2012 Season Preview: Building Blocks

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

There is no such thing as rebuilding with the Yankees. They’re perpetually retooling, attempting to integrate young players into the roster while contending for the World Series every year. That’s much easier said that done, obviously.

Heading into 2012, the Yankees have a nice little collection of young players on the roster, including three with just one full big league season under their belt. Two of the three will be in the starting rotation while the third will see action off the bench and as an injury replacement, but they’re all very young and have a chance to assume very important roles with the team in the near future. The ages listed below are as of April 6th, otherwise known as Opening Day…

Michael Pineda, 23
The Yankees didn’t trade Jesus Montero (and Hector Noesi) to the Mariners just to improve their chances of winning in 2012, the move was geared towards improving their chances over the next half-decade. Pineda turned 23 the week of the trade and already has an above average big league season to his credit. He struck out more than a batter per inning last summer (9.11 K/9 and 24.9 K%) despite the lack of a quality changeup, a problem he has worked to correct with pitching coach Larry Rothschild early in camp.

They Yankees didn’t just acquire any ol’ young pitcher in Pineda. The CC Sabathia-sized right-hander combines high-octane stuff with surprisingly strong command (2.89 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%), hitting the mitt with his mid-90’s heat and wipe-out slider pitch after pitch. He’s not a finished product, but no one is at age 23. Pineda is starting from an extremely high baseline and still has plenty of room for growth, giving him scary upside and ace potential even in the rugged AL East. With five more years of team control remaining, the Yankees expect Pineda to form a dominant and historically large one-two punch with Sabathia for years to come.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Ivan Nova, 25
While Pineda was cutting his teeth with the Mariners last season, Nova was busy stepping up his game and serving as Sabathia’s running mate in the second half. A midseason demotion to Triple-A was largely undeserved but may have been the best thing that happened to him, as he improved his slider and gained enough confidence in the pitch to rely on it as his go-to weapon late in the season. Combined with his usual helping of ground balls, the right-hander exceeded all expectations in 2011.

Now that the curtain has been lifted on 2012, Nova will be counted on to not only repeat last year’s performance, but improve upon it. His walk rate (3.10 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) is fine, though the Yankees would surely like to see him beef up the strikeout total (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) going forward while maintaining his ground ball rate (52.7%). Like Pineda, Nova isn’t a finished product, but he is a bit more refined in the sense that he uses three pitches regularly (fastball, slider, curve) while working in the occasional fourth offering (changeup). With another five years to go before free agency, Nova has a chance to develop into that rock solid, mid-rotation workhorse that takes the ball every five days and gives the team quality outings each time out. With any luck, he’ll become more.

Eduardo Nunez, 24
It’s not easy to crack the Yankees roster as a young infielder, with a bench role being the only realistic way of making the team. Nunez got that chance last year and performed fairly well compared to most utility infielders, producing a .313 wOBA and a 92 wRC+ in 338 plate appearances. When Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez went down with injuries for weeks at the time, Nunez stepped in and hit .281/.333/.401 across two months. His offensive game revolves around putting the ball in play (10.9 K%) and stealing bases (22-for-28), two traits that suit a bench player.

While there is no star potential here, the offensive bar at shortstop is very low — league average at the position was a .303 wOBA and an 88 wRC+ in 2011. If Nunez can tighten up his throwing and become a passable defender at short, he’s by far the best in-house replacement candidate for Jeter. If that doesn’t happen, he can still be a viable part-timer as the two players on the left side of the infield continue on the path towards the glue factory.

* * *

The Yankees have a number of other players that appear to have long-term places on the roster — Robinson Cano, David Robertson, Brett Gardner, etc. — but none of them are under contractual control through 2016 like Pineda, Nova, and Nunez. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are friendly reminders that these things can veer off course, since both of those guys looked to have long-term roles with the team as recently as last spring. Now they’re question marks, question marks just two years away from free agency.

As always, the farm system has a chance to supply the Yankees will more long-term building blocks. Austin Romine and Manny Banuelos could spend the next six years as a battery if things break right, and 40-man roster guys like Dellin Betances, George Kontos, and Zoilo Almonte could force their way into the picture as well. Pineda and Nova are very clearly the future of the Yankees rotation at the moment, and Nunez’s importance to the club is dependent on the healthy of Jeter and A-Rod. Those guys may not form the next core of the Yankees when it’s all said and done, but they will be given every opportunity to assuming important roles on the team going forward.

Not Mike Mussina

(Reuters)

Who do you think of first when you think of the New York Yankees, #24?

