Buster Olney: New York Yankees

"Sunday Night Baseball" felt like a screenplay that would've been rejected because of implausibility, with all its elements and characters and plot twists crammed into one evening, in one of the most interesting regular-season games you will ever see.

Before the first pitch, a future Hall of Famer was held out of the lineup for the second straight day, and then word broke that Dustin Pedroia, who played almost the entire 2013 with a torn thumb ligament, has a bad left wrist that will be tested in Boston today.

After the first pitch, there was all of the incredible defensive play by superlative outfielders, with Jackie Bradley Jr. throwing out Jacoby Ellsbury to Brett Gardner throwing out Bradley to Daniel Nava's catch to Ichiro Suzuki's Spider-Man impersonation.

Because Francisco Cervelli got hurt, Carlos Beltran had to play first base for the first time in his career, and because Pedroia is hurt, Mike Carp had his first-ever game action at third. John Farrell became the first-ever manager ejected while challenging replay, after a call was overturned (more below).

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John FarrellAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJohn Farrell didn't make any issue of questions about a substance on Michael Pineda's hand.

The Red Sox have been there and done that with the accusations of pitchers using foreign substances, from Clay Buchholz's shiny forearm and game-day wet look to the green stuff seemingly wedged into the leather of Jon Lester's glove last October. They were probably disinclined to cast any stones at Michael Pineda Thursday night, as Pineda pitched the first innings with his right palm covered by something that looked an awful lot like leftovers from George Brett's bat three decades ago.

Pineda wasn’t alone in substance scrutiny Thursday: An Astros pitcher sprayed his arms before his start Thursday, as Evan Drellich writes. At the very least, pitchers should and probably do know that they are being watched in high definition in the way that golfers are being scrutinized for rules violations. This is a pitchers' version of jaywalking in 2014, and while a whole lot of folks may cross the line, they might want to strive for subtlety.

But another reason the Red Sox may have not said much is

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DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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Jurickson ProfarJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsJurickson Profar is expected to miss 10 to 12 weeks due to a muscle tear in his right shoulder.
The New York Yankees’ camp opened in 2013 with Derek Jeter still hobbling, despite a doctor’s projection that he would be ready to go at the start of the season, and Alex Rodriguez was sidelined, as well. Day by day, the team’s casualty list grew: Curtis Granderson got hurt, and so did Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis.

The Yankees’ front office scrambled to fill the spots in the last days of spring training, adding Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and others. Joe Girardi handled the adversity well, setting a strong tone for his players, who spent all summer maxing out in preparation and effort.

But in the end, the Yankees were overwhelmed by the impact of their injuries. There was nothing they could do to change the reality that losing their first baseman, shortstop, third baseman and left fielder -- as well as catcher Russell Martin, who had signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates -- crushed their production. The Yankees hadn’t finished out of the top 10 in runs scored since 1991, and last summer 15 teams scored more runs than they did. The club won 85 games, surprisingly, but failed to make the playoffs.

It’s as if a curse that hung over the Yankees’ camp last spring has now been attached to the Texas Rangers, given everything that has gone wrong in Surprise, Ariz., where the team trains. The day after the Rangers announced that second baseman Jurickson Profar will miss 10 to 12 weeks, they revealed that catcher Geovany Soto will also be gone 10 to 12 weeks -- following a wave of other injuries.

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MiddlebrooksScott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsWill Middlebrooks got contact lenses this winter, and he hopes that will solve some problems.
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Time to empty the notebook from our Thursday broadcast prep for the game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

1. Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks has had a good spring training, hitting the ball from line to line -- and it'll be interesting to see if he gets even better in the days ahead, given a change he just made. He related to John Kruk that last spring, he got a call from an eye doctor but never followed up.

This spring, he did ... and as it turned out, he told Kruk, he needed an eye prescription. He wore contacts for the first time during a game in Boston's exhibition two days ago.

2. The area on top of Shane Victorino's right thumb would often sting when he hit the ball, because the bat -- pressed hard against his hand -- would deliver a jolt. Victorino had surgery during the offseason, and there hasn't been a lot of difference in the discomfort he feels.

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Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Ivan NovaAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMasahiro Tanaka's good spring has the Yankees feeling better about the starting rotation.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka fell behind in the count to Justin Upton in the first inning Sunday, two balls and no strikes, and a lot of pitchers in this situation would see their options limited.

But in the moments that followed, Tanaka demonstrated what separates him from almost every other pitcher in the world, and why the Yankees made him one of the highest-paid pitchers in the world. He can throw strikes with any of his high-end pitches at just about any time, and slowly, he dug himself out of the ball-strike deficit.

