Francesa, A-Rod and Dr. Gross

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Mike Francesa spent his entire show today referencing Alex Rodriguez’s second opinion on his injured quadriceps and essentially accusing the Yankees of intentionally keeping A-Rod out of the lineup. A multitude of reasons were presented for this decision the most prominent being that the Yankees don’t want to pay A-Rod. As much as Francesa attempted to chastise the organization, painted them into a corner to let A-Rod play and boosted A-Rod as a potential cure to the Yankees offensive ills, let’s not make A-Rod into a victim here. Here’s all you need to know:

  • The Yankees don’t want to pay A-Rod.
  • The Yankees are hoping that the Biogenesis suspension of A-Rod comes sooner rather than later so they don’t have to answer questions about him.
  • A-Rod wants to get back on the field to get his money.

Toward whatever end is on A-Rod’s plate at the moment, he continually draws the ire of the organization and break rules that are clear in the collective bargaining agreement. He is not supposed to go see a doctor without team approval. Dr. Gross examined an A-Rod MRI and was clearly encouraged by A-Rod to publicize his findings. But for Francesa’s bolstering of this doctor’s diagnosis because he wants A-Rod back in the Yankees lineup out of some clinging to an adolescent fantasy that they still have a chance at the playoffs this year, no one would’ve paid any attention to this whatsoever. If it’s discussed for 5 1/2 hours, everyone—including the organization—is going to notice and react.

As bad as their third basemen have been this year, A-Rod was probably as bad if not worse in the playoffs last season, so they don’t know if they’ll get much more from him than what they’ve gotten from Kevin Youkilis, David Adams, Luis Cruz, et al. For all of the vouching Francesa has done for Dr. Gross, the “right” and “wrong” here is not clear-cut. The report that Dr. Gross was reprimanded by the New Jersey State Attorney General surfaced shortly after his star-turn with Francesa. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to surmise that the politically-connected Yankees made certain that this came out as a means of defending the organization from this attack.

It’s not as simplistic as Francesa’s, “He’s a good playa and da Yankees need ‘im.” This is about money, a player they would like out of their sight and off their books. It’s about A-Rod, who wants to be paid as per the terms of his contract. They both have an agenda that goes beyond Francesa again indulging in a logic that was once limited to his callers by saying that the team needs a player and should let that player play without considering the collateral implications. Francesa wagged the dog today and the dog—the Yankees—wagged back.

It will be interesting to see if this degenerates into another cold war between Francesa and a New York organization. His self-indulgent battles with the New York Jets have sabotaged any pretense of objectivity between himself and the team. The Yankees are presumably pretty angry at Francesa for causing them this aggravation and, as was shown with the speed with which this doctor’s history was laid bare for all to see, will retaliate when fired upon. They went after the doctor first. Francesa could be next.

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Francesa Dreams Of Justin

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With Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira reinjuring his right wrist and the possibility of him being lost for the season very real, expect Mike Francesa on WFAN tomorrow to begin anew his delusional, deranged and silly demand that the Yankees get—not pursue, but get—Twins first baseman Justin Morneau.

The reasons this won’t happen are nearly endless. The Twins, in spite of being five games under .500, are only 6 1/2 games out of first place, which puts them 2 1/2 games further out of first place than the Yankees. The Twins aren’t giving Morneau away regardless of his expiring contract at the end of the season and there still remains the possibility that they’ll do a typical “Twins thing” and re-sign Morneau. Morneau has played in 61 games this season and hit 2 home runs vs. Teixeira’s 3 in 15 games with a wrist that is now revealed to not have been at 100%.

It makes no sense in any context, but that won’t stop Francesa from repeating the name Morneau (Moah-no) as if that is the answer to the Yankees’ woes when it’s:  A) not; and B) not going to happen.

Amid all the talk of the likes of Cliff Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Brian McCann and other available or potentially available name, they too are unlikely unless the Yankees are willing to surrender the prospects and eat the money that will be necessary to do it. Strangely, with Kevin Youkilis also returning to the disabled list with a back injury and the big news that Derek Jeter is back to baseball activities and may be able to return after the All-Star break, the one player that everyone reviled and wanted gone might be the player who can help more than any of the others who’ve been mentioned and won’t cost them anything to acquire: Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod, for all the vitriol and embarrassment he engenders, still hit 18 homers and posted a .783 OPS in 122 games last season. His late-season stumble and post-season nightmare were due to him being hurt. If he comes back and shows some semblance of the pop he has in the past, pitchers will still have to plan for him even if he isn’t the 50-homer masher he once was.

