NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Games, Players, Playoffs

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

Keys for the Cardinals: Get runners on base; continue trend of hot hitting with runners in scoring position; try not to leave the game in the hands of the bullpen; get the goods from their proven post-season performers.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored using a similar formula as the Yankees of the 1990s used by having a very high teamwide on-base percentage and no big home run hitters. Instead of having that one basher in the middle of the lineup hitting 35-45 homers as they did with Albert Pujols, they spread the wealth in the home run department with six hitters in double figures. Not one, however, had more than 24. In addition, the Cardinals had a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals bullpen is deep and diverse. Edward Mujica pitched well for much of the season as the team’s accidental closer after Jason Motte was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. Mujica saved 37 games and walked only five batters in 64.2 innings. Home runs have always been his bugaboo and he surrendered nine. With Mujica’s struggles, the Cardinals have to decide whether to stick to the regular season script and leave him in the role, go with Trevor Rosenthal or a closer-by-committee.

The Cardinals have a roster full of players who’ve put up big numbers in the post-season with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Players who’ve performed in the post-season have a tendency to do it again.

Keys for the Pirates: Don’t wait too long with their starting pitchers; don’t change their game; keep the Cardinals off the bases; get into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

The Cardinals were vulnerable to lefty pitchers but with Francisco Liriano having started the Wild Card Game against the Reds, he won’t pitch until game three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are starting A.J. Burnett in game one and Gerrit Cole in game two. Even though he struggled in September, I might’ve rolled the dice and started Jeff Locke in game one if I were manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have a deep bullpen and shouldn’t wait too long with their starting pitchers before making a change. Locke as a middle reliever might end up being more effective than having him start.

As stated earlier, the Cardinals get a lot of runners on base. The Pirates have a solid defense and have to shun the walk – this is especially true for Burnett with his scattershot control.

If the Pirates don’t get the Cardinals starting pitchers’ pitch counts up and force manager Mike Matheny to go to the bullpen, they might not get a shot at Mujica.

The Pirates won their games this season with good starting pitching, speed, power from Pedro Alvarez, a great back of the bullpen and defense. They have to maintain all facets of their game.

What will happen:

The Cardinals are built more for the long season than for a short series. While they have those aforementioned big time post-season players, the Pirates have the pitching and bullpen depth to neutralize them. If the Cardinals don’t get runners on the bases, they’re not going to score because they don’t hit enough home runs and the Pirates don’t surrender many home runs. Mujica is not trustworthy as a post-season closer and if it comes down to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, everyone in St. Louis will be holding their collective breaths waiting for the inevitable longball.

The Pirates are riding a wave with their veteran acquisitions Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd leading the way joining Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker in the lineup. A lack of post-season experience could be a problem. The Cardinals have loads of it and the Pirates have nearly none. It could also go the other way. With the first playoff appearance and playoff win in two decades under their belts, the Pirates won’t feel the pressure. That’s one instance when the Wild Card Game will benefit a young and inexperienced team.

I don’t like the way Matheny handles the bullpen as if he’s panicky and desperate not to do the wrong thing rather than do the right thing.

The Pirates’ method of winning has a better chance to carry over into the post-season. They rely on fundamentals, speed and pop; the Cardinals relied on getting on base and clutch hitting. The Pirates are younger, stronger, faster and hungrier than the Cardinals. They’re better too.

PREDICTION: PIRATES IN THREE




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Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part II—the Aftereffects of Austerity

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In normal circumstances, the words “austerity measures” would never be linked with “$200 million payroll,” but that’s where the Yankees currently are.

With that $200 million payroll and the upcoming strict penalties on franchises with higher payrolls, the mandate has come down from ownership for the Yankees to get the total down to $189 million by 2014. This will supposedly save as much as $50 million in taxes and they’ll be able to spend again after 2014.

I wrote about this in detail here.

But what will the team look like by 2014 and will players want to join the Yankees when they’re no longer the “Yankees,” but just another team that’s struggled for two straight years and whose future isn’t attached to the stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who will either be gone by then or severely limited in what they can still accomplish?

To illustrate how far the Yankees have fallen under this new budget, the catcher at the top of their depth chart is Francisco Cervelli who couldn’t even stick with the big league club as a backup last season. They lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez. The latter three, they wanted back. They couldn’t pay for Martin, Chavez and Ibanez? What’s worse, they appeared to expect all three to wait out the Yankees and eschew other job offers in the hopes that they’d be welcomed back in the Bronx.

What’s worse: the ineptitude or the arrogance?

If George Steinbrenner were still around, he’d have said, “To hell with the luxury tax,” and qualified such an attitude by referencing the amount of money the team wasted over the years on such duds as Carl Pavano, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Steve Karsay, Kyle Farnsworth, Pedro Feliciano and countless others, many of whom were total unknowns to George, therefore he wouldn’t have received the convenient blame for their signings with a baseball exec’s eyeroll, head shake and surreptitious gesture toward the owner’s box, “blame him, not me,” thereby acquitting themselves when they were, in fact, guilty. But now, the bulk of the responsibility falls straight to the baseball people. He’d also be under the belief that the Yankees brand of excellence couldn’t withstand what they’re increasingly likely to experience in 2013-2014 and that the money would wind up back in their pockets eventually due to their success.

Are there financial problems that haven’t been disclosed? A large chunk of the YES Network was recently sold to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. In years past, that money would’ve functioned as a cash infusion and gone right back into the construction of the club, but it hasn’t. They’re still not spending on players over the long term with that looming shadow of 2014 engulfing everything they plan to do. Every improvement/retention is on a one or two year contract: Kevin Youkilis—1-year; Hiroki Kuroda—1-year; Ichiro Suzuki—2-years. It’s hard to find younger, impact players when constrained so tightly and the players they’ve signed are older and/or declining which is why they were available to the Yankees on short-term contracts in the first place.

The Yankees don’t have any young players on the way up to bolster the veteran troops.

It takes inexplicable audacity for GM Brian Cashman to trumpet the pitching prospects the club was developing under stringent rules to “protect” them, then to dismiss their failures leading to a release (Andrew Brackman); a demotion to the lower minors to re-learn to throw strikes (Dellin Betances); and injury (Manny Banuelos). The reactions to the injuries to Banuelos, Jose Campos and Michael Pineda are especially galling. Banuelos’s injury—Tommy John surgery—was casually tossed aside by Cashman, pointing out the high success rate of the procedure as if it was no big deal that the pitcher got hurt. But he got hurt while under the restrictions the Yankees has placed on him—restrictions that were designed to simultaneously keep him healthy and develop him, yet wound up doing neither.

Campos was referenced as the “key” to the trade that brought Pineda; Campos was injured in late April with an undisclosed elbow problem and is now throwing off a mound and expected to be ready for spring training. That he missed almost the entire 2012 season with an injury the Yankees never described in full would give me pause for his durability going forward. The 2013 projections for Pineda to be an important contributor are more prayerful than expectant, adding to the uncertainty.

There’s a streamlining that may make sense in the long run such as the decision to drop StubHub as an official ticket reseller and instead move to Ticketmaster. They sold that chunk of YES and are in the process of slashing the payroll.

