March 2012

If Michael Pineda got sent back to the minor leagues, it would only be a reminder that the Yankees hold people accountable

I was asked by a talk-show host the other day what I would think if the Yankees sent Michael Pineda back to the minor leagues. I’m pretty sure he was looking for a larger statement, a pronouncement that Brian Cashman had gotten fleeced in the Jesus Montero deal or something like that.

First, it’s way, way too soon to know what Michael Pineda is going to be. He’s all of 23 years old and has made 28 Major League starts. He was absolutely dominant at times last season, and there were other times when he seemed completely out of gas. To have long-term success, he’s going to have to polish his change-up.

Cashman made the deal knowing all those things. He made it anyway because Pineda has shown the ability to throw close to 100 mph. There are things pitchers can be taught to do, and things they can’t be taught. But throwing hard can’t be coached. Guys who can do that are really special.

Pineda has plenty of time to be one of the all-time greats. He could also be one of the all-time busts. One of the things that made the Montero-Pineda trade so interesting is that both general managers traded players they absolutely love. Cashman said at the time of the deal that he was aware he’d traded a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter. He also said that if Pineda couldn’t polish his change-up, he might not have a great career.

How often do you get a deal like that to chew on? Two good, young players dealt for one another, with one general manager saying right up front he walked into the thing knowing there was a chance he’d end up on the wrong side of it. There’ll eventually be a scorecard on this trade, but it could be years away. Meanwhile, we’ll have a lot of time to evaluate, second-guess and bloviate.

Pineda has not been great this spring. His ERA is a respectable 3.31, but he has allowed 24 base runners in 16 1/3 innings. At times, scout say his velocity has been down around 91 mph. I’m not sure if there’s a reason for concern, in part, because spring pitching statistics sometimes mean nothing.

Some general managers would keep Pineda in their rotation regardless of how he pitched this spring. To do otherwise would open themselves up to second-guessing. Life is different around the Yankees. They have depth in the rotation, and best of all, they hold people accountable.

This spring began with only two Yankees–C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda–who were locks for the rotation. Phil Hughes certainly has pitched well enough claim one of the five spots, and Freddie Garcia has performed better than Ivan Nova and Pineda. If the decision is based strictly on performance, Pineda would get the final spot over Nova.

Regardless, it’s a long season. Andy Pettitte hopes to figure into the mix in early May, and then Cashman and Joe Girardi would face more tough decisions. In the end, though, it’s a good thing. At a time when a bunch of teams are finishing the spring in search of pitching, the Yankees don’t have a place for all their competent starters. That’s the kind of problem that’s far better than the alternative.

The Yankees were confident Joba was about to get his career back on track, and that makes this injury even more painful

It’s not that the Yankees are going to be significantly hurt if Joba Chamberlain can’t pitch this season. He appeared in just 27 games last season, and the Yankees still had the American League’s best bullpen ERA.

When David Robertson got hurt earlier this spring, the Yankees held their breath because he had established himself as a late-inning bullpen anchor. This is different. The Yankees are so deep in pitching that this spring has been an audition of left-handed relievers to allow Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi to evaluate their options.

For Joba, this spring was about something else. It was about reestablishing his career and proving that long after the hype of those early years had faded, he was still capable of being a first-rate Major League pitcher. The Yankees had raved about his work ethic in the wake of last summer’s Tommy John surgery, and Cashman seemed to believe that both Chamberlain and Phil Hughes were prepared to be major contributors.

Now Chamberlain seems unlikely to pitch at all in 2012, and Cashman couldn’t say whether a gruesome dislocated left ankle might be career threatening. Still, Chamberlain is only 26 years old and has plenty of time to heal and get himself prepared for next spring.

If Buster Posey and Kendrys Morales can recover from their ankle injuries, there’s hope for every other player in baseball. In a lot of ways, Chamberlain had already proven himself to the Yankees. He’d shown the work ethic and determination that at times they wondered about. He was a much-hyped player when he arrived in 2007, and for a time, he was as good as advertised

In his first two seasons, he was 6-3 with a 2.17 ERA while appearing in 61 games. Since then, he’s 14-10 with a 4.44 ERA and 132 appearances. But last summer he settled nicely into a relief role before he got injured.

He’s young enough to have plenty of time to recover. He’ll need a few days to allow his emotions to settle and to be prepared to attack another long rehabilitation process. But Cashman won’t give up on him as long as he doesn’t give up on himself. Joba can still have a great career.

