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Keefe To The City: State Of The Yankees, Spring Training Edition

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By Neil Keefe
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Spring training has sprung, and it’s a beautiful day in New York City. It almost feels like the Yankees and Angels should open the Stadium today rather than on April 13 when we all know it will be 26 degrees and raining. But Opening Day for the Yankees is still 29 days away.

It’s been 49 days since WFAN Yankees beat reporter Sweeny Murti (the Voice of Reason) joined me for an email discussion, and since he’s in sunny Tampa and longing to talk Yankees baseball with me, it seemed like the perfect time to look at the state of the Yankees.

Keefe: It’s going to be 67 degrees in the city on Thursday and the sun is still out a little longer each night. The Rangers only have 17 games left in the regular season and March Madness is a week away. This can only mean one thing: Baseball! Baseball! Baseball! Baseball! Baseball!

The last time we talked was on Jan. 19 when the Yankees traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda, and we discussed the “good problem” the Yankees have with an abundance of starting pitching. You said the Yankees would be willing to “eat as much as half of the remaining $33 million on A.J. Burnett’s contract” and they did us one better and went and ate $20 million of it to get him out of town. We have spent a lot of time talking about A.J. Burnett. A lot of time. We started doing these email discussions two years ago and I think he has been a part of every one of them, which is quite the accomplishment. (I don’t think Boone Logan can even claim that.)

Burnett is a weird Yankees case because he signed as a free agent off an 18-win season with a reputation of having “great stuff” that no one knew how to make him harness on a consistent basis. He won Game 2 of the 2009 World Series and won a championship in his short three-year stint with the Yankees (though it felt like 30 years). But overall he was 34-35 with a 4.79 ERA on three playoff teams, winning just two of his seven postseason starts and without a Curtis Granderson miracle catch, the Yankees might have eaten the entire $33 million.

How does Burnett stack up against the other starters with “great stuff” that were Yankees and failed in New York? Burnett did help the team win a World Series, which is something that Jeff Weaver and Kevin Brown can’t say, and he made 68 starts over his three years, which is something Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano can’t say. So where does he fit in with other Yankees that came over via trade or free agency, made big money, but were disappointments?

Murti: A.J. Burnett wasn’t the best money the Yankees ever spent, but it certainly wasn’t the worst.

Let’s look at all the free-agent starting pitchers the Yankees have signed in the wild-card era (since 1994). I will list only pitchers signed from other teams (and will not count pitchers they acquired via trade, such as Weaver or Brown, or pitchers acquired first via trade and then re-signed after a contract ran out, such as David Cone or Roger Clemens).

Kenny Rogers
David Wells (twice)
Orlando Hernandez
Mike Mussina
Jose Contreras
Carl Pavano
Jaret Wright
Sidney Ponson
Andy Pettitte (Part 2)
Kei Igawa
CC Sabathia
A.J. Burnett

I can put El Duque, Mussina, Pettitte, and Sabathia all comfortably in front of the pack. I can put Rogers, Contreras, Pavano, Wright, Ponson and Igawa all comfortably in the rear. That leaves Burnett and Wells.

Not much of an argument there, of course. Wells easily had the better regular season career and was a much more reliable starter, but they both contributed the same number of World Series victories for the Yankees with one each. Wells won Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, but gave up five runs as the Yankees came from behind on home runs by Chuck Knoblauch and Tino Martinez. The Yankees went on to sweep the Padres for the championship.

Burnett, as we’ve mentioned many, many times here, pitched very well after the Phillies had already won Game 1 and threatened to put the Yankees in a 2-0 hole heading back to Philadelphia. Of course it’s possible the Yankees would have won the Series anyway, but Burnett’s Game 2 performance is seen by many of those 2009 Yankees as the pivotal moment.

Anyway, it was time for Burnett to go and the Yankees did what they had to do, but if we look at his tenure in pinstripes next to the others, we have definitely seen worse. The Yankees will have spent $69 million on Burnett when they tally up and add in the money they still owe him over the next two seasons. For that they did get one World Series ring, which is something many of the others can’t say.

So, Neil, does it make you feel any better that given this list Burnett fits in just behind David Wells?

Keefe: It doesn’t make me feel better. I think, if anything, it makes me scared to think that the two of them could be compared so closely and be so similar in production.

I watched my first spring training of the season on Monday to watch the great Michael Pineda make his Yankees debut against the Phillies. Thanks to the invention of MLBTV, which changed my life when I went started college in Boston in the fall of 2004, I have had the chance to see Pineda pitch in the league before, aside from his start against the Yankees, so it wasn’t like it was the first time I have ever seen him, but I was intrigued. He is certainly a massive presence on the hill and I think the Yankees uniform makes him look even bigger than he is, if that’s possible. You had a chance to talk to hear Russell Martin talk about it, and it was good to hear the catcher be so enthusiastic about Pineda’s ability.

