The State of the Yankees: Spring Training Edition

Opening Day is 39 days away. That’s right. Thirty-nine days! And it wouldn’t feel like baseball season is just around the corner without starting the season off the right way.

WFAN Yankees beat reporter Sweeny Murti (the Voice of Reason) joined me for the first time in 2013 for an email exchange to talk about the Yankees now that spring training has started.

Keefe: So we meet again, Sweeny. It’s been a while, but it’s that time of the year again when your phone makes a noise because you have a new email and then you check your email and see that it’s from me only to wonder why you ever gave me your email address to begin with. It’s good to have you back because if we’re talking it means that baseball is back and it’s almost really back.

The last time we talked Derek Jeter didn’t have a plate and screws in his ankle, A-Rod’s performance-enhancing drug use was a thing of the past, Russell Martin and Nick Swisher were still Yankees and I still hated Kevin Youkilis. A lot has changed since Phil Coke closed the book on the 2012 Yankees and judging by the offseason and the word “budget” I would completely understand if you changed your email address without telling me or blocked me altogether from contacting you.

Even though doom and gloom are on everyone’s minds with the 2013 Yankees, I’m actually optimistic about this team. The Yankees are coming off an ALCS appearance, yes it was one in which they were embarrassed, but they were still a 95-win, division champion team that reached the ALCS for the third time in four years. They aren’t the 93-loss Red Sox and they didn’t blow the whole thing up in search of a rebuilding year. I understand that they didn’t have a “sexy” offseason like the Blue Jays or Angels, but like you always say, “Teams like that make those moves to compete with the Yankees.”

So before we get into individual storylines, let’s start with the simple question of why is everyone treating the Yankees like they didn’t win 95 games last season?

Murti: I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize your name and email address. Who are you again?

Seriously, I recognize the name, but you can’t be the real Neil Keefe. You sound way too reasonable and levelheaded to be that Neil Keefe. Oh, well. Whoever you are, here’s my answer.

My guess is that getting swept out of the ALCS made the season feel like a miserable failure and that 95 wins happened almost by accident since they couldn’t possibly be that good. Besides, the Yankees are old now and Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are all coming off injuries. Sure, the Yankees had to re-sign Rivera and Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki, but these guys were already here. Yankee fans don’t want their old toys rewrapped and put under the tree. They want all new toys!

I’m glad you realize, “Neil,” that winning the World Series was always very hard to do and is getting even harder now. And when you get to October, the gap between teams is very close and can make a series go either way. It’s hard to think an NFL team with 14 wins can lose a playoff game to a team with eight wins, but it’s entirely possible for a 100-win team to lose a playoff series to an 85-win team. We’ve seen baseball’s postseason turn into a tournament almost like NCAA’s March Madness. But in this Fall Frenzy, the Yankees are like Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina in that they are almost always a 1-seed, but rarely able to complete the journey to a championship.

What you or any Yankee fan should want is a chance and that’s what this organization always gives you: a chance. And for some reason, there are many fans who feel as if watching a team that doesn’t virtually guarantee a championship and make other teams want to quit before Opening Day is a waste of time. I’m glad you don’t fall into that category because that other Neil Keefe certainly is one of them. In fact, I’m almost certain that’s why I haven’t heard from him in months since he’s too paralyzed by grief from last October to even get off his couch.

Keefe: It’s me, Neil. It’s really me. I think the only reason why I’m so optimistic is because it’s Feb. 20, which means there’s less than six weeks until Opening Day against the Red Sox. Talk to me in the top of the first of that game when there are two on and two out and Joe Girardi is going to the mound to talk to CC Sabathia. Let’s just hope Sean Rodriguez isn’t somehow up and Carlos Pena is on deck…

The 2012 season ended when I watched Derek Jeter fall to the ground in Game 1 of the ALCS and not get up causing me to nearly throw up all over John Jastremski, who was next to me in the right field bleachers. I left the Stadium that night knowing that the series was over because 1.) You DON’T lose a game at HOME in YANKEE STADIUM in the PLAYOFFS that you trail by four runs and come back to tie before losing in extra innings. You just dont. And 2.) You’re not winning a series when you just lost your best offensive player and captain for the rest of the postseason.

All of these years the Yankees’ problem in postseason losses has been pitching (outside of Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS and all of the 2012 playoffs) and here the Yankees were getting gems from CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda over and over only to not be able to get men on base or even get the ball out of the infield. But enough about the 2012 Yankees. They failed. (See what you’ve made me do!) Let’s look at the 2013 Yankees and let’s start with the man with the new ankle.