Any other team would be subject to a media firestorm trying to uncover the real reason for the sudden belt-tightening with the luxury tax excuse not be accepted at face value. Is there an underlying “why?” for this attachment to $189 million, the opt-out of the StubHub deal, and the sale of 49% of YES? The potential lost windfall of missing the post-season and the lack of fans going to the park, buying beer and souvenirs, paying the exorbitant fees to park their cars and bottom line spending money on memorabilia is going to diminish the revenue further.

Perhaps this is a natural byproduct of the failures to win a championship in any season other than 2009 in spite of having the highest payroll—by a substantial margin—in every year since their prior title in 2000. Could it be that the Steinbrenner sons looked at Cashman and wondered why Billy Beane, Brian Sabean, Andrew Friedman, and John Mozeliak were able to win with a fraction of the limitless cash the Yankees bestowed on Cashman and want him to make them more money by being a GM instead of a guy holding a blank checkbook? In recent years, I don’t see what it is Cashman has done that Hal Steinbrenner couldn’t have done if he decided to be the final word in baseball decisions and let the scouts do the drafting and he went onto the market to buy recognizable names.

Anyone can buy stuff.

Cashman’s aforementioned failures at development show his limits as a GM. It’s not easy to transform from the guy with a load of money available to toss at mistakes and use that cash as a pothole filler and be the guy who has no choice but to be frugal and figure something else out. Much like Hank Steinbrenner saying early in 2008 that the struggling righty pitcher Mike Mussina had to learn to throw like the soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer, it sounds easier when said from a distance and a “Why’s he doing it and you’re not?” than it is to implement.

No matter how it’s quantified, this Yankees team is reliant on the past production of these veteran players without the money that was there in the past to cover for them if they don’t deliver.

The fans aren’t going to want to hear about the “future.” They’re going to want Cashman and the Steinbrenners to do something. But given their inaction thus far in the winter of 2012-2013, it doesn’t look as if they’re going to with anyone significant.

This time, they don’t have a prior year’s championship to use as a shield. The Yankees were subject to a broom at the hands of the Tigers. That’s not a particularly coveted memory. In fact, it might have been a portent of what’s to come, except worse.

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The One Punch Knockout and the New Yankees Reality

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The Yankees are in the midst of taking an accumulation of punches that place their 2013 hopes on the precipice of ending in December. The organization isn’t used to that; the rest of baseball isn’t used to that; and the media isn’t used to that; and the fans are definitely not used to that.

Let’s look.

The losses

None of the players who have departed the Yankees this winter are irreplaceable on their own. Nick Swisher just agreed to a 4-year, $56 million contract with the Indians. Rafael Soriano is still on the market. Eric Chavez, Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez all went to other teams. Individually, each would inspire a shrug from the Yankees of old and they’d simply spend money or trade for other pieces to replace them. But when you combine the weak free agent market with the combination of Yankees’ needs and that they’re not spending any cash to fill them, you have a mess.

When was the last time the Yankees didn’t retain players that they wanted to keep? They wanted to keep Martin; they wanted to keep Chavez; they wanted to keep Ibanez. Martin went to the Pirates—the Pirates!!! Chavez to the Diamondbacks; and Ibanez to the Mariners. Three teams with nowhere near the spending power the Yankees are supposed to have, nor the historically winning environment. Yet all three are gone. While, on the surface, it may seem that the Martin departure was the most shocking and painful, leaving the largest hole, it’s really Ibanez’s decision not to wait for the Yankees to make their offer that signifies how far the Yankees have fallen both perceptively and in fact.

It strikes of pure Yankees arrogance to tell Ibanez to sit tight and wait without any guarantees that they’re going to make him an offer and expect him to do it. The days in which players will wait for the Yankees are over. Ibanez had a job offer in hand and likely significant playing time with the Mariners or he could’ve waited out the Yankees for an offer that might never come.

Can anyone blame him for walking? And do the Yankees have a backup plan for any of these departures?

The replacements and retentions

Ichiro Suzuki was re-signed because the Yankees were left with few options other than him. If you listen to GM Brian Cashman’s politely uninterested tone when he was asked if Ichiro was going to be back, and amid the hemming and hawing, you hear everything but the word he really wanted to say—no. Eventually, though, they not only brought Ichiro back, but they gave him a two-year contract.

Cashman, who wants power hitters, is now faced with Ichiro in right field and Brett Gardner in left. These are not power hitters. Jason Kubel is available from the Diamondbacks and has one year remaining on his contract. As flawed a player as he is, he’s a power hitter that would fit neatly into the current Yankees’ lineup as something other than a fan-placating addition or 38-40-year old former star signed with an unsaid prayer that they have enough in the tank to get them through 2013. That said, Kubel is a platoon player who is at his best against righties. D-Backs GM Kevin Towers isn’t giving Kubel away, and considering what Ibanez took from the Mariners ($2.75 million) and what Kubel is due ($8.5 million), they’d have been better off keeping Ibanez. Defensively each is as bad as the other.

Who are they getting to fill the remaining holes at DH and catcher? A.J. Pierzynski signed with the Rangers on a one-year contract and the Yankees didn’t even make an offer to him. Francisco Cervelli is currently at the top of their depth chart at catcher. They’ve signed Kevin Youkilis to replace the injured Alex Rodriguez at third base, and they don’t have a bench.

These are the Yankees? Piecing and patching and praying?

And the talk that the Cashman tends to make big moves late in the winter sounds more desperate and hopeful than expectant.

The veterans and the human element

Will the Yankees’ players realize where the season is going if they’re at or below .500 in June or are far out of playoff position? Will they choose to live to fight another day?

The concept that they’re the Yankees and they never quit no matter the circumstances is convenient to the narrative, but is totally ignorant of the human element involved with older athletes who have their money and may not have the stomach (or the available “helpers”) to spend the last four months of a season mounting a heroic comeback.

Age is not a factor to be dismissed. Because the Yankees’ stars have such accomplished resumes, it’s reasonable to expect a certain minimum/maximum level of performance, but with age comes a natural decline. Players who are in their late-30s/early 40s and are coming off serious injuries as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are and as A-Rod will, can’t grind it out and put up the same effort on a nightly basis they did when they were 10 and even 5 years younger. Drug testing making it impossible to take amphetamines or any other form of chemical assistance renders a 40-year-old to being a 40-year-old with the accompanying aches, pains and inconsistencies.

If those veterans see the season is shot in July, they’re going to bail just as they did in the ALCS. What’s the difference between doing it three months earlier if continuing to push is little more than postponing the inevitable?

“Everyone wants to be a Yankee”

Yes. Everyone wants to be a Yankee as long as they pay the most money. When this chapter of Yankee history is fully written in a decade or so, the first domino to tip over in the Yankees downfall wasn’t the 2012-2013 winter and the failure to retain their free agents or to make significant improvements with younger players; nor will it be the $189 million payroll mandate to be met by 2014. It will be the winter of 2010-2011 when Cliff Lee shunned the Yankees and instead chose to sign with the Phillies.

Prior to Lee, when was the last time the Yankees avidly pursued a player, offered him the most money and were turned down? Greg Maddux comes to mind. Before that, who? When did the Yankees refuse to overpay to get a player they wanted even if that player was indifferent about being a Yankee and would’ve gone elsewhere if he had a choice like CC Sabathia?

First it was Lee. Then it was Carl Pavano right after Lee. Now they’re reduced to losing out on Martin, Chavez and Ibanez.

Players wanted to be Yankees, but it wasn’t because they were longing to play in New York, or they wanted to win a championship, or that they were hypnotized (as the Michael Kay wing of mythmaking would assert) by the pinstripes and “rich tapestry of history.” It was because of money.