Pineda is just 23 years old, and if he were in the Yankees’ organization growing up rather than the Mariners, there’s a good chance he would still be in the minors with Brian Cashman’s legendary “rules” and innings limits. Everyone knows Pineda is a guy that can eventually be the Yankees’ No. 1, and right now there’s a very good chance he is already the No. 2 even though the Yankees won’t admit it and won’t put that type of pressure on him. Instead it seems like they are really trying to sell the idea that there is some sort of competition for the rotation, as if they aren’t going to put Freddy Garcia in the bullpen.

I understand the idea of not just giving out jobs this early in camp, especially to young kids, but what’s the point of trying to tell the public that the rotation isn’t set yet (barring injury of course) aside from Sabathia and Kuroda? It seems a little ridiculous like Joe Girardi still denying the Yankees’ plans at the end of the 2010 season when he was using everyone but his “A” relievers to close out games.

Murti: Well, it’s the same reason we keep telling you, Neil, that you are trying out for a job at WFAN.com. We don’t want you to get too comfortable and submit subpar efforts. I can only assume that’s why you keep asking me to participate, to beef up your columns every once in a while.

Joe Girardi all but admits to making a mistake when the Yankees handed over roles to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain in spring of 2008. He hasn’t guaranteed a spot to a young player since if I recall. It’s a little odd in Hughes’ case considering his tenure here, but Girardi made it clear the Yankees weren’t pleased with the way Hughes came into camp last year, so pushing him this time seems to be the way to go.

Pineda’s ability might make him the Yankees’ No. 2 starter down the road, but – to use your example – if Pineda had grown up in the Yankees organization, chances are you would be writing to me about how bad his second half was last year and how he’s been overhyped and how for all his “great stuff” he isn’t close to being good enough to be a No. 2 starter on this team.

Don’t be a “grass is always greener on the other side” guy. Pineda will be in the rotation and might have himself a good year. But he is only 23 indeed. Be prepared for some bad games once in a while, which no one cared too much about in Seattle. And don’t come crying to me about it either.

Keefe: Oh I’m well aware of my tryout that is going on it’s third year. I feel like David Robertson trying to prove himself a few years ago, so maybe I should start wearing high socks or stirrups to the CBS offices.

I don’t necessarily think Girardi made a mistake in giving out roles to Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain back in 2008. It wasn’t his fault that the year before Brian Cashman gave Joe Torre a rotation that was 40 percent Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa and when they didn’t pan out, Cashman was forced to rush Hughes and Kennedy to the majors and get starts from Sean Henn and Matt DeSalvo and Darrell Rasner and Jeff Karstens and the infamous Chase Wright, who I sat in Fenway Park and watched give up back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs. (That was a fun night.) The Yankees of four and five years ago were a ship taking on water while Cashman tried to patch things up here and there until he could get to the 2008 free agency class and get Giambi and Mussina’s contracts off the books and make runs at Sabathia and Teixeira and even Burnett. I just think that situation was much different than this one, and he shouldn’t be hesitant to give out a rotation spot up front to a 23-year-old. It’s not like he’s handing out three spots again to less proven commodities. Everyone knows Pineda is going to be in the rotation. There’s just no need to make it sound like he’s competing for a job.

On that same subject, since you are watching exhibition baseball every day (not that it’s a bad thing since you’re in Florida while I my lips are chapped and I think I have frostbite on my hands from walking down 6th Ave. the last few days), doesn’t the fact that there really isn’t any competition in camp for spots on the roster make it less interesting? I know that there is “technically” the competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, but the position player jobs seem to be filled up. As someone who covers the team and watches a month of preparation games, does not having a competition to watch take away from spring training?

Murti: Covering the Yankees there are generally few competitions anyway. Sure, there are years like 2011 when they were looking to fill some rotation spots from the group that included Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Most times the competitions in camp are for the last spot or two on the bench or bullpen. The Yankees don’t go into camp trying to figure out who will be their Opening Day starter, their closer, their starting shortstop or third baseman. Generally, the Yankees find themselves in a spring training where they look to get their veterans to the starting gate healthy.

Does that make Yankees camp less exciting to cover? Not really. I’ve never spent seven weeks covering someone else’s spring training, but the thing you have to remember about these competitions no matter what they are is that they don’t get decided until the end of spring anyway. So whatever happens on March 7, you can’t get too excited about until you get closer to the end.

Spring training for me is about getting back to the ballpark every day, getting the chance to talk to the players, coaches, managers, general managers, scouts and get ready for a real season. Spring training is one long “stand around and wait” for what we really want, which is for the games that count.

And if I can get in a few therapy sessions for you along the way, well that’s just a bonus.

Keefe: Well, I know we have done these pretty much every other week during the season, but these therapy sessions might grow tenfold this season thanks to the new playoff format in the league, which is just insane. (I know that this is coming from a Yankees fan and that fans of small-market teams and non-Yankees fans don’t want to hear it.)

