Tagged: Rays

What we learned in the first half

Tony Pena, Kevin Long, Joe Girardi

Over the first half of this season the Yankees can, at best, be described at “hot-cold.” It seems the Bronx Bombers get into a groove, but begin skidding not long after they appear to hit a good stretch. Nonetheless, they find themselves within an arm’s reach of first place in the AL East at the All-Star break – which, in a word, is miraculous, given their streakiness and injury problems.

There are plenty of storylines to be covered from the first 94 games of 2014. The First topic, of course, has to be

Masahiro Tanaka – Man, not Superman

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If you remember back to the pilot episode of the old TV show Smallville, Lana Lang asks Clark Kent if he’s “man or Superman.” When the news of Masahiro Tanaka’s partially torn UCL broke, it was the only quote this scribe thought of.

The man from Japan was virtually untouchable through his first few starts – dare I say Superman-esque, boasting the best record in baseball at 12-3 with an ERA of 2.27.

Then Tuesday happened. Superman lost his cape.

Tanaka was lit up by Cleveland for five earned on 10 hits. His fastball was flat, his sinker was hanging, and he took the loss in arguably the worst start of his young MLB career.

The bad line and the loss only made the news on Tanaka’s partially torn UCL worse, as he’s been one of the only bright spots in the Yankee rotation this season; with CC Sabathia possibly being done for good, Ivan Nova needing Tommy John surgery, and Michael Pineda being about as useful as a screen door in a submarine.

It’s obvious the loss of Tanaka comes as a huge blow to the Yankees. So far the front office hasn’t made a stunner deal to patch up the rotation holes, although they’ve added Brandon McCarthy from the Arizona Diamondbacks to help, acquired Jeff Francis from the Oakland A’s, and called up the emerging Shane Greene to fill some of the void.

A blockbuster trade for a front-line starter may or may not be in the cards for the Yankees this year – there’s not much out there to take, although Cliff Lee will apparently be off the DL and available come the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline.

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Perhaps the Yankees can land the trade that never was in July, 2010. Lee would’ve been tremendously more valuable in ’10 than he is now, but with the rotation in a state of disarray, he may be the closest the Yankees get to a top-of-the-line starting pitcher.

That is, unless they can somehow snatch David Price from Tampa Bay – but the Yankees stand a better chance of a magical leprechaun falling from a rainbow in the sky and bringing them cake and ice cream. It’s extremely improbable.

On the other hand if there isn’t a starter to be had at the deadline, the Yankees simply have to find a way to win with who they have.

As for Tanaka: the Yanks will be without his services for at least six weeks, yet he’ll probably be gone beyond that timeframe; a UCL tear, no matter how large or small, usually spells a lot of time on the sidelines. It’s also worth noting Tanaka apologized for his injury, taking the same road Hideki Matsui traveled in 2006 when he broke his wrist trying to field a fly ball in left field.

We’ve learned a lot about Tanaka over the first half of the season, but the hardest lesson we all learned is that he’s a man. Not Superman.

 

Alfonso Soriano just not built to last

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When the Yankees picked up McCarthy, it was almost shocking to see Alfonso Soriano’s name on the “designated for assignment” list. The Yanks acquired their old pal “Fonsy” last year from the Cubs and he turned back the clock, becoming an exciting piece of a rather bland and dry 2013 offense.

Soriano said at the outset of the season he was considering retirement at the end of this season as it was; but I’m not sure he – or anyone else – expected the 38-year-old slugger to be cut in what may be his final season.

This year Soriano was batting a weak .221 with 71 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances. He only clubbed six homers and drove in just 23 runs in the 67 games he played – clearly not playing with the fire that burned last summer.

Perhaps it was a classic case of going back to the place, but not the time.

Derek Jeter, for one, was not happy with Fonsy’s release, telling the Star Ledger “Soriano is like family to me. I’m going to miss him. He’s like a brother to me. He should be proud of what he’s been able to do.”

If it really is the end of the line for Soriano, he put together a nice little career with 412 homers, two World Series appearances, and seven All-Star nods. Certainly not a Hall of Famer worthy span, but he was good enough to be a recognizable ballplayer and a bona fide difference-maker.

 

Mark Teixeira still has it

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Soriano wasn’t able to light up the offensive categories this year, but one man who has been ripping and tearing it up with his bat has been Mark Teixeira. The big first baseman is leading the team in homers with 17 and has knocked in 48 runs, which overshadows his somewhat low .239 batting average.

For Teixeira, a guy who missed basically all of last year and even spent time on the DL this year with a nagging hamstring injury, the above average power numbers and situational hitting are pleasantly surprising.

Generally after suffering season-ending injuries players don’t respond with such decent numbers right away. Teixeira looks as good as new and is offering some positive results. It might even be fair to say he’s putting the Yankees on his back and carrying the team this year.

 

David Robertson can indeed close

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Last season the biggest story was Mariano Rivera’s impending retirement and the big question that went with it: can David Robertson, who was set to supplant the great Rivera as Yankee closer, actually do it?

What’s sad is, he’s answered the question this season with a giant “YES” but it’s flown under the proverbial radar; nobody is really talking about it.

Robertson has saved 23 games for the Yankees while only hitting two speed bumps: blowing a save in Chicago to the White Sox on May 23 and failing to save the game vs. the Minnesota Twins at home on June 1.

Other than those two instances Robertson has been as solid as a bull, closing out games without the fans even having to often utilize his famous “Houdini” nickname. Robertson has been shutting down other teams in the ninth with relative ease, evading trouble and doing Rivera proud.

By the way, the official Yankee Yapping term for a Robertson save is “Alabama Slam” because Robertson is an Alabama native and he slams the door in the ninth.

Get it?

It hasn’t quite caught on just yet, although some YY Twitter followers approve.

 

Dellin is dealin’

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Rightfully so, Dellin Betances has been named an AL All-Star this year. As a reliever he’s struck out 84 batters in 55.1 innings pitched, making the best hitters in the league like Mike Trout and Jose Bautista look like hitters trying to strike a pea with a twig.

Betances has emerged as firearm and a practically an automatic 1-2-3 inning out of the ‘pen, but I think the difference between Betances and someone such as Joba Chamberlain (or Phil Hughes for that matter) is that he found what didn’t work and has now found what does work – and that’s where he’s staying.

