New York Yankees: 25Q/25D

25Q/25D: Are the Yankees better this year?

February, 19, 2012
2/19/12
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25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 25

Finally, on the day that pitchers and catchers report to Yankees camp, we come to the most important question of all, and one that needs more than a mere blog item to explore.

At first glance, the answer might seem like an easy one, but click here to read why it's not as simple as you might think.

And as always, let us know if you agree or disagree in the comments section below.

25Q/25D: Expecting too much from Mo?

February, 18, 2012
2/18/12
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AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekMariano Rivera still has the magic ... but for how long?
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 24

For the past 15 seasons, it has not even been open to question: If the Yankees take a lead into the ninth inning, Mariano Rivera will safeguard it.

And last year, Rivera was as good as he has ever been in his career, despite being at an age (41) where few ballplayers, let alone closers, have ever been anywhere near the top of their games.

But then, Mariano Rivera has never been subject to measurement by the yardsticks used by mere mortals.

His 2011, if not as overpowering as 2010, was nevertheless transcendent: 44 saves in 49 chances, a 1.91 ERA, a stingy .211 OBA. Remarkably, nearly half the batters he faced either struck out or hit an infield fly, the two best outcomes a pitcher can hope for after he lets go of the baseball.

All of these were better than any other pitcher on the Yankees staff with the exception of one, and that is good news: Mo's OBA was bettered by David Robertson (.169), whose combined strikeout/infield-fly percentage was a team-high 51 percent, all of which supports the belief of many, including myself and Andrew Marchand, that D-Rob is the likeliest candidate to succeed Mariano as the Yankees' closer.

The question is, when will a succession be necessary?

By the numbers, the day to start looking for Mariano's replacement doesn't seem to be very close.

But by the history, it might be a lot closer than Yankees fans care to think. Of the top 10 closers in baseball history -- ranked, rather inefficiently, by number of saves -- Rivera is doing his job at an age when every one of them was either retired or in serious decline.

Mo turned 42 in November. The closer he leapfrogged for the all-time saves lead last year, Trevor Hoffman, saved 10 games as a 42-year-old, but blew five others and lost his job. The rest -- Lee Smith, John Franco, Billy Wagner, Jeff Reardon, Troy Percival, Randy Myers and Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage -- posted a total of three saves beyond their 40th birthdays, two by Franco and one by Eckersley.

So Mariano is clearly entering largely uncharted waters as we enter 2012, the final year of his current contract. With the exception of some muscle soreness that kept him -- conveniently? -- out of last year's All-Star Game, he has remained generally healthy, and while he has lost about 2 mph off his fastball and a mile-and-half off his cutter, most nights he seems as uncomfortable an at-bat as ever.

But the question must be asked: Is it still fair or realistic to expect Mariano Rivera to continue doing his job at a phenomenally high level at an age when most of his peers have taken to the rocking chair?

Let us know what you think, and why, in the comments section.

Tomorrow: We wrap up 25Q/25D with the most important question of all -- are the 2012 Yankees better than the 2011 Yankees?

25Q/25D: Who will be the fifth starter?

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
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AP Photo/David GoldmanFreddy or Phil as the Yankees fifth starter? Let us know what you think.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 23

This is a really tough question. My gut is that the Yankees want Phil Hughes to be a starter. So it is his job to lose in my mind. The Yankees won't admit that publicly, but I believe that is what they want privately.

But Hughes has had success in the bullpen and Freddy Garcia barely knows where it is located. So I think this is going to come down to change. Hughes has already changed is body, losing 20 pounds, some say, and he needs to finally develop a change to go along with a revived fastball and a solid curve.

If he shows all that -- which is a lot -- in the spring, I think he wins the fight for the five spot over Garcia.

But statistically there are reasons to believe that the Yankees might set up better with Hughes in the pen and Garcia as the No. 5 starter.

First and foremost Hughes has pitched there before -- and has had success. As you remember, Hughes was great in 2009. As a two-pitch pitcher, his stuff translated to the pen. His WHIP was 0.86 that year, best among relievers. His opponent OPS was .456, which was also the best among all relievers. He struck out 11.4 per nine innings. Only six men came out of the pen and did better.

As ace researcher Katie Sharp points out, over two seasons 81 percent of his pitches have been four-seam fastballs or curves. He will talk a lot about the change in the coming weeks. He will practice it a ton, too. But it remains to be seen how much he will use it in the regular season. He needs three pitches to be a true No. 3-type starter, even if he is potentially a No. 5 with the Yankees.

Garcia’s relief experience? Well, he barely has any. He has made one career relief appearance -- and it was 12 years ago.

Those numbers again: one and 12!

Garcia is good because he is a Baskin-Robbins pitcher. He has a lot of flavors -- five pitches in all. He only threw his fastball 36.5 percent of the time last year, which was 131st out of 150 pitchers who qualified. So Garcia is made to be a starter.