Maybe Roy Oswalt knew what he was doing all along

Silly me, I thought Roy Oswalt had made a big mistake in not taking the best offer on the table and showing up at Spring Training somewhere. While he wanted to pitch for the Cardinals or Rangers, those teams didn’t have openings. I figured he might come to regret his decision. Hey, they forget you real fast.

Turn outs, he may have been the smartest person in the room. With Chris Carpenter headed back to St. Louis to be checked out and his status for Opening Day unclear, with Neftali Feliz having his right shoulder examined, there’s suddenly some uncertainty on two pitching staffs that were believed to be among the deepest and most talented in all the land.

The Rangers still do have depth. Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish have four spots locked down. The Rangers were committed to moving to Feliz into the rotation this spring because (a) his stuff is electrifying and (b) they signed Joe Nathan to handle the closer’s role.

But there were questions. As a closer, Feliz could stick with his fastball-slider combination and get by. He had great stuff, but let’s be kind and say he didn’t always have command of that stuff. As a starter, he was going to have to get better command of his fastball. If he couldn’t throw a first-pitch fastball in the strike zone, he wasn’t going to succeed regardless of what else he had.

But to be a successful starter, a productive starter, he needed a change-up. There’s simply no way around this one. He can cut the fastball and change speeds off the fastball, but to be really successful, he was going to need a passable change-up, if just to keep hitters from sitting on the hard stuff.

That change-up was a work in progress, and as Nolan Ryan said the other day, Feliz was much more of a question than Darvish. Darvish has struggled at times to command his fastball this spring, but he has a history of getting it in the strike zone and sets it up with an assortment of other pitches. He’s also accustomed to a starter’s workload.

Still, the Rangers have Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman prepared to step into the rotation. They also have two of baseball’s top pitching prospects in Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez. Even though Nolan Ryan is a huge fan of Oswalt’s, it’s not yet clear there’s a fit for him in Arlington.

He has known Oswalt since 2000 when he ran the Astros’ Double-A affiliate in Round Rock. Oswalt was called up from Class A ball to make a spot start with the understanding that he’d be sent right back. At the time, the Astros were, shall we say, methodical in the speed with which they advanced young pitchers.

Oswalt was dazzling in that one starter, and after the game, Nolan’s son Reid informed his dad that the Astros were still going to send Oswalt back to Class A ball. Reid laughs about it now, remembering how his dad got a look on his face that resembles the one he has after a bad plate of enchiladas.

“I think I’m going to have to make a phone call,” Nolan said.

Nolan telephoned someone, either Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker or Astros owner Drayton McLane, and told them that sending Oswalt back to Class A ball would be a waste of time. The Astros listened, and a year later, Oswalt began a terrific Major League career.

Depending on what the doctors say about Feliz, Ryan and Oswalt could be reunited again.

For the Cardinals, it’s a matter of several factors. One obviously is Carpenter’s health. Their optimism about this season was based on getting Adam Wainwright back and putting him in the rotation behind Carpenter. There was always concern about Carpenter because he threw 273 innings last season and more than 500 the last two. Even without Albert Pujols, the Cardinals believed they could win again if Carlos Beltran had a solid year and if the rotation was as good as advertised.

Now they’ll nervously await the report on Carpenter. The thing about possibly losing someone of his stature is that there’s no one out there available who will come close to replacing Carpenter’s innings and production. One of the reasons Oswalt is still unsigned is that he’s coming off a season when he made just 23 starts and pitched only 139 innings.

In other words, he’s a gamble. The Rangers and Cardinals were constructed with the belief that they didn’t have a need for him. But during a long season, needs change, and Oswalt could find himself in demand again in the next few days.

If you look at the San Francisco Giants a certain way, you see a team good enough to win the World Series again

The Giants are like a lot of teams in that they’re plenty good enough to win the World Series if a few things break their way. I’ve got a pocket list of a dozen teams that could say the same thing: Phillies, Braves, Cardinals, Reds, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, Angels and Giants.

The Marlins and Nationals might also be good enough to win, but they’re longer shots. We’ve had some surprise winners the last decade, and the Marlins and Nationals would be a surprise. You could also make a case for the Blue Jays, Brewers, Rockies, Indians and one or two other teams, but they’re not the teams many people would pick three weeks before Opening Day.

