Keefe To The City: Yankees Feeling Fine In First Place

By Neil Keefe
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After I called this winter the “Murphy’s Law Offseason,” the regular season has been anything but that. The Yankees are getting more than anyone thought from Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, and without Phil Hughes in the rotation, the veterans are taking the pressure off the team, the front office and the fans who would be worried if they weren’t performing.

Despite having what you could say is a makeshift rotation, the Yankees have allowed three earned runs or less in seven straight games and are sitting atop the American League East after four weeks.

After 30 days without one of our conversations, Sweeny Murti, The Voice of Reason, joined me for an email discussion for the first time during the regular season to look at the state of the Yankees.

Keefe: This is the first time we have done this since before Opening Day, so there’s a lot to talk about. But with the Yankees in first place, my therapy sessions haven’t been needed. So let’s start with the man who’s been hogging headlines in the early going and monopolizing my Twitter feed … Rafael Soriano!

When we talked during spring training you said Soriano would only be a story in the Bronx if he blew a game. Well, he’s blown two, and ducked the media after the first one, and he’s been more than a story.

In 11 appearances, Soriano’s allowed nine earned runs in 10 1/3 innings after allowing just 12 earned runs all of last season, and has put 21 men on base. He’s walked more (8) than he’s struck out (7) and has been anything, but someone worthy of being a $35-million setup man.

I know, I know. It’s April. The season is only 22 games old. Soriano doesn’t like the cold weather. But there has to be some reason for concern here. Soriano isn’t used to the type of pressure and coverage that comes with pitching for the Yankees, and who’s to say he won’t become the latest disastrous free-agent reliever that’s come to the Bronx in recent years?

I still believe in Soriano because it’s early and because his ERA has never been over 3.00 in any of his full seasons in the majors. But for the time being, maybe he shouldn’t be the automatic choice to be the “eighth-inning guy” for Joe Girardi?

Murti: I agree with you that Soriano has been bad so far. There is no other way to say it. How he responds to this bad start is exactly what I was curious to find out. If he didn’t go through his first bad stretch until mid- to late May, then maybe this isn’t that big a deal. But less than a month into the season, well, these are just the types of things that drive you to professional help, Neil.

Soriano has been too good in the past for us to just believe this is going to be a total meltdown of a year for him. I think taking the eighth-inning role away from him this early sends a bad message. It’s too reactionary. He’s had a few good outings too. It wasn’t that long ago when you were spending your day trying to come up with a cute nickname for the bullpen combo.

If Soriano doesn’t turn things around quickly, then there may be a cause for action. There are only so many games you can give away late in games, especially if that’s the team’s strength compared to a rotation that has had some early season surprises, but still remains a question mark.

Keefe: When it looked like the Yankees were going to give Bartolo Colon a rotation spot in spring training, I was enraged. I even wrote an entire piece titled “Bartolo Is A Bad Idea” for the site. I was wrong about Colon and I apologized. (I also apologized to A.J. Burnett for everything, but I hold the right to revoke that apology.)

Colon has been impressive, as has Freddy Garcia, and I actually enjoy watching them pitch. They throw strikes, don’t hand out free passes and for some reason you just believe in them (I didn’t think that was possible) and believe they will get out of jams (though Garcia hasn’t been in any), and provide strong outings for the Yankees. Maybe the offseason wasn’t the Murphy’s Law Offseason after all.

Murti: It was hard to expect much from either one of them, although Garcia definitely had some value with the 28 starts he made last year for the White Sox. He will be in plenty of jams for you to sweat over, and will probably even lose a few games for you to put him on your hit list. But Garcia is a good long-term bet for the Yanks, giving them more chances to win than lose, and that’s why he’s good at filling out the back end of this rotation.

Colon is the guy who spent spring training being part of every fat joke you could think of. The joke’s on us right now. I understand the “win” statistic is overvalued and not always a good measure of a pitcher, but it’s still hard to imagine going through the first month of the season and the only Yankees pitcher with more wins than Colon is A.J. Burnett. Colon probably isn’t built for the long haul, so I wouldn’t start penciling him in for the postseason rotation just yet. His stamina will become a question mark as he begins pitching every five days and the season goes on. If he’s still pitching this well a month from now I think we’ll still be in a little bit of shock.

Keefe: In December I thought the rotation would be CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett. Today it’s CC Sabathia, A.J., Burnett, Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. If you told me in December that’s what I would be looking at, I probably would have moved to Europe and become a soccer fan. But doesn’t John Sterling have a saying for things like that?