Though the Yankees got him for the cheap price tag of $4 million, it is not like Garcia didn’t earn a spot from last year. He was 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA.

At age 35, he can still be good. Bartolo Colon, Ted Lilly, Chris Carpenter, R.A. Dickey, Tim Hudson and new Yankee Hiroki Kuroda all had 4.00 ERA’s or better last year. So it can be done.

In the end, the Yankees know what Garcia can bring. To me, however, they would rather have Hughes in the rotation. If he shows he is fit, I believe he will be given the job. Can he do it?

What do you think?

Tomorrow: Are we expecting too much from Mariano Rivera?

25Q/25D: What's your ideal Yankees lineup?

February, 16, 2012
2/16/12
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Mark Cunningham/MLB/Getty ImagesWhich Yankee lineup suits you best? Let us know in the comment section.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 22

Today, you do most of the work. Here are my lineups vs. RH and LH starters:

Vs. righties:

Brett Gardner LF
Derek Jeter SS
Robinson Cano 2B
Curtis Granderson CF
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Mark Teixeira 1B
Nick Swisher RF
??????? DH (assuming they will pick up a left-handed bat for this spot)
Russell Martin C

Vs. lefties:

Jeter SS
Granderson CF
Cano 2B
Rodriguez 3b
Teixeira 1B
Swisher RF
Andruw Jones DH
Martin C
Gardner LF

OK, so what's yours?

Tomorrow: Who's the odd man out of the starting rotation?

25Q/25D: Who is Joe Girardi, Year 5?

February, 15, 2012
2/15/12
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Jesse Johnson/US PresswireIf Joe Torre is the modern king of Yankee managers, Girardi is making a fine prince.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 21

Joe Girardi is one of those people who would be proficient at whatever he puts his mind to doing. In a workmanlike way, he examines problems and tries to find the most efficient ways to solve them.

The best example might be that Girardi was considered a very good TV baseball analyst, but his interviews as a manager are rice cracker bland. In Girardi’s world, it was advantageous to offer insight in the booth, not so much from the dugout.

His is the mind of an industrial engineer, which is what he majored in at Northwestern.

So entering Year 5 of the Girardi experience, you feel like you know what you are going to get from him, even if he never lets you know him that well.

Overall, here is the thing: He has figured out the problems that come with being the Yankees manager and he does a pretty darn good job of solving them.

If Joe Torre is the modern king of Yankee managers, Girardi is making a mighty fine prince. Torre’s success in his initial five seasons is almost unmatchable considering he won four titles, but Girardi’s record is not shabby.

In the regular season, Girardi, like Torre, is three-for-his-first four in 95-win seasons, though his one sub-95 winner included not making the playoffs. If Girardi’s 2012 Yankees were to win 103 games, he would match Torre’s 487 wins. Considering Torre won 114 in ’98, it is quite an accomplishment for Girardi to have an outside chance of catching the king.

While Torre was more of a treat to listen to in press conferences, Girardi handles his bullpen better. He does a good job of sticking to his formula to not overuse guys, which has resulted in a healthier and more effective bullpen.

Now, with a $200 million payroll, a manager is never going to receive too much credit. Manager of the Year awards generally go to a leader of a team that baseball writers didn’t think were going to be good in a given year. But then the manager makes them overachieve and receives the credit. True or not, that is how it works.

So Joe Maddon down in Tampa won the award last year, even though it may be time to acknowledge that the Rays' players may not be able to compete with the Yankees at the bank teller, but they can in any ballpark. This is to take nothing away from Maddon, whom we love as a manager. But it is to understand he, like Girardi, is not hitting or pitching. And Girardi probably could manage the Rays as well as Maddon does. In the AL, to me, Girardi -- with the starting staff he had -- was only second to Maddon in terms of managers.

What Girardi’s toughest problem to figure out going forward will likely be managing his aging stars. Jorge Posada was the hors d’ouvre last year and Giradi did OK, though, we still can’t understand why Girardi chose to embarrass Posada and bat him ninth on national TV on a Saturday night against the Red Sox. That seem uncalled for and almost vindictive to a player many claim Girardi doesn’t like.

His true test will be with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. He got his initial Jeter primer in the first half of last year, when Jeter looked awful. Girardi stood behind him and led him off and Jeter rewarded him with a strong second half.

Although much is made about handling Jeter and A-Rod, Girardi will probably wait so long for them to decline that his decision will be obvious by the time he does it. He will really earn his money if he shows the toughness to make a decision when he knows it is the right move before it is the obvious one.

Girardi probably has already thought it all through and it is in his handy binder. After four years, we know this about Girardi -- he is prepared.

That’s my take, what do you think of Girardi as the Yankees’ manager?

Tomorrow: What is your ideal lineup?

25Q/25D: Whose team is this, anyway?