After all the loathing A-Rod has inspired, it would be somewhat ironic if the Yankees look forward to his return because they need him and don’t treat him as if he’s an incurable disease whose mere mention inspires retching. And if the fans start clamoring for A-Rod and have the audacity to give him a standing ovation similar to the one that Jeter’s going to get when he comes back, A-Rod should respond appropriately. Given how he can’t sink any lower in the eyes of the public, a perfect response would be to drop he pants and moon the cheering crowd as he flips his middle finger at them. It would sum up the relationship and would probably be the first time in A-Rod’s tenure as a Yankee that he was honest about anything. The fans might actually appreciate it…as long as he hits.

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Red Sox and Yankees: Early Season Notes

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, History, Management, Media, MLB Trade Deadline, Podcasts

Boston Red Sox

There haven’t been any glaring John Farrell managerial mistakes as of yet. He’s pretty much gone by the book. They’re over .500 and the main concern is Joel Hanrahan’s poor start and now hamstring injury.

What’s been prominent with the Red Sox has been the continuing talk amongst the media about what a better atmosphere there is in the clubhouse with the new faces they’ve brought in. Positivity has to lead to wins and whether that occurs over the course of a long season with the Red Sox remains to be seen. Their positive attitude won’t amount to much if they’re under .500 at mid-season. There’s a media-created desperation to bolster the Red Sox into the behemoth they were five years ago and that’s not going to happen, especially with this roster and that manager.

The latest hype is the attempted credit given to GM Ben Cherington for the acquisitions he made in last August’s salary dumping trade with the Dodgers. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster are receiving most of the attention for their arms. In realistic context, it’s not like the Dodgers were doing the Red Sox a favor by taking a load of money off their ledger. Josh Beckett was a “get this guy outta here” trade and Carl Crawford was hurt, but Adrian Gonzalez was acquired from the Padres for three of the Red Sox top prospects a year-and-a-half earlier and is a star in his prime. If you’re trading him, you’d better get some good prospects for him and not just add him as the X in the deal as a, “if you want X, you’d better take Y.”

New York Yankees

The Yankees have treaded water with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter all out. Andy Pettitte’s been great, but now he’s having a start pushed back due to back spasms, thus dampening Mike Francesa’s elementary school enthusiasm that Pettitte could pitch forever and ever and ever as if he was trapped in the Francesa Overlook Hotel in which he’s overlooking Pettitte’s age and injury history.

They’ve gotten hot starts from newcomers Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner. The pitching, that was supposed to be a strong suit, has been bad behind Pettitte and CC Sabathia. The season will hinge on whether the new additions can maintain some level of production and the injured players return ready to contribute.

There are sudden concerns about Ichiro Suzuki’s slow start which shouldn’t be concerns at all—they should’ve been expected. He hit .322 as a Yankee last season and had a BAbip of .337. In 2013, he’s hitting .176 with a .167 BAbip (and no, I don’t have it backwards; his BAbip is really lower than his batting average). Ichiro’s success is contingent on his soft line drives and ground balls dropping in and finding holes. If they’re not doing either, he’s not going have numbers that appear to be productive.

Check out my appearance on Donn Paris’s Seamheads Podcast from yesterday here. We discussed the Angels, Astros, Mike Scioscia, the Red Sox, Yankees, Jeff Luhnow, player development, the draft and much more.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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We Get It: Mike Francesa Demands Justin Morneau

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Ignoring multiple realities save for the ones that exist only in his mind, Mike Francesa is clinging to the farfetched notions that:

a)    The Twins will just give Justin Morneau up in a salary dump

b)   They’ll give him to the Yankees before offering him around the league

c)    The Yankees have the prospects to get Morneau now

d)   The Yankees will surrender the prospects to get Morneau

Yet he clings to the prayer from a desert island that the ship off in the distance will see his persistent waving; that the plane hovering in the sky will spot and explore his abandoned outpost; that the “Yankee magic” steeped from the historical foundation of, “Da Yankees want, dere-fore da Yankees get,” will hold true in spite of the reality of other factors: money; that other clubs have no choice in trading players to a club willing to absorb the salaries; that players wanted to go to the Yankees because the Yankees were prohibitive preseason favorites.

It’s not magic. It’s not history. It was because of factors no longer in existence or not relevant in this particular instance.

You can hear one of Francesa’s delusional Morneau rants here on Bobs Blitz. It was right after Mark Teixeira’s injury and could have been chalked up to the panic of the moment, trying to find an escape route from the prison or appeal on the conviction before acceptance of the circumstance set in.

But he’s still at it.

I’d understand if there was a basis for this Morneau obsession, i.e. the Twins making clear that they’re looking to trade him just to get out from under the $14 million salary for 2013, but I have not seen a rumor, a story or anything else from even the schlockiest of schlock sites, the trollingest of trolls saying that this is the case. I’d also understand if Morneau was presented as a faceless example of the type of player the Yankees should pursue, but Francesa’s not coming up with other names, nor is he providing well-thought-out analysis as to whom the Yankees could give the Twins to make it worth their while to trade Morneau before the season starts when the Twins are also trying to put forth the pretense of competitiveness, at least at the outset of the season.

