Buster Olney: New York Yankees

Hal SteinbrennerJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesHal Steinbrenner is ultimately responsible for the decision on what New York will do with Rodriguez.
There were some great exhibition performances Friday, starting with Matt Harvey, who probably changed the way some Mets fans feel about 2015. When you see an outing like this -- when you see stuff like this -- the possibilities just seem very different, the team's context changing.

The Dodgers' Julio Urias showed why former GM Ned Colletti refused all overtures for him, Jon Lester dazzled, and Russell Martin and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey worked well together.

But in Yankees camp, Alex Rodriguez, playing in his second game, went hitless in three plate appearances Friday night, striking out in his final at-bat when a pitcher blew the ball past him. Rodriguez has about 3½ more weeks of games before the Yankees' evaluators will meet to discuss the composition of the team on Opening Day, and in that room, hitting coach Jeff Pentland, manager Joe Girardi and longtime Yankees official Gene Michael will offer evaluations of Rodriguez's swing and what role they might envision him filling during the 2015 season.

The enmity some folks in the Yankees' organization have for Rodriguez will never go away entirely, because long before his apologies, he deceived them, he accused them and he sued them. But in that meeting, the discussions about his swing will be emotion-free, because the best possible outcome for the Yankees, short of Rodriguez being physically unable to perform and a lasting candidate for the disabled list, is if he can still hit at least a little and the team can recoup at least a little value on the $61 million they still owe him

A-Rod could face mundane final act 

February, 21, 2015
Feb 21
Joe Girardi, Alex Rodriguez APCompared with two years ago, Joe Girardi sounds a lot more like A-Rod's manager now, not his friend.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez is the opposite of subtle, with personality traits and a history that seemingly guarantee some crazy ending to his playing career. After two decades of spectacular home runs and confessions and a record-setting suspension, even Hollywood screenwriters would have a difficult time imagining an ending that would be a topper to the drama he has produced.

But it may well be that the mechanism that drives Rodriguez out of the game in the months ahead will turn out to be relatively mundane. If Rodriguez cannot hit fastballs any more, he may get squeezed out by a good old-fashioned roster pinch, a time when the Yankees designate him for assignment, he passes through waivers unclaimed and is out of baseball. Because of the past problems between Rodriguez and the Yankees, there is a career lifeline commonly used for veterans in Rodriguez's situation that is simply not available to him. We'll get to that in a moment.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi talked Friday about how Rodriguez must show he deserves playing time, as Andrew Marchand writes. Girardi's tone in speaking about Rodriguez was somewhat different than two years ago, more antiseptic. He sounded more like Rodriguez's manager than his friend.

When he was first asked Friday about Rodriguez's handwritten apology, Girardi quickly veered to reiterate his own feelings about steroid use in baseball, about how it has hurt the game and how players' performances are perceived.

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MLB win totals worth a look 

February, 14, 2015
Feb 14
Chase HeadleyJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDespite limited offseason moves, expect the Yankees to come back stronger in 2015.
To understand how adept casinos are in their business, all you have to do is look around as you walk the Las Vegas Strip. Those massive buildings, with all f their glitter and lights, are there because the folks who run them know what it takes to win. When betting lines are established, well, you’d be crazy not to take them seriously.

But there are times when the lines raise an eyebrow -- like when they set their over/under victory projections for each of the 30 teams in baseball. On Friday, the Atlantis sports book in Reno posted their numbers. As usual, some are surprising -- and heck, they might even look like an opportunity, if I ever bet on baseball (and I don’t).

Here are five, in particular.

1. New York Yankees, 80 wins

The Yankees’ fan base is really concerned because unlike in past offseasons, New York wasn’t chasing the biggest stars.

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Tips for how A-Rod could conduct himself 

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
Alex RodriguezJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez needs to try to become A-Rod the player again, not A-Rod the media spectacle.
Alex Rodriguez recently told Barry Bonds he wants Bonds' home run record, and his tone in his meeting with the New York Yankees on Tuesday reflected that ambition, according to a source familiar with the details of the discussion. Rodriguez is 39 years old, hasn't seen a pitch in a major league game in 504 days, and faces a spring training perp walk as he returns from the most notorious suspension in baseball history -- and he is apparently convinced he can come back and not only contribute, but also be great.

Delusional? Probably. He is an old ballplayer, propped up on two surgically repaired hips, and even if you give him the benefit of the doubt -- at your own peril, of course -- and presume he no longer takes performance-enhancing drugs, nobody knows if he can be effective without the benefit of that chemistry.