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
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Noah K. Murray/US PresswireAs improbable as it may sound, Alex Rodriguez has what it takes to lead ... on the field, at least.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 20

Not a lot of statistical analysis today because this is one category not even the SaberGeeks have figured out a way to quantify: Namely, how do you define a clubhouse leader and who on the current Yankees roster is best qualified to fill the position in the post-Derek Jeter Era?

Yes, I know Jeter is still around, and likely will be through the 2014 season. (Remember, his new contract contains a player option for that season).

But clearly, the Yankees are a team in transition with the retirments in the past two years of Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, and the possibility that this could be the last season for Mariano Rivera. Someone will have to step into the void, and quite frankly, there are already indications that Jeter's influence is not quite a strong in the Yankees clubhouse as it once was, not surprising considering most of the old guard is gone.

So who will be the New Captain? (One need not, of course, formally have the title to assume the role).

Assuming it must be an everyday player -- starting pitchers, of course, work once every five days and most of them are pretty scarce around the clubhouse in between starts -- I am eliminating CC Sabathia, although I recognize his role as a strong, mature clubhouse presence is real.

I also tend to discount Russell Martin, who certainly has leadership qualities but has only been a Yankee for one season and may not be one for many more after this one. My guess is it will come from one of the infielders, either Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano or, believe it or not, Alex Rodriguez.

In fact A-Rod would be my choice for several reasons. He has already been here longer than anyone other than Rivera or Jeter, and barring a career-ending injury will be around a whole lot longer. Six more seasons, to be exact.

For another, for all the highly-publicized frivolity of his private life, he is respected in the clubhouse as an intense competitor and perhaps the hardest worker on the team. And lately, especially last season when Jeter was on the disabled list with a calf injury, Rodriguez seemed to go out of his way to assume a leadership-type role on the club, even -- to the amusement of the Yankees beat crew which had become accustomed to the compulsive media-avoidance of his earlier seasons here -- volunteering to translae for some of the Spanish-speaking players.

And whatever you may think of his personality or the way he chooses to display it publicly, A-Rod also possesses a remarkable ability to break down the fine points of the game, both to reporters and his teammates. His knowledge and love of baseball is beyond question.

A lot of people, I'm sure, will see this as a sign of the Apocalypse -- that the torch could be passed from Derek Jeter, the ultimate team-first Yankee, to Alex Rodriguez, whose image is quite different. (You fill in the blanks). And the role of Clubhouse Leader or Captain, if you will, in many ways is overrated and largely symbolic.

Still many players, especially young players, look to the veterans not only for tips on how to play but how to behave and, in the Yankees' case, how to win.

Right now I can't see a better candidate for them to look to than Alex Rodriguez, at least for the period of the day when he is at work.

But how do you see it? Is A-Rod a worthy successor to Derek Jeter, or should the Yankees be looking for someone else to step into some pretty large shoes?

Tomorrow: Are you ready for Joey Looseleafs. Year Five?

25Q/25D: What do the Yanks need CC to be?

February, 13, 2012
2/13/12
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AP Photo/Michael DwyerHe's been great in the regular season, but CC Sabathia's ERA was over 6 in his past two playoff series.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 19

By just about every accepted yardstick, CC Sabathia was the definition of an ace for the 2011 Yankees. He led the pitching staff in wins (19), innings pitched (237-1/3), strikeouts (230), ERA (3.00) and WHIP (1.226). He was among the stingiest pitchers in the league when it came to surrendering home runs, and he was death against left-handed batters, who batted just .207 against him.

And he was one of the most durable and reliable workhorses in the league. Despite having had knee surgery in the offseason, Sabathia took the ball every five days and gave the Yankees an average of seven innings per start. And the Yankees rewarded him as such during the offseason, warding off his opting out of his contract by giving him an extension and a raise.

But for the last two postseasons -- Sabathia was extraordinary during the Yankees' 2009 World Championship run -- Sabathia has been something less than an ace, his ERA sitting at 6.30 in the 2010 ALCS and 6.23 in the 2011 ALDS.

Admittedly, Sabathia ran into some of the worst luck of his career in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers, when he was clearly out-pitching Justin Verlander, for two innings at least, before Mother Nature washed away the game.

It is not Sabathia's fault, of course, that the Yankees exited in the first round -- you can lay that one squarely at the feet of the offense, which lit up the board throughout the regular season but went dark when it was needed most in Game 5 of the ALDS -- but there is little argument that Sabathia was not nearly the pitcher in October that he had been for five of the previous six months.

The one exception, of course, was August, when Sabathia's numbers jump up so high they almost literally jump off the page. For that one month, the ERA skyrocketed, to 4.68. The percentage of line drives and fly balls that jumped off opponents' bats rose and the percentage of groundballs plummeted. For that month, opponents batted a healthy .322 off Sabathia. Most alarmingly, after having allowed just six home runs in the previous four months of the season, Sabathia allowed nine in August alone.

