head in completely opposite directions. It’s also worth noting Nova doesn’t use his fastball as much as he once did these days, and in fact for most of the last year he threw his curve more than his heater. That’s … uncommon.

The pitch usage suggests Nova is still looking for what works for for him. That’s a guy making adjustment after adjustment, not for the sake of fine tuning his game or perfecting his craft, but out of necessity. If Nova didn’t start throwing his curveball so much last year, he might have been stuck in Triple-A. Maybe the new fastball-curveball approach is the one that leads to the breakout and long-term success. We did wonder the same thing about his fastball-slider approach after 2011, remember. I don’t think we can say anything definitive about what pitch mix works before for Nova. The guy’s a mystery.

And yet, the flashes are there. The strikeouts, the ground balls, the fastball-breaking ball combination … we’ve seen it all over the last few years, just not all at the same time. Not often enough anyway. Last season was a step in the right direction but now another step forward is needed. Nova needs to put together a full, productive season from start to finish. No more wake-up call demotions to Triple-A (he’s out of options anyway), no half season of awfulness followed by a half season of excellence, just a full year from start to finish.

I think Nova is capable of having that kind of season in 2014. It’s about time he does, really. He’s making some decent money ($3.3M during his first trip through arbitration) and he turned 27 back in January, so Nova is entering what should be the best years of his career. If he doesn’t break out this summer, you have to wonder if he ever will. I wouldn’t go as far as calling this a make or break year for Nova, it’s not like he’ll never pitch in the big leagues again if he doesn’t perform well, but this is the time for him to advance his career and cement himself as a cornerstone piece for the Yankees going forward.

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

It is in no way an exaggeration to say CC Sabathia was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last season. Out of the game’s 81 qualified starters, he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR. He also led the league with 112 earned runs allowed. Last season was the worst of Sabathia’s career by a large margin and it was a big reason why the team failed to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.

Why did Sabathia struggle so much in 2013? There is no shortage of theories. He lost too much weight, he lost too much velocity, he had offseason elbow surgery, all the innings are catching up to him, his mechanics were out of whack … on and on we could go. Sabathia never made excuses and pitching coach Larry Rothschild blamed it on inconsistent mechanics that led to too many pitches out over the plate. My guess? All of it. All of that stuff and more contributed to his poor year.

That disastrous 2013 season is in the past now. Sabathia is now more than a full year out from elbow surgery and he remade his body this winter, shedding bad weight and adding muscle in hopes of building power and stamina. He looks marvelous and in better shape than he’s ever been as a Yankee, but that was also true last spring, just not to the same extent. Physical condition is not going to be excuse, not that it ever was. CC is always going to be a big guy, that’s just his body type, but now he is slightly less big.

In his first Spring Training outing on Saturday, Sabathia came out firing 88 mph bullets that raised a little red flag but are not really freakout worthy yet. It was his first Grapefruit League start and we’ll re-evaluate his fastball when he builds up some more arm strength and gets another start or two under his belt. Sabathia’s velocity has steadily declined in recent years …

CC Sabathia's velocity

… and there is little reason to think that will stop. That’s the reality of being a 33-year-old workhorse who will top the 3,000 career innings (regular season and postseason) mark this summer. Once the fastball starts to go, it tends to continue going. Reversing the velocity decline is just not something that happens. The best the Yankees and Sabathia can hope for is halting the decline and maintaining this level of velocity for a little while longer.

Lefties who can pump 94-96 mph consistently — like Sabathia a few years ago — are the exception. Lefties who sit right around 90 are the rule. That’s Madison Bumgarner (91.2 mph in 2013), C.J. Wilson (90.9), Cliff Lee (90.4), and Mike Minor (90.4) velocity, and that foursome combined for a 3.06 ERA and a 3.12 FIP in 841 innings last year. Sabathia averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball last season and even if he loses another mile an hour this year, it should still be enough.

At his peak from 2007-12, CC maintained an ~8 mph separation between his fastball (93.7 mph) and changeup (86.0 mph). Last year it was only a 6.5 mph separation and that’s a big difference. That’s the difference between squaring a pitch up and hitting it off the end of the bat or flat out swinging and missing. Linear weights reflect the reduced effectiveness of his changeup (-8.3 runs saved in 2013 after +35.6 from 2007-12), a pitch that his been one of his most dangerous weapons the last seven years or so.

Of course, velocity and separation between the fastball and changeup is only one small piece of the pitching pie. Sabathia’s location flat out stunk last season, anecdotally because his arm slot wavered (he admitted as much) and his pitches cut back over the plate. According to Baseball Heat Maps, a whopping 39.2% of Sabathia’s pitches were over the heart of the plate last season, up from 30.7% in 2012 and 31.7% from 2011-12. That’s a big, big deal. He averaged 104.25 pitches per start last season, so we’re talking an extra nine pitches (!) over the heart of the plate per start on average. Big deal. Really big deal.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Improving on last season’s performance will require a number of things. Sabathia’s not finding more velocity so just forget about that. He needs to improve his location first and foremost. I’m not sure there is any way you can improve performance quicker than by not throwing the ball in the hitter’s wheelhouse. If Sabathia can get back to living on the corners and at the knees, it doesn’t really matter if he’s throwing 85 or 95. Easier said than done, obviously. Regaining that 8-ish mph separation between the fastball and changeup is another key.

How does Sabathia go about improving his location and the effectiveness of his changeup in 2014? Damned if I know. That’s up to Sabathia and Rothschild to figure out. The problems could be mechanical or the result of the elbow surgery — he underwent a biomechanical analysis over the winter and things checked out okay, for what it’s worth — or they could be the result of muscling up and trying to manufacture velocity. Overthrowing is a great way to miss spots. Again, it’s probably a little of everything.

Maybe I’m just a raging homer, but I truly believe Sabathia can rebound and be an effective starter for the Yankees this summer. He has to make several adjustments first and even if he does, I still think it’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to peak CC form, that Cy Young caliber ace. Simply being not one of the worst pitchers in baseball like last year seems reasonable to me though. A guy who can give the team 200+ innings of 3.70-ish ERA ball is still really valuable, even if it is not what we’re used to seeing from Sabathia.

I don’t know if the Yankees can make the postseason in 2014 with a good but not great performance from Sabathia, but I do know they have almost no chance of going to the playoffs if he pitches like he did a year ago. Even with Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda around to anchor the rotation, I believe a rebound from the club’s erstwhile ace is a necessity for contention this season.

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