That uncertainty is one of the things that could make this season fun. If you asked a dozen fans who the favorite would be, you might get a dozen different answers. The Phillies? Maybe. The Tigers? Absolutely. But having spent time in a bunch of camps in Florida and Arizona, there are a long list of teams feeling really confident.

Anyway, back to the Giants. They won the World Series two years ago because Aubrey Huff and Cody Ross got hot, because Buster Posey turned out to be as good as advertised and because of that great pitching staff.

The Giants lost the magic last year. Posey got hurt, and Huff and Ross didn’t produce the way they had in 2010.

Speaking of Posey, his impact on the Giants can’t be underestimated. It’s fun to come up with simple solutions to complex problems, and that’s the case with the number I’m about to throw at you.

The Giants are 89-67 (.571) with Posey on the team the last two seasons and 89-79 (.530) without him. That’s the difference between an 86-win team and a 93-win team. They were a third-place team when he joined the club in 2010 and a first-place club when he went down last season.

If you were to make a case for the Giants winning, it would not be hard. Here’s your list:

1. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong must have healthy and productive seasons. Everything the Giants do flows from their four starters.

2. Aubrey Huff must be better than he was in 2011. Manager Bruce Bochy praised his conditioning on Thursday and called him “critical” to the team in 2012. He may be less critical than in 2011 because young Brandon Belt appears to be ready for the big leagues.

3. Pablo Sandoval needs another solid year. He has been good-bad-good in three Major League seasons. When he has been good, he has been very, very good, hitting 48 home runs and driving in 160 in the 2009 and 2011 seasons. When he has been bad, he has been, well, bad.

4. And there’s Posey. He’s one of the game’s stars and a vital cog in everything the Giants do. Together, Huff, Sandoval and Posey create an imposing middle of the lineup, and with Freddy Sanchez and Melky Cabrera hitting somewhere above or below them, the Giants will be a far better offensive team than they were last season when only the Mariners scored fewer runs.

One of the reasons the Diamondbacks were prompted to be so aggressive in the off-season is that GM Kevin Towers was pretty sure the Giants were going to be better, too. He wanted to improve his club, but he knew he had to keep pace. The NL West could be a far more interesting race than people think because the Dodgers are going to be above .500 and the Padres aren’t as bad as advertised. And that’s what makes this stuff fun.

If my Longhorns beat her Bearcats, she has agreed to wear Texas gear for a day. I’m not sure this qualifies as punishment.

I’m guessing Alyson Footer is like a lot of the rest of the world. In her heart, she loves The University of Texas at Austin. She appreciates its enduring greatness, its grace and beauty and its commitment to building a better world. I suspect she’ll use this whole thing as an excuse to stock up on Texas gear. We’re No. 1 in merchandise sales, too.

She has lived in Texas long enough to know that my alma mater is the gold standard for greatness, not just in sports, but in medicine, law, chemistry, etc. We’ve had three Nobel Laureates, 28 Rhodes Scholars, 20 Pulitzer Prizes, nine astronauts and two Heisman Trophy winners.

Texas also has won national championships in almost every sport, including football where Mack Brown took over an also-ran program 14 years ago and transformed it into one of the nation’s best. Mack doesn’t just win games. He represents the school with class. If you’re a Texas grad, you’re not just glad he’s your coach. You’re glad he’s the guy out there representing The University of Texas to the rest of the world. I can’t think of anyone better.

Mack has taken Texas football to a place some of us thought it would never go again. It’s not just those 95,000 season tickets and beautiful facilities. It’s not even just winning. It’s doing things the right way.

I’m not sure the last time we won one in basketball. If it has been longer than a couple of times, it’s not because coach Rick Barnes is anything less than a great coach. No, sir, it has to be that Texas keeps running into referees who have jealous streaks in them. It really can’t be anything else, and isn’t that sad? If they’d applied themselves to their studies, they could have grown up to be Longhorns, too.

There are two kinds of Texans. There are those who, like me, graduated from Texas. And there are those who wish they could have gotten in. Texas graduates have learned to deal with the bitterness that builds up over years after those rejection letters.

It’s a compliment that beating Texas is the game that matters most to Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Baylor, etc. Wyoming opens its 2012 football season at Austin. Do you think beating Texas would be a big deal to Wyoming? It would be talked about forever.

Let’s face it, no one chooses to go to Texas Tech. That’s where you go when you can’t get in at Texas. When you’re completely out of options, you apply at Texas A&M, and that’s when you become really angry.

