Thursday, February 19, 2015

Alex Rodriguez is sorry. Again. We think.

After a year away from the game due to a 162-game PED suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, Rodriguez is set to return to the Yankees this spring in what is sure to be one of the craziest media circuses in recent memory.

In a hand-written letter to the fans on Tuesday, A-Rod apologized for everything and also opted to forego his mea culpa press conference at Yankee Stadium.

"I take full responsibility for the mistakes that led to my suspension for the 2014 season," Rodriguez said in the letter. "I regret that my actions made the situation worse than it needed to be. To Major League Baseball, the Yankees, the Steinbrenner family, the Players Association and you, the fans, I can only say I'm sorry.

"I accept the fact that many of you will not believe my apology or anything that I say at this point. I understand why and that's on me. It was gracious of the Yankees to offer me the use of Yankee Stadium for this apology but I decided the next time I am in Yankee Stadium, I should be in pinstripes doing my job."

And that's the way it should be.

The Yankees weren't forcing A-Rod to hold his own in front of the media -- that's why they didn't plan anything for him when he arrives at the team's complex in Tampa, and instead give him the opportunity to do it in New York, on his say.

T truth is the press conference wouldn't have solved anything. As he said in the letter, nothing he says will fix things in the minds of Yankees fans. He could stand at a podium, say things about his past and that he's never going to do it again, and that won't matter to most.

Wherever he goes the questions will come up. His teammates will still be asked about it. The coaches will still be asked about it.

At this point, the only thing that A-Rod can do it take the field and earn his roster spot like the 60-some other guys that will be out there at the Yankees' spring training complex over the next month and a half. For Yankees fans, the only way for A-Rod to apologize is to come back, drug free, and just play -- play well, of course.

Hand-written letters won't make this go away -- his legacy is already tarnished, and this will never go away. But he has a golden opportunity to put it all behind him this spring.

The challenge facing him is big. Bigger than anyone could dream to be in. At 39-years-old, with two-hip surgeries on his record, and having been away from the game for an entire year, Rodriguez is attempting to play baseball at the highest level on a team that wants nothing more than to win a championship this season.

Rodriguez, whose historic postseason helped the Bombers capture their last title in 2009, might be up the task, but that doesn't make things easier.

A-Rod can write all of the letters he wants. He can hold all of the press conferences he wants. But only one thing will make people forget: just go out an play, Alex. The rest will take care of itself.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Yankees pitchers and catchers report exactly two weeks from tomorrow, as the countdown to spring training inches closer to an end. The Yankees, on paper, don't look like a team threatening to win a championship this season, but that doesn't make them worth watching with camp around the corner.

Here are my top five storylines to watch when the Yankees roll up to Steinbrenner Field on Feb. 20:

1. The Alex Rodriguez circus returns to town

Arguably the biggest story in baseball this spring is A-Rod's return to the Yankees after serving his year-long suspension in 2014. The last time we saw the embattled third baseman on the field he was coming off of his second hip surgery, playing 44 games for the Bombers in 2013 while appealing his 211 game ban handed down by then MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

A-Rod came back that year to hit .244 with seven homeruns and 19 RBIs in those 44 games that season, as the Yankees would eventually miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, effectively beginning the months of battle between Rodriguez, Major League Baseball, and the MLB Players' Union.

Who knows what kind of shape A-Rod will arrive at camp in. Who knows if he's still even capable of playing at the major league level after a full year of watching from home. No story will be bigger than this, at least from the Yankees' perspective, and the baseball world is going to be watching very closely at the events happening in Tampa over the next month and a half.

2. Who's going to win the closer job?

The Yankees made a pretty bold decision this winter in letting David Robertson walk after just one year as their closer with Mariano Rivera now in retirement. Instead, the Yankees are going with Dellin Betances, who took the league by storm last season by striking out just about everybody he faced, and Andrew Miller, who the Yanks signed to a four-year, $36 million contract before Robertson eventually signed with the White Sox.

I still to this day, until the two candidates can prove they're more valuable, that the Yankees should have kept Robertson around on a two-three year deal, giving Betances another couple of years at the big league level before throwing him into the closer role with very little experience.

I'm not doubting his abilities as a pitcher -- the man struck out 135 batters in 90 innings while posting a 1.40 ERA for crying out loud -- but I need more.

At the very least, Miller keeps the Yankees having two power arms that the backend of the 'pen, and will probably end being the 8th inning guy come Opening Day.

3. How will Didi Gregorius adjust as Derek Jeter's replacement?

It was almost a year ago that Jeter announced 2014 would be his final season. He's gone now, and Didi Gregorius is the man tasked with replacing a legend. Expectations for the soon-to-be 25-year-old shortstop will be high this season, and for the wrong reason. Nobody can replace Derek Jeter. The only way to recover from his loss is to send somebody else out there and move on.