Some are inclined to blame Sabathia's weight, which noticeably increased during the season after he arrived at spring training reportedly 15-25 pounds lighter than his listed 290. But the likelihood is that Sabathia's girth had nothing to do with his August swoon; after all, like David Wells, he has always pitched in a state that would qualify as obese for most professional athletes but is normal operating condition for him.

No, the problem was clearly the six-man rotation he was suddenly forced into when the Yankees found themselves with a surplus of starters, Phil Hughes having been reinstated to the roster after an injury and a stint in the minors, Ivan Nova called up from Triple-A and A. J. Burnett still around.

Sabathia was vocal in his dislike of the extra day of rest and his performance reflected it, but apart from the fact that no one in the Yankees hierarchy seemed to have the stomach to bump Burnett from the rotation, there also seemed to be an effort to "conserve'' Sabathia for the postseason, an effort that paid off in diminishing returns.

This season, there would seem to be no so such cause for alarm. With the addition of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to the rotation, the assumed return of Nova to his 2011 form, and the (more optimistic) return of Hughes to his 2010 form, it looks as if there will be less pressure on Sabathia to be the anchor of the pitching staff during the regular season.

But as always, there will be renewed pressure once the slate is wiped clean and we begin the real season, the only one we are told that truly matters around here, in October.

The quandary for the Yankees, and specifically manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, is figuring out how to keep Sabathia happy during the regular season while making sure he is at his best in October rather than July.

The reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals certainly don't match up to the Yankees on paper and were no one's idea of the best team in baseball, even after they won it all. But what they had -- and what the Yankees lacked -- was a lights-out ace in the postseason in the person of Chris Carpenter, who shouldered virtually the same workload as Sabathia in the regular season but still had plenty of gas left in the tank to go unbeaten in October.

Now that the Yankees have given CC Sabathia some help in the regular season, that is what the Yankees need him to be next October. According to ESPN Insider Dan Szymborksi, the formulator of ZiPs Projections, Sabathia should be good for 218 innings, a 17-8 record and a 3.55 ERA in 2012, slightly down from 2011 but still plenty good enough. After all, the Yankees won 97 games, and the division, even with a diminished CC in the second half of last season.

It is the second season, the one that really counts, where they need the big man to come up huge.

Is that too much to ask? Let us know in the comments section.

Tomorrow: Who's team is this, anyway?
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25Q/25D

25Q/25D: What is Joba's future?

February, 12, 2012
2/12/12
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25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 18

Justin Louis Chamberlain is only 26 years old, but it feel as if he has scrunched a whole career into five seasons.

Joba has gone from superstar to average to forgotten to now injured. What is the next stop on the Joba train?

Chamberlain, coming off Tommy John surgery, will likely not return until June at the earliest. Even if he comes back before then, what role is left for him? The Yankees do not consider him a starter, a closer or a setup man on their current roster so all that is left for him are the middle innings reserved for middling pitchers.

Next stop would seemingly be out the door. That could be sooner than later.

Chamberlain is first going to have to re-establish his value as a player. When he returns he is expected to be used in low leverage situations as he tries to find his form.

On a personal-level, I have always liked Joba. He is excitable and a definitely brings noise to what can be a very stoic clubhouse. While he is not the most quoatable guy, he always has been accessible, which is saying something because of how much spotlight he has had before his 27th birthday.

But, at this point, Chamberlain is a non-factor. He is an update on the blog. At most, he is what could have been topic? Though Chamberlain's personality makes you hope for more, he seems destined to have a disappointing Yankee career.

Could that change? It is not impossible, but it is really improbable. As long as Brian Cashman is the GM, Chamberlain will never be a starter again. On the reliever depth chart, even if healthy, it is hard to imagine Chamberlain any higher than the seventh inning man.

Even to be promoted to that role, Chamberlain would need some things to happen. Mariano Rivera could retire next year, opening the closer spot for either David Robertson or Rafael Soriano. If that happened Chamberlain could be the seventh inning man.

If any of the big three relievers were to get hurt, then Chamberlain might be a little more important.

First things first for Chamberlain and the first thing he must do is comeback from Tommy John. The surgery is one that can restore you to almost as good and sometimes even better than before. But it is a long process.

Guys like Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson and Josh Johnson have had a lot of success post-TJ surgery. So it can be done.

It just seems like no matter what happens from here, the legend of Joba is over. He is now just a guy on the team, trying to get back, but, still, if he does it won’t be in a very big role.

So here is the question for you: What do think of Joba’s career? What do you think he has left?

Tomorrow: Will CC be able to carry his weight?

Hannah Foslien /Getty Images
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 17

The nightmare scenario for the Yankees would come in early October. After winning 98 games, they finish in second in the AL East and are forced to play a do-or-die playoff game against someone like the Angels.

The Angels, winners of 90 games in the regular season, come into the Bronx and beat the Yankees.

Just like that, the Yankees' season is over before the playoffs barely even start.