This is the last year of Jeter’s deal before his $8 million player option for 2014 and everyone is saying that at age 39 (in June) and after coming back from ankle surgery, Jeter can’t possibly hit the way he did in 2012. Most of these people are the same people that attribute success and failure in baseball to “luck” and in that case, Derek Jeter has been lucky since 1996 and on top of that, he is the luckiest hitter to ever play for the Yankees since he is the only player in franchise history to reach 3,000 hits. Do you think he will come with me on my next trip to Las Vegas and just sit next to me at the Blackjack table since he apparently exudes an unprecedented amount of luck?

In 2013, I think Jeter will offensively be the same player he was last year. Sure, his range might be declining, but it has been for a while and he’s not about to move to the right any better than he did a year ago, especially with that ankle. But I think his hitting will still be there. At least I keep telling myself it will be the way I keep telling myself he will play forever.

Do you recognize this Neil Keefe yet?

Murti: Well you’re doing a pretty fair impression of Neil, whoever you are. You’ve obviously done your homework.

What Jeter did in 2012 is enough reason not to doubt his ability to hit in 2013, but the injury does add an interesting layer to the discussion. He’s overcoming a major injury, but the time between meaningful at-bats is the same as it is every offseason for Jeter (October to April). If you want to believe that he’s going to still be a good hitter, I won’t stop you.

Of course, we must look at the realization of Jeter’s 39th birthday approaching this June. But rather than predicting Jeter’s decline, watching him for all these years makes me realize it’s smarter to just wait for it to happen. It might be this year. It might be in three years. But Jeter wants you to think it’s right now, because he seems to enjoy saying, “I told ya so” almost as much as Michael Jordan, who I believe celebrated a birthday recently. I’m not sure, I think I saw something about that somewhere.

Before we can find out the answer it will be a daily exercise in spring training to gauge how well Jeter is running and moving. I might even suggest that he change his walk-up song to Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.” How do you feel about that?

Keefe: I always liked when he used “Nasty Girl” by B.I.G. or even when he started using Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me” (the remake of “Kashmir”) even if A-Rod used to use it. So I guess I’m OK with him switching to Bobby Brown.

As for A-Rod, is anyone surprised at this new report that he might have used performance-enhancing drugs again? I’m not sure how anyone could be surprised that a former user decided to use again with his career in serious decline to the point that he became a bench player in the postseason. My only problem with A-Rod using performance-enhancing drugs is that if he was using them during the postseason, he might want to try a different brand.

This is your 13th spring training with the Yankees and I can’t imagine that any spring was as chaotic as 2009 with the Yankees coming off their first postseasonless year since 1993 and new free agents CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and yes, that guy A.J. Burnett in pinstripes and the anticipation of opening a new Stadium and the Sports Illustrated report breaking A-Rod’s PED use and then A-Rod missing the beginning of the season due to hip surgery that forced Cody Ransom (just the name makes me think about drinking in the morning) into the starting lineup. I don’t think any spring could match up with that one during your time covering the team, but tell me if I’m wrong.

And when I think about everything that happened in February and March of 2009, months before the Yankees went on to win the World Series, it makes me think about how little of a deal all of this attention being paid to A-Rod’s second PED problem and the aging lineup and Mark Teixeira telling the Wall Street Journal that he’s overpaid and now Phil Hughes’ back problem in the first week of baseball. All of this seems like a walk in the park.

Sorry, I got off track there for a minute. I know A-Rod’s situation is much more complicated than anyone realizes and unless the Yankees hit a massive parlay, he will be collecting that $114 million from them. My question to you is: Over/under 0.5 games for A-Rod as a Yankee ever again?

Murti: Okay, now I recognize you, Neil. We really have to work on this A.J. Burnett fixation of yours. Although I would like to point out to you Game 2 of the 2009 World … oh, never mind.

Spring training highlights of the past 13 years? Oh there have been plenty: A-Rod ripping Jeter in Esquire in 2001; Ruben Rivera stealing Jeter’s glove in 2002; David Wells’ book fiasco in 2003; Kevin Brown being Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson’s love child, Carl Pavano’s bruised buttocks, Hideki Matsui’s wedding, Shelley Duncan fighting the Rays, Kei Igawa running like Forrest Gump, A-Rod and Jason Giambi and every PED story for the last 10 years and Joba Chamerlain and the trampoline. I won’t even pretend to rank these spring training stories in any order. Let’s just say they are all my very special children. “It Happens Every Spring,” as they say.

I’m going to take the over on your wager. As I explained here a few weeks ago, getting rid of A-Rod is wishful thinking. Will he be any good when he comes back? That’s a question none of us can answer. But I think we are pretty certain he’s never going to be a 40-home run threat again. Unless you’re talking about two or three years worth. Then maybe.

Keefe: Speaking of A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin used, “Wow” to talk about Burnett’s first bullpen session of the spring. Maybe Martin has short-term memory loss from when they were both Yankees in 2011 or maybe he forgot that Burnett was throwing to just him with no one in the box and no runners on base and no game to be won or lost and no wild pitches being counted. But hey, let’s give the Pirates their moment in February.