The Yankees discovered that the role of starting pitcher was just not clicking for Betances. When he didn’t make it as a starter, he found his way as a reliever, and that’s who is – and who he’ll be from here on out.

Unlike, however, Chamberlain and Hughes, who constantly flip-flopped roles and eventually didn’t make it either way.

Bottom line: the Yankees have done the right thing with Betances, and the decision to make (and keep) him a reliever is paying off royally.

 

The Swan Song of Derek Jeter

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Through the first half of 2014, the Yankee Captain is hitting .271 with two homers and 25 RBIs. He’s slugging .321 and has swiped six bases while only getting caught once. He has 91 hits thus far, and has moved up on MLB’s all-time hits list; in fact, at press time, he’s 13 away from tying the legendary Carl Yastrzemski for eighth place on the all-time list.

But it’s not exactly about his numbers this season, or the records he’s shattering. It’s about the atmosphere every time he comes to bat at Yankee Stadium – or anywhere else. Opposing fans cheer him when he steps into the box, showering him with appreciation and respect, while the opposing teams themselves shower him with adulation and parting gifts.

It’ll only get more exciting, or maybe more fittingly bittersweet, when he takes the field in his final All-Star Game Tuesday night at Target Field in Minnesota.

Fans everywhere can appreciate what Jeter’s done over the years, and how much he’s meant not only to the Yankees but baseball in general. It’s nice to see this fine ballplayer get the respect of his peers and those with whom he works.

The atmosphere is going to be surreal on the final day of the Yankees’ season, whenever it may come; whether it be in the playoffs sometime, at the end of the regular season, or at the end of the World Series.

It’s tough to consider right now, but whenever it ends – and however it ends – the Captain will go out a respected winner in the eyes of the baseball fans. And if you can go out with the adoration of everyone around you, isn’t that the greatest thing in sports?

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It’s been a great first half of the 2014 season. Here’s to a fun second half!

But before I go, here’s some Yankee Yapping “Extra Innings”…. !!!

For the third straight summer I’ve been “down on the farm” so-to-speak, covering Minor League Baseball – more specifically the Hudson Valley Renegades, the Tampa Bay Rays’ short season Single-A affiliate.

The last two games I’ve covered ended quite dramatically, as Hunter Lockwood, the Gades’ left fielder, ended the game in extra innings with one swing; first a solo homer to beat the Staten Island Yankees on July 5, and just last night a two-run homer to beat the Batavia MuckDogs (a Miami Marlins affiliate) 12-10.

Just for the heck of it, I’ll post my game story from Lockwood’s walk-off home run that beat the Baby Bombers last weekend. This story ran in my newspaper (The Examiner) this week, so those who don’t get a chance to read my regular recaps in the paper, here’s a taste of what you’re missing:

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Renegades Stun Yankees with Lockwood’s Walk-Off Homer

By A.J. Martelli

Hudson Valley Renegades relief pitcher Isaac Gil had a whipped cream pie ready for designated hitter Hunter Lockwood at the end of their game against the Staten Island Yankees Saturday night. It was the only way to celebrate what had just happened.

In the bottom of the tenth tied 3-3 with two outs, Lockwood delivered a solo, walk-off home run – a spectacular shot over the left field wall at Dutchess Stadium to give the Renegades a 4-3 win, extend Hudson Valley’s win streak to seven in a row, and send the sold out crowd home happy.

“It’s a huge rush for me and I know it’s just a huge rush for the rest of my team,” Lockwood said moments after clubbing the death blow. “Everybody has all the dog piles and stuff you see on TV, and it’s just a lot of fun to be able to go out and produce for our team and for our fans out here.

“We’ve been playing good as a team, we trust everybody to get the job done, coming through in clutch situations, and that helps us stick together as a team and keep playing hard. We’ve had a bunch of late walk-off wins; a bunch of games where we’ve held tight and came through late – it allows us to keep playing hard, and since we’ve done it in the past we know we can do it in the future.”

The dramatic homer was Lockwood’s team-leading fourth of the season. Perhaps more importantly, the win was Hudson Valley’s fifth walk-off style victory of 2014, and its fourth win of the season in extra innings. Skipper Tim Parenton doesn’t mind playing in close games, given the results he’s seeing right now.

“The guys just never quit and they’ve done it all year,” he said. “Hunter Lockwood hit the ball hard a couple times tonight, but got one up in the air a little bit and it got out of here. It’s just a great win for the guys. They just believe in each other, and we just have a resilient group.”

The Gades’ resiliency was never more evident than in the top of the tenth inning. The Yankees loaded the bases with nobody out, looking primed to break the 3-3 stalemate. But reliever Gerardo Reyes, who notched his first win of the year, pitched out of it, getting a line out to left, a pop out to short, and a groundout to end any danger.

“We just hung in there,” Parenton said. “You sit there as a coach and say ‘put it in the zone and see if they can make the hit or we can make the play.’ We were able to get a couple pop ups and the ground ball out.”

The Renegades took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning; scoring in the sixth on an RBI double off the bat of second baseman Jace Conrad, and an RBI single from left fielder Clayton Henning in the seventh. Conrad plated the Gades’ third run in the eighth, scoring from third on a wild pitch.

The Yankees were able to tie it in the top half of the ninth on two RBI singles off Reyes to send it to extras.

Renegades’ starter D.J. Slaton did a fine job keeping his team in the game, tossing six innings of three-hit ball. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out seven – and also had to wiggle out of trouble in the fifth inning, escaping a second and third, no out jam.

“The biggest thing for me was getting ahead, finishing off batters when I had the chance and trying to keep a low pitch count,” he said. “For me it’s fastball changeup and when those two are rolling for me, usually it’s a good night.

“The fifth was a tough, sucky inning, but the biggest thing was, you just have to get a quick out in the infield somewhere, and a strikeout, and go from there. Once you get those two outs you don’t relax a little bit, but you look for that third out any way you can get it.”

Southpaw Ryan Pennell, a Rye Neck alum and Mamaroneck native, was solid in the role of the middle man. He threw two innings in relief of Slaton and allowed one run on just two hits. He walked two and struck out two.

