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Season of truth for Hal Steinbrenner

3/21/2013

TAMPA, Fla. -- New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman did what good teammates should always do when speaking with reporters about Derek Jeter's status for the start of the season, noting the best-case scenario and Jeter's past healing power, saying he'd never doubt Jeter.

But Cashman also acknowledged the possibility that Jeter will open the year on the disabled list, because the fact is that he's running out of time. CC Sabathia will throw the first pitch of the Yankees' season in 11 days, and the fact is that Jeter -- coming back from a major ankle injury at age 38 -- hasn't played more than five innings in any exhibition, and the stress of even that reduced workload created soreness that he found untenable. Jeter got a cortisone injection and won't be on the field for a few days, in all likelihood, so the idea that he'll be able to build up his physical strength and comfort in a week's time to play nine innings day after day, once baseball's relentless schedule begins, is a stretch.

The Yankees have to hope that Jeter comes back as soon as possible, and as John Kruk said on our broadcast Tuesday, it has been a long time since we've seen this team go into a season relying so much on hope -- at short, at first base, in a couple of outfield spots, at catcher. Our researcher Katie Sharp dug this out: The last time the Yankees failed to rank in the top 10 in runs scored was in 1991, when they finished 16th, with 674 runs.

This may well be the summer that we learn a lot about Hal Steinbrenner. We've already known for years that's he's not his father, because the Yankees haven't been firing coaches and demoting young pitchers and because Hal hasn't once issued proclamations invoking Patton. Yankees' employees aren't required to work on national holidays anymore.

But now could be the time when we learn how much Hal Steinbrenner likes to be in the fight, how much he likes to engage. Club employees found George Steinbrenner's Patton pronouncements ironic, because The Boss tended to be the first one to be the first one to say, "This team is a disaster, and we're going to be a national embarrassment." He said it after the Yankees lost the first two games of the World Series in 1996; he said that sort of thing a lot.

However, George Steinbrenner stayed in the ring. Whether it was because of ego or his almost childlike insistence on winning or because he had learned this relentlessness from his father, The Boss generally hung in, as the face of the tabloid back pages. (Although some baseball officials believe he accepted his ban from baseball in 1990 because the Yankees had become such a terrible team, and he wanted something else to do.)

The Yankees' shift to an austerity plan makes a lot of financial sense, because there is a lot of incentive for the Steinbrenners to get the team's payroll below $189 million for 2014.

But it's one thing to come up with a plan in the offseason in a quiet office in December, and a whole other challenge to live it hour by hour by hour through a long summer -- and this will especially be the case if the Yankees' lineup turns out to be as bad as it looks here in Florida. If the Yankees lose this year and flirt with their first sub-.500 season in more than two decades, Hal Steinbrenner is going to get blasted for the austerity plan day after day by columnists and talk show hosts. There could be rows and rows of empty seats at Yankee Stadium, and Hal would get blamed. Some of the criticism would be fair, some of it unfair, but that really wouldn't matter.

The fact is that if the Yankees struggle, the criticism would go on for weeks and months, into the winter, and this is how we'll learn something about Hal Steinbrenner, as he responds to the adversity.

Will he start firing a bunch of people? (I seriously doubt it.) Will he make changes? Will he blame? Will he retreat, out of sight? Will he step forward and take the brunt of the criticism and lead? Will he prefer to step away, uninterested in the give-and-take? Will he change course and blow up the austerity plan?

His father is the best-known owner in U.S. professional sports history, but Hal Steinbrenner is largely a mystery to the fan base of the team he owns.

But he won't be after this season, which will go a long way toward shaping our understanding of how Hal Steinbrenner, baseball owner, does his business.

• At this point, it would be a shock if Derek Jeter is ready for Opening Day. Eduardo Nunez will be the shortstop if Jeter cannot be.

Lohse update

Agent Scott Boras has a reputation among executives for being relentless, and I heard a great story about that this spring. Boras hoped to woo an established player as a client, and so one morning in the offseason, he called him three times by 9 a.m.

Of course, it was Christmas morning, the player recalled with a laugh.

Boras has never dealt with circumstances quite like he has now with Kyle Lohse, the veteran pitcher who remains unsigned. Some teams have been reluctant to sign Lohse because they'd have to part with a draft pick as compensation, and with the draft about two months away, clubs tend to be more clingy with their draft picks than they might have been last fall.

Lohse can always wait until after the draft to sign, but remember, he turned 34 last October, after the best season of his career. It will help him to be free of the draft-pick anchor, and by June, pitching holes will develop and this could make some teams aggressive in pursuing Lohse. But there's also a downside: If Lohse waits until June to sign, he will have been shut down for almost nine months, and some club figure to be somewhat wary of that kind of layoff for an older pitcher. Free agents who sign in the fall don't have to audition for scouts, but if Lohse waits to sign until June, some teams presumably will want to see him throw before jumping in.

To repeat: Lohse is going through something we've never really seen in baseball.

For the Rangers, the Kyle Lohse rumors won't go away, writes Gil LeBreton.

Porcello shines

Rick Porcello threw well again. From Tom Gage's story:

    Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello doesn't boast about his performances.