The outcry, over the new setup, would be immense

That is one of the great impacts of the new second wild card in each league could have if it is implemented this year. An official decision on this season should be forthcoming soon. Either way, it will be the format come 2013, at the latest.

What the new wild card does is adds greater importance to the regular season. There will be no choice, but to go all out to win your division.

Yes, there are two safety nets, but the wild card puts teams at a severe disadvantage – not the least of which is one club will be one and done.

While we painted a worst-case scenario above, there could be a huge advantage for a Yankee team that doesn’t appear to have any severe holes from 1-through-25 and is certainly the favorites in the AL East.

If they win the division and have the best record, they very well could face the winner of the wild card game, which would likely mean a team that has to play its way into the playoffs down the stretch and then win a game for the privilege of coming to the Bronx. That would seemingly be a huge advantage.

The emphasis on winning the division is one thing, the other aspect of the extra wild card is that the trade deadline will change because more teams will be in it in July and through September.

With 33.3 percent of the teams (10 of 30) now making the playoffs compared to 26.6 percent (8 of 30), clubs have more of an opportunity to play post-season ball.

ESPN, using AccuScore, did a study and found that under the old system, only 11 teams, on average would likely be five games out or better on Sept. 1st. With the additional wild card, that number shoots up to 18 teams, nearly two-thirds of the clubs.

This will change how clubs handle September as they will not look at young players if they feel they still have a chance to make the playoffs. They will focus on winning, not developing. It figures to create more excitement in more cities.

The nightmare scenario painted at the beginning of this blog will become the talk of October in New York if the Yankees were to be the first wild card and the first team to leave the playoffs.

All in all, what do you think? Do you like the impact the new wild card could have on the Yankees or not?

Tomorrow: The tale of Joba

25Q/25D: How good will Pineda be?

February, 10, 2012
2/10/12
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Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireWill Michael Pineda be the Yankees' No. 2 starter in the playoffs this year?
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 16

The GM talked about the wipe-out slider. He spoke about the great demeanor. He said of every pitcher that changed teams this offseason, Michael Pineda is the one he would want the most.

“If I could have the next five years of any of the guys who changed teams, I would take Pineda,” the GM, who requested anonymity, said.

If he is better than C.J. Wilson, better than Mark Buehrle, better than Mat Latos and better than Gio Gonzalez, then Pineda should be the Yankees' No. 2 starter, right?

“With Seattle, he pitched as a two,” an AL scout said. “With the Yankees, he’ll pitch as a four.”

In a conversation with Wallace Matthews, pitching coach Larry Rothschild wouldn’t declare where Pineda will pitch in the rotation.

“He’s a young kid so I don’t know if we want him coming out second or if it’s beneficial to have somebody else do it,” Rothschild said. “[Ivan] Nova had a fine year for us, so he could be in that spot.”

Pineda, just 23, almost definitely won’t be the No. 2 starter to begin the year. The Yankees will want to temper expectations considering the pressure of being traded for Jesus Montero is on Pineda’s right shoulder. So Pineda probably won’t be on the mound that first weekend in Tampa.

His debut will likely come in Game 4 of the regular season in Baltimore.

Last year, Pineda was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA. But at the break, he was an All-Star, going 8-6 with a 3.03 ERA. He struggled in the second half, so even though most baseball people liked the trade for the Yankees, there were some reservations.

However, imagine this: If the Pineda-Montero deal was made at last year’s break, there would be no one questioning it. At that time, Montero, if you recall, was struggling at the plate and there were concerns about his concentration.

When I went to visit Montero in late June, I led with this about Monetro:
The future of the New York Yankees received a two-game timeout earlier this month because the organization felt his play lacked "energy," according to one club official.

The future of the Yankees has hit just five home runs all season, which is miniscule when compared to the output of Triple-A Scranton teammates -- and borderline prospects -- Jorge Vazquez (20) and Justin Maxwell (16).

Montero then came on and ignited the Yankees late in the year. But, although the Yankees still think highly of Montero, they had not forgotten that his concentration didn’t always match his talent.

Pineda has warning signs, too. In the second half, Pineda went 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA. ESPN Stats & Information researcher Mark Simon writes:
Pineda was not able to replicate the success he had against lefties in the first half. He went from allowing an extra-base hit every 17 at-bats against lefties to allowing one every 12.

Pineda’s opponents batting average against left-handed hitters rose from .201 prior to the All-Star break to .302 afterwards.

Rothschild said, “Part of it is a young guy adjusting to the major leagues and the innings and the workload and all that. I think going through teams a second and third time around changes things and you always have to make adjustments. He’s got the stuff to do that. I think it’s a combination of a few things.”

But here is the thing: Pineda has, as one scout, sounding like the chorus, put it, “front of the rotation starter” stuff.

He showed it last year, striking out 173 and walking just 55. It was the ninth best strikeout-to-walk ratio since 1900 for a 22-year-old or younger pitcher who threw at least 100 innings in their rookie season.