The Renegades (15-5) are sitting pretty with the New York-Penn League’s best record and are in first place in the McNamara division. With doubleheaders coming up on the schedule – and no days off until next Tuesday – Parenton plans on fielding his entire team to keep the winning recipe cooking.

“It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to rotate our lineup, put fresh guys in there,” he said, “and just keep playing and hopefully keep winning.”

Side note: The photo of Lockwood was taken by me, whilst conducting my postgame interview. I’m not much of a photographer, but my editor has some fantastic shots of Lockwood. He’s a pro, I’m an amateur.

A Bundy-ful birthday gift

It wasn’t exactly a Father’s Day to remember for the Yankees, as they lost 10-5 this afternoon to the A’s. The Bronx Broskis have to do some regrouping this week and thankfully for them, “the savior” (as I’ve dubbed him) Masahiro Tanaka starts their next game on Tuesday night at the big ballpark in the Bronx. It’ll be an important series, with Toronto sitting ahead of them by four and a half games in the AL East.

While was Father’s Day today, it was also my 27th birthday. I spent it at the ballpark – but the minor league ballpark. Specifically, Dutchess Stadium, home of the Hudson Valley Renegades. I’ve covered the Renegades the past two summers, and today I covered my first game of my third summer with them.

And I got quite a little birthday surprise.

The ‘Gades hosted the Aberdeen IronBirds, a MiLB squad affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. Throwing for Aberdeen was Dylan Bundy – the O’s first round pick of the 2011 draft, and a future ace I’ve heard talked about on MLB Network and by Buster Olney of ESPN.

I got to interview him afterward and got a little story out of it, so I figured since this guy will most likely be facing the Yankees in the not-too-distant future, I’d throw my little story on him up here on the blog.

Note: I also interviewed TB Rays’ 2014 first round pick, first baseman Casey Gillaspie, who smacked a two-run home run for his first hit as a pro ballplayer.

Even though I was indeed thrilled and excited to cover Bundy, I was a little bummed out the P.A. didn’t play Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” as he took his warm-ups. An Al Bundy reference would’ve made my birthday complete.

So, with that being said, here’s my story on Bundy:

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Orioles’ Bundy Makes Solid Rehab Start vs. Hudson Valley

By A.J. Martelli

Although a year off and reconstructive surgery may normally sound like a formula for rust, it wasn’t for starting right-hander Dylan Bundy on Sunday.

The Baltimore Orioles’ 2011 first round draft pick out of Owasso High School (Okla.) made a rehab start against the Hudson Valley Renegades at Dutchess Stadium, pitching for the O’s short season Single-A affiliate, the Aberdeen IronBirds. It marked the 21-year-old’s first time pitching in a competitive game since 2012, being that Tommy John surgery sidelined him for all of last year.

Yet the stud, who has been compared by some to Stephen Strasburg, showed no damaging signs.

He tossed five innings and only let up one earned run after scattering five hits. Bundy walked none and struck out six by taking baby steps – he only threw 65 pitches.

“First outing in almost a year and I was pretty pleased with it,” he said. “I don’t think about (the surgery) at all anymore, and that’s what I’m happy about.”

Bundy gave the Renegades credit for touching him up, though he didn’t feel he made too many mistakes dealing to the Hudson Valley hitters.

“I gave up five hits, but they just made good contact with the ball on what I think were pretty good pitches. They got the bat on the ball and they did a pretty good job. They were hitting the off-speed stuff pretty well, putting it in play.”

Making adjustments, Bundy mentioned, also helped him along.

“I focused more when guys were on base,” he said. “Now I’ve got to focus more when guys aren’t on base and do a better job locating my pitches. I’ve been trying to do a better job of that.”

Bundy also talked about how much less pressure it was pitching at “The Dutch” as opposed to a major league stadium like Camden Yards – even though he thought facing the Renegades was just as dangerous as facing a big league team.

“A feel a little bit less pressure pitching here, but there’s still a live batter up there that can hit the ball just as well as someone in the big league. My aim is to just go out there, make pitches, and compete.”

Bundy will make a few more starts before being evaluated, and a plan for his future is drawn up going forward.

“I have a couple more starts; we’ll see how my arm responds tomorrow,” he said. “It should be good. Couple more starts, and we’ll see what we’re going to do after that.”

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Another silly baseball story

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Spring Training is hardly about final scores, which is why the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays ended their game in a 3-3 stalemate today in 10 innings. As we all know, there doesn’t need to be a winner in most exhibitions, as long as everyone gets their necessary work in.

The Rays showed off a great deal of their minor league arms in this afternoon’s spring tune-up, and in watching along as I put the finishing touches on my girls’ hoops articles for the week, I took notice of some recognizable names.

In the eighth inning Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon brought in a lefty by the name of C.J. Riefenhauser – a familiar name if you’re a Westchester County, N.Y. sports buff such as myself. Riefenhauser attended Mahopac High School, and if I’m not mistaken, my editor has written a number of features on him.

MiLB: MAY 18 - Charlotte Stone Crabs  at Tampa Yankees

It’s quite possible Riefenhauser makes the big club this year, and I couldn’t be happier to see a product of a school in my newspaper’s coverage area make it to the show, though I never had the chance to interview him personally. Today Riefenhauser threw (I believe) just two pitches in the 1/3 of an inning he tossed and got Ramon Flores to pop out to short, earning a hold in the process.

Making a note of Rifenhauser’s appearance on Twitter seemed to go over well with those who know him. Ten re-tweets, four favorites and counting.

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Before Riefenhauser did his work, as short as it was, another southpaw by the name of Adam Liberatore was on the mound – yet another familiar name. Liberatore pitched for the Hudson Valley Renegades in 2010, a (short season Single A) farm team of the Rays, and a team which longtime readers of Yankee Yapping might remember I interned for.

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Again, it was nice to see a name I recognized get some playing time in Spring Training. Then the Rays called on their final pitcher in the 10th frame. And all the memories – the good memories – raced back to me.

Maddon brought in Merrill Kelly, a 25-year-old right hander, for the last inning. Kelly, like Liberatore, was a member of the 2010 Renegades. Kelly was called up to extended-A Bowling Green in the middle of the Renegades’ 2010 season, but a few weeks before he was promoted, this writer had a rather humorous exchange with him.