It’s quite simple. Offer the most money, the players will come and say that they always wanted to be a member of whatever team it was that offered them the most money. When Bobby Bonilla did it with the Mets in the winter of 1991-92, he was called an opportunistic liar because he didn’t really want to be with the Mets. When Sabathia did it, he didn’t come for the money. He was concerned about the reputation in the clubhouse of being dysfunctional and miserable.

That concern was assuaged and he signed. Oh, and the Yankees paid him the most money.

With each passing day the Yankees new truth becomes clearer and clearer. Because they don’t have the cash to spend now, the players aren’t coming. As a result, this is the team they’ve put together—one that had it been built in 2005, would’ve been similar to the 1998 team that won 114 games and is considered one of the best in history. But the players they have today are not the players they were eight years ago. Those results are going to show on the field. Then they’ll show up in the newspapers with critical columns followed by disinterest; it will in the stands with empty seats; and on TV and radio with hosts reminiscing of the good old days or ignoring the Yankees completely.

Like a sculpture, it’s not the first chip that does the damage, but an accumulation. The Yankees cumulative age, lack of funds, and diminished reputation are chipping away at what they were. The foundation has been decaying for years. This is the end result. If it looks bad now, just wait until the season starts. Then the crumbling infrastructure will be obvious to all and the “it’ll all be okay,” delusion prevalent now will be mercifully end.

Reality has a way of sorting itself out.

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Hurdle’s Law vs Murphy’s Law—Fighting for the Future of the Pirates

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Pending a physical, the Pirates have agreed to a 2-year, $14 million contract with free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. This winter, in addition to Liriano, the Pirates have added catcher Russell Martin (2-years, $17 million) and retained pitcher Jason Grilli (2-years, $6.75 million negotiated with Grilli’s agent Gary Sheffield. Yes. That Gary Sheffield.) These moves follow last spring’s acquisition of A.J. Burnett from the Yankees and the summer trade for Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. During the 2012 season, they also received cheap and talented youngsters Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins.

Liriano’s acquisition mirrors the Pirates’ trade for Burnett. Liriano is a superiorly talented underachiever whose results will benefit from the National League and the big Pirates’ park. Looking at the club on the whole, the Pirates have a batch of young players that they’re in the process of surrounding with veterans who have playoff experience and have played for well-run, winning organizations.

The Pirates collapsed in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012; endured rightful public indignation at their assistant GM Kyle Stark implementing ridiculous physical and mental training techniques for their minor leaguers; and struggled to shake the hapless image that has been their albatross for two decades. The entire front office from team president Frank Coonelly to GM Neal Huntington to Stark were said to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the conclusion of 2012 and still aren’t completely secure, but owner Bob Nutting retained all three, staying the course along with manager Clint Hurdle and trying—not putting forth the pretense of trying, but actually trying—to win by spending some money.

They haven’t simply taken on onerous contracts of other clubs either, nor have they drastically overpaid in terms of years/dollars to get veteran help. The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees for low level non-prospects while paying a third of Burnett’s $16.5 million salary in 2012 and will pay half in 2013. They got Rodriguez from the Astros for three nondescript minor leaguers and are paying $8.5 million of his $13 million salary. Now with Liriano, the rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, James McDonald and as early as 2013, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates can compete. Andrew McCutchen is a true all-around star and MVP candidate; Pedro Alvarez has tremendous power; and with Sanchez, Martin, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, they’ll score enough to support that starting rotation. In the weakened National League Central—with only the Reds substantially better on paper—and the extra Wild Card, there’s an opening for the Pirates.

The front office is constantly on the precipice of doing something stupid and are discussing trading closer Joel Hanrahan. What they get for him and whom they use to replace him should be planned before pulling any trigger and I wonder whether Hanrahan’s pending free agency after 2013 is more of a catalyst to this talk than any potential return or concerns about the righty’s effectiveness. I would not trade Hanrahan unless there are extenuating circumstances or the offer is too lucrative to turn down. They’re going to need him.

As always, there’s a dubious nature surrounding the Pirates’ plans and intentions and much of their rise has been due to a vast number of high draft picks and not overwhelming wisdom from the front office. But in spite of the collateral stories and questioning glances, there’s much to be enthusiastic about in Pittsburgh and it’s not Sidney Crosby (if the NHL ever plays again) or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s McCutchen, Cole and the other youngsters the Pirates have developed along with their shiny new veterans. Players are no longer shunning the Pirates or going to Pittsburgh because they have nowhere else to go. Given the team’s reputation around baseball as a wasteland where young players run out the clock to free agency and veterans go for a final job, that new perception is not a small thing.

There’s still that hovering feeling of Murphy’s Law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, particularly because of the still shaky status of the front office and the owner’s blindness to the harsh and exhausting realities of being a baseball player. It’s highly possible that Nutting’s expectations will outweigh what the team can accomplish and he’ll let his displeasure be known early if the team isn’t markedly better immediately. At that point, changes might be made in the front office.

Even with the looming dysfunction, they have enough talent to rise from the ashes of their 2011-2012 stumbles, use them as learning experiences, and contend for seven months rather than four. Murphy’s Law says that the Pirates will remain the Pirates, but that’s being counteracted by Hurdle’s Law—the law that dictates not taking crap and not making excuses.

They have the talent to win. And they just might.

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Yankees Have No Interest Or Need For Josh Hamilton, But…

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Buster Olney said the following on Twitter yesterday regarding the “rumor” that the Yankees were considering Josh Hamilton:

If the Yankees ever reversed course and got into the Josh Hamilton talks, it would mean that what they’ve done in last month makes no sense.

He’s 100% right and the baseball people led by Brian Cashman would want nothing—nothing!!!—to do with Hamilton.

Sure he’s talented; sure he’d help them; but the combination of injuries, age, substance abuse issues, and cost make him a ticking time bomb for a team that needs to get younger and is in the process of slashing payroll.

Is this real? Or is it trolling to create a story where none exists and make it appear that the heretofore biggest whale in the sea is considering Hamilton?

There are advantages to everyone (except the Yankees) that the talk—true or not—is floating around that they might make a move on Hamilton. With options limited, the best thing that can happen to a free agent is for the Red Sox and Yankees to both be pursuing him, so his representatives aren’t going to discourage such talk even if the Red Sox’ interest is contingent on Hamilton’s market collapsing and the Yankees are not interested at all.

If the baseball people have their way, they will not go anywhere near Hamilton, but it’s not always the baseball people who have the final say. Ownership led by the Steinbrenners and team president Randy Levine have done an end-around on Cashman in the past, most recently with Rafael Soriano. Cashman loudly and publicly—bordering on insubordinately—protested the deal and repeatedly used it as a hammer to make clear that he didn’t want the reliever. In retrospect, Soriano’s presence wound up being a benefit when the unthinkable injury to Mariano Rivera happened. Soriano took over as the closer and was brilliant.

Because it wound up working, that can only serve to embolden Levine and the Steinbrenners that they sometimes have to overrule their GM in the interests of the Yankees brand. Currently, the Yankees are uncharacteristically quiet on the free agent/trade front; they lost out on players like Jeff Keppinger and Eric Chavez who, in years past would’ve run to the Yankees; Russell Martin left when the Yankees were outbid by the Pirates. The Wall Street Journal said that Cashman wasn’t allowed to make any deals at the winter meetings. The Yankees denied it and the unnamed “official” quoted in the WSJ story sounds eerily reminiscent of the bloviating Levine. Cashman is following an edict to get the payroll down to $189 million by 2014 no matter what and if the Yankees are sticking to that agenda, they’re not able to do as they have in the past and open the checkbook to fill their gaping holes.