So even if the Yankees don’t want to keep the expectations high, they will be through the roof. In the end, it doesn’t matter if Pineda starts Game 2 of the regular season -- the Yankees may need him for Game 2 of the ALDS.

What is your take? How good will Pineda be? Will he be the Yankees' Game 2 playoff starter?

Tomorrow: What impact will the extra wild card have?

25Q/25D: Is A-Rod still the cleanup hitter?

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
9:00
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Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesHas Alex Rodriguez reached a point where he shouldn't hit fourth anymore?
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 15

Some things in baseball just seem automatic. Batting practice will be taken every day, the national anthem will be sung, and Alex Rodriguez's name will be written in the fourth slot of the lineup card. It just seems as if it has always been that way.

But nothing stays the same forever, and as we are told time and again, change is not only inevitable, but in many cases, desirable.

And moving A-Rod from the cleanup spot in the Yankees lineup is a change whose time may have come.

Batting fourth is not a birthright, but it is a source of pride to the player who does it, or, like Rodriguez, has done it for nearly his entire career. (Actually, only 3,633 of his 9,133 career at-bats have been as a cleanup hitter, but virtually all of his Yankee ABs have been there.)

But there comes a time when performance must be rewarded rather than tradition or a player's pride, or ego, if you will.

And based on performance, it may no longer be the best thing for the Yankees to retain A-Rod in the position many consider his entitlement.

Whether because of nagging injuries or his increasing age, A-Rod hasn't really hit like a cleanup hitter since 2008. The preseason buzz is that A-Rod is healthy and in great shape this offseason, but we've heard that before. The difference now is the Yankees have other guys who can step in and fill that spot more than adequately if it turns out that the A-Rod the Yankees have seen for the past three years is about all the A-Rod they're going to get. The question is, will Joe Girardi have the stomach do what it seems obvious he needs to do with his lineup this year?

In my mind, the Yankees have four viable candidates for the cleanup spot: A-Rod, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira.

By the numbers, here is how it stacks up for each:

Cano: .302/28/118/.349/.533; as cleanup hitter (165 ABs): .315/7/36/.364/.521
Texieira: .248/39/111/.341/.494; as cleanup hitter (90 ABs) .211/5/20/.288/.446
Rodriguez: .276/16/62/.362/.461; as cleanup hitter (360 ABs) .269/15/58/.354/.453

Granderson, the team's No. 1 power hitter in 2011 with 41 homers and 119 RBIs, didn't get a single at-bat in the four-hole.

Cano, as the team's best hitter, is probably slated to hit third this year, displacing Teixeira.

That still leaves three power bats from which to choose. My choice would be to bat Granderson cleanup, A-Rod fifth and Teixeira sixth.

What would your lineup card say? Does A-Rod hold onto the cleanup spot through reputation and past accomplishments, or is it time to make a switch? And if so, who are you writing into that fourth line on the card?

Tomorrow: How good is Michael Pineda?

25Q/25D: Should the Yankees sign Damon?

February, 8, 2012
2/08/12
8:45
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AP Photo/Kathy WillensWill ex-Yankee Johnny Damon don the pinstripes once again in 2012?
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 14

Nearly a month ago, we told you that if the Yankees were to add a DH, it would be “late and cheap,", according to a source.

Well, it is late so the Yankees are halfway there. Now, they are just waiting to see who will accept the cheap. The three main candidates to come to the Bronx are Raul Ibanez, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. They are all in the aisle in the free-agent market as older players who could be good fits for the Yankees as part-time, left-handed DHs.

Against left-handed pitching, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez can DH more with Eduardo Nunez getting more playing time in the field. Against, righties, Ibanez, Damon or Matsui could get the call a lot of days and nights this summer.

Me? I would go with Damon because he gives the Yankees power, with an added element of speed. And, most importantly, he plays.

“That is a tough one,” an AL scout said when presented with the three options. “Based on their versatility, I almost take Damon because he has remained the most healthy.”

Yup, Damon plays.

He has played in at least 140 games in 16 straight seasons. That ties Pete Rose, Hank Aaron and Brooks Robinson for the longest consecutive streak of 140-game seasons, according to researcher Katie Sharp. Only three players have had more 140-game seasons (non-consecutive): Rose (19), Carl Yastrzemski (17) and Brooks Robinson (17).

The Yankees’ philosophy on guys at the end of the bench is to take chances on players a little past their prime because they have more to recapture or, even if their skills have diminished, they still have more left. With Damon, there is a very good chance he is going to be healthy, even if he is in his late-30s.

Ibanez played 144 games last season and has been a healthy player for much of his career. Matsui, with his bad knees, is definitely a question mark health-wise.

While all three would be asked to be part-time DHs, the ability to play the field is important.

“None are good defensively at this point,” the scout said.

The scout rated Damon the best of the three. So Damon gives you health and a little more defense. He also gives you basically the same power, but more speed.