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It was a Sunday in July at Dutchess Stadium – which meant it was kids’ day; children were picked out of the crowd for the wacky activities on the field, in between innings. Then at the end of the game, the kids in attendance were permitted to step onto the diamond and run the bases.

My cousin Thomas (16 at the time, yet short in terms of height for his age), who I went with to the Yankees’ home opener earlier that year, was at the game. I had greeted him when he got to the ballpark but soon after, he ventured off with his friends, while I (doing my duty as an intern) helped set things up for the daffy entertainment in between innings.

A little while later before the game started, I was on the field near the first base dugout and saw Thomas – from the front row of the stands – talking to Kelly. I walked over to see him, only to hear an apparent argument going on between my cousin and the reliever.

“Yes I am!” Thomas kept saying.

“Dude, no you’re not,” Kelly retorted.

“Yes, I AM!” Thomas persisted.

“NO, you’re NOT,” Kelly answered.

Confused, I asked what was going on.

“A.J., tell this guy I’m 16! He doesn’t believe me!” Thomas defiantly said.

Being Thomas’s cousin, knowing he was telling the truth, I was able to vouch for him.

“He is 16, Merrill – I’m his cousin,” I calmly told Kelly.

The cleat/shoe was certainly on the other foot, as Kelly examined me, looked back at Thomas and said to him, “Dude. You’re going to get carded for the rest of your life!” before walking into the dugout.

It was one of the funnier moments of the day, probably second to Thomas participating in the fun in between innings, playing the “dizzy bats” game as part of kids’ day.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again now – I’d really be interested in writing a book about that summer, interning for the Renegades; include all the fun shenanigans and hoopla that ensued that summer. At the moment I’m not exactly sure how to go about pursuing such a project. Hopefully I can find out and go after it, because I think a lot of folks who enjoy the child-like aspect of baseball would appreciate it.

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A Minor Assignment

Yesterday afternoon was almost awesome for the Yankees, in their series finale vs. the Los Angeles Angels. But what’s that old saying? “Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

With the tying run on second base, the potential winning run on first base, and two outs in the ninth, Alex Rodriguez had a chance to channel his inner 2007 and walk off the Yankee Stadium field a hero. Instead he came up short, popping the ball up behind first base; the cowhide falling into waiting glove of Albert Pujols for a 10-8 loss.

Nonetheless, the Yankees still own the best record in baseball at 54-34, and remain in first place in the AL East, a cool eight games ahead of the second place Baltimore Orioles.

While the Yankees were taking two games out of three from the Angels this weekend, I had the opportunity to cover the same minor league team I interned for in 2010, the Hudson Valley Renegades, who are connected to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since the high school sports scene is obviously voided for summer vacation, my editor thought it might be fun for me to cover some Renegades games, just to give me some work and a chance to cover some professional baseball.

Saturday evening I made my way to up Dutchess Stadium, much like I did every game day two years ago, to cover the Renegades’ game vs. the Mahoning Valley Scrappers – a minor league team affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

It was a different feeling on the way to the ballpark, however, knowing I’d be sitting up in the press box rather than setting up for the game and handling all the oftentimes unpleasant tasks interns have to do. Like this…

When I walked into the Stadium, it felt surreal. Not having been there in two years and having so many memories – and all those memories coming back to me in that moment – was a little overwhelming. All of the players (including Robinson Cano’s cousin Burt Reynolds) and interns who were there in 2010 have moved on; it was so strange looking around and not seeing all the familiar faces.

Wearing my press pass, I made my way up to the breezeway, past the luxury boxes and into the press box, where a number of MiLB personnel and beat writers were.

A group of them were conversing about the recent draft, and speculating about which players were going to make an impact in the future. They also shared with each other some stories about traveling, going from city to city following their respective teams. It was a little intimidating for me, knowing these reporters are the real deal; not that I’m not the real deal, but they are writers that get to experience professional baseball on a daily basis.

I guess it was only natural to feel intimidated; me being just a fresh, relatively new high school sports reporter who was given an assignment – they being writers with years of experience in the business. I’ll admit I was nervous – nervous, but not scared. Believe it or not, a Tweet from one of my former co-workers at the Renegades put my mind at ease.

Thanks, Dan.

The other writers eventually left though, and took seats down the left field line in a designated area for press members. I elected to remain in the press box with another reporter, the official scorer, and the girl who runs the Renegades’ Twitter page. The group of us shared a lot of laughs and banter throughout the game.

Before the game started, I kind of soaked it in; took in the view.

The Renegades led off the bottom of the first with a home run from their center fielder Joey Rickard. They then took a 2-0 lead after two innings when their left fielder, DeShun Dixon, led off the bottom of the second with a home run.

Dixon would knock in a run on an RBI single in the third after an RBI single off the bat of Renegades’ shortstop Ryan Dunn (Yes, Ryan Dunn. I’m aware he shares the same name as Bam Margera’s late friend).

Leading 4-0 heading into the fourth, the Scrappers put up two runs on back-to-back RBI doubles off reliever Brandon Henderson. Renegades’ starter, 19-year-old Taylor Guerrieri – who was Tampa Bay’s top pick out of Columbia, S.C. a year ago – left the game after three innings, using up a lot of his pitches.  

Following the back-to-back RBI doubles, the ‘Gades bent but didn’t break. They held the score until the seventh when second baseman Tommy Coyle blasted a two-run homer, the Renegades’ third round-tripper of the night.

Trailing 6-2, the Scrappers threatened in the ninth. Mahoning Valley loaded the bases with nobody out, but again, the Renegades refused to fold. Reliever Ryan Garton induced a 6-4-3 double play, which allowed a run to come home, before notching the last out.

Final score: Renegades 6, Scrappers 3

It marked the Renegades’ eighth win at home this year, and they are only a game out of first place in their division behind the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ farm team.

I left the press box and went to the clubhouse where I caught up with Jared Sandberg, the Renegades’ manager, ex-Devil Ray, and nephew of famed Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg. I had to ask him what makes his team so good when they’re playing at home.

“We get the last at-bats, we make it exciting, and we get the chance to put on a show for the home crowd,” he said.

“The crowd comes out and supports us every night, with 4,000-plus, and it’s fun to play in front of a big crowd. They get behind us and it’s good energy.”

