Buster Olney: New York Yankees

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.
videoSAN 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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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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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
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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
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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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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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Jacoby EllsburyLeon Halip/Getty ImagesJacoby Ellsbury has a career stolen base success rate of 84 percent, the third highest of all time.
ST. LOUIS -- Mick Kelleher's first year in professional baseball was in 1969, and he says he had never seen before what he saw Monday: a crowd give a standing ovation to a catcher for throwing out a runner. But this is St. Louis and the catcher is Yadier Molina, and when he gunned down Brett Gardner in the eighth inning -- zipping a throw that Jhonny Peralta caught and dropped down on Gardner's left shoulder -- the fans all rose as one and chanted his first name.

"We've seen some pretty good catchers the last 40 to 50 years," said Kelleher, the first-base coach for the Yankees and a former Cardinal. "That was tremendous. I even get excited about something like that. Great baseball fans, great baseball city."

And an even greater catcher. Gardner was the 23rd baserunner who had attempted to steal a base against Molina this season, and the 13th to get thrown out. But when Jacoby Ellsbury drew a walk against Randy Choate to open the top of the 12th inning, with the score tied 3-3, Ellsbury figured he would try to steal at some point. The game situation dictated that he at least try, and besides, there is a difference between Ellsbury and most others who try to steal bases, including some faster than he is.

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Tanaka's edge against Trout 

April, 27, 2014
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Masahiro TanakaMichael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesMasahiro Tanaka had seven strikeouts en route to his first win at Fenway Park on Apr. 22.
The day after Masahiro Tanaka shut down Boston’s lineup, some of the Red Sox hitters noted that you just don’t see that many starting pitchers who throw as many splitters as Tanaka.

“Closers, yes,” said Jonny Gomes. “Relievers, yes. But not starters.”

Even when Tanaka pitched with a sturdy lead, the Red Sox hitters noted that Tanaka kept coming at them with the splitter, one after another.

Tanaka’s splitter is not only regarded as one of the best in baseball -- maybe the best, because of its extremely late movement in its journey to the plate -- but the fact that he throws so many separates him.

So far this season, Tanaka has thrown his splitter on about 22 percent of pitches, according to FanGraphs. To put that number in perspective, only two starters threw their splitters more than 20 percent of the time last year: Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda, two older pitchers. Only nine starters threw a splitter more than 10 percent of the time.

So not only has Tanaka demonstrated that he’s pretty good, with the ability to pitch to the edges of the strike zone, he is also highly unusual in what he throws.

Tanaka will face Mike Trout in the first inning on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), and interestingly, the splitter is the pitch against which Trout has struggled the most in his big league career, according to FanGraphs. He has done a lot of damage so far this season against two-seam fastballs and four-seam fastballs, but not against the splitter (small sample size alert):

Runs above average for each 100 pitches, 2014 season

Fastballs (four-seamers and other unclassified): 2.31
Two-seam fastballs: 7.17
Cutters: minus-4.76
Splitters: minus-7.48

Runs above average for each 100 pitches, career

Fastballs (four-seamers and other unclassified): 1.82
Two-seamers: 2.04
Cutters: 1.94
Splitters: minus-1.61

Tanaka told reporters Saturday that he really doesn’t know that much about the Angels’ hitters. But how he pitches to Trout in his first plate appearance may give us the first indication of whether the Angels’ center fielder is going to get a steady feed of splitters from Tanaka until he shows he can turn them around with authority.

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MLB can fix a sticky situation 

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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Michael PinedaBob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMichael Pineda's plight -- an inability to grip a ball in the cold -- isn't unique. And everybody knows it.
BOSTON -- Michael Pineda ambled into the visitors clubhouse here at about 4:30 Wednesday afternoon wearing a polo shirt and jeans, white earplugs stuffed into each side of his head, and a smile on a face that was closer to the ceiling than any face in the room. The 6-foot-7 Pineda always seems cheerful, is always pleasant to talk to, to the degree that he reminds me of the main character in "The Story of Ferdinand."

Ferdinand is a massive bull, and given his immense power, everybody else wants Ferdinand to fight. But Ferdinand wants to lie under a tree and smell the flowers. His is a simple outlook in a complicated world.

A few hours later, after Pineda had been ejected, he had told his teammates that he was sorry, and when reporters filed into the small visitors clubhouse, Pineda was waiting for the inquisition. He towered over the horseshoe of reporters, his smile gone, and gave simple explanations for why he had smeared pine tar on the right side of his neck before going out to pitch the bottom of the second inning against the Red Sox. "It was cold," he said. "I didn’t want to hit anybody. I didn’t feel the ball, and I don’t want to hit anybody."

Throughout the first inning, you could see at field level how much Pineda was struggling to get a feel for the baseball, on a night when wind ripped through Fenway Park. Between pitches, he dabbed at the back of his neck for some perspiration, at his forehead. He tried to blow on his hand, at one point seemingly spitting on it.

"I don’t think anybody can feel the ball when the weather is like this," said Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who said he was struggling to control the ball while throwing it back to the pitcher.

After a long first inning in which Pineda allowed a couple of runs and was badly missing the target, he returned to the dugout apparently intent on finding a solution to a problem that a lot of pitchers -- OK, probably most pitchers -- have long ago solved. Just about everybody uses something, as some of the Yankees and Red Sox have said in private conversation over the past week, as if they were talking about drivers who go beyond the speed limit. But as Pineda went out to the mound for the second inning, he became the guy who zooms past a state trooper in the left lane at 80 mph.
[+] EnlargeGaylord Perry
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyGaylord Perry had his neck checked more than once. He's also in the Hall of Fame.

He had a swipe of pine tar on the right side of his neck, and after Aaron Boone pointed it out on the ESPN broadcast -- immediately, as the inning began -- the phone of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman lit up as he sat in the stands by the visitors dugout, and Cashman got up to go to the clubhouse. Presumably, he was going to initiate the same sort of conversation that was had with Pineda on April 10, after he started a game against the Sox with pine tar apparent on his right hand.

But by the time Cashman got to the clubhouse

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"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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Red Sox had reasons to say nothing 

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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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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