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It wasn’t that long ago that the Yankees played some of the
smartest baseball in the major leagues. Now it seems that their Baseball IQ has
fallen off a cliff, even among veteran players who should know better. How else
to explain Andy Pettitte allowing a second baserunner to steal home plate
against him over the last three years? Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-out steal of home
on Sunday night provided the Yankees with their signature embarrassment in a
weekend filled with lowlights. Jorge Posada, who had just reminded Pettitte about
the possibility of a steal, didn’t help matters by reacting slowly to
Ellsbury’s charge, while also failing to block home plate. Just flat out
Brian Cashman’s inability to build a bench has also cost the
Yankees, who are enduring a third straight spring filled with injuries. How is
it possible for a team with the resources of the Yankees to go into a season
with a journeyman like Cody Ransom and a past-his prime Angel Berroa as the
primary backup options at third base? The Yankees are struggling to score runs
right now, in part because Alex Rodriguez remains sidelined but also because of
the anemic production of the backup third basemen and starting center fielder
Brett Gardner. How much longer before the Yankees give Jim Edmonds a call?
The Cubs can sympathize with the Yankees. Milton Bradley
remains out of the starting lineup, joined now by Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez,
who are also hurt. With a deeper bench than the Yankees, the Cubs are better
equipped to handle the crush, but losing three regulars (including their top
two players) from the starting eight ranks as nearly an impossible predicament.
Lou Piniella has also made another lineup change, moving Alfonso Soriano back
to the leadoff slot in spite of his lack of patience…
How much longer will the Mets wait on Oliver Perez, who was
assaulted by the Nationals in his start on Sunday? The Mets will likely give
Perez at least one more start; if he pitches poorly, he’ll either be dispatched
to the bullpen or head back to the minor leagues for a mid-season adjustment.
Perez would have to approve any demotion to Triple-A, however, which becomes
unlikely when one remembers that his agent is Scott Boras. I just don’t see Boras advising Perez to
accept such a move, even if it is for his own good…
I’m sure that this has been pointed out by other writers,
but that awful Citi Field patch worn by the Mets looks exactly like the
Domino’s Pizza logo. (I have nothing against their product; I just don’t think
a ballteam should have a patch that looks like it belongs on a box of pizza.) While
on the subject of the Mets and their colors, I wish they would go back to
wearing their traditional pinstriped uniform for all home games. The Mets, who
wore the stripes in the finale of the Washington
series, appear much more dignified wearing their traditional look, which also
serves as a reminder of the glory days of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Tug
McGraw. And don’t get me started on the Mets’ black uniforms, which make little
sense for a team whose colors are blue and orange.
Just when you think you’ve heard about the most overblown free agent signing in recent history, another team comes around to top off the insanity. First, the Cubs shocked much of the baseball world by signing strikeout-prone Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year deal worth $136 million. Then came the heart-stopping news that the Dodgers had decided to give the mediocre Juan Pierre a five-year contract worth $45 million. Then the Angels made pulses come to a halt by signing Gary Matthews, Jr.–a player I happen to like, but come on now!–for five years and $50 million. And now the Astros have decided to pay the overloaded sum of $100 million over six years for an overweight, defensively deficient Carlos Lee.
I know that teams have money to spend this winter, but do they have to pay out such inflated such for such flawed talents, seemingly bidding against themselves in the process? It’s enough to make one yearn for the days when the Yankees signed middling mediocrities like Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint, and Pascual Perez to lusty long-term contracts.