But while we can rightly doubt his sincerity and wonder whether his career was built in a beaker, no one should ever question how much he loves to play baseball, and at this point does he really have any other choice? Emotional surrender to his current context would be tantamount to embracing the baseball exile that awaits him after his final game.

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Stephen Drew and Didi GregoriusGetty ImagesIt appears the Yankees are loading up on lefties, including Stephen Drew (left) and Didi Gregorius.
The price on Stephen Drew dropped far enough that the Yankees made a move -- the two sides are close to finalizing a one-year deal -- to at least share some of the at-bats at second base, platooning with either Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela, and serve as a safety net if young shortstop Didi Gregorius struggles as the first to follow Derek Jeter.

In an era when specialization is the rule rather than the exception, with defensive shifts that are altered pitch to pitch and eight-man bullpens, the Yankees will have the ability to stack up nine hitters who can bat left-handed.

C Brian McCann (bats left-handed)
1B Mark Teixeira (switch hitter)
2B Stephen Drew (left)
SS Didi Gregorius (left)
3B Chase Headley (switch)
LF Brett Gardner (left)
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (left)
RF Carlos Beltran (switch)
DH Garrett Jones (left)

That the Yankees value left-handed hitting is hardly a revelation. With the exception of a few years in the middle of George Steinbrenner's time as owner, the Yankees have always placed a premium on left-handed hitting, driven initially by the success of Babe Ruth and the construction of their home ballpark.

But the ability to stack up left-handed hitters might be especially relevant in 2015 in the AL East, which generally lacks left-handed pitching and, more to the point, elite left-handed pitching, such as David Price and Jon Lester, who were traded out of the division last season.

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Breaking down the Yankees' 2B options 

December, 31, 2014
Robert Refsnyder and Robert RefsnyderIcon SMIRob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela are two current candidates to start at second base for the Yankees.
Davey Johnson managed 17 seasons in the big leagues and believed it to be absolutely crucial to introduce young players onto his roster regularly because of the energy and enthusiasm they could inject daily. Veteran players can lag through the grind of the long season, with nagging injuries, and if you had one or two newcomers hungry for success, Johnson thought, they could raise the bar for the others, naturally pushing the older players. A rookie hustling to first base on a routine ground ball or being in position to back up a play changed everything for the whole roster, in Johnson's eyes, because the established players wouldn't want to be embarrassed.

Joe Girardi, manager of the New York Yankees, has a similar affinity for young players, appreciating what they can contribute beyond the production measured on their baseball-reference.com page. Given a choice between mistakes made through overaggressiveness or through a lack of energy, Girardi would rather have the former, the teachable moments such as explaining to a rookie why he shouldn't have gone for an extra base, instead of watching a frustrated veteran lope to first base after popping up.

Girardi and the Yankees' staff might have this sort of choice in spring training when they pick a second baseman. After trading Martin Prado for Nathan Eovaldi, they don't have a clear front-runner at the position to play in an infield that also includes third baseman Chase Headley, shortstop Didi Gregorius and first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Yankees are monitoring the market, and if some attractive alternative at second develops, they could make a move.

But it's very possible the Yankees will choose among four options:

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Padres' new star-studded lineup ill-fitting 

December, 20, 2014
Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin UptonGetty Images
The whole baseball world is talking about the San Diego Padres today, in the dead of winter, probably for the first time since Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter were traded for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez a quarter-century ago. The Padres’ spring training site in Peoria, Ariz., has usually been a place reporters pass on their way to some other more interesting venue, but in a couple of months, San Diego’s rounds of batting practice will be must-see, with Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers taking turns to launch baseballs way over the tilted heads of awestruck teammates shagging fly balls.

Before the events of recent days, you would’ve been more likely to find Bigfoot in the Gaslamp district of San Diego than three of baseball’s most explosive power hitters in the Padres’ lineup. The team has everybody’s attention, and presumably, this will translate into immediate payoff in offseason ticket sales. The Padres can already count a win in the anticipation column.

Which is why it’s no fun to acknowledge the cracks in these days of Padres bliss: When quilted together, the pieces San Diego has acquired appear completely ill-fitting, like a resplendent suit that runs beyond the fingertips and over the toes.

Kemp alone, or Upton alone, or Myers alone would represent an offensive upgrade for a team that challenged records for futility last year.