What does all this mean?

The young and nouveau Yankees fan has no memory of the time before Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Rivera; before the playoffs were essentially a guarantee; before players wanted to join the Yankees rather than doing so because they offered the most money. That fan cannot fathom players choosing other options. They don’t understand the organization looking so impotent especially when they have needs that supersede wants.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Yankees endured a dead off-season in 1991-1992 when they overpaid for a player they didn’t want or need and had a very limited market in Danny Tartabull. The next year, the Yankees offered the most money for Greg Maddux and felt used when Maddux took less money to go to the Braves. It’s not a new phenomenon that the Yankees are a less-than-preferable destination. The ball got rolling when Cliff Lee decided to go back to the Phillies instead of joining the Yankees and the abuse heaped upon his wife during the ALCS of 2010 certainly didn’t help. Nick Swisher’s open complaints of the fans’ attacking him has warned players as to what they can expect if they don’t perform.

The Yankees are locked in that vacancy of concerns about perception; their multiple weaknesses; age; desire to reduce payroll; player reticence about New York; and fear of irrelevance. Hamilton would function as a bigger name to say, “Hey, the Yankees are still around,” than Soriano did during another quiet off-season in which the GM wanted things to be quiet, but with an exponential cost and potential for disaster.

The Yankees could sign Hamilton because they have the money and the growing desperation. It’s a guarantee that the name has been brought up, not by Cashman, but by the media trolls and by Levine.

The media trolls and schlock sites are what they are, fulfilling their responsibility by accumulating webhits and drawing attention to themselves. They should be brushed to the side and mostly ignored. But Levine is a far more dangerous type of troll to what the Yankees are trying to do. He’s a troll in a position of power to make his delusions a reality. That makes a pursuit of Hamilton a hellish possibility that would expedite the Yankees downfall on and off the field and would be a big mistake for Hamilton himself.

That said, there’s no doubt whatsoever that it could happen.

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The Yankees’ $189 Million Reality

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The mandate the Yankees are under to reduce their payroll to $189 million by 2014 isn’t a capricious decision designed for ownership to maximize profits and for the baseball operations to bolster their credentials in the industry by winning without the limitless payroll that was one of the important hallmarks of the club from 1996 on through 2012 when they won five championships and made the playoffs every year but one. It can’t be avoided: the Yankees won year-after-year, in part, because of their spending power. While it’s an easy argument to say that with George Steinbrenner gone and the more thoughtful and less maniacal Hal Steinbrenner holding the most sway over the pursestrings, the family is trying to line their pockets to a greater degree—a degree that was secondary to the Boss’s bottom line: winning. It’s also an easy argument to make that GM Brian Cashman wants to lower the payroll to get his share of the credit pie that has gone to the new age thinkers in baseball like Billy Beane, Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman because they were either working under parameters that made it a necessity for them to find bargains, get lucky, or formulate new strategies to compete with the big spenders in baseball; or, in Epstein’s case, were trying to win with a souped up version of Moneyball using stats backed up by a massive payroll.

Both are probably, to a point, accurate. But the Yankees are trying to get under the $189 million threshold by 2014 for the cold hard fact that if they don’t, they’re going to have to pay a penalty of 50% for going over that amount. It also has to be understood that the Yankees payroll will not be permanently limited by that 2014 number. If they’re under $189 in 2014, by 2015, they’ll again be able to spend as the Yankees have spent in the past—with no concept of restraint—because the penalty will revert to the lowest level of 17.5%.

It’s short-term. What this means in the near future, though, is that there won’t be the headlong dive into free agency and by taking huge contracts off the hands of other clubs in trades because right now the Yankees must be cognizant of their payroll. There’s no getting around it.

There are methods to achieve this end. Some clubs, like the Athletics and Rays, let their players play under the constraints of the collective bargaining agreement where they can’t be free agents until they’ve accumulated six years of service time. Or they sign them to long-term contracts that are agreeable to both sides, buy out their arbitration years and perhaps the first couple of years of free agency giving the players a guaranteed payday they might not get if they don’t perform or get injured. This is a method to keep the youngsters they’ve developed.

The Rays have essentially ensured that their star Evan Longoria will be a Ray for the duration of his career with the long term deals he signed as a rookie and the extension he agreed to last week. It’s conceivable that Longoria cost himself an extra $100 million or more with the contracts he signed. That’s his choice and the Rays took on significant risk as well.

Teams can do as Beane did a year ago (and several times before) and clear out the house of veterans who are set to make big money in exchange for the best prospects they can get their hands on and restart the process over and over again.

Or they can do what the Yankees are doing by signing veterans in their mid-to-late-30s to 1-year contracts, pay them handsomely, and hope they stay healthy and perform up to what they were in their primes.

Because the Yankees are saying they’re serious about this “$189 million by 2014” statement and have always backtracked on prior payroll-limiting endeavors, there’s a belief in the Yankees universe that they’re biding their time and waiting; that they’ll open the checkbook once they realize that a playoff appearance is something to be earned and not a birthright and that they’re ill-equipped to win in 2013 and 2014 as they’re currently constructed; that it’s a matter of time before they pull the same trick they did when they acted as if they had no interest in free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira and the Red Sox were widely expected to sign him before the Yankees struck with lightning quickness and decisiveness getting the first baseman and keeping him away from the Red Sox. This completed the 2008-2009 shopping spree with Teixeira joining CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to repair the failure of 2008 when they had again tried to lower payroll by going with homegrown pitchers and were rewarded with a missed playoff spot and indignation permeating their organization, the media, and fans.

Here are the numbers to understand the circumstances the Yankees are now in. Their guaranteed contracts for 2014 are as follows:

Alex Rodriguez—$25 million

Mark Teixeira—$22.5 million

CC Sabathia—$23 million

Derek Jeter—$8 million player option ($3 million buyout)

That comes to $75.5 million. There are the players who are movable and exchangeable with other similar contracts such as Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, David Robertson, and Eduardo Nunez. So you can figure that the rest of the starting rotation and filling out the bullpen won’t be super-expensive. Robinson Cano is a free agent at the end of 2013, is represented by Scott Boras and will want somewhere between $190-220 million. Ignoring the risk of giving a lackadaisical player like Cano such a massive contract, they’ll do what needs to be done to keep him with a backloaded deal.

With all of that comes the vicious truth that for 2013, the Yankees are not jumping in on Zack Greinke; they’re not signing Josh Hamilton; and they’re not trading for Justin Upton (his no-trade clause includes the Yankees, so they’d have to redo his long-term contract). They let Russell Martin leave when it was widely reported that they wanted him back when the Pirates—the Pirates—gave him 2-years and $17 million. These are the same Pirates that once functioned as a big league farm club for the Yankees to take their stars off their hands for whatever crumbs of prospects the Yankees deigned to give them.