On the surface, Lee is a nice enough player–a man capable of hitting .300 with 30 to 35 home runs while playing half of his games at Minute Maid Park, but one has to wonder if he’ll even be playing in the majors six years from now, let alone producing at an acceptable level? He’s been overweight for several seasons now, a trend that doesn’t figure to stop now that he’s turned 30. As his weight increases, his defensive range only decreases, making him a threat to become a veritable plowhorse in left field by the time the first half of this contract elapses. With the Astros playing in the National League, there is no DH option for Lee, which means that he might have to play first base in the next two to three years. Therein lies the problem. Another Astros outfielder, Lance Berkman, has already seen significant time at first base, and he might have to become a fulltime infielder at just the same time that Lee does. And at these salaries, there is no way that Lee and Berkman will be used in a platoon, not unless Phil Garner–or whoever is the Astros manager at that time–wants to run the risk of sending members of Houston’s front office running for a needed dose of oxygen…
Both the Mets and the Yankees have been doing some talking to the Nationals and their general manager, Jim Bowden. A man who loves outfielders with great tools, Bowden would enjoy prying Lastings Milledge from Omar Minaya’s hands, but it’s debatable that he’ll be able to find a fit. The Mets need starting pitching, a commodity that’s already in short supply in D.C. A package centered on John Patterson might be interesting, but it won’t be enough for the Mets to part with Milledge. As for the Yankees, they are trying to make Nick “The Stick” Johnson the latest two-time Yankee; gee, I wonder if the Yankees are regretting the old Randy Johnson swap of a couple of a winters ago? The Nationals are interested in young pitching, and assuming they don’t have the nerve to ask for Phil Hughes, they might be tempted by a package featuring right-hander Humberto Sanchez and former first-round draft choice Eric Duncan…
Finally, I was saddened to hear about the passing of former Orioles and Yankees standout Pat Dobson. He was not only a very good pitcher, but also a colorful guy who spoke his mind. He died on Wednesday, just one day after being diagnosed with leukemia. I’ll write more about Dobson, one of baseball’s good people, next week in this space.
After several weeks of relative quiet on the rumor front, speculation about free agent signings and trades has begun to heat up drastically. Free agents can begin to sign contracts with any team beginning on Sunday. While the first free agents probably won’t start to sign until next week’s general managers meetings, some trends have started to develop.
Not surprisingly, Alfonso Soriano will be the No. 1 free agent on the market. A number of teams will negotiate with him, including the Angels, Dodgers, Phillies, and Padres. All of them need offense, and Soriano’s 46 home runs, 41 stolen bases, and .560 slugging percentage make him an offensive force. Soriano’s 40-40 season also overshadowed a doubling of his walks, which gave him a respectable .350 on-base percentage. Most teams will probably target Soriano to play left field, but the Padres could also use him at second base, now that Josh Barfield has been traded. (That’s assuming the Padres don’t make a trade with the Braves for Marcus Giles, thereby reuniting him with brother Brian. Personally, I think that would be a questionable move for the Pods, given how frequently Marcus breaks down.) Most likely, the bidding for Soriano will come down to San Diego or Philadelphia. Both teams have vacancies for left fielders and both are willing to spend the kind of big money that Soriano will command on a five-year deal. The Phillies can offer Soriano the opportunity to play in the hitter’s ballpark that is Citizen’s Bank Park, while the Padres can offer a more laid-back atmosphere and a heavy Latino population in southern California…
Other than the Padres (who just acquired rookie Kevin Kouzmanoff to play third base), all of the above teams have interest in free agent infielder Aramis Ramirez. Whichever teams don’t sign Soriano will make substantial bids for Ramirez, along with the Cubs, who are interested in bringing their third baseman back and making him the centerpiece of Lou Piniella’s reconstructed offense. Ramirez is two years younger than Soriano, which might enable him to come close to matching a five-year contract on the open market. On the down side, Ramirez is a poor defender with a nasty habit of not running hard to first base, something that has also plagued Soriano throughout his career. If Ramirez does return to Chicago, a distinct possibility, I suspect Piniella will break him of that habit relatively quickly…
The two other big free agent hitters, at least among the younger set, are J.D. Drew and Carlos Lee. An on-base machine when he’s healthy, Drew will draw heavy interest from both the Red Sox and the Mets, both of whom need productive starting right fielders. Of course, Drew is not exactly your typical Clint Eastwood character when it comes to grit and playing through injuries. He usually spends lots of time on the disabled list in odd-numbered years; if the pattern continues, he’ll play far fewer than 140 games in 2007. The more durable Lee (who’s missed exactly one game over the last two seasons) seems earmarked for the Astros, who are apparently willing to take a chance on his increasingly heavy frame and poor defensive skills. Lee would be a much better fit for an American League team, where he could DH in a couple of years, but the Astros see him as an ideal right-handed complement to Lance Berkman. If the Astros do sign Lee, they’ll immediately end talks with the Yankees regarding Gary Sheffield…
Speaking of Sheffield, the Yankees may be drawing closer to a deal, though Brian Cashman is known for taking his time. The two frontrunners are the Cubs, who are offering a package centered on middle reliever Mike Wuertz, and the Tigers, who may be willing to offer a package of either Humberto Sanchez or Jordan Tata and unwanted first baseman Chris Shelton. The Tigers’ package sounds a lot more appetizing, with Sanchez ready to assume a spot in someone’s major league rotation next summer… The Yankees have already turned down at least two offers for Sheffield, one from the Padres (involving Scott Linebrink) and one from the Orioles (involving Kris Benson)…
Casting Daisuke Matsuzaka aside for a moment, Barry Zito is clearly the elite pitcher in this year’s free agent class. Critics complain that he’s not the pitcher he was three or four years ago, but he’s 28, has never missed a start, owns a great changeup/curve ball combination, and, aside from his performance against the Tigers, owns an excellent postseason resume. Zito won’t get the six-year contract that Scott Boras wants, but he’ll be happy with a tidy five-year deal. At the very least, Zito is an ideal No. 2 starter on a postseason team, which would make him a nearly perfect fit for the Mets or the Yankees. The Yankees are supposedly not that interested, but that could change if they lose out on the Matsuzaka bidding… Then there’s Jason Schmidt, who’s 34 and coming off two straight seasons of arm trouble. Still, he’ll find plenty of suitors, including the Yankees, Mariners, and Dodgers. Expect LA to win out on the bidding, with the Mariners being especially aggressive.