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Winners and losers of the winter meetings 

December, 12, 2014
SAN DIEGO -- In keeping with tradition, the Rule 5 draft was held on the final morning of baseball's winter meetings Thursday, and typically, executives pull roller bags into and out of that room, dying to get to the airport after four boring days of sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and picking through plates of stale room service nachos.

But that was not the feel this year. No, there were wry smiles all over the place as scouts and club officials chuckled over how this year's meetings turned into some kind of transaction stock car race. The Cubs and White Sox slammed against the news of each other; the Dodgers lapped the field in a Wednesday sprint that carried into Thursday morning; the Red Sox lost the Lester 500 but hit the checkered flag with three pitchers.

In the usual way, there were lots of winners and some losers -- the Giants, for example, who own October every other year but have gotten off to a slow start this winter, missing out on Pablo Sandoval and Lester. They want to make a deal sooner rather than later, assistant GM Bobby Evans says. But in light of the fact that these were not your typical winter meetings, we're going next level on the whole winners and losers thing

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Gregorius a significant upgrade for NYY 

December, 6, 2014
Didi GregoriusThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesYankee Stadium will suit Didi Gregorius' left-handed swing.
A scout who isn’t employed by the New York Yankees spent some time Friday lauding the defense of Didi Gregorius, especially his range. Gregorius is not an elite player with the glove, the scout said, but he's certainly above average.

A natural question to the scout followed: What do you think about him offensively?

“He’s a good defender,” the scout replied drolly.

There were similar responses about the 24-year-old Gregorius from other evaluators Friday, after the Yankees traded for the guy who will be the first primary shortstop after Derek Jeter. “Can’t hit,” one executive texted. Said another evaluator: “You can throw the ball by him.”

I couldn’t find anyone with the Yankees claiming that Gregorius -- who has a .680 career OPS in 191 career games -- is a future Silver Slugger winner. But they do think Yankee Stadium suits his left-handed swing, and that he will improve.

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Here's how Yankees handle A-Rod fiasco 

November, 6, 2014
Alex RodriguezKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesYankees veteran Alex Rodriguez continues to make news off the field.
The Miami Herald story on Alex Rodriguez confirmed what many probably already assumed: that his ardent and angry defense of 2013, his words and his legal strategy, was spectacular deceit.

And by spectacular, I mean sheer enormity, not quality. He always seemed as transparent as a 3-year-old denying an illicit cookie raid with a face smeared in chocolate.

Rodriguez has the tens of millions of dollars needed in an attempt to make a mockery of Major League Baseball's drug-testing system, and he tried, without any regard to the collateral damage.

Because we all really want to forget the ridiculous circus of his Biogenesis defense, highlighted by the chanting and sign-holding A-Rod commission in front of the offices of Major League Baseball, we won't have a full recounting here of the months of untruths.

But it is worth touching on a couple of the most brazen aspects of his conduct to define the lengths of his duplicity, which, with the benefit of hindsight, looks like one giant web of deceit.

1. Michael Weiner, the leader of the players' association, was dying throughout 2013, and after the Biogenesis scandal broke, he represented the implicated players as they faced the evidence and the penalties. One by one, from Ryan Braun to Nelson Cruz, the defendants agreed to what amounted to plea bargains. Everybody, that is, except Alex Rodriguez, who continued to fight the charges all the way through the absurd and protracted arbitration hearing that was highlighted by his walk-out.

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The Jeter Tour has hurt the Yankees 

September, 21, 2014
Derek JeterJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDespite poor statistics, Derek Jeter has remained at shortstop and in the No. 2 lineup slot.
ST. LOUIS -- Some folks employed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1995 have spoken with reverence for what took place on Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, when Cal Ripken played in his 2,130th and 2,131st consecutive games. The response of the fans to Ripken, and the celebration of baseball on those two days, could not have been more touching, and Ripken’s handling of those 48 hours was exceptional, from the home runs that he hit to his willingness to come out of his shell of routine and share the moment.

A lot of the same folks who worked for the Orioles would also have told you that they would never want to again play a role in a player building a consecutive-games streak like Ripken’s.

Because they believed that for the team -- the group of players whose purpose is theoretically to win games -- Ripken’s streak was not a good thing and that he should have had days off, for his benefit and for the sake of the team. They would tell you Ripken’s streak became onerous for the baseball operations people for whom he worked because it clouded all decision-making and became bigger than the manager.

Years from now, there will be folks who worked for the New York Yankees this year who will say the same thing about Derek Jeter's final season -- that the organization’s long-established devotion to winning games has been superseded by its effort to cast Jeter in the best possible light, pretending, with his placement in the field and the lineup, that he gives the team the best possible chance to win.