Losing Martin isn’t that big of a problem, but their current catching depth chart consists of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Eli Whiteside, and minor leaguer Austin Romine. They don’t have a right fielder with the pending departure of Nick Swisher and the talk of bringing Ichiro Suzuki back comes more from the fans, media and Ichiro himself than it does from the Yankees. Maybe—maybe—they’re downplaying possible interest in Mike Napoli and will sign him to a team-friendly deal in which he’s paid well for 2013, has a reduction in salary in 2014, and has a back-end raise in years 3 and/or 4. This would be done based on need and to keep up appearances as the club is under expanding ridicule and anger for their lack of action.

This concept that their offense is still good enough is ignoring that they don’t have a catcher; they don’t have a right fielder; they don’t have a DH; Jeter won’t repeat 2012; and A-Rod and Curtis Granderson spent most of the second half of 2012 in a fog. They can’t go into 2013 with an offense looking like it does right now and logically believe they’re title contenders.

The 2013 team is elderly by athletic standards and the days of a 35-43-year old player posting numbers better than he did when he was 28 ended with drug testing. As much as Yankees apologists refer to the annual playoff appearance and utter pompous statements of “World Series or failure,” extolling the self-proclaimed “specialness” of the Yankees brand, the reality is that the Yankees are currently, on paper, the third best team in the AL East behind the Rays and Blue Jays; are in the same predicament with the Red Sox of clinging to what was; and have a resurgent Orioles club glaring at them from their wing rather than their posterior.

Jeter and Rivera are recovering from severe injuries; A-Rod is breaking down physically and when he can play is a threat emeritus rather than a mid-lineup basher—and now it’s being reported that A-Rod needs more hip surgery and may miss part of 2013; they have to rely on Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte to anchor the rotation behind Sabathia, who is also coming off of elbow surgery and has a massive amount of wear on his tires.

Is all of this likely to yield the same results it has in the past?

These are the Yankees of today and for the next two seasons. They have money, but it’s tied up. They’ll spend it, but it’s not going to be for long term improvements via the not-so-free market until after the 2014 season. By then they might be dealing with two years of missed playoffs, mediocrity or, if things go worst case scenario, finishes at or under .500. There’s a sense of disbelief among the media and fan that this is the way the Yankees are doing business; that it’s a ruse and everything will go on as before once they’ve grown tired of teasing their fans.

Don’t say the worst happen because it just happened to the Red Sox and, to a lesser degree, the Marlins, Phillies, and Angels. No one thought the Red Sox would ever fall to the depths that they did in 2012 and it can happen to the Yankees in 2013-2014. Dynasties—including that of the Yankees—have collapsed before. It’s not farfetched to predict their downfall again because the pieces are in place and getting more entrenched by the day. In fact, it’s inevitable.

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The Meaning of the David Wright Signing

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A week after Black Friday, it was Blue and Orange Friday as the Mets signed their star third baseman David Wright to an 8-year contract extension for $138 million. Of course this decision elicited reactions far and wide. Let’s take a look at the reality of the Wright contract for everyone involved.

For David Wright

I wrote about Wright’s decision to re-sign with the Mets yesterday.

Wright had the choice of waiting until his chance at free agency after next season and face the prospect of being traded or getting hurt. Maybe he would have had a career season and put himself in position to make perhaps $20-30 million more on the open market; maybe he would’ve been traded to a preseason/mid-season title-contender.

Or it could’ve ended badly.

Wright saw what happened to his friend and former teammate Jose Reyes when he chased the money, went the the Marlins and now is playing for the Blue Jays in Canada on artificial turf for the next five years. There was the added attraction of Wright being a Mets icon who will rewrite their record book, be the best position player in their history and to never wear another club’s uniform. The offer was on the table, he wasn’t going to do much better as a free agent and didn’t really want to leave apart from a fleeting, “what if?” curiosity of what it would be like elsewhere.

In the end, he chose to stay in the only baseball home he’s ever known.

For the Mets

There’s no getting around how important it was for the Mets to keep Wright not just because he’s a top 5 third baseman in all of baseball and their most popular player, but because they had to undo the perception of the club being broke and having little interest in: A) spending money; B) give the fans what they wanted.

Like Carlos Beltran functions as a symbol of the near-miss of the 2006 team; Jason Bay the symbol of the desperation to hold onto the shriveling tendrils of contention; Reyes the star who spiraled down the drain like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme money that gutted the Wilpons’ finances, Wright is a bridge to the better times of the Mets and can be the elder statesman for the future.

It was important for the club to step up, show the fans, media, and the rest of baseball that they were willing to do what it took to keep the one player they had to keep. It wasn’t simply an on-field maneuver. Truth be told, the rebuilding might have been expedited with a lower payroll had they traded Wright for a package of prospects—in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were loud voices in the front office that wanted to do that exact thing. But for the same reason they didn’t trade Reyes when many were screaming that they should, there were collateral reasons not to pull the trigger on Wright.

And here’s a flash about Reyes: the Mets did want him back. To say that they didn’t is silly. What they didn’t want to do was give $100 million to a speed player whose defense was markedly declining and who had had multiple injuries over the years when they knew they were also going to need money to sign Wright. What they were hoping was that the Reyes market crashed and he had to return on a deal the club found reasonable. Had the Marlins not jumped in with their backloaded $106 million deal, that’s exactly what would’ve happened. In addition, the Mets had a big league ready replacement for Reyes in Ruben Tejada. No such replacement on or off the field existed for Wright.

It didn’t have racial undertones of choosing the handsome, steady white guy over the flashy and injury prone Dominican. It was a cold baseball decision made by the front office—exactly the type of rationality they wanted when the hired Sandy Alderson as the GM to replace the “I want to make people happy immediately regardless of long-term cost” Omar Minaya.

As for the repeated reference to Fred Wilpon’s ill-advised comment in the New Yorker Magazine that Wright wasn’t a superstar player, it was a year-and-a-half ago. Do you really believe that Wright and Wilpon haven’t since spoken and hashed it out? The Mets paid him like a superstar and Wright will be the first one to tell you that he’s not an Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez in their primes. How many true “superstars” are there in baseball? Not many and Wright, along with many other All-Star players, is not a prototypical superstar. It’s not the insult it’s portrayed to be and in the end, what’s the difference?

For the rest of baseball

Wright is very popular around baseball and if he’s willing to invest the rest of his career to the Mets, it’s a signal that the circumstances are getting better around the entire franchise. Because of the lack of money and last four seasons of steady decline and rebuild, the Mets were a “no go” destination unless a player had no other choice. As we’ve seen with the Orioles and Athletics on the positive side and the Red Sox and even the Yankees on the negative side, that is more of a function of how they’re viewed in the moment.

With Wright onboard and the young pitching Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jonathon Niese that has much of baseball salivating to get their hands on them, along with NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, the Mets have the foundation in place to make a serious move into legitimate contention.

Wright signing and the Mets paying him tells the rest of baseball that the talk of wanting to keep Wright wasn’t lip service to placate without a true intention of following through. They followed through.

For the fans

Even the most miserable Mets fan who didn’t want Wright back, who is still complaining about the supporting cast they’re surrounding the third baseman with, has to feel some sense of happiness that they’re keeping someone and not masochistically pleading for a repeat of the flogging they took for their dealings with Reyes.

They kept Reyes rather than trade him because, as said before, they wanted to keep him; and they also wanted to sell a few more tickets in a lost season. It was a retrospective mistake, but it was more understandable—given the circumstances—than the simplistic entreaties that they “should’ve traded him” would suggest.