    So his catcher Brayan Pena did it for him.

    "I heard a lot of cursing in Spanish from the hitters," Pena said after Porcello held one of the Houston Astros' Class A teams to one hit and no earned runs Wednesday.

    Porcello's full line was 6 2/3 innings, one hit, one run (unearned), two walks, four strikeouts.

Porcello already has built a foundation of experience in the big leagues, and yet he just turned 24 last December. Unless some team stepped up with a significant trade offer, I'd be really reluctant to deal him if I sat in the Tigers' shoes. An element that distinguishes Detroit as a World Series contender is the depth of its rotation, and as we see every year with almost every team, six or seven or more starting pitchers are needed. The Tigers got in trouble last year when Doug Fister got hurt, which precipitated the trade for Anibal Sanchez.

Now the Tigers have six starters, including Porcello and Drew Smyly. Short of a big offer for Porcello: Keep 'em all. Because inevitably somebody will get hurt, and if all six are still functioning well in midseason, Porcello could always be used then as trade bait to fill a need.

There really would be only one reason to deal Porcello now: If the Tigers perceive that his value will never be higher, relative to his salary, and they don't necessarily think he'll be anything more than a back-end of the rotation starter. But that's a difficult presumption to make when he's still so young.

There is a really good pitcher in the big leagues who wasn't really established by the time he was 26, when he had a 4.11 ERA with only 93 strikeouts in 171 innings.

That was Doug Fister, with the Mariners, in 2010. And then he got better.

Porcello seems to be getting better, too. Almost all spring training numbers don't mean anything, but this does: He hasn't issued a walk in 18 innings, and has 18 strikeouts.

Dings and dents

1. John Danks is headed to the disabled list, writes Mark Gonzales.

2. Brett Lawrie's rib injury is on the mend, writes Brendan Kennedy.

3. The Blue Jays think Casey Janssen will be ready for Opening Day.

4. David Ortiz took another step in his rehab.

5. Zack Greinke pitched and said he feels great.

6. David Wright still has his sights set on Opening Day.

7. And for the Mets, the hits just keep on coming: Shaun Marcum has a shoulder thing.

8. The Dodgers think Hanley Ramirez could be out two months. On Wednesday, the projected starting third baseman, Luis Cruz, was shifted to shortstop, as Ken Gurnick writes.

The fight for jobs

1. Zach Britton's push to make the Orioles' rotation took a hit.

2. Some roster spots are up for grabs in Boston, writes Tim Britton.

3. The Marlins are still auditioning center fielders.

4. An infielder appears to have won a job with the Padres.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Pirates traded for John McDonald.

2. The answer to the Aroldis Chapman thing could come today. He has spoken loud and clear, writes Hal McCoy.

This is the part that's hard for the Reds' management: If the player says flatly he wants to do something else -- in a role that's less lucrative for him down the road -- it'll be hard to say no. If they kept him in the rotation and he struggled, he might begin harboring resentment and frustration, which wouldn't help his pitching.

3. Ben Cherington won't panic, writes Scott Lauber.

4. The biggest question for the Rangers is what to do with Jurickson Profar, writes Gerry Fraley.

5. The Marlins cut Chone Figgins. If Figgins never plays in the big leagues again, these will be his final numbers: 11 seasons, 700 runs, a career on-base percentage of .349, 337 stolen bases, and a World Series championship.

6. Looks like the Mariners will go with leadoff man by committee, writes Geoff Baker.

7. The Yankees likely will sign Chien-Ming Wang, writes Dan Martin.

Wednesday's games

1. Mike Minor got knocked around. Freddie Freeman had a big day.

2. Jeff Francis had really good command.

3. Tommy Hanson had some biceps tightness.

NL East

Bryce Harper is just wrecking the ball.

• Mike Stutes is happy to be healthy.

NL Central

• Major League Baseball says it's not targeting Ryan Braun, per se. USA Today reports that MLB is targeting Braun.

• The Cardinals got their Molina back, as Derrick Goold writes.

NL West

Gregor Blanco is learning to be himself.

Trevor Cahill is working on his control.

Troy Tulowitzki is regarded as an MVP candidate.

• The Padres need a breakout year from Yonder Alonso.

AL Central

Jeff Francoeur feels like he's finding his swing, writes Bob Dutton.

Trevor Plouffe got his work in.

Samuel Deduno is intriguing, writes Mike Berardino.

Trevor Bauer became the first major leaguer ever to utter the word neuromuscular.

AL West

Jason Castro is getting into the swing of things.

AL East

Brian Roberts feels OK.

Alex Cobb has health and confidence, writes Marc Topkin.

• The Rays are concerned about the workload that Fernando Rodney had in the WBC.

Brandon Gomes has had a great spring for the Rays.

Other stuff

Mike Matheny has started MikeMatheny.com, with good intentions.

• Ryne Sandberg sold his Chicago co-op.

• Bobby Valentine says things will get better for Oakland infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima.

• Jon Sarceno and Bob Nightengale write about the terrible boating accident that happened 20 years ago.

And today will be better than yesterday.