I then questioned him about the home runs, seeing as how a power surge led to the win. He admitted the long ball raised his eyebrows.

 “We haven’t hit many homers this year, so it was a little bit of a surprise,” he said.

“It was also good to see because guys aren’t trying to hit home runs and they’re hitting home runs. Any time Joey Rickard can lead off the game with a homer and give us that boost, that’s nice, and then DeShun Dixon hits a two-run homer with a flick of the bat. Then obviously Tommy Coyle’s late home run gave us some breathing room.”

With the top pick on the mound, and a decent job from the relief corps, I inquired about how well the Renegades’ pitching has been anchoring the team.

“The pitching is keeping our season going in the right direction,” Sandberg said.

“We can lean on the pitchers right now because they’re throwing strikes and competing extremely well. The team is playing relaxed but we’re going out there competing every night and that’s what a manager wants.”

Overall I was extremely satisfied with how it went. My editor thought I did a great job with the story, and I hope this is just serving as a warm-up; the start of what I pray is a long career covering pro baseball.

Perhaps I’ll be one of those beat writers in the press box, talking about the new draft picks and sharing stories about life on the road, covering pro baseball teams.

Maybe someday. Until then, I have this story: getting the chance to cover a pro baseball game for the first time.

Bottom line: I loved it.

Base-Running Diary

Good evening fellow Yankee Yappers…

Instead of simply Tweeting the game tonight, I figured I would try something different. I’ll post what’s happening here on the blog as it is happening, giving everyone the fun experience of following me on Twitter, or just watching a game with me; complete with coverage and wise remarks, inside jokes, and obscure references.

Basically, it’s what we journalists call a running diary. Or in keeping with the baseball theme, maybe more appropriately, a “base-running diary.”

I’ll need feedback after this one: if you, the readers, like this concept, please let me know. If it receives a “vote of no confidence,” so-to-speak, it’ll only be a one-time deal.

Without any further ado, here’s my insight from tonight’s game, as the action unfolded…

  • Alright, 21 minute rain delay is over. Hopefully the leprechaun got the gold at the end of that rainbow. Many thanks to Roy G. Biv. Now let’s play some baseball! (7:32 p.m.)
  • CC makes quick work of Elliot Johnson, Ben Zobrist, and Desmond Jennings. Three up, three down. (7:40 p.m.)
  • Ugh. Jose Lobaton with a bloop RBI single to RF after B.J. Upton’s double to deep left-center. 1-0 Rays. I swear, I thought Michael Kay said “Toblerone” when he first said Lobaton’s last name. (7:55 p.m.)
  • Whack-a-doodle play right there. Wild pitch, Nick Swisher goes to third from second, Andruw Jones tries to advance from first to second, but stays put – while the Rays throw the ball past first base. Nuts. (8:07 p.m.)
  • Jayson Nix K’s for one out, Chris Stewart with an excuse me check swing; he’s out at first, Swisher scores. We got ourselves a 1-1 game. (8:10 p.m.)
  • Virgil…errrm…David Price whiffs Curtis Granderson to end the second. Knotted up at one. (8:17 p.m.)
  • Error on A-Rod, Johnson reaches first. Who does he think he is? The entire Rays team? I believe Tampa Bay is one of the league leaders in unearned runs… (8:21 p.m.)
  • Speaking of unearned runs, there’s one for the Yankees. RBI single for Ben Zobrist, Johnson scores, 2-1 Rays. (8:22 p.m.)
  • Right away, another hit. Jennings with a double, Rays are set up, second and third with one out. Buckle down, ace. (8:24 p.m.)
  • Sac fly for Upton, Rays go up 3-1. (8:26 p.m.)
  • Virgil gets the Yanks 1-2-3 in the third. (8:37 p.m.)
  • I should clarify that David Price eerily resembles Virgil, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s bodyguard from the old WWF days. (8:38 p.m.)

 

  • Drew Sutton with a two-run double off the LF wall. 5-1 Rays. Not looking like a sweep. (8:47 p.m.)
  • Bases chucked in the fifth for the Yanks, one out. They created a chance, now they have to cash in. (9:18 p.m.)
  • Virgil Price just hit 97 mph on the speed gun, his 94th pitch of the night. Still firing bullets with a high pitch count. (9:20 p.m.)
  • Whoa. A-Rod strikes out swinging with the bases loaded for the second out of the fifth. An 11-pitch battle which Price won; went off-speed on him. That one hurt. (9:25 p.m.)
  • Virgil gets Robinson Cano to bounce into a 4-3 putout. Price wiggles out of danger, Rays up 5-1 at the end of five. (9:30 p.m.)
  • Into the Ray’s bullpen – and down go the Yanks, quietly. No problems for Tampa’s ‘pen…yet. (9:47 p.m.)
  • CC with 12 Ks…and the poor guy is losing. Are you kidding me? (9:52 p.m.)
  • Granderson is going shopping after the game for a specific hat: a golden sombrero. Struck out by former Hudson Valley Renegade Wade Davis to end the seventh, his fourth K of the night. Ouch. (10:05 p.m.)

 

  •  Yankees have six outs to get four runs for the tie. Perfect time for “Mystique” and “Aura” to appear. (10:15 p.m.)

 

  • A one-out walk for A-Rod and a single by Cano; forces a Rays’ pitching change. Hmmm… (10:19 p.m.)
  • Swisher strikes out on a pitch up, out of the zone, but pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez knocks in A-Rod with a single through the right hole. 5-2 Rays in the bottom of the eighth with two outs, runners on the corners. (10:29 p.m.)
  • Tying run at the plate in the place of Eric Chavez, but he beats it into the dirt; grounds it right to first base. Got one back, at least (10:32 p.m.)
  • Aaaaaand the Yanks give it right back. Sutton with a line drive to RF, Swisher boots it, allowing Matt Joyce to come around to score. E9 on Swisher, 6-2 Rays. (10:43 p.m.)
  • Very next batter Johnson knocks Sutton in with an RBI double, 7-2 Rays. I think they have successfully avoided the sweep.  (10:44 p.m.)
  • I think I picked the wrong night for this little blog experiment. It’d be more fun if the Yanks were winning. (10:45 p.m.)
  • Bottom of the ninth. Last licks for the Bombers. (10:50 p.m.)
  • Russell the Muscle! Martin with a solo homer, his sixth of the year. He went oppo over the right-centerfield wall to leadoff the ninth. 7-3 Rays. (10:52 p.m.)