Tanaka had thrown sliders away with his first and second pitches, and on the third pitch, he threw a good fastball to the outer part of the strike zone -- at a relatively average 90 mph. But Upton, having seen breaking balls on the first two pitches, seemed surprised by it, and was just a tad late in swinging through the fastball. Two balls and one strike.

The count went to 3-1, and then Tanaka threw a slider for a strike; it was a bit of a hanger, but Upton fouled it off. The count was full.

Put yourself in Upton’s mind in this moment. Upton had seen sliders and fastballs, but had not yet seen Tanaka’s split-fingered fastball, which is regarded as his best and nastiest pitch, a tremendous finishing weapon on two-strike counts. Upton had seen Tanaka throw the splitter to the guy who batted right before him, Freddie Freeman, and based on Freeman’s late and uncertain swing-and-miss, it was evident he had not seen the ball well.

A reasonable guess for Upton, then, would’ve been that Tanaka would throw him something off-speed. The splitter, perhaps, or a slider on the outside corner.

Instead, catcher Brian McCann called for a two-seam fastball inside, and Tanaka agreed. Eighty-seven miles per hour, belt high, inside corner.

Upton froze, and took Strike 3. The 87 mph fastball must’ve looked like 97 mph, after all the off-speed pitches that he had seen Tanaka throw for strikes.

There has been a lot of debate in the industry through the winter about whether Tanaka will have enough fastball to be a frontline pitcher, but after seeing Tanaka pitch in person for the first time

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Derek Jeter didn't want to call the event that happened last Wednesday a news conference, and tried encouraging teammates who had gathered in the room to leave and go about their business. Smartly, no one took him up on his offer, understanding the risk of winding up on the back page of a New York tabloid for actually walking out of the room as Jeter discussed his impending retirement.

Because the players seem to get it, just as many front-office executives get it: Jeter is an all-time great player.

He has been the most publicized and exposed player in the sport during his career, as the shortstop of New York's most storied franchise -- and, in turn, he has been placed under greater scrutiny, to the degree that any tweet or column about Jeter is inevitably batted back at you, attached to a word: overrated.

A chorus has been in refrain for a decade now, and was heard again in the days after he Facebooked his plans. Jeter's defense is beyond terrible, they say; he doesn't hit enough home runs, they say; his postseason numbers are merely a product of the money monster he plays for and the era he plays in, with multiple layers of October games.

But is Jeter really overrated?

Let's start out with the simple numbers: Of all the players who participated in MLB games, ever, only eight have more hits than Jeter's 3,316. If Jeter has a season of 104 or more hits, only five players in history will have more hits: Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker.

So ... that's pretty good.

You can try to diminish that by throwing the word compiler at him, but here's the thing: If Jeter gets his 104-plus hits, this will mean that nobody will have compiled like him since Rose. That's more hits than any player over the past 30 years or so.

And Jeter has gotten almost all of those hits as a shortstop, which means that for almost two full decades, the Yankees have had one of the best offensive players at a position where premium production is most valued.

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Ervin Santana, Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo JimenezGetty ImagesErvin Santana, Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez -- members of "The Draft Pick Five" -- still wait.
TAMPA, Fla. -- An AL executive drew an analogy the other day between the situation facing "The Draft Pick Five" free agents -- Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales -- and the sale of a house.

“If the price on the house is set and it just sits there and nobody's buying at that price,” the executive said, “isn’t there a time when the reality of the market sets in and the price comes down?”

Players are reporting to spring training all over the baseball landscape, and those five players -- five veterans tied to draft-pick compensation -- remain unsigned, fueling the most-asked question in the industry these days: Where will those players land

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Jeter's secret? His confidence 

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13

I covered the Yankees for the New York Times at the time Derek Jeter was invited to host "Saturday Night Live," and I can remember thinking that he would be pretty awful in that role.

Jeter's instinct when speaking into cameras or microphones had always been to keep it short, to give an answer without really saying anything. Like the way he pulled in his hands and punched the ball to right field, his ability to veer his way through interviews was almost an art -- downplaying, dodging, parrying, staying out of the corner.

Last summer, we were about to tape an interview on ESPN and I told him that young players often asked me about the way Jeter answers questions.

"What do you tell them?" he asked.

"I tell them you are as boring as possible," I replied.

He laughed, in mild protest -- "I wouldn't say boring," he said -- and I acknowledged that over the years, he has loosened up with his answers somewhat.

And I added that I always thought Jeter's strategy was to make sure that nothing he said to reporters would distract from what he did out there -- and I pointed to the shortstop position. He agreed with that part.

But Jeter on "Saturday Night Live"? I thought his habit for verbally downshifting would dull him down.

But through his reticence with the media, I had missed the forest: The man has always loved center stage, in a way that few do. He has belonged there -- only eight players in major league history have accumulated more hits, after all -- but he also wanted to be there, and assumed he would thrive there.