Cano and Carew
Yankees manager Joe Torre took some heat over the internet earlier this week when he compared rookie second baseman Robinson Cano to Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Some of Torre’s Sabermetric critics, who are always on the lookout for axes to grind with the more traditional Torre, belittled the Yankee skipper for making the link between the two, given that Carew won seven batting titles while Cano was rated only a B-level prospect by some scouts. Well, the criticism of Torre is off base here. Torre said that Cano “reminded” him of Carew, in terms of his physical appearance and his swing, and not that he necessarily expected Cano to become as a great a player as Carew. There’s quite a difference between Torre saying that Cano “reminds” him of Carew as opposed to saying that he expected Cano to “become the next Carew.”
Torre has actually used these kinds of comparisons in the past, whereby he creates a depiction of a current player by talking about who that player reminds him of stylistically. Cano has a very smooth swing at the plate, which is probably what influenced Torre to make the Carew remark. A few years ago, Torre talked about the swing of a young Ricky Ledee and how it reminded him of the hitting style of Billy Williams. On another occasion, Torre and former Yankee coach Don Zimmer compared Alfonso Soriano to Hank Aaron, not by saying that they expected Soriano to hit as many home runs but in terms of the similarity in the strength and quickness of their wrists. (And that’s a comparison that was also sounded by several major league scouts.) I think Torre uses these comparisons as a way of conjuring up a mental image for the fans and media (and not to create an undue set of expectations) so that they might have a better idea of how a young player looks in the way that he plays the game. If anything, Torre’s method shows a respect for baseball history and for the strengths of the young player in question. That’s a good thing, and not something meant to create an unreasonable or impossible expectation… Yankee batting coach Don Mattingly also made a comparison involving Cano during spring training, but that analogy didn’t create as much of a firestorm as Torre’s comments. Mattingly said that Cano’s swing and style at the plate reminded him of Ruben Sierra during the latter’s younger days. In terms of statistical output, that’s probably a better gauge of what Cano may be able to do; he’s not likely to win the seven batting championships that Carew garnered with the Twins and Angels, but might be capable of putting up offensive numbers similar to those of Sierra… While Cano doesn’t have the hitting ability or footspeed that Carew had in his prime, he does have one advantage over the Hall of Famer. Cano is a very good defensive second baseman–he’s twice been named the best defender in his league during his minor league days–and likely won’t have to switch positions as Carew was asked to do in the midst of his career with the Minnesota Twins. In 1976, the Twins moved Carew, a subpar defensive second baseman, to the less demanding position of first base, where he played for the remainder of his career.
And Another Thing
For those who are interested, Hall of Fame web manager Dan Holmes and I will be hosting presentations on Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, respectively, in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater this Sunday (May 22) beginning at 1:00 pm. After the presentation, Dan will be signing copies of his book, Ty Cobb: A Biography, and I’ll be signing copies of my book, Ted Williams: A Biography. And then on Monday, May 23, beginning at 10:00 am, I’ll be signing copies of Tales From The Mets Dugout at Augur’s Book Store located on Main Street in Cooperstown.