 

  • Derek Jeter grounds out, Granderson avoids a platinum sombrero with a 2-3 putout, and Teixeira…gets plunked by J.P. Howell. Game’s still not over. A-Rod is due up and closer Fernando Rodney is coming in. (10:58 p.m.)
  • Rodriguez pops it up to right field, Joyce puts it away, ballgame [mercifully] over. Final: Rays 7, Yankees 3. Bombers’ three-game win streak snapped. (11:02 p.m.)

 

  • W: Price (8-3) L: Sabathia (7-3) (11:05 p.m.)
  • Moving on. New York bragging rights start tomorrow with the first Subway Series of 2012 at Yankee Stadium. Yanks will be heading into tomorrow night’s game vs. the Mets with tonight’s loss; the Mets beat the Nationals 3-1 this afternoon. (11:08 p.m.)

Breathing Down Our Necks

The 2012 MLB season is just about three weeks away. Players are currently in camp fighting for roster spots, getting in shape, and preparing for what will be a summer-long grind.

29 teams have the mentality of, “let’s put a good team together and have a fun season.”

The Yankees on the other hand have the mentality of, “when camp breaks we need to win the division, win the pennant, and then win the World Series.”

Good logic.

And as usual, it won’t be easy. A number of teams have bettered themselves during the off-season, and will pose huge threats to the Yankees bringing title number 28 home to the Bronx in October. A few teams will be breathing down the Yankees’ neck and they need to keep a sharp eye on them.

The top five are…

The Rays

When the Tampa Bay Rays first entered the league, they were almost a laughingstock; a joke that always finished at the bottom of the AL East. But in 2008 they came out of nowhere, capturing the division over the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and then going on to win the AL pennant.

Since then, the Rays have been pests; a team that won’t go away, no matter how many times a knockout blow is delivered to them. Last year they swiped the AL Wild Card from underneath Boston’s nose, and have been to the playoffs three of the last four years.

On offense this season, Tampa Bay might be under the microscope, at least a little bit. The Rays didn’t re-sign Johnny Damon in the off-season, but signed Luke Scott – who hit just .220 last year – to supplant him. After a year with the Chicago Cubs, Carlos Pena is returning to the Rays – and he only averaged .225 at the dish in 2011.

One of the only true powerhouses the Rays have at the plate is Evan Longoria, who only batted .244 last year, yet clubbed 31 homers.

With their seemingly thin offense, one might get to thinking, why are the Rays such a threat?

The answer is their starting pitching.

Number one man James Shields went the distance last year, tossing 11 complete games to lead the league in that category. He also threw four shutouts to lead the league, winning 16 games along the way.

Behind him is the pride of Vanderbilt, southpaw David Price. Last year Price compiled a 12-13 record; not the best numerically, but he was an All-Star and was coming off a season in which he won 19 games. He did prove to be a workhorse despite his uneven record, logging 224.1 innings and making 34 starts, which led the league.

Behind the 1-2 punch of Shields and Price is a supporting cast of excellent arms. 24-year-old Jeremy Hellickson is the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. He threw 189 innings in ’11, won 13 games, and notched an ERA of 2.95.

Jeff Niemann won 11 games last year, as did Wade Davis, giving the Rays five pitchers with double digit wins.

If a team has that kind of efficiency out of their starting five, they are going to be very tough to beat.

The Red Sox

Boston seems to be in a little bit of a state of flux. This off-season was busy in Beantown, as they let go of revered manager Terry Francona and signed on the ever-colorful Bobby Valentine to be their skipper. They allowed closer Jonathan Papelbon to walk, as he took his flame-throwing arm to Philadelphia to be the Phillies’ closer.

Two of their big-ticket starters, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, have undergone Tommy John surgery. Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season and Dice-K will be out until at least June or July, leaving the Red Sox with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester as their top starters.

Other than Beckett and Lester, the Red Sox have a ton of questions marks as far as their rotation in concerned. How will Daniel Bard make the transition from the bullpen to the rotation? Is Clay Buchholz going to perform at a high level?

Will Felix Doubront be a factor? What about Alfredo Aceves, who has had back problems in the past?

The starting pitching is not the only part of the team under scrutiny. Boston signed Andrew Bailey to replace Papelbon in the closer role, and will insert former Yankee Mark Melancon into the setup spot, supplanting Bard.

How will Bailey handle closing in Boston as opposed to Oakland? Will Melancon rise to challenge of setting him up in close-game situations?

All of these questions won’t be answered until the season commences, but if the Red Sox score runs – and they are capable of scoring runs – it won’t be a problem. Although Boston got off to a horrendous start and a fatal finish, they still scored 875 runs, which was good enough to lead the majors in ‘11.

And they always seem to give the Yankees a hard time.

Last June Boston swept the Bombers in three games at Yankee Stadium, being led by Yankee killer David Ortiz. Big Papi smacked two homers in the series, and stirred up controversy when he flipped his bat in what many felt was a move to show up the Yanks.

Bottom line: Ortiz proved he still has it when it comes to making the Yankees’ lives miserable.

Along with Ortiz, 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia will undoubtedly be swinging a hot bat this year, as will All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who hit .338 last season with 27 homers and 117 RBIs.

Like the pitching, speedy left fielder Carl Crawford and butch third baseman Kevin Youkilis are question marks. Crawford is dealing with a wrist injury that many analysts say caused a decline in his numbers last year. Youkilis had season-ending thumb surgery last August.  

If Crawford and Youkilis come back – and return to form – the Yankees, and all American League pitchers for that matter, need to look out. These two sluggers have the potential to cause major problems for the Yankees when they are at 100%.

All things considered, the Red Sox will have a potent lineup. And no matter what anyone says, the Red Sox are always in the back of the Yankees’ minds. Always.

The Tigers

Last October the Detroit Tigers dashed the Yankees’ hopes and dreams of winning the World Series, eliminating the Bronx Bombers in five games in the ALDS. New York was forced to watch the Tigers celebrate on their soil, as the team from the Motor City proved to be too much for the Yankees to handle.

