Commentary

On Friday the 13th, Yankees come alive

Once-slumbering Bombers become team to beat in AL East on blockbuster night

Updated: January 17, 2012, 3:39 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

No baseball team wins anything in the winter. Not a game, not a division and certainly not a World Series. Just ask the Boston Red Sox, who crushed Winter 2011 and then never made it to the fall, crashing and burning in the spring and summer.

Still, the Yankees had a heck of a Jan. 13, 2012, Friday the 13th, to be exact, which will be remembered as the night that Jason, er, Brian Cashman once again rose from the dead to wreak havoc on the rest of baseball.

On this day, on paper at least, the Yankees look like the best team in the AL East.

Whether this carries over once the games move onto grass and the season moves into April and May, let alone October, remains to be seen. But for now, score January for the Yankees, big time.

On one epic night, the Yankees filled the only remaining hole in their roster, starting pitching, and they did not have to mortgage the future, in either players or cash, to do it.

First, it was Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi being shipped to Seattle, maybe not for King Felix Hernandez, but for someone who might turn out to be even better, Michael Pineda, a 6-foot-7, 22-year-old right-hander -- he will turn 23 on Wednesday -- who was a serious Rookie of the Year contender in 2011.

Then, almost before that news had sunk in, came the reports that the Yankees had reached agreement on a one-year deal with Hiroki Kuroda, the pitcher Brian Cashman had wanted all along, going back to last year's trade deadline.

And just like that, what had been the Achilles' heel of this $200 million ballclub suddenly became another area of strength.

Sure, losing Montero is a surprise, especially since Cashman had seemed adamantly opposed to including the 22-year-old slugger in any deal unless something special came along.

[+] EnlargeMichael Pineda
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireAcquiring Michael Pineda helps make a once-questionable starting rotation another area of strength for the Yankees.

Obviously, the Yankees think Pineda is special, even if the second half of his rookie season was not nearly as good as his first half (3.03 ERA prior to the All-Star break, 5.12 afterward), and he no doubt benefited from the vast expanses of Safeco Field.

But on the flip side, he also pitched for a team with an anemic offense (just 556 runs scored; the Yankees scored 867, the second highest in baseball) and despite his second-half struggles, maintained his strikeout-per-inning pace and finished in the AL's top 10 in strikeouts per nine innings (second), hits per nine innings (fifth) and WHIP (eighth). Clearly, this is a better pitcher than his 9-10 record would indicate and he could be an important part of the Yankees rotation for many years to come.

And trading Montero for him is pretty much an admission by the Yankees that they thought Montero would never develop into an everyday catcher. In 18 games last September, Montero hit .328 and showed the kind of opposite-field power that makes GMs drool. If the guy could catch, he'd be another Bill Dickey, an untouchable. Obviously, the Yankees thought he couldn't. And if there's one thing the Yankees have in abundance, it's DHs, and DHs in waiting.

Already, they've re-signed Andruw Jones to take on some of the right-handed DH duties, and it's likely they will intensify their efforts to re-sign Eric Chavez to do the same from the left side. There is talk they may look to add another bat, maybe Carlos Pena. But their roster is loaded with aging guys who could use at least one day off a week, and they may just choose to rotate Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Robby Cano and Curtis Granderson in and out of the DH slot to keep everyone fresh. Moving Montero allows them to do that.

And best of all, they hold on to the pitchers Cashman considers the prized jewels of the Yankees farm system, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, and to a lesser extent, Adam Warren and David Phelps.

Now, there's no need to rush any of them to the big leagues, and if, down the road, a King Felix or a Tim Lincecum become available on the trade market, they still have attractive chips to offer.

And we've hardly even mentioned Kuroda yet, a solid performer for the Dodgers (13-16, 3.07 in 2011, 41-46, 3.45 over four seasons) who like Pineda will benefit from all the advantages playing for the Yankees offers.

This is the pitcher Cashman wanted all along, more than C.J. Wilson or Edwin Jackson, because he knew he could get him for one year and not have to risk a long-term entanglement like the ones with Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett and, eventually, CC Sabathia that are strangling his payroll.

To get Kuroda for the comparative bargain price of $10 million -- about the same as they paid for Javier Vazquez two years ago and a less than a third of what they will pay Burnett for the final two years of his contract -- is an added bonus.

So right now, it looks like win-win all around for the Yankees. They retain most of the offense that carried them through 2011 and bolster the one weak link in their chain. They now give themselves options -- can they find someone, anyone, the Mets maybe, to take Burnett off their hands? -- and can consider moving Phil Hughes to the bullpen, where he probably belongs anyway, and make an already strong unit that much stronger. Why they signed Freddy Garcia again now becomes a mystery, but what the hey? For the Yankees, the $4 million they invested in Garcia is little more than ashtray money.

Heck, they might spend more than that celebrating their Friday the 13th Massacre.

Even though no baseball team wins a thing worth winning in January, it is often the victories of the winter that pave the way for a glorious fall.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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