The Yankees have earned a championship grade for ceremony this season, creating memories for fans and fueling an important narrative, at a time when that probably feels right. The enduring image of the NFL’s 2014 season thus far is a piece of Atlantic City security camera videotape, while Major League Baseball has been able to pause and honor Jeter for his glories and how he has served the sport so well.

But somewhere along the way, the Yankees drifted off course and winning became secondary to the 2014 Derek Jeter fairy tale.

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A shift in MLB's injury equation 

July, 13, 2014
Masahiro Tanaka and Matt WietersAP Images, Icon SMIMasahiro Tanaka and Matt Wieters are both out with injuries that previously could have been treated differently.

BALTIMORE -- In his last start before Masahiro Tanaka landed on the disabled list, his average fastball velocity was 92.1 mph. He pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed five runs. As the Yankees learned two days later, following an MRI and three doctor consultations, Tanaka had been broken in that last start against the Indians, with a small tear in an elbow ligament. But he was also still functional, like a car with a faulty fuel pump.

Now he'll be shut down for at least six weeks, and if his condition doesn't improve, he could have elbow reconstruction surgery.

Two weeks into the season, it was apparent that Matt Wieters was having some sort of arm trouble, particularly evident in his struggle to throw the ball to second base. Wieters was still playing effectively, hitting over .300 with five homers in his first 26 games. He was functional, but broken, and after weeks of treatment while he was on the disabled list, he had Tommy John surgery.

As Major League Baseball searches for answers about why so many players have been shut down in 2014, in comparison to past seasons, one of the reasons

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Yankees face difficult decisions now 

July, 10, 2014
Masahiro TanakaAP Photo/Julie JacobsonMasahiro Tanaka's total of 12 wins this season is tied for the major league lead.
Editor's Note: This blog has been updated to reflect official injury news regarding Masahiro Tanaka, released Thursday evening.

Somebody wearing a uniform undoubtedly uttered the words "I told you so" on Wednesday night after news of Tanaka's elbow issue spread across the majors, and it's very possible that this was a four-word refrain in a lot of clubhouses. That four-word refrain would only be repeated on Thursday night when the league learned that Tanaka had a partial UCL tear in his elbow, an injury that often leads to Tommy John surgery. That's because over the first two months of this season, even as Tanaka dominated hitters and earned the respect of opponents, there was a feeling among many players on other teams that it was only a matter of time before he broke down.

That opinion was not based on his daunting accumulation of pitches in Japan, where he threw 160 pitches in a start last fall before pitching in relief the next day. Rather, opposing hitters and pitchers and coaches and managers watched him throw splitter after splitter after splitter at high velocity, and they reached the conclusion that he was destined for surgery.

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CC SabathiaAl Bello/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia might be worth more to the Yankees if he doesn't return.
David Ortiz recently recalled a time when CC Sabathia drilled him intentionally. There was nothing to do but drop the bat and jog to first base, Ortiz said, because Sabathia has so much credibility and accountability that if he hit you on purpose, well, there was no question that it meant circumstances compelled him to do so.

No one in Cleveland will forget Sabathia’s time with the Indians, when he had great successes and took the blame for his failures. In Milwaukee, they will always remember how, with his free agency looming, he repeatedly took the ball on three days’ rest. After retiring, he will forever be invited back to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers’ Day and be introduced as a leader of the team that won the 2009 World Series.

Sabathia has won many admirers among players and fans during a career that includes 208 victories, nearly 3,000 innings and a Cy Young Award. But the simple fact is that, moving forward, he might be worth more to the Yankees if he never comes back from the knee trouble that is likely to end his 2014 season.

This is because of the regression in his performance, with a 5.28 ERA in eight starts this season after posting a 6.08 ERA in the second half of 2013, and his contract. Sabathia is set to earn $23 million in 2015, under the terms of the deal he signed with the Yankees after the 2008 season, and $25 million in 2016, given the mini-extension he got in the fall of 2011 because of an opt-out clause in his deal. In addition, Sabathia has a $25 million vesting option for 2017, with a $5 million buyout, that kicks in under three conditions during the 2016 season built in because of concerns about his shoulder.

A) That the season does not end with him on the disabled list because of a shoulder condition
B) That he does not spend more than 45 days on the disabled list because of a shoulder injury
C) That he does not make more than six relief appearances because of a shoulder problem

At most, the Yankees could owe Sabathia $73 million over the 2015 to 2017 seasons. At the very least, they will have to pay him $53 million, in salary and the $5 million buyout.
[+] Enlarge CC Sabathia
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesSabathia's days as a big-game pitcher are over, and maybe his career is too.