On Twitter, a close follower and analyst of the Twins Brandon Warne said to me that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Twins not only kept Morneau for the season, but signed him to a contract to stay. Brandon’s dialed in on how the Twins think and is right. Regardless of the clear reasoning to deal Morneau and open a spot at first base for Joe Mauer, the Twins sometimes do things like that even if they don’t appear to make any sense. When they were winning, it was the “Twins Way.” Now that they’re losing it’s “stupid.” Neither assessment is any more accurate than the other, it just is.

If the Yankees were looking for the type of player that Francesa is insisting Morneau is now—a veteran with a terrible team looking to dump salary just to get money off the books—they’d go to the Astros and try to get Carlos Pena; they’d approach the Rockies about Chris Nelson and move Kevin Youkilis to first base; they’d come up with something reasonable and doable. “Reasonable” and “doable” are not categories in which Morneau fits.

Other unavailable names that have been bandied about by desperate Yankees fans and apologists are Garrett Jones and Billy Butler. Jones is gettable from the Pirates, but the days of the Pirates handing their lunch money over to the bullying Yankees are over; Butler is a star hitter who most fans are entirely unaware of how good he is and the Royals aren’t moving him.

Here’s a flash that maybe you’ll get if I capitalize it: THESE PLAYERS ARE NOT AVAILABLE FOR THE SCRAPS THE YANKEES ARE WILLING TO GIVE UP!!!!

If the Yankees were to surrender Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, Jose Campos, even David Robertson or the rehabbing Manny Banuelos, yes, they can get someone to fill in at first base. But they’re not doing that. Accept it.

Also accept this: the Yankees are currently a mess. They want to lower payroll and won’t give up any prospects to improve in the moment. Brian Cashman clung to Eduardo Nunez in trade talks for veteran help like Cliff Lee in 2010, proclaiming him “untouchable,” but is now refusing to make the simplest and most obvious decision and let Nunez play third base and move Youkilis to first, basically saying that Nunez isn’t that good.

He was so good that he was untouchable a year ago but, now they’re implying he can’t play regularly simultaneous to insulting the intelligence of any sane person who’s ever seen Nunez play shortstop by saying, “We see him as a shortstop.” Where? On Mars? He’s so great a prospect that he can’t be traded, but not good enough to actually play at third? Left field? First base? Somewhere?

The reality is setting in everywhere but at 1:00 PM EST on WFAN in New York, where the Yankees are still able to demand that other clubs hand over what the Yankees want. Just because they’re the Yankees.

It doesn’t work that way anymore and truth be told, it never really did.

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The Yankees’ Outfield Suddenly Looks As Bad As The Mets’

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Of course that’s in context. If you look at the projected outfields of the Yankees and Mets based on their players on paper, the Yankees are still superior. As diminished as Ichiro Suzuki is, he’s more proven that the cast of characters (led by Mike Baxter) the Mets have vying for right field. But whoever the Yankees put in left to replace the now-injured Curtis Granderson isn’t going to be better than Lucas Duda. Brett Gardner is a good player, but he’s not a prototypical “Yankees center fielder” along the lines of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, or even Bobby Murcer, Bernie Williams all the way down the line to Granderson.

In his first spring training plate appearance, Granderson was hit by a pitch and had his forearm broken. He’ll be out until May and now the Yankees are seeing how a bad bench and limited ready-for-prime-time minor leaguers can harm their rapidly declining chances to win a title. With a team this old, it’s inexplicable that they scrimped and saved to let Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez leave. Granderson’s one of the younger players on this ancient roster and got hurt while playing the game. The other, older players like Derek Jeter, Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis could wind up on the disabled list by waking up after sleeping in a strange position. What is going to harm this team to a greater degree—and one that hasn’t been mentioned as often as it should—is the inability to use PEDs and amphetamines to get through the season. There’s not a cure for what ails them other than letting nature take its course.

The Mets are rebuilding and had no intention nor realistic need to spend any money on players that weren’t going to help them in the distant future or were going to cost them the eleventh pick in the draft as Michael Bourn would’ve. The Yankees, on the other hand, have expectations of a championship in spite of their newfound austerity and conscious decision to stick with what they had and keep the severely declining Ichiro. With the money-related departures of Chavez and Ibanez, they’re left with limited veterans Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz as the probable left field replacement for Granderson with the possibilities of Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte.