Mets fans will still complain, but it won’t be about not holding onto their own players. For now anyway.

For the media

As usual, the Mets can’t win with the media. Whatever they do, it’s twisted to suit the narrative of a moderately brainless idiot who occasionally and by mistake manages to get something right.

This is exemplified by today’s passive aggressive piece in the New York Times by Tyler Kepner. Amid the begrudging credit given to the club for keeping their third baseman, Kepner took the cheap shots that have become a prerequisite in this market by, of course, mentioning the Wilpon comment; rehashing past mistakes such as Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo; questioning the wisdom on the part of Wright and the Mets in staying together; and naturally making sure to mention the supposed superiority of the Yankees who, according to Kepner, have a “business model sets them up to contend for the title every year.”

That same Yankees’ business model that: has an array of immovable contracts; Derek Jeter appearing as if he’s packing on the pounds to audition to be Engelberg in The Bad News Bears—20 years later; ancient players from top to bottom; lost Russell Martin to the Pirates; and has, topping their catching depth chart, the equally horrendous Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart.

Referencing the Yankees as anything to admire right now is an outrageous display of clinging to the past and a none-too-sly shot at the Mets during a brief moment of happiness.

Kepner offhandedly points out the acquisition of Wheeler from the Giants for Beltran in the tone of the Mets being a broken clock that manages to be right twice a day, then contextualizes it by equating the decision to trade Angel Pagan—a talented player who is baseball-stupid—as the Giants getting “even.” Like the Wright signing, the Pagan trade made sense at the time. It didn’t work, but the way to judge any trade/free agent signing/draft pick is whether it was logical. Anything other than that is second guessing.

What the Mets have done under Alderson is to retreat from the Wilpons’ prior modus operandi with GMs of the past and, instead of concentrating on doing what the media wanted them to do to garner good press, are pushing back and running the club as it should be run. The same press that had Minaya thinking everyone is his friend is intimidated by Alderson because the GM sees right through them and won’t respond to their tactics—tactics that Kepner again employs and will be roundly ignored if not ridiculed by those who know better and understand his intentions with such a transparent piece.

This is a positive move for the Mets. They did what needed to be done in keeping Wright. That is the only way in which this signing must be judged. It makes sense now, therefore it makes sense, no matter what happens in the future and over Wright’s career that will be as a Met and a Met alone.

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Yankees Modern Art

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If it were 2002 instead of 2012 and the Yankees had been humiliated by getting swept in the ALCS, there wouldn’t be organizational meetings; statements pronouncing the job security of the manager and general manager; assertions that players who had failed miserably would be back in pinstripes. Since their four game meltdown at the hands of the Tigers, there hasn’t been the outraged lunacy in the organization that would’ve accompanied a George Steinbrenner team not simply losing, but getting swept.

They didn’t run into a hot pitcher. They didn’t walk into a buzzsaw lineup. They weren’t devastated by injuries to irreplaceable players to the degree that they should’ve gotten whitewashed. They didn’t lose a tough 6-7 game series and put up a good show while doing it.

They got swept.

Swept like leaves tumbling to the ground during the Fall season that is supposed to belong to the Yankees. Swept like ash from from one of Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland’s ever-present Marlboro cigarettes.

Swept.

Steinbrenner would’ve openly congratulated the Tigers, noting what a great job Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski did, complete with the glare and unsaid, “And my staff didn’t.”

As capricious and borderline deranged as Steinbrenner was, he served a purpose in creating a sense of urgency and accountability for even the most seasoned and highly compensated stars. They’ve become an organization that tolerates failure and allows indiscretions and underperformance to pass unpunished. Would he have sat by quietly as the team spiraled in September? Would he have exhibited such passivity while the decisions made by the entrenched GM elicited one expensive disaster after another?

Passivity vs accountability is an ongoing problem for the Yankees and there is an in-between, but the Yankees haven’t found it. How is it possible that the GM is not under fire for his atrocious drafts, dreadful trades, and inflexible and unsuccessful development of pitchers? Is it lost on observers that the two teams that are in the World Series made it with an array of starting pitchers who were not babied in the way that Cashman decreed would be the method of acquisition and development for his pitchers—all of whom are either stagnant and inconsistent (Dellin Betances, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain), on the disabled list (Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos), traded (Ian Kennedy, Phil Coke), or failed completely (Andrew Brackman)?

Could the Yankees have used George Kontos this year? He’s a forgotten name, but appeared in 44 games for the NL champion Giants and was a useful reliever for a pennant-winning team. In exchange for Kontos they received Chris Stewart, a journeyman backup catcher for whom defense is supposedly a forte and whose numbers, on the surface, imply that he was “better” for the pitchers than starter Russell Martin. In reality, Stewart was CC Sabathia’s semi-personal backstop and 18 of Sabathia’s 28 starts were caught by Stewart. It’s easy to look “better” when catching Sabathia as opposed to Freddy Garcia.

If a team is limiting its payroll and can’t spend $14 million for a set-up man who could be the closer just in case Mariano Rivera gets hurt as they did with Rafael Soriano, they need to keep pitchers like Kontos who could help them cheaply. They can’t toss $8 million into the trash on pitchers like Pedro Feliciano, then look across town to blame the Mets expecting the usual cowering silence for the accusation. (At least the Mets replied for once and shut the blameshifting Yankees’ GM up.)

Firing someone for no reason is not the answer, but firing someone for the sake of change is a justifiable reason to make a move—any move. No one’s losing their jobs over this? The majority of the club—including Alex Rodriguez—is coming back? Cashman hasn’t been put on notice for his on and off field faults?

Manager Joe Girardi has lost a serious amount of credibility in that clubhouse coming off the way he buried the veteran players who’d played hard and hurt for him during his entire tenure. There wasn’t a love-fest going on with Girardi, but there was a factional respect for the job he did that was demolished with his huddling with Cashman in the decision to bench A-Rod.

What they’re doing in bringing back the entire front office, manager, coaching staff, and nucleus of players is saying that there was nothing wrong with the team in 2012; that a season in which, apart from June and September, they were barely over .500 and putting forth the thought that they’ll be the same, but better in 2013. How does that work? The already aging players are a year older, but they’ll improve?

No. That’s not how it goes.

If the Boss were around, there would be demands to do something. It might be a bloodbath, it might be a tweak here or there, it might be a conscious choice to get A-Rod out of pinstripes no matter the cost. But there would be something. Coming from his football/military background, it wasn’t a bullying compulsion alone that Steinbrenner had to fire people and make drastic changes when something didn’t go according to plan. It was a necessity. Occasionally that resulted in stupidity the likes of almost trading Ron Guidry for Al Cowens; of trading Willie McGee for Bob Sykes; of trading Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield; for firing highly qualified baseball men in the front office and as manager and replacing them with sycophants whose main function in life was to make sure the Boss got his coffee at just the right temperature.

Where’s the middle?

Questions would be asked rather than adhering to a plan that’s not working. There was an end to the threats. Now there don’t appear to be consequences. They’ve gone from one extreme to the other when, in his last decade in charge, there was a middle-ground (still leaning heavily to the right) when Steinbrenner was alive.

There have been calls for the Yankees to return to the “feel good” tenets of 1996 and the dynastic confidence of the cohesive and well-oiled machine of 1998-2000. It’s true that during that time there wasn’t an A-Rod magnitude of star sopping up a vast chunk of the payroll and making headlines in the front of the newspaper more often than the back, but those teams were also the highest-paid in baseball. There was no Little Engine That Could in 1996.