And it may have just gotten more difficult to beat them.

This off-season the Tigers signed power-hitting lefty Prince Fielder, who clobbered 38 home runs and drove in 120 runs last year. The hefty first baseman has twice averaged .299 at the plate (2009, 2011) and in 2007 Fielder led the National League in homers with 50.

It’s what you can expect from a big guy, but don’t let the size fool you.

Despite his heavy, 275-pound frame, Fielder is durable. He has played in all but one game since 2009, appearing in all 162 games in 2011 and 2009. He played in 161 games in 2010.

Fielder will join the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Delmon Young, two powerhouses who have already proven their worth in Detroit. Last season Cabrera led the league in doubles (48) and batting average (.344). Like Fielder he is also durable, as he appeared in 161 games in ’11.

Young dazzled in last year’s ALDS vs. the Yankees, punishing them with a .316 BA while clubbing three homers and posting a .789 slugging percentage. He collected six hits in the five game series and drew two walks, showing his worth when the stakes were high.

Detroit is obviously the front-runner to once again win the AL Central, and behind ace Justin Verlander – the reigning AL Cy Young winner and AL MVP – their chances of taking the central are high. The other teams in that division pose virtually no threat, and potentially the Yankees could face the Tigers in the ALDS again this year.

If a rematch is in the cards, the Yankees have to adjust accordingly. It didn’t work out for them in last year’s postseason.

The Rangers

It’s no secret that Texas is one of the prime teams to beat, as they have represented the American League in the World Series the past two years. The Rangers lost their number one starter C.J. Wilson to a division rival, the LA Angels, but something tells me it’s not going to matter. The Rangers’ pitching will still be top notch.

Colby Lewis won 14 games last year, as did Matt Harrison. If you were to ask manager Ron Washington, he would probably say both Harrison and Lewis possess the stuff to be number one aces.  Alexi Ogando went 13-8 last year with a 3.51 ERA and he’ll be another weapon in the Rangers’ rotation.

Throw Neftali Feliz and Yu Darvish into the mix, and you have quite a set of pitchers, although there are some questions surrounding Feliz and Darvish.

Feliz is making a transition from the bullpen to the rotation, so much like Bard in Boston, his performance depends on how well his stuff translates; how well he works being stretched out. If it goes well for him, and he throws as hard as he did working in the closer role, he’ll be a feared pitcher in the American League.

Like Feliz, Darvish is making a transition – but not from the bullpen. He’ll be making the switch from Japan to MLB. In his native country, Darvish was one of the finest and most revered pitchers. Last year alone Darvish struck out 276 batters over 232 innings of work, and won 18 games with a 1.44 ERA.

Those numbers can be deceitful, however.

Ask Matsuzaka, or Hideki Irabu, or Kei Igawa, or any pitcher who sparkled in Japan and fell apart here. Pitching in the states is much different than pitching in the Far East, so Darvish is basically going to be an enigma until we really see what he can do – and we won’t know what he can do until he logs some innings here in the good ol’ U.S.A.

As far as the Rangers’ offense goes, they won’t have many problems if Josh Hamilton stays healthy. Even if he spends time on the disabled list, they have plenty of power to make up for it. Mike Napoli, the Rangers’ catcher, smacked 30 homers and drove in 75 runs last year.

You know you’re going to be alright when you’re getting that kind of production out of the catcher spot.

Along with Hamilton and Napoli, there’s Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, and Michael Young – a perfect combination of veteran and youthful offense.

A message to the Yankees: when you’re in Texas, look behind you. ‘Cause that’s where the Rangers are going to be! (I couldn’t resist the cheesy/obscure Walker, Texas Ranger reference).

The Angels

In recent times the Angels have almost had the Yankees’ number, being the only team with a lifetime winning record against the Bronx Bombers. LA’s pesky hitting coupled with their stellar pitching are going to make the Halos one of the best teams in the league this season, if not the best.

And it starts with one of their gigantic off-season acquisitions.

The biggest, obviously, is first baseman Albert Pujols. The slugging 3-time NL MVP signed with the Angels on Dec. 8 – and, as if LA wasn’t hard enough to beat already, they just got that much more difficult; that much deeper.

Pujols adds a surefire power bat to the lineup that already includes scrappy, young hitters like Howard Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis, and Mark Trumbo. Former Yankee Bobby Abreu gives the Angels a veteran presence, as do outfielders Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells.

Last year LA scored 667 runs. Expect that number to go up in 2012.

Along with their strong offense, the Angels have stacked the deck as far as their pitching is concerned. As noted, the Halos snatched the Rangers’ ace C.J. Wilson over the winter, and he will join Dan Haren and Jered Weaver – who were both in double figures in the wins category last year. Haren notched 16 Ws while Weaver put up 18.

Ervin Santana sealed 11 wins last year with an ERA under four. If he does the same working in the back end of the Angels’ rotation this year, they are going to win a lot of games.

The Angels are pretty much the team that has it all; the complete package. If you were to ask me for my World Series pick, on paper, it would be the LA Angels.

But as Yankee Captain Derek Jeter always says, “on paper doesn’t win you ballgames.”

True. But the Angels look awfully dangerous, and have eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs twice, in 2002 and 2005. The last time the Yankees and Angels met in October (2009) the Yankees came out on top, beating the Halos in six games.   

They may need to do it again if they want to win number 28.

Analysis of the Winter Meetings

 

Winter Meetings start next week.

 

The Major League Baseball Winter Meetings are in full-swing and so far a number of deals have been completed. There are players on the move, players staying put, and some free agents who have drawn interest from teams, but so far nothing has happened.

Here’s a little rundown of some Winter Meeting notes and thoughts. As always, I’ll begin with the Yankees:

·         Derek Jeter was reintroduced…well, not technically, but he had a press conference yesterday to announce his new deal with the Yankees. He told the media that he was upset with them because his negotiations became public. He wanted to keep his talks with the Yankees private.

I can’t blame Jeter for getting upset about it. If he wanted everything kept under wraps, in terms of negotiations, and did not want everything to become public knowledge, the media should have respected that. I suppose that’s the press these days; they stir the pot and bring out the worst of everything in professional sports.