Soon fans will start reverting to their “stars replace stars for even one game” template and demand the Yankees pursue and get Giancarlo Stanton. Whether the fans and media will have the nerve to suggest they pursue Mike Trout is the question. Neither will happen. Other possibilities of the more reasonable variety are Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano or Drew Stubbs. None are probable. Considering the expectations and lack of offense at catcher and right field with the aged and injury prone players they have in the lineup, they now have to function with an outfield that, plainly and simply, ain’t gonna cut it.

If this is an omen for the Yankees, it’s a bad one. It took one day—one day—for their weak bench to assert itself as the unpredictability of baseball from moment-to-moment reared its head. They went with the cheap bench and they’ve got the cheap bench. If a worst case scenario was predicted for the 2013 Yankees, this injury to Granderson and a comparison to the Mets is a great place to start.

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Youkilis Bookilis

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Kevin Youkilis immediately and (apparently) unwittingly invited the ire of Yankees fans and ignited a feeding frenzy among the media when he made what he clearly thought was a contextualized and innocuous comment about joining the Yankees and his history with the Red Sox. The comment is below:

“To say it negates all the years I played for the Boston Red Sox and all the tradition, you look at all the stuff I piled up in my house, to say I just throw it out the window is not true,” he said. “I will always be a Red Sock. That’s a part of your history, a part of your life. You can’t change that.”

Naturally, one sentence garnered all the headlines and it was done to create a story during the mostly dull, repetitive and languid days of spring training where, sans Alex Rodriguez and his traveling carnival, there’s not much to write about in Yankees camp. When read in full, Youkilis said nothing that could be construed as pronouncing fealty to the Red Sox, nor did he say he didn’t want to be a Yankee. However, after all the years of competition and intensity, Youkilis will be remembered as a Red Sox player who joined the Yankees out of mutual need. Unlike prior players such as Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon and even Roger Clemens, there was less ingrained hatred between the franchises when Boggs and Clemens were playing and Damon wasn’t prototypically “hated” by Yankees fans.

During the Boggs/Clemens years, the Red Sox were consistent playoff teams and the Yankees weren’t. The remnants of the rivalry stemmed from what went on over a decade before and had no present day feel. In fact, the Yankees were an awful, leaguewide joke. With Boggs and Clemens, the Red Sox won the AL East in 1986, 1988 and 1990. The Yankees were an also-ran in rampant disarray, bottoming out in 1989-91. Both Boggs and Clemens proved themselves to be loyal and valuable Yankees during their return to glory and maintenance of a great run. Damon was a likable, somewhat goofy and handsome acquisition who entered Yankees universe while they were still consensus selections to win the World Series. There was no reason to boo him.

In part due to the images of both franchises—the Red Sox as dirty, gritty and feisty and the Yankees as stiff, corporate, arrogant and stuffy—Youkilis doesn’t simply have to remove his Red Sox jersey and pull on the pinstripes to suddenly be a Yankee. The sour faces, beard and resemblance to Pigpen from Peanuts will not be tolerated in a Yankees clubhouse used to cleanliness, peace and quiet. Culture shock is to be expected and the media and fans are looking for methods to stir up the new surroundings for Youkilis and judge his adaptation to it.

It’s ironic that the catalyst to Youkilis’s departure from the Red Sox was a similarly unintentionally insulting statement made by then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine that Youkilis appeared less than emotionally and physically committed early in the 2012 season. With Valentine, it was misinterpreted and taken as a signal that the same Valentine who the players were afraid would show up was in full swing, confronting players and treating them with disrespect, causing them to face questions not about the game, but about what the manager said. They were waiting for it and when the opening arrived, it expedited Valentine’s inevitable doom.

It’s the same thing with Youkilis.

Whether or not Youkilis made this statement is irrelevant to the fans’ acceptance of him. The Yankees are not guaranteed anything in 2013. Given their age and lack of money to spend, the season can go either way. Fans will want someone upon whom to rain down their frustrations. They won’t boo CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira or Robinson Cano. There’s no point in booing Francisco Cervelli or Brett Gardner. They have an inexplicable love affair with Ichiro Suzuki. Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are unbooable. I guess they could boo Curtis Granderson, but their hearts wouldn’t be in it because he’s such a good guy. A-Rod’s not around.

Who’s left?

Youkilis.

Unless he performs as he did during his MVP-caliber years with the Red Sox, Yankee fans will be waiting to attack. He clarified himself the next day, but it won’t matter if he doesn’t hit. He took the bait and the media reeled him in. The fans will feast as soon as they’re hungry. It won’t be because of what he said about his days with the Red Sox, but it certainly didn’t help.

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American League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Let’s look at some of the lesser-known players or rebounding veterans in the American League that are likely to play more than expected and could produce at a cheap price.