Anyway, Texas and Cincinnati are playing this week in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and Alyson and I have a wager on it. I’ll wear Cincinnati gear for a day if the Bearcats win. Alyson will wear Texas gear for a day if the Longhorns win.

About the only difference is that she’ll keep wearing Texas gear and also get to sing Texas Fight on Houston radio station 1560. That won’t be anything new for me. I sing Texas Fight frequently, on the radio, in the shower, etc. I sing it instead of screaming “Tranquility now!” If she gets lucky, Alyson will end up with piles of UT stuff in her closet. I’m sure she’s like a lot of people in thinking Texas is a football school. Oh sure, 105,000 at every home game and the finest coach and facilities in America will leave that impression.

Texas also plays basketball, really good basketball. For instance:

• Texas is making its 14th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Only three schools have longer streaks. Barnes is 14 for 14 in NCAA Tournament appearances.

• The Longhorns have gotten to the Elite Eight twice in the last six seasons and three times in the last nine.

• Texas has gotten to the Sweet 16 five times in the last 10 years.

• Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Texas is 16-5 in the opening round.

Who says Astros-Rangers can’t be a great rivalry? If they’re taking shots at one another already, it has a chance.

One of the things that made word of the Astros’ 2013 move to the American League so exciting is that they’d finally have an honest-to-goodness, day-in-and-day-out rival. The Astros have never really had that. They’ve had some great moments with the Cardinals, Braves, Cubs, Dodgers, etc., but those rivalries would come and go depending on how important the games were. Let’s face it, as much as the Astros cared about the Cardinals, they were never going to replace the Cubs as the No. 1 rival in the hearts and minds of St. Louis fans.

That’s what the Rangers offered. The Astros are in a rebuilding mode, but it’s not a stretch of the imagination to look a couple of years down the road and see the two teams playing huge September games with a playoff berth on the line. Even better, because the two ballparks are a mere 250 miles apart, because they’re in the same state, because Houston and Dallas have always had an intense civic rivalry, the Rangers and Astros could become one of the real good ones.

They’ve been playing a home-and-home inter league games the last 11 years, but those never really created a stir because the two teams haven’t been good at the same time. The Rangers won the Silver Boot in eight of the 11 years and have won 14 of the last 18 games.

On an unrelated matter, I have certain information about what happened when the Silver Boot was shipped from the Astros to the Rangers. It showed up broken and had to be replaced. If you believe that the damage was done by the shipping company, well, friend, I’ve got some beach-front property in Topeka I’d like to see you.

Anyway, I thought of the Astros-Rangers rivalry the other day when new Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said the Rangers spent like “drunken sailors” in the international market. He quickly apologized, saying he’d used a poor choice of words. I wish he hadn’t. I wish he’d crossed his arms, tapped his foot and said, “What do you think of that, Nolan Ryan?”

Since apologies don’t really count in things like this, maybe Luhnow will add a little hot sauce to a rivalry that would use some. Even if the players don’t think the series is a big deal, the front offices might. As for getting an entire state to buy in, that may take some time.

But that day is coming. One of these days soon, the Rangers and Astros are going to be playing huge September games, and they’re going to have an entire state talking baseball. And that’s a good thing.

Here’s to the Monkees and the 1987 Brewers

It was during a 13-0 start in 1987 that I’m a Believer became the celebratory anthem of County Stadium, and it retains a special place in the hearts of a generation of Brewers’ fans.

I thought back to that year–and that song–this week upon hearing of the death of Davy Jones, lead singer of The Monkees. It’s not clear at what point the song was first played during the 13-game winning streak, according to Laurel Prieb, a former Brewers‘ executive.

I told him I could still hear the song ringing in my ears from all the times I heard it that year. Actually, I was under the impression it had been played over a stretch of several years.

It wasn’t but my memory was magnified by the fact that the team I was covering that the Orioles team I was covering that season went 0-6 at County Stadium.

And to Brewers‘ fan, it took on a magical quality on Easter Sunday, April 19, when Dale Sveum’s two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning completed a five-year rally in a 6-4 victory over the Rangers.

I’m a Believer played over and over as a crowd of 29,357 stood and cheered a 12-0 start. After that, it was played at the end of every Brewers’ home victory.

That season was an amazing one for the Brewers. In the first two months of the season, they had both a 13-game winning streak and a 12-game losing streak. The Brewers had the American League’s third-best record that season at 91-71, but didn’t come close to making the playoffs, finishing seven games behind the Tigers in the American League East.