I love how Jeter responded by saying he didn’t like the way he was portrayed. In fact, I’m glad he finally spoke up for himself. In his words, “All the sudden I have an ego? I’m greedy?”

Jeter's P.C.

Jeter has had respect for the media his whole life. Yes, I understand his interviews are about as boring as watching an entire soccer game, but he never crosses the line; he never breaks down and makes a spectacle of himself. Jeter never explodes in front of the cameras and microphones. He always gives the media a professional sound bite–which is his job as captain of the New York Yankees.

 

Really?

You would think after all those years the papers would have a little more respect for him. You would think they wouldn’t photo-shop his face on a Mets or Red Sox uniform. Well, I guess we all have to think again.

Jeter simply laughed at photo-shop nonsense.

Come on, man!!!

At any rate, I’ve already offered the majority of my thoughts on the Jeter deal in my last video blog. Now that the deal is complete and I have offered all of my thoughts on Jeter’s “return,” I will no longer mention anything about it.

Jeter is back and we all knew he wasn’t going anywhere from the very beginning.

·         Brian Cashman apparently sat down for dinner with Carl Crawford and his agent last night. Interesting, but he is also set to meet with the Los Angeles Angels. I don’t really expect him to come to the Yanks. However, it has been said that if the Yankees don’t sign Cliff Lee, they will probably make a bid for him.

I think the Angels will land him, or another team like the Red Sox will make a huge push for him. The Rangers are also looking to sign Crawford, as reported today by MLB.com, so Texas could be in his future. Although sources are now saying he is most likely headed to L.A. Right now nothing is certain.

Crawford to the Angels?

What is certain is that Crawford’s deal is basically being held up because of, well… Lee. And…

 

·         According to reports today, the Yankees offered Lee a preliminary deal. Lee’s agent Darek Braunecker claims a team is out of the sweepstakes (he wouldn’t say which club) and also stated he has “zeroed in on a few things.”

What that means, I have no idea. What I do know is that the Yankees and Rangers (obviously) are not the clubs that were eliminated from the sweepstakes. Today Cashman said that he is willing to “get serious” about Lee and the Yanks could possibly offer him six years at around $140-150 million.

Lee a Yankee?

Now that the Jeter drama has ended, I am tired of hearing about the Lee drama. I know he is the hottest free agent on the market this off-season, and all the teams that were contenders last year want to try and get him.

Yet, he is making himself look bad; it’s almost like the LeBron James decision revisited. I understand he is good enough to earn a fat contract, but he needs to make a decision already. I really hope wherever he goes, he wins a lot of games next year. God help him if he doesn’t. A lot of other deals are being held up because of him, including the future of…

·         Andy Pettitte. According to ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, Joe Girardi said he was going to reach out to Pettitte in a couple of days to see whether or not he has made a decision on his future.

Originally reported, Pettitte was leaning towards retirement. But other sources have now said he may want to pitch in 2011. If he does come back, I cannot imagine him pitching anywhere else but New York.

There was a report a few weeks ago claiming the Rangers contacted Pettitte. The report was later denied by Rangers’ President Nolan Ryan, who said the team never talked to Pettitte or tried to lure him away from New York.

To be or not to be?

Again, his future depends on what Lee does. If the Yankees sign Lee, their efforts to bring Pettitte back might subside, or at least dwindle. If the Yankees don’t land Lee, however, his decision regarding his future will certainly have an impact on the Yankees.

If you ask me, the Yanks should make a run for Pettitte any way it goes. If Pettitte chooses to pitch next season and the Yanks sign Lee, the starting rotation will be phenomenal. Lee would join CC Sabathia at the top half of the rotation, which would mean practically two aces pitching in success of each other. Both starters are capable of winning 18-20 games per season.

Add Pettitte to that mix along with Phil Hughes, who won 18 games last season. And even if A.J. Burnett has another off-year and only wins another 10 games, it’s not bad; if a team receives 10 wins from the fifth spot in the rotation, in my mind that’s a plus.

But as stated before, Lee needs to make a decision first–preferably sooner than later.

 


Some deals have gone down.·        
Today the Chicago Cubs signed former Tampa Bay Rays’ first baseman Carlos Pena. He received a one-year deal at $10 million. Not bad for only averaging .196 this past season.

I’m just glad we don’t have to face him anymore. I was pretty tired of watching him these past few seasons, blasting the ball over the Yankee Stadium right field wall. I see it as a plus for the Yanks. Obviously Pena is not a great hitter for average but he does have pop. Maybe he can help the Cubs out.

·         Jayson Werth went to the Washington Nationals on Sunday, agreeing to a seven year, $126 million contract.

I hope money buys happiness. Werth went from the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that in recent years is always contending and usually winning the NL East, to the Nationals–a team that basically fights for last place every year.

Werth has never driven in 100 runs in his career and at best is a good, above average right fielder. I don’t think he really deserved that much money and time. He is a good player, but not good enough for $126 million.

We’ll see if he lives up to that contract, and maybe in the distant future, the Nats will get better. I think they might be going in the right direction in terms of players–perhaps building around Stephen Strasburg and now Werth. But they won’t be making an immediate impact, that’s for sure.

·         The A’s are interested in Hideki Matsui. Don’t do it, Godzilla!!!

 

·         ESPN said yesterday that Kerry Wood might come back to the Yankees. I sure hope he does. Wood solidified the bullpen last year and was the only reliever worth anything in the postseason.

 

 

·         Paul Konerko re-signed with the White Sox. Good for him! I look at him almost like Jeter. He has been with the organization for a long time and I cannot picture him with another team.

I hope he can continue to wow the fans on the south side and good luck to him this year. $37.5 million is a lot of coin and he earned it because of his good numbers year in and year out, coupled with his faithful service to the White Sox.

 

 

The Baseball Winter Meetings will conclude tomorrow in Orlando. Rule 5 drafts will take place and hopefully this Cliff Lee nonsense will end.

As I said, it’s like LeBron James. He and his agent are making things difficult and negotiations are taking a long time, probably because he can’t decide where he wants to go or what he wants to do.

Why don’t they just give him an ESPN hour-long special? Where will Lee take his talents next? All I  know is, he better decide. Soon. Because I’m quickly becoming tired of hearing about it.


The Decision pt. 2...?