Eduardo Nunez, INF—New York Yankees

Nunez doesn’t have a position, but the Yankees are insisting he’s a shortstop so he’ll see time at shortstop while Derek Jeter is periodically rested or is the DH. Kevin Youkilis has been injury-prone in recent years and when he’s playing, will see time at first base as well as third with Mark Teixeira DH-ing against lefties. In a best-case scenario, the Yankees can’t expect any more than 350 at bats from Travis Hafner and that’s stretching it by 100-150 at bats. Plus he doesn’t hit lefties. No one knows when or if Alex Rodriguez will be able to play and his latest foray into the front of the newspaper puts into question whether he’s ever going to suit up for the Yankees again. Their bench is terrible.

All of these factors will open up at bats for Nunez. He can’t field and is a hacker, but he can hit.

Chris Tillman, RHP—Baltimore Orioles

He still runs up high pitch counts but his walks are decreasing incrementally. If examined as a step-by-step process, first comes the better control, then comes the lower pitch counts. If Tillman is able to continue improving in this manner, he could become a 30 start/180-200-inning arm for the Orioles.

The Orioles haven’t bolstered their starting rotation. Brian Matusz showed he’s better off out of the bullpen; they’re waiting for Dylan Bundy and hoping for a repeat performance from Miguel Gonzalez. They’ll need innings from Tillman.

Phil Coke, LHP—Detroit Tigers

In last season’s ALCS, with Jose Valverde shelved because he couldn’t be trusted to even hold a four-run lead, Coke was pressed into service as the nominal closer in a bullpen-by-committee. Valverde’s gone and the Tigers have a former closer on the roster in Octavio Dotel; they’re insisting they’ll give rookie Bruce Rondon every chance to claim the role. Rookies have emerged as closers in the past (Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Kimbrel) but manager Jim Leyland is not going to be patient with a 1-year contract, a veteran team expected to be a World Series contender and a rookie closer. Coke got the job done for Leyland in the post-season and the manager won’t forget it if he has to replace Rondon.

Greg Holland, RHP—Kansas City Royals

Holland will be the Royals’ closer, struck out 91 in 67 innings last season and saved 16 games after Jonathan Broxton was traded. The Royals stand to be pretty good this season giving him save opportunities and he’s arbitration-eligible after the season giving him the incentive of money at the end of the road or perhaps even a preemptive long-term contract to guarantee him at least $10 million-plus through his arbitration years.

Justin Morneau, 1B—Minnesota Twins

Morneau looked like his former MVP self for most of the second half of 2012 after a dreadful start, so perhaps his concussion/injury problems are behind him. Both Morneau and the Twins will have significant mutual benefit from him putting up big numbers. The Twins are in full-blown rebuild and won’t want to keep the pending free agent Morneau after the season. Morneau won’t want to stay in Minnesota for the full season because if he does, the Twins will make the qualifying offer for draft pick compensation and he might be in the same position in 2014 that Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse are in now. It behooves him to have a hot start and be traded in July.

Aaron Hicks, CF—Minnesota Twins

The Twins’ current center fielder is listed as Darin Mastroianni. Mastroianni can steal a few bases and catch the ball in center field, but he’s a fourth outfielder and a reasonable facsimile of Jason Tyner.

Hicks is a former first round draft pick whom the Twins have no reason not to play after he spends the first month of the season in Triple A to keep his arbitration clock from beginning to tick.

Lance Berkman, DH—Texas Rangers

Berkman’s problems in recent years have been injury-related and if he doesn’t have to play the field, that will reduce the stress on his knees. 81 games in the hitting haven of Texas has made the likes of Mike Napoli into an All-Star. Berkman is a far superior hitter who still accumulates a high on-base percentage. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll post a .380 OBP and hit 25 homers.

Garrett Richards, RHP—Los Angeles Angels

Richards is currently the sixth starter for the Angels, but 3-4-5 are Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. They’re interchangeable and have major warts. Vargas was a creature of Safeco Field with the Mariners; Hanson’s shoulder is said to be teetering with injuries and horrible mechanics; Blanton allows tons of hits and homers. Richards will end up being the Angels’ third starter by the end of the season and could be the key to them making the playoffs and saving manager Mike Scioscia’s job.

Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP—Seattle Mariners

Iwakuma is what Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be amid the media circus of the Red Sox winning the bidding and hyping him up. Iwakuma is just doing it for a minuscule fraction of the price and none of the aggravation. He picked at the strike zone as a reliever and allows a few too many homers, but as a fulltime starter he’s got the stuff to be a Hideo Nomo sensation. And, unlike Matsuzaka, he actually throws the Bigfoot of the baseball world (often sighted but never proved): the gyroball.

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Not Your Daddy’s Steinbrenner

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If Hal Steinbrenner is being sincere when he says he doesn’t understand why fans are concerned and upset that the Yankees haven’t made significant improvements over the winter, he’s gone beyond holding true to the company line he himself implemented and venturing into unexplored territory of delusion.