Recency, a penchant for the dramatic, a great glove and a power bat would of course lead one to what might seem like the obvious choice: Robinson Cano. And it’s a pretty good answer, too, in my opinion. Robbie’s grown up into a core member of the team and is, quite frankly, a really good baseball player. He’s expected to hit third in the lineup this year, which means that there will be many men-on dingers and RBIs this year, plus lots of stellar plays he makes look easy and, of course, thousands of giant gum bubbles.

But Cano isn’t the only answer. Here’s some hints: he played first base for the Yankees from 1996-2001 (really knew how to pick his years, didn’t he?), hitting .279 with an OPS+ of 114 and 175 home runs. The answer, to anyone who was around during those years, should be obvious: the wonderful and amazing Tino Martinez. As a kid, I loved Tino only slightly less than I loved Paul O’Neill, and even four years after Tino left, I was still a little sore over this obnoxious second-baseman taking his number, which I believed should have been retired. I was a little insensible as a kid, but the point still stands. In sports and especially on the Yankees, where there are no names on the jerseys, the numbers become associated quite strongly with the player.

(While we’re on the subject of Paul O’Neill and #21, I seem to recall LaTroy Hawkins begin given a lot of crap for taking that number and then changing it, which filled me with more joy than you can ever imagine.)

As the Spring Training pictures roll in, the one thing that keeps throwing me off is Michael Pineda wearing #35. Like every other sensible Yankees fan, I loved Moose and felt it was really depressing that he never got a ring, and while I don’t think retiring his number is in the cards, it’s really strange to see someone else wearing it. Pineda’s a good choice to carry on his legacy of really good pitchers I wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley at night, but that doesn’t change that he isn’t Mike Mussina. Of course, people taking the numbers of old players is just another part of growing up with baseball. Pretty sure no one else is ever going to wear 2, though.

Let’s switch gears a little bit. I had this argument with a friend while I was in New York last year, so I’ll ask all of you: my friend had purchased a Hideki Matsui jersey some years ago while he was still a Yankee. Like a sensible person with disposable income, he had no name of the back. These days, Russell Martin, who is a pretty valuable piece of the team in his own right, now wears #55. Does your jersey magically become a Russell Martin jersey? Is it still a Matsui jersey in your brain, and that’s all that matters? Is the jersey meaningless without the player you bought it for? If no one ever wears #55 again, do you never wear the jersey? What if the number’s retired?

And because this is an article about Yankees jersey numbers: between 6, 46 and 20, which ones get retired?

Who's next? (photo by flickr user 2Eklectik, used under Creative Commons.)

Meet the Yankee: Michael Pineda

I was slumming through some video on MLB.com this morning, and I stumbled across this recent Yankees on Demand feature about Michael Pineda. He talks about the trade that brought him to New York, what he’s working on, stuff like that. His English is pretty good considering he’s only been in the States since 2008. Anyway, check it out. It’s a good way to kill some time on a lazy Sunday.

Optimism running high in Yankees’ camp

Right now, every team is a contender. Even the Houston Astros, losers of 106 games and with nary an off-season upgrade, could make waves this year. It would take about a dozen things breaking their way, and at least half of them would be of the greatest improbability. But even then, chances are we’ve seen crazier things happen in baseball.

With the Yankees, though, the sense of optimism is justified. After winning more games than any other AL team in 2011, they’ve upgraded the team in the off-season. Acquiring both Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda to the rotation is exciting enough. Add to that a few optimistic reports from camp in Tampa, and it’s pure spring ecstasy.

The wave of optimism started before the Yankees officially opened camp. A few players showed up early, Phil Hughes among them. After a disappointing 2011 season, marred by injuries and ineffectiveness, Hughes reportedly dedicated himself to conditioning this winter. Reports surfaced last week that he showed up in much better shape, much to everyone’s relief.

Yesterday Chad Jennings added fuel to the fire when he quoted Joe Girardi on Hughes’s progress. “I think his curveball has been a little bit more crisp. I think there’s more arm speed there. I think the ball’s coming out better.” A healthy and effective Hughes in that last rotation spot would be a boon for the 2012 Yankees.

Another player with high expectations who delivered a disappointing 2012 is Alex Rodriguez. In December we learned that A-Rod underwent an experimental knee procedure — the same one that Kobe Bryant underwent after last season. Bryant, but most accounts, has bounced back considerably this year. He’s playing more minutes and is putting up superstar numbers. That makes it much easier to imagine A-Rod returning to form in a similar manner.

(That A-Rod is dedicated enough to bring his own food to restaurants is another optimistic sign. He knows the tabloids follow him everywhere, and surely knew they’d catch on to this and try to make it seem embarrassing. But all it is, is a guy dedicated to his nutrition so he can play baseball at the most elite level. Rock on, A-Rod.)