With the mandate to reduce the bottom line to $189 million by 2014, it’s not judging how the team failed as they did in 2008 by not making the playoffs, and buying their way out of it with Mark Teixeira, Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Players aren’t running to join the Yankees in quest for a championship anymore and the money isn’t as limitless as it once was, so the playing field is level and the venue no longer as attractive.

You can’t have it both ways and claim to be superior to everyone else while having loftier goals than everyone else and being more valuable than everyone else, then run the team the same way as everyone else. It can’t work.

But they’re keeping this main cast together. It’s Yankees modern art where losing is tolerated and the aura of the Boss is mentioned as a historical artifact like the dinosaurs. He really existed once. It seems longer ago than it actually was and it’s fading off into the distance with each passing day and each organizational staff member’s comfort to the point of complacency.

They’re complacent all right; they’re consistent too. Every year it’s the same thing with the same people, and they expect it to change in the next year.

Trust me, it won’t.

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American League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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Let’s look at the current construction of each club and make an honest appraisal of their 2012 status and 2013 future. We’ll start with the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles

As an excuse to justify how brilliant they are and that their numbers are never wrong, it’s en vogue for the stats-obsessed to repeatedly reference how “lucky” the Orioles are because of their negative run differential and that their record under the shaky metric of the Pythagorean Win Theorem has them 12 games worse than their actual record.

The Orioles have three major attributes: they hit the ball out of the park; they have a deep bullpen; and they have a manager in Buck Showalter who knows how to push the right buttons. Bullpens fluctuate so there’s no guarantee that will continue into 2013; they’ll still have players who hit the ball out of the park; and Showalter is discussing a contract extension.

Their starting rotation are all in their mid-20s and they have young players Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado set to make contributions. The Orioles may take a step back next year, but they’ve turned the corner from a laughingstock where no player would choose to go unless they’re overpaid or without options to a viable destination with a plan and a chance to win. And they have a great shot at the playoffs this season.

New York Yankees

Anyone speculating about Joe Girardi’s job security is looking for a scapegoat and trying to distract from the real culprits in the team’s inconsistency and age: Brian Cashman and, to a lesser extent, the Steinbrenners.

If this team doesn’t make the playoffs, they’re going to have to make structural changes to the roster. The constant discussion of their 10 games lead in July is glossing over the fact that they’ve had one good month—June when they went 20-7. Aside from that, they’re around a .500 team and making the playoffs in 2012 is in jeopardy. They’re old, expensive, and worn down. It remains to be seen what this veteran crew is going to have left in the tank even if they do make the playoffs

All of a sudden criticism has been extended to hitting coach Kevin Long for the slide of Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, among others. Long might be gone, playoffs or not. The Yankees minor league system is dwindling in stature and legitimate prospects, thereby limiting what they’ll be able to acquire on the market; their open decision to try and reduce payroll to prevent luxury tax implications will also reduce their options to improve the team on the fly.

If they fall from the playoffs or are a one-and-done scenario, I’d fire Cashman not just for his incompetent trade for Michael Pineda and failure to address needs at the trading deadline, but also because I still have an issue with him having written a reference on team letterhead for either his girlfriend or a woman that was blackmailing him. His judgment on and off the field is highly questionable.

Maybe it’s time for Billy Eppler to get a chance or to even bring back Gene Michael for a 2-3 year run as GM.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are loaded with young pitching, aggressive in making trades, and build a different bullpen every year with the refuse of other clubs. Because they are operating under severe financial constraints and the scrutiny around them is limited, they can do what they want and live with a season of 83-79 or worse to get back to 95 wins the next season. This is what they are and how they’ll remain under the current management.

Toronto Blue Jays

Edwin Encarnacion hit his 40th home run last night. He joins Jose Bautista as a journeyman player who suddenly starting hitting the ball out of the park with a ridiculous frequency for the Blue Jays. But they’re still the same team that discovers a player for whom it clicked in his late-20s, and winds up with a win total between 75-83 and is in third or fourth place in the division.

Their manager John Farrell is in demand to take over the Red Sox and the Blue Jays don’t sound all that bothered about it. Their entire starting rotation has spent time on the disabled list for one malady or another. Their offense is flashy, but as inconsistent as their would-be star pitcher Brandon Morrow.

It’s just off in Toronto. They do noticeable things like make aggressive trades, hit homers and steal bases, but they don’t win. I don’t hear people referring to GM Alex Anthopoulos as a genius much anymore. What are they thinking North of the border when they spent so many years jumping at the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays like a child trying to recover a confiscated toy, then see the Red Sox come apart, the Yankees vulnerable, and the Rays beatable and that it’s the Orioles and not the Blue Jays who are taking advantage?

I thought the Blue Jays would take the next step this season, but that belief has been prevalent for a decade and they’re frozen in place. I’m not picking them again unless they make significant changes on and off the field.

Boston Red Sox

On some level, I understand what they did when they hired Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona. I’m not one who’s seeing their atrocious season as validating Francona is some bizarre way. He and Theo Epstein take as much responsibility if not more as Larry Lucchino and Valentine in 2012. They were trying to move forward with the roster as it was, make a few tweaks here and there, and see if it got better. It didn’t and it’s not Valentine’s fault.

They got rid of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford, saved money and bolstered the farm system. But if you think they’re going to hire Farrell or whoever; sign a few free agents with the available money or make a big trade and they’ll be back to where they were as World Series favorites, you’ve got another thing coming. There’s a lot of work to do in Boston and it’s not going to be a short-term process. If they go half-in/half-out and try to straddle the line as they did last winter, expect more of the same in 2013.

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Anatomy Of A Yankees Swoon

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The Yankees, their fans, and the media that covers them on a daily basis are all wallowing in denial, excuses, self-pity, delusion, and desperation. The team itself still has time to save its season, but they’re well on the way to joining the Red Sox and Mets in the lore of historic and embarrassing collapses that, for the Yankees with their payroll and superiority complex, will surpass those of teams past.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the Yankees and the likelihood of steering out of this spiral.

Injuries and lack of depth

This is the batting order they presented last night against the Rays:

1. Derek Jeter-SS

2. Curtis Granderson-CF

3. Nick Swisher-1B

4. Robinson Cano-DH

5. Alex Rodriguez-3B

6. Raul Ibanez-LF

7. Jayson Nix-2B

8. Chris Dickerson-RF

9. Chris Stewart-C

And pitching, Freddy Garcia.

This is the starting lineup for one of the latter days of spring training, not for a pennant race in September against a younger, faster, healthier Rays team in direct pursuit. On the heels of journeyman Steve Pearce batting cleanup, Eric Chavez having to play almost every day after A-Rod got hurt, Ibanez playing too much, Swisher having to play first base in place of Mark Teixeira, and using Garcia and David Phelps in the starting rotation, is it any wonder the 10 game lead has been extinguished?

No one wants to hear about injuries. No one wants to hear whining about the umpires or a “woe is me” lament. No one cares about the Yankees problems. They’re scouring the bargain bin for the likes of Pearce and Casey McGehee and expecting to move along smoothly without a hitch. A 4-A player doesn’t stop being a 4-A player just because he puts on a Yankee uniform.