Back when George Steinbrenner was running things he was hard on his employees, but he was able to hit back at criticism (albeit in a loony, bullying way) without the screechy bewilderment that underscores Hal’s continued parental entreaties to a bratty progeny (the fans and media) that they should appreciate what they’re given.

Unwittingly or not, he’s lavishing expectations on a compromised and aged squad that are no longer as realistic as they once were. The Yankees do have the personnel to contend in 2013, but their margin of error is tied to the financial margins they’ve unilaterally enacted and with which they’ve constrained GM Brian Cashman. The easy answer will be to blame Cashman or manager Joe Girardi (in the last year of his contract), but is it fair to say it’s Cashman’s and Girardi’s fault for having run a club based on veteran mercenaries and a core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who can still play but whose primes were a decade ago? All GMs and manager have their strengths and weaknesses and Cashman’s strength is buying free agents. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a difficult juggling act to put him in this position with no money to spend, a mandate to reduce the payroll to a finite number foreign to him during his tenure while simultaneously demanding that he figure it out and win.

George would’ve openly ranted and raved about his $200 million club annually flaming out in the playoffs, but with the ranting and raving there would be money available to get better. With this team under Hal, it’s not.

Hal is constantly referencing the money spent to retain Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Ichiro Suzuki and the signing of Kevin Youkilis, but he’s misunderstanding the litany of reasons that fans are justifiably concerned.

Their bench is atrocious. They’re old. In their division, the Blue Jays are substantially improved to go along with the still-strong Rays and the AL Wild Card winning Orioles. There’s talk from the likes of Mike Francesa that the Red Sox are “terrible.” Terrible is a bit much. If the Red Sox have 10 question marks heading into the 2013 season, the Yankees have 8.

When listening to Francesa and other Yankee-centric “analysts,” the shifting of tone is stark and noticeable. It’s not an automatic 95 wins and ticket punched to the playoffs in March. It’s “they’ll be in the mix.” In the mix of what is unexplained. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism to reconcile the “new” Yankees in their minds.

The talk that they’re going to “do something” to improve before the season has ceased as well for the simple fact that the reality has hit that there’s not much of anything they can do at this late date. Travis Hafner is about as good as it’s going to get as far as “improving.”

Another hard truth came this week with Felix Hernandez’s contract extension with the Mariners. The players available on the market aren’t young and star-level. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw—they’re not going to see free agency. With Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, the Yankees sought to mimic the Red Sox development of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to save money in the long run, but in 2008 the Yankees did that by choice and when it failed, they signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to fill the unfilled holes. Now, they have to develop out of necessity, making it all the more challenging. They don’t have the money to buy nor the prospects to trade or use themselves.

Hal sounds like he’s whining at the box he’s put his team in. For all of George’s faults, one thing he never did was whine. Perhaps Hal’s reaction comes from the safety and security of not having built anything of his own, but inheriting it. It was long thought that Hank Steinbrenner was reminiscent of their father as the out-of-control lunatic with a bloviating temper and outlandish statements that were quickly qualified with an eyeroll and head shake. Hank was figuratively (or literally, we don’t know) locked away. Hal was the sane and logical one. He was the rational, understanding, business-minded steward of the Yankee brand who let his baseball people run the club and understood why, if the team lost 7 out of 10, that it wasn’t a lack of motivation or work ethic on the part of the manager or coaches that required a pep talk of several firings, but because they hit a rough patch from which they’d emerge because of superior talent.

Hal’s statements could be seen as maintaining a unified front and waiting to see what happens, but I doubt he’s that calculating. He’s stung by the criticism and is not acknowledging the faults that his club has because he doesn’t understand them himself. He doesn’t have the intimidating persona that his father did implying that if the team doesn’t perform, heads will roll, headlines will explode, missives will be issued, and no one is safe. Randy Levine tries to play that part, but he’s sort of laughed at and ignored.

The sense of entitlement is prominent and a bigger reason than anything else to be worried if you’re a Yankees fan. If the ownership doesn’t comprehend the problems, how is it possible to fix them? This is especially so when the resources to do the repairs are as limited as they apparently are.

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If You’re Thinking of Comparing Hafner to Ibanez, Don’t

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Those thinking of equating the Yankees signing of Travis Hafner to last year’s signing of Raul Ibanez are in for a rude awakening.

Because the Yankees have had some success in prior years with inexpensive and available veterans such as Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones and Ibanez, it’s a false belief that the trend will continue with Ichiro Suzuki, Kevin Youkilis and Hafner. One thing doesn’t automatically guarantee the other. That’s the big issue with taking a player’s profile and comparing it to another player’s profile based on stats, history, position, contract, whatever—it’s not a real comparison because the individual nature is routinely ignored.