A career .242 hitter in 190 big league games with the Reds and D-Backs, the Yankees will be counting on Gregorius to be much more valuable in the field than at the plate. Looking back on Jeter's range and ability to play shortstop everyday in his final years, Gregorius will be an immediate upgrade for the Bombers are one of the most important positions on the field.

4. This rotation is very scary

I wrote about it the other day, the Yankees are going into spring training that raises much more questions than answers right now. CC Sabathia coming off of knee surgery and has been in steady decline the past few seasons. We don't know how much you can trust him. Masahiro Tanaka dealt with some elbow issues that could come back to haunt him -- knock on wood that doesn't happen. And you never know how many innings Michael Pineda has left before his next injury.

Brandon McCarthy's gone. Hiroki Kuroda's gone. David Phelps's gone. And Ivan Nova won't be back until at least June because of Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees didn't splash the cash for one of the big free-agent starting pitchers this winter -- though Nathan Eovaldi was a nice pickup -- and will go into the season with a rotation that will really have to overachieve to succeed.

5. Can Jacob Lindgren impress enough to win a bullpen job?

The Yankees' top overall pick from last summer's draft was invited to camp on Thursday, and will get a chance to prove himself in major league camp after dominating hitters across Low and High-A ball, and Double-A ball last season.

Andrew Miller already gives the Yankees one dangerous lefty in their bullpen, and it wouldn't hurt to have a second.

The "Strikeout Factory" hasn't been a pro very long, and could already be a Rookie of the Year caliber pitcher this season.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

It's nearly a complete 180 from where we were starting a year ago.

The Yankees were heading into Spring Training with a starting rotation that, on paper, was fit enough to compete with the best of the best in Major League Baseball. Fresh off of signing the prized free-agent Masahiro Tanaka, with Michael Pineda finally ready to return to the big leagues, the Bombers looked like a real playoff contender.

They had their question marks, of course. CC Sabathia had been declining at a 90 degree angle, Pineda hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 2012, no one knew what Tanaka was going to bring, and Hiroki Kuroda completely fell off the final month and a half of 2013.

The talent was there, it was all a matter of it coming through.

Then the season got here, and things got ugly. Sabathia, who finished out the spring strong, delivered a dub on Opening Day, eventually hurting his knee in May, which led to season-ending, and possibly career-threatening, micro-fracture surgery in July. Pineda got suspended in two weeks into the season for hiding (not very well, I might add) pine tar on his neck. Shockingly enough, he got hurt while throwing during his suspension, and we didn't see him again until later in the season. Ivan Nova: he got hurt in May, needed Tommy John surgery, and we'll be welcoming him back at some point this summer.

Just before the All-Star Break, Tanaka got hurt and even though Tommy John wasn't needed, it was on the table and will be something worth watching this season as he takes his second lap around the MLB circuit.

13 different people started games for the Yankees last season, and many of them aren't here anymore. Kuroda, David Phelps, Shane Greene, Brandon McCarthy: gone (to Japan), gone, gone, and gone.

That brings us to where we are today. Derek Jeter is gone, Alex Rodriguez is coming back, and yet the biggest problem facing the Yankees might be the prospect of another year in which they're leaning on the bullpen to do the heavy lifting, with a lineup that, based on 2014 numbers, still doesn't pose a challenge to opposing starters.

That leaves me to believe the Yankees can't possibly be content on where they are now as a baseball team. Nathan Eovaldi was a nice get for the club -- a 24-year-old with a great fastball and plenty of upside; we haven't seen many of those come through the system lately. But after that, you can't count on anyone but Tanaka.

It looks like Sabathia will be ready by opening day, but at this point there aren't many people out there will to bet on a bounce-back season by the big lefty. It's just not likely. Nobody knows how any games Pineda will start this season, and Nova will be a wild card, like he always is, when he returns (not doubting his potential, though).

The battle for the fifth spot in any rotation isn't like to include No. 1 potential starters -- unless you're the Nationals, of course. Playing that game for the Yanks this year will be Chris Capuano, Adam Warren, and Chase Whitley. The latter two more likely served for the bullpen.

Does that mean get James Shields on the phone? Well, the best available starter is likely looking at a much lowering price now than he was three months ago. At this point, he's either going to get paid by a team desperate for an arm, or he's going to have to settle with the best offer on the table. $100 million is not in the Yankees' price range, but something around the four-year, $55 million that Ervin Santana got and Big Game James could be Bronx-bound and back in the familiar AL East.

Shields wouldn't solve all of the Yankees' problems, but he would help beef up the starting rotation by a four or five extra wins, which could make or break their entire season.

February 3, 2015. Nine days before Jeter announced his retirement, the Yankees were going into the season with a real hope of getting back into the playoffs after missing out in 2013. Oh, how simple those times were.

Is it too late to go back?