Non-issues become problems when the team’s losing

Cano’s repeated incidents of nonchalance weren’t an issue when the team was winning, so it can’t be referenced as one when they’re losing. The Yankees let Cano’s jogging around go because there wasn’t much they could do about it and it was okay with a 10 game lead. Now that the lead is gone, it’s not okay? It doesn’t work that way. Jeter runs out every ground ball, why can’t Cano?

In a similar vein, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t scrutinized heavily for his occasionally strange strategic decisions when the team was star-studded and rolling unstoppably toward another division title with an eye on the World Series. Once the decisions actually make a difference not just in a game, but in the standings and the team is in danger of falling out of the playoffs completely, there’s ludicrous speculation about his job security if they complete this collapse.

Girardi, like most of the other 2012 Yankees, has never been in this pressurized situation during the season. In 2008, it was known by September 1st that, barring a miraculous comeback, they weren’t making the playoffs. In 2009, they won 103 games. In 2010, the biggest decision they had was whether or not to try and win the division or accept the Wild Card. In 2011, they coasted late in the season and played a lineup similar to the one they’re currently playing and allowed the Rays to sweep them and overtake the Red Sox (something I don’t hold against them).

Now they have to play and they have to win. When Girardi was in a pressurized situation of the post-season in 2009 and his maneuvers were important, he was found wanting. He made odd and panicky pitching changes and ill-thought-out lineup and in-game moves. That Yankees team happened to be talented enough to overcome Girardi’s overmanaging and win the title.

I don’t blame Girardi for this stumble, but it’s now that he has to maintain control of the ship and not grip the handles too tightly, but his volcanic eruption last night that resulted in an ejection and his snippy replies to questions in post-game press conferences indicate a growing tightness that will permeate the team.

Personnel gaffes

The Yankees and GM Brian Cashman have made it clear that they no longer intend to purchase every star on the market to have at least 2 players who could be or have been All-Stars at each position. They want to get under the luxury tax when the draconian measures to restrain salaries come into effect and it shows on the field. They didn’t pursue Cliff Lee when the Phillies were listening to offers on him; they didn’t make a substantial package available at mid-season to get Justin Upton; they weren’t avidly chasing any of the available players who might’ve been able to help them drastically. Instead, they traded for Ichiro Suzuki and got him for nothing. Ichiro can still catch the ball in the outfield and steal a base, but he’s hitting identically with the Yankees as he did with the Mariners: lots of singles and no on-base skills with an average hovering around .270.

These in-season acquisitions come after consecutive winters in which they wasted money (Pedro Feliciano); signed fill-in veterans and scrapheap denizens (Russell Martin, Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Chavez); and gave away assets (Jesus Montero) for literally nothing (Michael Pineda and the “key” Jose Campos).

This is not to suggest Montero would be a significant contributor to the Yankees in a Yankees uniform—he’s been okay learning on the job behind and at the plate with the Mariners—but he was something other teams coveted; they could’ve traded him for a known commodity rather than going the cheap and “controllable” route with Pineda.

Hiroki Kuroda was a great signing.

The Yankees vaunted young pitching that they developed with it in mind that they wouldn’t spend tons of cash on other teams’ abused arms? That’s not working either. Phil Hughes is an okay big league pitcher, but he’s a 3rd or 4th starter that you can find on the market. Joba Chamberlain is a bottom-line disappointment. Ian Kennedy wasn’t good for the Yankees; they received Granderson for him making it a win. Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Campos, Pineda—where’s the next Andy Pettitte? A Yankees’ pitcher they brought through their system and turned into a top-flight starter?

Seeking solace

Teams, fanbases and media members who’ve experienced a collapse have all done the same things. They look at the schedule; they lean on one another looking for positive reassurance; they repeat the mantra of “Everything’s gonna be alright” with the unsaid, “Isn’t it?” as an addendum.

Mike Francesa had Yankees beat reporters Sweeny Murti and Mark Feinsand on as guests and it was something of a sycophantic think-tank in which the schedule was seen as the Yankees friend and the three discussed not what the consequences would be if the Yankees missed the playoffs or that increasingly real possibility, but how many games they would recover and win the division by.

Michael Kay sounds so disconsolate that he can barely stomach a third piece of chicken parmesan.

Fans are clutching each other as if they’re in a prayer circle looking towards the heavens wondering why the Baseball Gods that have smiled so consistently on the Yankees hath forsaken them.

It’s not a conspiracy. They’re just not very good.

Meteorology

It wasn’t a stand-alone instance that the Mets and Red Sox collapsed in 2007 and 2011. There was a perfect storm that assisted greatly in the fall from the playoffs. The Mets kept losing to the Phillies and blew their lead, but would’ve made the playoffs if not for the Rockies ridiculous hot streak in September that launched them from also-ran to the World Series.

The Red Sox had a blazing hot Rays team chasing them and the Yankees who didn’t play their regulars in the last series against the Rays.

Now the Yankees, even with the extra Wild Card available, are in an American League with 8 teams for 5 playoff spots. If they fall from first place, there’s a good chance that falling from playoff position will come immediately after.

Studying the schedule is meant to be a calming device, but it’s not. Referencing games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Twins is a stretch as well. Mets and Red Sox fans can tell Yankees fans all about the futility of studying the schedules during a swoon such as this. The 2007 Mets consistently lost to the horrific Nationals; the 2011 Red Sox were undone by the then-terrible Orioles; the Yankees lost 2 of 3 to the Blue Jays just last week and the Red Sox would see vengeance and a salvaging of their dismal season by taking part in the Yankees downfall.

The Yankees can’t count on other teams helping them to get them into the playoffs. They have to win a few games themselves—something they’re not doing and with this lineup, may not be capable of doing.

Clinging to the past; reaching back for the stars

This Yankees team finds itself chained to a past that’s not going to return. Still reliant on Jeter to be the star; waiting for Pettitte to return and save the day; blaming their stumble, ridiculously, on the loss of Mariano Rivera—they haven’t replaced them and are finding out how truly hard it is to do so with hardened veterans who’ve been through the battles and come out on top.

Rafael Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been during the season, so the absence of Rivera is not a viable reason for the way they’ve played. The idea that Soriano’s shift to the closer’s role hindered the set-up area is ignoring how thoroughly unreliable Soriano was as a set-up man.

While Jeter has had a renaissance in 2012, that can’t last forever. What are they going to do then?

What are they going to do when Pettitte is retired and stays retired? If Rivera can’t be as effective as he was prior to his knee injury or can’t come back at all?

They don’t have ready replacements as was the intent when they “developed” their young players and the players they have now are feeling the heat they never expected to feel to make the playoffs when they joined the Yankees.

Sign free agents? They’ve openly said the vault isn’t as open as it once was and they’re on the hook for a ton of money for A-Rod, Teixeira and CC Sabathia for the foreseeable future. Make trades? Does anyone want those prospects who’ve leaped backwards and been hurt this season?

There is no endless dynasty. The Yankees of the 1960s came undone because they failed to adapt to the draft and their stars got old all at once. The same things that happened to other teams that collapsed like the Mets and Red Sox are present with this Yankees team and they’re not so easy to gloss over when the team doesn’t win. In fact, they become more stark; they become the foundation for a slide that takes years to recover from.

I happens to everyone. And whether the Yankees recover from this in time to make it to the playoffs and even win while there, that’s not going to stop the inevitable reality. This is a sign of the beginning of the end and it will be pointed to as such when things really come apart, sooner or later.

Right now it looks like sooner.

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