GM Brian Cashman wasn’t expecting the Ibanez from his days with the Mariners or his first two years with the Phillies, but considering Ibanez’s 20 homer, 52 extra base hit showing in 2011, it was reasonable to believe that Ibanez would hit 15-20 homers for the Yankees in a part-time role. He’d been durable, playing in at least 134 games a season going back to 2005. No one was expecting a Reggie Jackson-imitation in the playoffs. The Yankees got far more than they bargained for with a $1.1 million salary and Ibanez was a lifesaver.

Can the same be said for Hafner?

Put it this way: Ibanez wasn’t primarily a DH who had recurrent shoulder woes as well as back and oblique issues sending him to the disabled list over-and-over again as is the case with Hafner. In their wildest fantasies, the Yankees should be happy if they get from Hafner half of what Ibanez gave them. Even that’s a stretch. (And Hafner might not want to stretch too far for fear of tearing something, given his increasingly brittle musculature.)

Hafner, 36 in June, was one of the most dangerous fastball hitters in baseball during his heyday with the Indians between 2004 and 2007; he was an on-base machine and a clubhouse force. Then-Indians GM Mark Shapiro stole Hafner from his former boss and mentor John Hart when Hart was GM of the Rangers in 2002, getting him with Aaron Myette for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese. He was great for awhile; he’s a shell of that player now.

Hafner has played in over 94 games once in the past five years. When he was able to get in the lineup, he’s been productive and he can still turn around a high-90s fastball. He will take his walks. But he’s never consistently healthy. That’s not going to change at age 36 simply because he pulls on the pinstripes and the Yankees’ strategy of signing veteran former star players has been moderately successful in the past. Ibanez was signed as a complementary player with pop off the bench and the ability to play the outfield if needed. He wound up being needed to play far more than was initially expected due to the injury to Brett Gardner. The Yankees aren’t signing Hafner as a background roll of the dice as they did with Ibanez, they’re expecting him to contribute as a lefty-swinging DH.

It’s not going to happen.

Hafner will invite memories of Ibanez when he shows flashes of his old self by crushing a 100-mph fastball from Daniel Bard into the Yankee Stadium upper deck in early April (if he’s not on the disabled list already by then); the fans will think they got another “genius” pickup from Cashman until Hafner goes on the disabled list with a predictable malady, probably to his shoulder; then they’ll be trapped scouring the same bin for another bat to replace him. Only Yankees apologists who still function under the misplaced belief that every move Cashman makes will miraculously turn to gold are failing to accept this truth.

With each signing the newly austere Yankees make, their win total increases…if it was 2007. The club they’ve constructed would have won 115 games and been prohibitive World Series favorites six years ago. It’s not six years ago. Whereas in years past the Yankees motto was seemingly, “We want, we pay, we get,” it’s now become, “Let’s see what’s out there and what we can afford.” Hafner, with all his warts, is what’s out there and what they can afford.

Navigating the latest Alex Rodriguez scandal; wondering what they’re going to get out of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera as they recover from injuries; moving forward with zero power out of either corner outfield position; not having a proven big league catcher; worrying about money—these are not the Yankees who have been at the top of the American League for the past two decades. Yet there’s a prevailing belief that because everything worked out then, it’s going to work out now. Just because.

That’s a conceit combined with a desperate delusion as a defense mechanism to avoid the horrid reality that the run is over and a downslide reminiscent of the mid-1960s is well underway.

Hafner is the least of the Yankees problems, but he’s the least of their solutions as well.

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The Red Sox Hire Pedro Martinez To…Um….Do Stuff(?)

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If a baseball organization is viewed as a small society, then the resident sociopath of Red Sox Nation from 2000 through 2008 was Manny Ramirez. Manny continually received passes for his baseball-related crimes of propriety and decorum because, when he wanted to be, he was an unstoppable force at the plate. On a lesser scale, the moderate troublemaker—i.e. the person who bent the rules and was allowed to bend the rules because the nation couldn’t function without him—was Pedro Martinez.

In terms of on-field contributions to the club, Pedro was more valuable than Manny was because he was all but impossible to replace when he was in his heyday. Pedro was unhittable for the majority of a six year period from 1998-2003 and almost singlehandedly carried mostly pedestrian teams to the playoffs in 1998, 1999 and even 2003. When he began to fade, he was still very good but not worth the money he was demanding as a free agent after the 2004 season—ironically the first year in his tenure when he was a background performer and they won the World Series.