Want the mother of all optimistic reports? How about the one Buster Olney filed on Tuesday about Michael Pineda? Even Brian Cashman admitted that if Pineda never develops a changeup and doesn’t become an ace, he’ll have made a mistake trading Jesus Montero for Pineda. So it warms the hear to see the following paragraph:

But after Pineda arrived in the Yankees’ camp, pitching coach Larry Rothschild worked with him to alter the grip on his changeup. Rothschild mentioned to Martin that Pineda’s changeup is a work in progress before the veteran catcher crouched to work with Pineda in a bullpen session Monday, and Martin was taken aback by how good Pineda’s changeup is already. He turned to Rothschild and said, “Larry, what are you guys talking about?”

In other words: Pineda already has made strides with the changeup, a sign of his aptitude.

It’s not just the big names that are making splashes this spring. This morning Joel Sherman, in a column about Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame chances, drops some gems. By his account, Jones seems more determined than ever. He believes that the adjustments he made to his swing last season will help him not only mash lefties, but also handle righties as well — something he did well during his prime years. Apparently, one of the reasons Jones chose to come back to the Yankees, despite more lucrative offers from other teams, was Kevin Long’s influence.

The most telling line in the column, as Sherman writes it: “[Jones] told hitting coach Kevin Long last year to inform Yankees GM Brian Cashman that he was returning in 2012 to take someone’s job.” Can you imagine what the Yankees lineup would look like if Jones were indeed to the point where he could legitimately take at-bats away from Brett Gardner?

These types of stories appear every spring. They help us warm up from the cold of winter — metaphorical cold, of course, given this winter’s behavior. Still, the odds are long that all of these factors fall into place. It’s wonderful to jump back into baseball and imagine the Yankees with an effective Phil Hughes in the rotation, with an ace-like Michael Pineda behind CC Sabathia, with a back-to-form Alex Rodriguez, and with a rejuvenated Andruw Jones. It’s really the only thing that gets us through the last parts of the off-season and through the preseason. The harsh reality might be a bit less exciting, but it’s still nice to bask in these stories now, while they still bring us hope.

What’s In A Number?

New faces, new numbers. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

One of the general rules of thumb in Spring Training is the higher the number, the less likely the player is to make the team. Chase Whitley (#96) and Graham Stoneburner (#95) should probably start looking for apartments in Trenton rather than start planning for life in the Bronx. Non-roster players with a legitimate chance to make the team like Bill Hall (#40) and Russell Branyan (#45) were issued numbers a little closer to respectability.

New faces Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda were given some old, familiar numbers. Numbers with tiny little bit of history, either for the Yankees or in general. During the number-issuing process, Andruw Jones got caught in the crossfire. Let’s review…

Michael Pineda – #35
For the first time since Mike Mussina in 2008, someone will wear #35 in pinstripes. Pineda wore #36 with the Mariners last season, but Freddy Garcia has seniority and got to keep his number. Moose was a great Yankee, but not great enough to have his number retired. Keeping #35 out of circulation for three years before handing it over to an extremely talented young hurler like Pineda is a fine tribute in my eyes.

(AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Hiroki Kuroda – #18
Believe it or not, there’s actually a little something behind Japanese pitchers and the #18. It’s the country’s recognized “ace number” according to NPB Tracker’s Patrick Newman (and his commenters), a tradition that started way back in the 1930s with Akira Noguchi of the Tokyo Senators. It was later popularized by Tsuneo Horiuchi of the Yomiuri Giants in the 1960s and 1970s. After Horiuchi retired, Masumi Kuwata was given the number and went on to have a lengthy career. The tradition spread and now most staff aces in Japan wear #18, though #11 has started to gain popularity as an “ace number” thanks to Kenshin Kawakami and more recently Yu Darvish. Daisuke Matsuzaka wears #18 with the Red Sox, and the recently signed Tsuyoshi Wada will wear it for the Orioles. So yeah, neato.

Andruw Jones – #22
I don’t know if he got dinner or a watch or something else out of it, but Jones gave up #18 to Kuroda and will now don #22. If you’re the superstitious type, I have bad news for you: the #22 has been worn by some sketchy fourth outfield types in recent years, including Greg Golson (2011), Colin Curtis (2010), Chad Huffman (2010), Randy Winn (2010), and Xavier Nady (2008-2009). Jones is substantially better than all of those fellas, plus I’m not usually one to worry about the bad vibes given off by certain numbers. I expect Andruw to do just fine in 2012, regardless of what number he’s wearing on his back.

* * *

Raul Ibanez will be issued #27 when he reports according to Jack Curry, which can’t be good news for Chris Dickerson. Last year’s #27 is out of minor league options (can’t be sent down without first clearing waivers) and on the outside of the roster bubble looking in at the moment. He’s been given #41.