In 2010, the Yankees won 95 games. They lost the AL East by one game to the 96-win Rays. The Twins won the Central with 94 wins and the Rangers won the West with 90 wins. (Do you see where I’m going here?) The Yankees won the wild card and were forced to play the first two games of the ALDS on the road in Minnesota as their punishment, even though they had more wins than the Twins in the regular season. So we all had to accept this punishment because that’s the way the system worked even though the 2010 Yankees were better than the 2010 Twins for 162 games.

If 2010 happened in 2012, the Yankees, who won more games than both the Twins and Rangers, wouldn’t have to go on the road to play the Twins in Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS. Instead they would have hosted the 89-win Red Sox in a one-game playoff for their season. So even though they had more wins than the two other division winners and even though they beat the Red Sox by six games over the course of 162 games, the Yankees would host the Red Sox for one nine-inning game against a team that has been basically a mirror image of them since 2003. Ladies and gentlemen, Major League Baseball!

The new playoff format is absolutely ridiculous, and 2010 isn’t the only reason. Every season has a different nuance in which under the 2012 rules, it would have been silly, and it’s going to be silly this year. Look at last season. All of the drama from Games 162 for Tampa Bay, Boston, St. Louis and Atlanta wouldn’t have even mattered because they would have all just played each other a day or two later anyway, which is what Major League Baseball would have wanted for another game, another gate and more TV ratings.

I know you can cite 2008 as a case where this new format would have helped the Yankees, but the 2008 Yankees won 89 games and didn’t deserve to be in the postseason even if they went on to beat the wild card Red Sox in a one-game playoff. They weren’t good enough to reach the playoffs over 162 games and six months, and it would have been ridiculous to see a playoff rotation of Pettitte (who’s a maybe since he was clearly hurt), Mussina, Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson. Maybe if the Yankees win that one-game playoff and beat the Red Sox, they don’t feel the need to spend big on CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and even A.J. Burnett because they made the playoffs.

I’m hoping, actually I’m praying that you’re onboard with this new playoff system being ridiculous. And maybe someday the league will just let the four best records from each league in the postseason regardless of their division like I want them to. Let’s just get rid of divisions since they are for scheduling and travel purposes only!

Murti: I’m not a fan of the new wild-card format for some of the reasons you mentioned. My main complaint is that the fantastic drama of the one-game playoff is based on the fact that two teams played dead even for 162 games and now have nine innings to decide which one is better. But last year aside, the wild-card winner in the AL finished at least five games better than the runner-up every year from 2006-10. Plenty of people (and I’m not one of them) think the best-of-5 series is unfair, so how is this any better?

Two things I think have to change now that we are playing under the new system.

First, the NL has to adopt the designated hitter. We know the AL will never eliminate it so it’s time for everybody to play under the same set of rules. This becomes so much more important in 2013 when the Astros move to the AL and create two 15-team leagues, whereby there is an interleague series all the time. Imagine what you’ll be saying when the races come down to the final week and the Yankees play their final three games in an NL park with their pitcher batting, while the Red Sox finish up at home and use their DH. The NL is the last professional league anywhere, I believe, to still let the pitcher bat. Time to give that up.

Second, I firmly believe the trade deadline needs to be moved to around Aug. 15 or 20. With so many teams potentially in a playoff race, I think July 31 is way too early for a team to decide whether they are in the race or not and therefore decide whether or not to trade their top free-agent-to-be. Even without the extra wild card I thought it was asking too much for a team to decide with 60 games to play if they are in or out of the race. Now with additional teams in the playoff chase, I think the deadline needs to be moved back.

Keefe: I didn’t even think about the Astros move in 2013 and the hypothetical about the races starting those years if the DH isn’t instituted in the NL. What a disaster. It blows my mind how the league can be so wrong about this move and the new format. But hey, more playoff games and more TV ratings! Who cares if it waters down the playoff field and creates unfair advantages?

With all of the roster spots pretty much spoken for as we wait anxiously up north for Opening Day and you count down the days until you can stop watching exhibition games and living out of a hotel to get back to see your family, what should we be watching for over the next month (aside from hoping everyone stays healthy until April) in a year when there’s no real competition or jobs on the line?

I would like to think it’s how A-Rod responds to his rebounding from last season, but last year at this time people were hinting at him for the AL MVP, and it’s not about Jeter since he proved post-DL stint last year that he’s still capable of competing at a high level. So is it hoping that Eduardo Nunez can make routine plays or that Mark Teixeira has decided to use the whole field and even hit changeups? Or should we be looking for something else or nothing at all?

Murti: Honestly, you can take whatever you want to out of this spring. The main focus is about all the star players staying healthy and getting ready for the start of the season. The other little battles and storylines will get us through spring training, but like every other sport this is just a way to get us to what really matters: the season.

As baseball fans we love the games. We love watching the individual battles. We love watching great players play. We love keeping score and knowing who wins and who loses. None of that really matters until the season gets underway.

So we’ll take whatever angles we can get between now and then. But try to relax just a little bit, because nothing will really happen until April 6. And even then it’s only the first of 162.

I’m sure that anxiety will bring you back for another session very soon.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

Follow Sweeny on Twitter @YankeesWFAN