Damon hit 16 homers compared to Ibanez’s 20. Damon stole 19 bases to Ibanez’s two.

It is known that Damon, 38, can handle New York. Ibanez, 39, is said to have the right demeanor for the Bronx. But he has never played here.

Last year, Damon did not hit at home in Tampa. On the road, though, he was an excellent player, hitting .291 with a .357 on-base and a .477 slugging against right-handed pitching. Plus, remember how good he was in 2009, hitting 17 homers, including 12 against right-handed pitchers, in the Bronx.

Ibanez hit .245 overall, but just .210 away from Philly’s bandbox. He hit .255 against righties and had 16 of his 20 homers against them.

Ibanez would not be a bad choice; Damon would just be a better one.

What do you think?

Tomorrow: Is A-Rod still the cleanup hitter?

AP Photo/Bill KostrounIn some ways, A.J. Burnett's 2011 wasn't as awful as you remember. But can he be useful in 2012?
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 13

The list of American League starting pitchers with the highest rate of strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2011 is as follows: Brandon Morrow, Michael Pineda, Justin Verlander, Gio Gonzalez, David Price, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, C.J. Wilson -- and Allan James Burnett.

In addition, there are only 11 starting pitchers in the AL who induced more ground balls last year than A.J. Burnett.

Of course, a strikeout or a ground ball are two of the best results a pitcher can hope for once he lets go of the baseball, and Burnett was among the league leaders in both. That combination usually means a sub-4.00 ERA and a W-L record to match.

And if you want to get all Saber-Geeky about it, Burnett's xFIP of 3.86 -- an advanced measurement of a pitcher's effectiveness on plays not involving fielders -- was comparable to that of Matt Cain (3.78) and Jered Weaver (3.80) to name two pitchers any Yankees fan would take over Burnett in a heartbeat.

So how is it that Burnett also found himself near the top of another list -- the list of starters with the highest ERAs in the league? Only Brad Penny and Fausto Carmona had worse ERAs than Burnett's 5.15, which only goes to remind you of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of his 2011 season, and much of his 13-year major-league career.

Every single pitcher who struck out batters at the rate Burnett did in 2011 had a sub-5.00 ERA. In fact, all but two were below 3.50.

So how is it that A.J. Burnett could be so unhittable and so beatable at the same time?

Lots of reasons. For one thing, he walked too many batters, nearly four for every nine innings pitched. For another, his fastball, which averaged over 95 mph just three years ago, now rarely brushes 93. As a result, on nights Burnett couldn't locate his curveball -- and they were many -- opposing hitters hammered his fastball for a .332 batting average, a .421 OBP and a .606 SLG.

But most of all, his home run percentage was, literally, through the roof. Better than one in every six fly balls hit off Burnett last year left the yard. He was the easiest starting pitcher to take out of the ballpark in all of Major League Baseball.

Part of the reason is the park he pitches in. Nineteen of the 31 home runs Burnett allowed last year came at Yankee Stadium. (It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect Yankee Stadium has on Pineda in 2012.)

And you can make the case that Burnett pitched in some bad luck.

But it is no secret that if Burnett throws 100 pitches in game, he might well use 100 different release points. As a result, his command is erratic, his control unreliable and his psyche fragile. (Whether his emotional state is the result of his mechanical struggles or vice versa is a matter for Larry Rothschild, Doctor of Pitching Psychology, to figure out.)

What it means is that by more than one yardstick, Burnett was among the elite pitchers in the AL last year. But by the ones that matter most, he was among the worst.

The question is, can he right himself in 2012? "Yeah, absolutely,'' Rothschild said to me on a phone call earlier this week. "He's into his offseason workout program and he knows what's expected of him this year. He needs to make the transition from pitcher to thrower, but one thing about A.J. is he's always trying to get better.''

And the indications are he still has the physical tools to do it, even at 35 years old. And with two years and $33 million left on his contract, the Yankees are probably stuck with him, and likely to give him every opportunity this spring to make the rotation as the No. 5 starter.

If the Yankees have run out of patience with Burnett, they are doing a very good job of concealing it. The question is, have you?

Are you willing to give A.J. one more shot? Or is the only release point you want to see the one where the Yankees release him from his contract? You know where and how to let us know.

Tomorrow: Caveman II -- Should the Yankees bring back Johnny Damon?

25Q/25D: Is this Swisher's last year?

February, 6, 2012
2/06/12
8:30
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Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesNick Swisher is entering the final year of his current Yankees contract.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 12

In the winter of 2008, the Yankees' stats guru, Michael Fishman, entered GM Brian Cashman’s office.

“Fish walks into my office and says, ‘I think we have a great buy-low candidate,’” Cashman recalled. “’He just had an unlucky year.’ I look at this guy and I say, ‘Unlucky year?’"