The numbers 6, 20, 21, 46, and 51 remain out of circulation, and four of the five are likely to get retired at some point. I have a real hard time thinking Paul O’Neill’s number will be retired unless they’re planning some kind of grand, late-90s dynasty number retirement night, where all those guys have their numbers put in Monument Park at the same time. O’Neill’s been retired for eleven years now, it’s time for something to happen with #21, one way or the other.

Girardi Speaks: CC, Rotation, Lineup, A-Rod

New year, same buzzcut.

Travel problems delayed Joe Girardi‘s arrival to Spring Training, but he made it to Tampa safe and sound prior to today’s workout session, the first of the 2012 season. Girardi spoke to the media about the state of his team afterward, so here’s a recap…

Pitching

  • CC Sabathia will get his seventh consecutive Opening Day nod, but after that? “You go [in] with an open mind,” said the skipper. [Marc Carig]
  • Girardi said it’s important that Sabathia maintains his weight, and “stays there or close to it.” It’s most important that he “stays strong,” obviously. [Jack Curry]
  • Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia will battle it out for the fifth starter’s spot, though Girardi said he still envisions the former as a starter. [Curry]
  • “I’m always amazed at how big players are today,” said Girardi about new pickup Michael Pineda. “They’re large humans.” [Mark Feinsand]
  • David Robertson will remain the Eighth Inning Guy™ while Rafael Soriano gets stuck in the seventh inning. I’d like to see Robertson in more a fireman role rather than be married to one inning, but whatever. [Feinsand]

Position Players

  • Girardi is leaning towards a 3-4-5 of Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira, but he qualified it by saying: “I’m not married to that.” Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson figure to remain atop the lineup. [Feinsand & Carig]
  • Girardi doesn’t have a clearly defined plan for A-Rod regarding his rest and time at DH, and he’ll probably play it by ear. He does expect Alex to have a big year, though not necessarily 45 homers big. [Carig & Curry]
  • “I anticipate it will be [Frankie Cervelli],” said the skipper when asked about the backup catcher. Others like Austin Romine will get a shot to take the job in camp though. [Erik Boland & Carig]

Miscellany

  • “If not for [A.J. Burnett], we may not win that World Series,” said Girardi about his departed right-hander. “I felt A.J. did everything we asked him to.” [Marc Carig]
  • “I thought our guys came in good shape,” Girardi said. “I thought they were all ready to go.” [Chad Jennings]

[Photo via Bryan Hoch]

Cashman Speaks: Scandal, Mo, Sabathia, More

Duke Castiglione cares not about your personal bubble.

Happy pitchers and catchers day. Joe Girardi was/is late for a scheduled meeting with the media because of a lengthy flight delay, but Brian Cashman did hold court with reports. Here’s the round up of the news and notes…

  • “It’s not going to affect my job,” said Cashman when asked about his divorce and stalker, calling the situation “very difficult.” He doesn’t believe his job is in jeopardy. (Dan Barbarisi)
  • Cashman confirmed that Mariano Rivera will be late to camp. “What am I going to do? He’s Mariano Rivera,” said the GM. “He’ll get his eight innings in … He knows what he needs to do.” (Bryan Hoch, Pete Caldera & Erik Boland)
  • CC Sabathia and Cashman had a conversation about the left-hander’s weight soon after he signed his new contract extension. Cashman called it a “healthy dialogue,” and the conversation included Girardi and head trainer Steve Donohue. Sabathia lost 10-15 lbs. this winter (though David Waldstein says it looks like more) and will focus on maintaining it throughout the season. (Marc Carig & Boland)
  • Michael Pineda will not start the season as the number two starter, with Cashman citing his need to improve his changeup as a reason why. My prediction? He’ll be the four on Opening Day, which is completely meaningless in the grand scheme of things. (Boland)
  • Andruw Jones will report to camp before the rest of the position players because he’s working his way back from offseason knee surgery. He had a small tear repaired and played through the injury last season. (Carig)
  • Brad Meyers, one of the team’s two Rule 5 Draft picks, hurt his shoulder lifting weights over the winter and will be behind the other pitchers in camp. He was a long shot to make the roster already, and this certainly didn’t improve his chances any. (Carig)
  • Not surprising, but Cashman said they want a left-handed hitting DH that can play some outfield. Raul Ibanez is reportedly the top target, though Cashman didn’t mention him by name. The GM also said Eric Chavez‘s return is not a sure thing. (Hoch)
  • Last but not least, Cashman admitted that the Yankees weren’t trying to win the division in 2010. They decided they were better off winning the Wild Card and focusing on getting healthy in September. (Hoch)

(Photo via Mark Feinsand)