I've always thought Jeter's reputation as a clubhouse leader has been overstated, because unlike players such as Adrian Beltre, Dustin Pedroia or Chris Carpenter -- main bodies within their team's interaction -- Jeter seemed more like a tributary personality. His primary contributions to teammates have always been his performance and his reliability, playing through injuries that would've sidelined a lot of his peers, and the leadership he provided has always been much less about well-chosen words than about his confidence. There's not really a way to weigh this personality trait, but let's put it this way: If you could assess confidence like OPS, his lifetime number would be about 1.500. His confidence WAR would be at about 12.0 every season.

Jeter's play in the postseason is often dismissed by observers who say he really wasn't that much better than anybody else, but rather, he just had a lot more chances. That kind of criticism greatly amused a lot of rival evaluators and players, who saw in Jeter's October play an uncommon calm. Anxiety is inherent in postseason games, when the pressure is at its greatest, and even stars can struggle with the adrenaline, from Roger Clemens seemingly losing his mind in a start in the 1990 ALCS to Miguel Cabrera uncharacteristically hacking at everything by the end of the 2012 World Series.

But Jeter just seemed to play the same way -- aggressive at the plate, sure-handed in the field, completely at ease. I never thought he raised his play in October; rather, he never seemed diminished by the postseason pressure in any way, and this is what distinguished him.

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From Japan, with an updated plan 

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka Getty ImagesAs Masahiro Tanaka arrives, the Yankees will fall back on lessons accumulated from other transitions from Japan to Major League Baseball.
The Red Sox prepared diligently before investing $101 million in Daisuke Matsuzaka, scouting him thoroughly, evaluating aspects of the transition he would have in moving from pitching in Japan to pitching in Major League Baseball, from diet to language.

But as Matsuzaka threw his first bullpen session for the Red Sox in the spring of 2007, Terry Francona recalled, the team got its first insight into what it didn’t know. Matsuzaka bore a reputation for throwing many different types of pitches, and just a few minutes after he began, then-pitching coach John Farrell turned to Francona and said, "Well, we’re down one pitch."

The baseballs Matsuzaka was accustomed to throwing in Japan were slightly smaller and softer than the balls used in the major leagues, and in that first bullpen session, Matsuzaka could not get a feel for one of his most important pitches, the splitter.

The lessons learned from Matsuzaka and other pitchers shifting from Japan to the majors were applied as teams delved into the work of Masahiro Tanaka before he signed his seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees, with evaluators building on accumulated knowledge.

Tanaka, who arrived with his family on a rented jet that cost about $200,000, will be building on that history, as well.

He used the balls used in Major League Baseball when throwing between starts last year, and since signing, he has embraced the general throwing program used by the Yankees -- a significant physical and mental hurdle, given the past issues encountered by teams and pitchers.

"We've been educated more and more, just as we have with Cuban players, and try to support that process, to help transition them," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "We've been educated more and more about what's important to them, and what's very helpful in the process."

Here's some of what has been learned

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A-Rod runs out of people to blame 

February, 8, 2014
Feb 8
Alex RodriguezElsa/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez dropped his lawsuits against MLB and the players' union this week.
Until Alex Rodriguez was willing to testify under oath, there was no reason to take any of his costly legal maneuverings seriously.

But along the way, before his abrupt capitulation Friday, we needed an abacus to keep track of the attempted diversions, from the gold-plated lawsuits to the beautifully scripted I’m-Not-Going-To-Take-It-Anymore exit from the arbitration hearing to the declaration of innocence on WFAN. This was like the wizard of Oz imploring you to ignore the man behind the curtain.

In the end, none of the machinations changed the essential truth: Rodriguez broke the rules and used performance-enhancing drugs, then tried to get away with it.

A dozen other players were caught in the same Biogenesis net, including Ryan Braun and Nelson Cruz, and, when presented with the evidence, they essentially threw up their hands and acknowledged: I surrender, you got me.

Not Rodriguez, who bypassed two windows of opportunity in which he could take responsibility and accept his punishment like the other players. If he had done so, his relationships with the Yankees and others would’ve been damaged but workable.

Instead, he started flame-throwing blame at just about everybody around him. This included the Yankees, commissioner Bud Selig and the arbitration system negotiated by his union, plus, in his last act of desperation, at the union itself. His lawsuit against the union specifically named Michael Weiner, the beloved former head of the union who passed away from cancer at the end of last year -- someone who spent far too many hours in the last year of his life working to defend Rodriguez, who had cheated and lied over and over.

What a complete waste, of time, of money, of good will, of grace.

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Toughest lineup quandaries in MLB 

February, 1, 2014
Feb 1
Xander BogaertsRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesBoth Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia could see time leading off for the Red Sox in 2014.
When Joe Torre managed, he jotted down lineups in his time away from the park, mulling over various possibilities, internally debating certain combinations.