The Yankees had tried to trade for Nick Swisher in 2007 when the Oakland A’s were shopping him. Swisher, just 26 then, had hit .262 with 22 home runs and 78 RBIs. His on-base percentage was .381. Instead, the A’s traded Swisher to the Chicago White Sox.

There, Swisher struggled on the field and off, fighting with then-White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. He finished the 2008 season with a .219 batting average, 24 homers and 68 RBIs. But there was more to those numbers, as Fishman explained that Swisher's line-drive percentage, his batting average on balls in play and his take percentage, among other things, were just fine.

“Listen,” Cashman recalled Fishman saying. “There are eight defenders on the field, sometimes you just hit them where they are. I’m telling you, as long as he is healthy, he is going to bounce back.”

Cashman, with a huge assist from Fishman, has been proved correct. Getting Swisher for Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez has been a steal.

But what will Swisher’s value be next year when he is expected to become a free agent?

Swisher, who will make $10.25 million this season, is playing for a new contract. It is a dicey proposition for him and the Yankees. Despite his postseason struggles, Swisher, 30, is a very good outfielder in relation to the rest of baseball.

Since he has become a Yankee, Swisher is one of just 15 players with an on-base average of at least .360 and 80 homers, according to our info man, Mark Simon. The other three outfielders are Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun and Jayson Werth.

Swisher will likely see himself in Werth’s class. Werth is in the midst of his unfathomable seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals. There is basically no chance the Yankees will come near that.

That is the interesting aspect of Swisher’s season and his impending free agency. The Yankees desperately want to get under the $189 million luxury tax by 2014, so Swisher will become an interesting case.

With a good year and finally some production in the playoffs, he could put pressure on the Yankees to make a deal in what will likely be a tough negotiation.

In free agency next year, Andre Ethier and Josh Hamilton could be on the market, but neither will likely be cheaper. Top outfield prospect Mason Williams is not expected to be ready by 2013.

So the guy they once viewed as a buy-low guy could be worth more to someone else than to them. Fishman is going to have to be looking at his spreadsheets overtime.

Here is the question: Do you think Swisher will be a Yankee at this time next year?

Tomorrow: A.J. Burnett, better than you think. Seriously.

25Q/25D: Who is Mariano's heir apparent?

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
9:00
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Michael L. Stein/US PresswireCan David Robertson duplicate his success of 2011? We'll see.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 11

Back to back! Belly to belly!

That is the question for David Robertson, who is the apparent heir to Mariano Rivera’s closer throne. Can he be an All-Star two years in a row?

Robertson was good before 2011. In ’11, he was great. Can he do it again?

“Can he hold up physically back-to-back years?” a rival GM said. “I know [Joe] Girardi handles the bullpen well, but that is the question.”

Robertson, 26, was off-the-charts great last season. In the process, he sprinted by the $11 million seventh-inning guy, Rafael Soriano, and the now injured Joba Chamberlain. If he has another excellent season as the bridge to Rivera, he could own the whole bridge as soon as 2013.

Now, let’s get to the part of this 25Q/25D where I tell you, I don’t think Rivera is going to retire after this season if he pitches like he has always pitched. I know he is 42 years old and has talked about going home to be with his family. But he makes $17 million a year and seems to love what he is doing. Why would he walk away from that if he doesn’t have to? If he does, it will be a most graceful, Rivera-esque ending to his career.

But if Rivera does go, Robertson has won the right to be The Man. Last year, he was 35-for-38 in holds/saves, which combined with a 1.08 ERA is fantastic.

Those are Rivera-like numbers. Actually, they are better than Rivera-like numbers. As our information man, Mark Simon, points out, Robertson was “[Dennis] Eckersley in the eighth inning.” His 1.08 ERA was the fourth- best for a reliever since 1920, bettered only by Eckersley (0.61 in ’90), Jonathan Papelbon (0.92 in ’06) and Rollie Fingers (1.04 in ’81).

Robertson might be more of a John Franco-like closer if ever given the job. The reason? He flirts with trouble. Last year, he earned the nickname of Houdini by dominating hitters with the bases loaded. He gave up one hit in 19 at-bats with the bases juiced.

He struck out 14 of those batters, which would be unbelievable if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.

But here is the thing with Robertson -- he walked himself into a lot of those situations. Overall, he walked 4.7 batters per nine innings. It dropped to 3.4 after the All-Star Break. But Robertson was Rivera-like in avoiding homers.

Of 46 fly balls, he gave up just one home run, all year. J.J. Hardy’s shot at the end of August was the only homer Robertson allowed in 66 2/3 innings.

So Robertson is the heir apparent. Here is the question: Do you think Mo will be back next year?

Tomorrow: Is this Nick Swisher’s final year as a Yankee?

SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
12 2.51 135 129
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .291
HRM. Teixeira 17
RBIM. Teixeira 48
RB. Gardner 58
OPSJ. Ellsbury .777
ERAM. Tanaka 2.51
SOM. Tanaka 135