The Red Sox didn’t sign him to an extension and let him leave as a free agent to the Mets. As it turned out, this was wise. In some respects, there was relief that he was gone. The relief wasn’t on a level of “finally” as it was when the club had had enough of Manny and traded him away at mid-season 2008, but it made the franchise’s life easier not to have to endure the behind-the-scenes, passive aggressive tantrums Pedro threw on a regular basis by showing up to spring training late; saying stupid things publicly about how the organization disrespected him; contract complaints; media dustups; and simultaneously proud, arrogant and insecure reactions to the concept that Curt Schilling was replacing him as the team ace. It certainly benefited them not having to pay for three years of diminishing effectiveness and stints on the disabled list while clinging to sway for what he was.

Manny made the Red Sox work environment uncomfortable, but because he was so productive the team let him get away with petulance, laziness, fake injuries, and disrespect to authority figures. It was only when he turned to violence with the traveling secretary that enough was enough and he was moved.

It’s not out of the realm to wonder whether the hiring of Pedro would be similar to hiring Manny. Both were difficult to deal with and left on bad terms. Neither ever put forth the image of a person who had any interest in working in a front office. Manny’s transgressions were far worse, but they were in the same context. This week, Pedro was named the special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington. What that undefined job entails is anyone’s guess. Do they want him to actually do anything? Is Pedro going to guide young players? Or is this to garner some positive press with a link to the club’s glory days as a reaction to the skeletons and scars being dragged out and sliced open in public with Terry Francona’s new book, The Red Sox Years by the former manager and Dan Shaughnessy?

My review of the book will be coming this week. Without giving too much away, from top-to-bottom the organization comes out appearing, to be kind, dysfunctional. As much as Pedro and Manny contributed to the good they accomplished, both were difficult to handle. So why would the front office want to bring Pedro onboard for any reason other than improved coverage and to hypnotize fans by subliminally reminding them of the glory days as if the heroes of the past will beget a repeat in the future?

This smacks of a PR maneuver with Tom Werner’s lust for “star” power; John Henry’s detached, ham-handed view of what will pander to his constituents; and Larry Lucchino left to be the bad guy and implement the scheme. Cherington, much like last year, is a workaday functionary to whom they’re handing tools and telling him to build something and not providing a blueprint or mandate other than warning him that it had better come out good.

What created the Red Sox from 2003 to most of 2011 wasn’t a desperate grasping at the past—a past that resulted in 86 years of futility in the quest for a championship. It was a decided departure from what the team did previously by using cutting edge techniques statistically, a business plan, and a ruthlessness in dispatching of people who no longer fit into the template. That included Pedro.

After a disastrous year with Bobby Valentine, they brought back John Farrell because he was respected and liked by everyone and was part of the successful regime. It’s being ignored that he’s not a good manager, which is what they need more than someone they like and who brings back warm, fuzzy feelings of what was.

They’re putting forth the “back to the way we did it” dynamic with Cherington presented as “in charge.” They’re signing character people and returning to the developmental methods that yielded Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury. But like the decision to hire Pedro, there’s a phoniness about it; a tone of “this is what the public wants” instead of “this is what will work.”

A fanbase such as that of the Red Sox, as loyal as they are to those who have performed for them, is undoubtedly happy that Pedro’s back in the fold. The joy will last for a while, then the fans will forget while Cherington has to find activities for his new assistant. The fans aren’t privy nor particularly interested in that. He’s supposedly going to do a lot of “things” and Cherington compared his presence to that of Jason Varitek. The difference is that Varitek wasn’t a pain and Pedro was. Varitek has an eye on a career as a manager or front office person and Pedro doesn’t. Varitek was hired because they wanted him in the organization. Pedro looks like he was hired as a placating gesture to the fans who are sitting on Metro Boston reading Francona’s book and taking the side of their beloved Tito because that’s what they want to do. He’s gone and the people who remain presided over a 2012 travesty that the fans aren’t sure is over. In fact, it’s just beginning. That realization might be clear to the front office and they’re trying everything they can to cloud the horrifying reality.

As great at Pedro was, he undermined manager Jimy Williams and chafed at Williams’s disciplinary procedures when Pedro was clearly wrong. He embarrassed interim manager and former pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. He was initially supportive of Grady Little, then backtracked on that support when Little was dumped. He was a handful for Francona in the two years they spent together.

Is Pedro going to suddenly become an organizational mouthpiece and preach to players the value of being a company man when he wouldn’t do it himself while the team was paying him $15 million a year?

This is a hiring for show. There’s no harm in it and while it won’t matter because Pedro isn’t going to be doing much of anything, it’s indicative that the organization is clawing at the the wrong past. They’re hiring and acquiring based on public perception and not on what’s going to help the team. It’s micro-meaningless and macro-meaningful at the same time and it’s a bad sign for where they’re headed. It’s a pretentious signal that something has changed when it hasn’t changed at all.

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