In other words: He was like a lot of baseball fans and reporters, who like to think through different lineup quandaries, especially in the cold of winter.

Around baseball, there are interesting lineup quandaries.

For the defending champion Red Sox: Who hits leadoff?

Boston’s leadoff hitters ranked first in on-base percentage last season and third in runs scored, but the guy primarily responsible for that is gone. So now John Farrell has to decide who will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the No. 1 spot in his batting order.

He’s got a few imperfect candidates such as Dustin Pedroia, who actually has done some of his worst work when he’s hit leadoff, or Jackie Bradley, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or maybe Xander Bogaerts, who may ultimately be needed to hit in the middle of the Boston order.

But the Red Sox are likely to open the year with Bradley at or near the bottom of their lineup to help ease his transition into the big leagues.

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Early picks for every division 

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
David PriceAP Photo/Chris O'MearaWith David Price remaining in Tampa Bay, the Rays boast one of MLB's best rotations.
There are still some front-line free agents who will sign before the start of the regular season, and the inevitable spring training injuries to come, so it's too early to lock in predictions for 2014.

But right now, this is what I'm looking at:

Division winners for the AL -- Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics
Wild-card teams -- Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees
Division winners for the NL -- Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers
Wild-card teams -- Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres

With David Price still in Tampa Bay, the Rays could have an extraordinary rotation. The Tigers may lack thump in the middle of their lineup, but they should be significantly better defensively with more speed and Joe Nathan will stabilize their bullpen. Oakland loses Bartolo Colon, but the Athletics will have Sonny Gray at the outset of the season with what could be an overpowering bullpen. Xander Bogaerts should help the Red Sox get back to the playoffs.

Washington added Doug Fister to an already strong rotation, and I bet the Nationals will be fueled by what they didn’t accomplish last year. Atlanta has growing money concerns with its young core, but has enough depth to get back to the playoffs. St. Louis looks capable of running away with the NL Central if its young pitching continues to manifest.

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Derek Jeter Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsDerek Jeter had just two extra-base hits in 73 plate appearances in 2013.
Simply put, what Derek Jeter will try to do in 2014 -- be a regular shortstop for a playoff team in the summer in which he will turn 40 years old -- is unprecedented. No one has ever done it before.

The closest was Luis Aparicio, the Hall of Fame shortstop. He turned 39 in April 1973 and that year, he played 132 games for the Boston Red Sox, hitting .271 with 18 extra-base hits in 561 plate appearances. The Red Sox went 89-73, but the next season, Mario Guerrero was their shortstop and Aparicio was cut, which gives you some insight into how he played.

"Luis was at the end of the line, as much offense as defense," says Peter Gammons, who covered the Red Sox then for the Boston Globe. "The next spring Darrell Johnson was the manager and he released Aparicio and Orlando Cepeda the same day in spring training."

Jeter's ankle trouble limited him to just 17 games and 73 plate appearances last season. The fact that Jeter posted a .542 OPS is really irrelevant, because it was such a small sample size, and Jeter was never fully healed and able to do the sort of conditioning and preparation he usually does, after spending a lot of last offseason in a walking boot.

The fact is that nobody really knows, as of now, what Jeter could be next summer -- not the doctors who have worked with him, not Manager Joe Girardi, not Jeter. And the future Hall of Famer and the Yankees should go into this year with eyes wide open to all possibilities.

There should be regular conversations between Jeter and the staff about how he's playing, about what's working and what's not working, because the Yankees have too much at stake this year, after failing to make the playoffs last season and spending almost half a billion dollars to upgrade the roster, to simply commit the whole season to a player surrounded by so many question marks at such a key position.

The Yankees need to be open-minded.

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The Yankees invested a $20 million posting fee and $155 million in salary in Masahiro Tanaka, and that total of $175 million represents the highest amount of dollars spent on any free-agent pitcher ever -- more than $161 million spent on CC Sabathia, or the $147 million doled out for Zack Greinke. Without that commitment, the Yankees wouldn’t have landed Tanaka.

But Tanaka has a reputation for being exceedingly competitive, and beyond the Woodrow Wilsons -- the many $100,000 bills -- the notion of being desperately needed by a historic franchise must’ve appealed to a pitcher who wants responsibility, who wants to be "the man," who wants to win. Yankees officials sensed that in him when they met him two weeks ago.

If Tanaka had signed with the Cubs, he probably would've had to wait two or three years before seeing that franchise turn the corner. If he had signed with the Dodgers, he would’ve been slotted in behind Clayton Kershaw and Greinke; he never would have been "the man."

But now he has a chance to be the Yankees' superhero in New York, for a staff

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