Notes On Phil Hughes, Michael Pineda, Curtis Granderson & More

By Sweeny Murti
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Some thoughts as the Yankees hit Memorial Day weekend, the first big summer marker of the baseball season:

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— The Yankees enter the weekend 10 games over .500, a mark they actually reached for the first time on May 13.  I learned a lot of baseball from Joe Torre my first seven years on this beat, and he used to always point to 10-games over as the first goal of the season.  After that, Torre would say, you think about 15, then 20… and when you get to 20 you start to measure yourself as a postseason contender.

I still wonder how long they can keep this up before the reinforcements are due back.  But those days are approaching faster than before.

— Two things I heard from opposing scouts over the last week:

1. “Joe Girardi gets a lot of credit, and that’s fine, but this (Yankee) coaching staff is the hardest working group in the game.  It’s not even close.”

2. “CC (Sabathia) is a shell of himself, but he can still pitch.”

— Phil Hughes is pitching like a fourth starter, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s what he is on this team.  He threw four very good games in a row, then got shelled, then threw another good game.  This is not ideal, but is acceptable as a fourth starter.  No, it’s not acceptable to get knocked out in the first inning, but that never happened before either.  Hughes has to learn to get through the days when his stuff isn’t great and find ways to keep two-run innings from turning into four-run innings (or worse). That will take him to the next step.  And remember, he’s still only 26.

— Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne have helped the Yankees overcome the loss of Joba Chamberlain to the DL.  While the Yankees have scrambled to fill holes in the wake of other injuries, Kelley and Claiborne have thrown a combined 19.1 innings, allowing only 13 hits, three runs, one walk and 26 strikeouts.

— Michael Pineda is one of the 11 players still on the DL for the Yankees, and he will come into the spotlight a bit more now that Jesus Montero has taken a step backward in Seattle, demoted to Triple-A after batting just .208 and throwing out only one of 24 base stealers.

May 1 was the one-year anniversary of Pineda’s shoulder surgery.  I spoke to him at Yankee Stadium about a week after surgery, his arm in a sling, and this was the final thing he said to me that day:

“I want to say I’m real sad for the Yankee fans that want to see me. But don’t worry, I’m going to stay here. And I’ll come back real strong. I’ll keep working really hard for my rehab and I’ll be the same Michael Pineda from 2011.”

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Pineda is about a week away from being cut loose on an official minor league rehab assignment.  After 30 days, he should be back to full strength and ready to pitch in the majors, if there is an opening for him.  If not, he will probably be sent to Triple-A to pitch until he’s needed.

And wouldn’t that be something, if nearly 18 months after this major trade of star prospects that both of them landed in Triple-A?  Still so much future ahead for both of those kids, so the winner-loser debate on this trade can rage on a while longer.

— Back to the coaches, there is legitimate praise for Kevin Long in helping Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner especially get off to their good starts.  But I still hear from disgruntled fans about the regression of Curtis Granderson last year, in particular the strikeouts.

It’s important to remember a hitting coach’s role in baseball is a lot different than that of an offensive coordinator in football.  Long isn’t calling the plays and telling Granderson when to swing.  It’s more like what happens after the coach calls a play for a quarterback, and then the ball is snapped.  Whatever you told the player to do, he’s kind of on his own now to take everything you told him and make it work in the blink of an eye.  The player can make the coach look good.  It can be harder to do the other way around.  It’s still apples and oranges, but I hope you understand what I mean.

Long does what he does with every player, which is work to determine strengths and weaknesses and try to make the hitter more productive.  That doesn’t mean he can turn Ramiro Pena into Miguel Cabrera.  It means that he puts in the time and effort to try to make Granderson (and every other player) a better hitter than he was before.

Granderson turned into a 40-home run hitter under Long’s watch.  And while it’s a feather in his cap, he’s certainly not pleased about Granderson’s regression last season.  The time is spent addressing the problems, as happens with every hitter.  But in the end, it’s the hitter all alone in the box succeeding or failing on his own.

Granderson has had to overcome missing first month and a half of the season due to injury, but now it’s up to him.  And it’s a big year with a free agent payday waiting for him next winter.

— Finally, here is to hoping all our friends and neighbors in the beach communities in Jersey and Long Island can enjoy a happy Memorial Day weekend and all the great summer days that follow.  Better days are shining through.

Sweeny Murti

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