Colon had been the backup plan if Freddy Garcia didn’t work out. With Phil Hughes’ future with the team for the rest of the season unknown right now and health being a concern for both Colon and Garcia, who would be the backup plan for either of them right now? I know Kevin Millwood can opt-out of his deal over the weekend if he isn’t called up to the majors, but there isn’t a rotation spot for him right now, so the Yankees look at the possibility of losing him.

Would David Phelps be the backup plan right now? Adam Warren? Andrew Brackman?

Murti: Any of the starters at Triple-A you mentioned are backup plans. My guess is Hector Noesi, who was the first one called up this year as a long reliever, would be the first option. But that always comes down to who’s pitching the best and whose turn it is when you’re talking about a spot start. If it’s something more long term, that’s tough because if you could say that any one of those guys is ready to make 10 or 15 or 20 starts in the majors, well, they’d probably already be here.

The trade market will start to define itself probably in late June and heat up as we get closer to the July 31 trading deadline. The plan will have to be to make do with whatever is here in your system until someone becomes available at a reasonable price. An American League executive told me recently he thinks about a dozen starting pitchers will be on the market come July and perhaps seven or eight of them will actually be moved. Keep in mind; this doesn’t speak to the quality of those arms and how desirable they would be to the Yankees. That stuff will have to be sorted out as we get closer to that time.

Meanwhile, trade possibilities of any kind aren’t really worth thinking about this early in the season. Teams just don’t think about moving players this early, and as Brian Cashman has alluded several times, most teams don’t concentrate on trade possibilities until after the First-Year Player Draft in June. After the draft, teams can spread scouts out a little bit more through the major and minor leagues to get a better feel for what they seek in return.

Keefe: A.J. Burnett came into the season as the biggest question mark for the Yankees and so far he’s been great, and it was disappointing on Monday night that he went eight innings and allowed just one run and lost.

Now, Burnett started out like this year last year too before it all unraveled into what was the worst statistical season for a Yankees starter ever, so it’s not like I’m about to get my hopes up. But for now, I’m just enjoying the ride because I don’t know when it will end.

Some people have credited his success to Russell Martin and in the offseason we talked about Larry Rothschild and whether or not he could turn Burnett around after his 10-15 season in 2010, but we agreed that at this point in his career only Burnett could turn it around himself. So, after four starts, what do you think has led to Burnett’s early success other than the obvious of not allowing seven runs a start?

Murti: I guess it’s natural to wait for the wheels to fall off again, but Burnett looks like he’s past what ailed him last year, at its worst in August and September. I can’t sit here and tell you Burnett isn’t going to hit a bad stretch this year, but you have to give him some credit. Even when he starts out well you can’t keep saying, “Well, he started out like this last year too…”

The biggest difference is Burnett seems to have more confidence in his pitches right now. Why? Who knows? But it comes down to what we talked about that Burnett is taking control and making himself better.

I still believe the changeup has been a big part of what Burnett is doing. He’s no longer a two-pitch pitcher. Burnett and I have had long talks about his changeup, how managers and pitching coaches have been trying to get him to throw more of them for years. One day in 2005 he got so tired of people saying he couldn’t do it that he threw 44 of them in one game. He ended up throwing a complete-game two-hitter, but the message still never really got through.

This spring Russell Martin caught Burnett’s changeup and realized how good a pitch it was, so he started calling it. And then Burnett started to believe how good a pitch it was. He gets it now and he’s become a better pitcher. Burnett even gets text messages from his dad applauding the “third pitch”.

I don’t know if Burnett will go 24-2 this year, but I never thought he’d go 0-32 like you did, Neil.

Keefe: I don’t know about 0-32. Maybe somewhere around 5-27.

Russell Martin has been the best new addition to the Yankees. I was worried about how he would transition into playing in the Bronx after playing himself out of L.A. due to injuries and a lack of production. And when my L.A. friends started texting me “Good luck with Russell” when he signed with the Yankees, I thought that was probably not a good sign either. But Brian Cashman spoke highly of him at that breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe in January and even compared him to Thurman Munson. So far, he looks right.

Martin has already passed his home run total from 2010 and looks like the Russell Martin of a few seasons ago after recovering from his hip injury and the offseason knee surgery. He has already had a handful of big hits for the Yankees in just 22 games and has been an upgrade behind the plate — blocking pitches and throwing out runners.

It’s scary to think that Martin could have signed with the Red Sox this winter and would have solved their dilemma of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek. Forget Colon and Garcia … I think Martin was the best offseason move the Yankees made. Agree?

Murti: Considering Martin is an everyday player and had considerably more risk attached because of that, yes I would say that’s accurate so far.

Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi were both sold on Martin after a dinner meeting with him in December. Martin himself saw this as an opportunity to rejuvenate a career that went downhill in 2009 and 2010. Re-dedicating himself to the game, seeing a chance to basically get his career back on track after getting dumped by the Dodgers, it seems like the Yankees took a chance on Martin at the right time and it’s paying off. It’s the same type of gamble the Yanks took on Nick Swisher — buy low and hope for good returns.

These are the types of move that Brian Cashman never gets credit for. When you spend big bucks on free agents there are bound to be some misses in there, no matter who the players are. Those misses are big red marks on a resume because spending big means big expectations, and if performance doesn’t match, it’s a big, big mistake. But when you buy low on guys like Swisher and Martin, or strike gold in Garcia or Colon (even if it’s temporary) it shouldn’t just be chalked up to luck.

Keefe: I got on Jorge Posada a couple weeks ago after an early slump and his awful performance against Josh Beckett in that Sunday night game at Fenway (though he wasn’t the only one, obviously). But then Jorge hit that game-tying home run against Kevin Gregg in the ninth inning of the Yankees’ comeback win against the Orioles, and I made him part of my apology list with Burnett and Colon.

But since that apology, Posada has been back to being hard to watch at the plate. The power is still clearly there, but it seems like when he isn’t hitting a home run, he isn’t doing much, and that’s frequently. Once again, it’s early, but is it too early to worry about Posada? I know he wouldn’t take being relegated to a lesser role than being the everyday DH well since he probably still sees himself as the starting catcher, but are we are we getting to the point where we might see Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez more often as the DH?

Murti: Still early, yes, but as Yogi Berra once famously said, “It gets late early around here.” Or something like that.

Posada’s batting .130 (9-for-69) with six home runs. I’ve talked to several people around the league about Posada this week, and the consensus opinion is that you leave him alone as long as the power is there and the team is winning. Posada isn’t the cause of a major problem right now.

His power is still a premium commodity. Common sense tells you his average will go up and his home run frequency will go down, but you have to keep riding his power as long as you can. That’s the opinion I got from baseball folks around the league. Even if Posada only hits .230 or so for the year, but hits 25-plus home runs, it’s still worth keeping him in the lineup. Should he continue to struggle to hit at all, then it might be worth using matchups to determine DH days for A-Rod, Teixeira, Jones, or Chavez as part of the mix.

Keefe: It wouldn’t be a “Neil and Sweeny” chat if we didn’t talk about Boone Logan, so what better way to finish out first conversation of the regular season than to talk about the “left-handed specialist?” This is what I wrote about Logan last week:

He can’t be trusted and has no set role on the team. So, basically he’s collecting a major league check and getting his meal money and traveling with the team like a roadie on tour with Van Hale with all expenses paid for. That’s a pretty nice life.

Sure, Logan had that great streak last year after I tried to get him sent down all summer (once successfully), and hopefully he’ll do it again this year. I’m hoping he can since Girardi still likes him deep down and still likes to get him warming up in tight games just to put a scare into me and every other Yankees fan.

Logan has made it clear early this year that he can’t get out lefties with any consistency and can’t be trusted late in close games. He can’t be trusted in anything other than a game that is out of reach for opposition or the Yankees. (Yes, this is my attempt a reverse jinx for the lefty.) If he isn’t the seventh-inning guy or the eighth-inning guy or the closer or the long reliever, and Girardi doesn’t use him against lefties in big spots anymore, what exactly he is? A funny guy in the clubhouse? Someone with a lot of dirt of Girardi?

Murti: You should hear all the nice things Boone Logan says about YOU, Neil. I have a feeling you’d change your tune if you really just got to know the person with the career 5.06 ERA and 1.622 WHIP.

OK, maybe not.

You have to figure that Logan will sooner or later be called on to get a big lefty out, but he’s been passed over for that several times. Seven of the 16 lefties he has faced have reached base. There may be other options available for the Yankees down the road — the same executive who told me he thought a dozen starting pitchers would be available in July told me about six or seven lefty relievers would also be available. In the meantime, you’re looking at Boone Logan, and you in particular, Neil, are hoping not to throw a brick through your TV. If on August 1 there isn’t another lefty reliever here besides Logan, you can fire away at me then.

However, I again caution you to not get too worked up over the 10th and 11th guys on the pitching staff.  If these guys were that good they wouldn’t be the 10th and 11th guys on the staff.  Many of those parts are interchangeable, and any one of them can be hot or cold at any one time.

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at http://twitter.com/YankeesWFAN

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