Sabathia is facing the possibility of microfracture surgery on his knee, and as doctors, Grady Sizemore and many other athletes will tell you, this is no sure thing. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. In Sabathia’s case, even if his knee is OK, it will still be uncertain that he could actually come back and be effective. His fastball velocity has dropped significantly in recent seasons, from 94.1 mph in 2009 to 89.6 in 2014.

The Yankees have insurance on Sabathia’s deal, a record-setting contract at the time when he agreed to seven years, $161 million. Whether the policy covers 50 percent or more, their potential for savings could be substantial if Sabathia never pitches again.

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Mookie BettsRich Schultz/Getty ImagesMookie Betts may well be an essential part of Boston's lineup for the rest of the season.
NEW YORK -- One evaluator not paid by Boston offered this take on Mookie Betts, who will make his major league debut tonight, when the Red Sox try to take their three-game series against the Yankees on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN):

“Tremendous feel for the strike zone,” the evaluator wrote. “Handles bat and is not a slap type. There is strength in the swing. Strong running ability. Defense really strong at second base. Limited time in center field, but early indications are that he is really solid.”

Another evaluator said: “He belongs in the major leagues. He’s a good player.”

Betts has almost as many extra-base hits (88) as strikeouts (90) over the past season and a half in the minors, with 132 walks and 67 stolen bases. He is 21 years old and slender and does not hit a lot of homers, yet. But his promotion, and the entrenchment of Brock Holt as an every-day player, seems to signal a change in direction for the Red Sox front office, a shift in lineup building. This is the Summer of the Improv.

Boston has an incredible history of power hitting, from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice to the 3-4 combination of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. In the midst of the 1977 season, the Red Sox slammed homers in 33 consecutive games. Home runs have always been the foundation of the Red Sox offense, including in 2013, when Boston clubbed 178 homers -- sixth-most in the majors -- on the way to winning the World Series.

The front office waited for the Red Sox to hit homers again in the first half, after signing A.J. Pierzynski to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia and believing in Grady Sizemore enough to give him an every-day job.

But it just hasn’t happened; Boston is 24th in home runs, with 61, and incredibly, the Red Sox are 27th in runs. They have looked around for power hitters in the trade market, just like a lot of other teams, and have identified few options.

So now Boston is changing. Instead of waiting for bigger, slower hitters to start mashing homers, the working philosophy now seems to be: If you hit -- no matter how you hit -- you are going to play.

Holt opened the season in the minor leagues, and now he is Boston’s leadoff man, hitting .321. Along comes Betts, who could play right field or center, depending on the needs of the day. Pierzynski probably needs to show something soon or else he will be the next to go, to be replaced by Christian Vazquez, a strong defensive catcher who also doesn’t hit for a lot of power; he has three home runs in Triple-A this season, along with a .325 on-base percentage.

It’s possible that by the time Aug. 1 rolls around, the bulk of the Boston lineup might look like this:

1. Brock Holt
2. Mookie Betts
3. Dustin Pedroia
4. David Ortiz
5. Mike Napoli
6. Xander Bogaerts
9. Christian Vazquez

The rest of the lineup will be determined by who hits. Daniel Nava has improved his batting average from .130 to .216 since he was promoted; if he hits, he will play. Stephen Drew has one hit in 32 at-bats and quite simply looks terrible at the plate, completely off-balance. Bogaerts was moved from shortstop to third base and stopped hitting, but he will probably continue to play while he continues to develop.

The player who probably has the most to lose with the promotion of Betts is Jackie Bradley Jr., who knows Betts better than anyone, having roomed with him in instructional ball in the fall of 2011. Bradley’s defense has been exceptional, but at some point, the Red Sox will need better production from his spot; he is hitting .206 with a staggering 76 strikeouts and just 23 walks. The Red Sox could play Holt in center and Betts in right field, which is incredible, given that both were regarded as infielders just a month ago.

Whatever alignment evolves for the Red Sox, they won’t hit a lot of homers. But they should be pretty good defensively, they should put the ball in play more, and they will be more athletic, with almost half of their every-day lineup made up of players either in their first or second season.

They have waited for the old guard to hit, and it didn’t happen. Now the Red Sox will go with what they hope is basically a lineup of badgers -- not big, not powerful, but aggressive and relentless -- during a season in which the American League East is more mediocre than it has been in years and is there for the taking.

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