I’m going to miss Russell Martin. Sure, there were times when Chris Stewart or Steve Pearce gave me more confidence at the plate than Martin, but he came up with big, clutch hits and played great defense for the Yankees, and I think it was a mistake to let him leave.

The other reason I’m going to miss him is because right now the Yankees’ Opening Day catcher is either going to be Austin Romine and his 20 career plate appearances or Francisco Cervelli, who belongs anywhere other than a Major League roster.

Now I’m always the first person to say that anything the Yankees receive offensively from their catcher is a plus, and if people are going to blame the catcher for the team’s offensive problems (a lot of people did this with Martin) then they are identifying the real problem (the heart of the order). But how worried should I be about the catching situation?

Murti: I guarantee you’re going to be the one who complains when the combination of Stewart/Cervelli/Romine doesn’t get a hit in a big spot. This is where you truly become Neil Keefe again.

And I’m fairly certain Stewart will end up catching Opening Day with CC Sabathia on the mound, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Yankees don’t have a 120-game, every day type of catcher. Losing Martin hurts, but it won’t kill them. The cumulative effect of losing so many home runs might (A-Rod, Swisher, Martin, Ibanez, Chavez). It’s a pretty significant dropoff. But to your original point, the Yankees will have enough defefensive options behind the plate and will have to deal with the offensive shortcomings. It makes you realize what a luxury it was having Jorge Posada all those years. Even if he wasn’t a Gold Glove winner behind the plate, his offense was something you don’t normally see from that position.

A trickle-down effect of not having an offensive catcher, however, is the construction of your bench. Late in a game the Yankees could have two pinch-hit options if Nunez and, say Stewart are due up against a righty. If a righty started the game, chances are the Yankees starting lineup would already have all their lefty hitters in the game (Gardner, Granderson, Suzuki, Cano, Hafner). But they will likely not have more than one lefty bat on that bench (I’m assuming Dan Johnson if he makes the team). Otherwise you will have a bench that includes some combination of Nix and Nunez and Matt Diaz.

The last two years the Yankees could boast a bench that had over 600 career home runs between Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones. The bench won’t be quite so deep anymore, at least in terms of experience.

Keefe: Nothing says Opening Day in the Bronx like Chris Stewart being announced as the starting catcher! I guess things could be worse. Carl Pavano could be starting the Opening Day starter like he was in 2007.

For the first time in a long time and the first time in our now fourth season of these exchanges I’m not worried about the starting pitching. But if I’m not worried about something that’s never a good sign. Maybe it’s time to start worrying.

CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are as good of 1-2-3 in the American League. Behind them there’s Phil Hughes, David Phelps and Michael Pineda and thankfully not Freddy Garcia. Hughes is already having back problems and Pineda is looking at a midseason return to the rotation. If Hughes’ bulging disc prevents him from being ready for the season and with the Yankees having just one off day in the first two weeks of the season and just two in all of April, who would be the strongest candidate for the opening spot?

Murti: Ivan Nova fell that far off your radar, huh?  Maybe you have forgotten all about him, and now you’re worried again.

Nova is a good bet to win a rotation spot, I think. And even though Phelps pitched well last year and could again this spring, I think his versatility is a key to the bullpen and makes him a good long man/spot start candidate. This is how I would draw it up, but so many things can happen when Opening Day is still more than a month away.

As for Pineda, there will be few daily updates on his progress since he isn’t on the same program yet as the rest of the pitchers. It’s still less than a year since his shoulder surgery. The important updates on Pineda will be in April and May with a hope that he is big league ready again in June or July. The Yankees don’t want to rush him back. They would prefer not to have any setbacks considering the investment they have made in him.

I’m sure, Neil, you will have plenty of time to moan and groan about Pineda. It just won’t be at the start of the season.

Keefe: I didn’t forget about Nova … I wanted to forget about him. There’s no doubt in my mind that Nova will be given every chance to succeed as a starter and (most likely) ultimately let me down.

I always thought Carl Pavano getting embarrassed by the Red Sox in a 17-1 loss at the Stadium on May 28, 2005 would be the worst starting pitching performance I ever attended, but then Ivan Nova had his night against the Orioles on July 31 last season when he blew a 5-0 first-inning lead by allowing seven runs in the second inning on six hits, including a grand slam, and a walk. He allowed nine earned runs (isn’t this when you and Bald Vinny do your “Nine!” thing?) in the game and followed it up by allowing seven earned runs in Detroit six days later. And then he followed that up with 10 strikeouts against the Blue Jays five days later. Ivan Nova has me so confused, but he finished the season with a 5.02 ERA and if he’s given a rotation spot, I’m scared he will get too many chances before he’s removed of it. (See: Freddy Garcia, 2012.)

This Saturday will be the first baseball of the year even if it’s fake and in less than six weeks we’ll be in the Bronx for real, actual, meaningful baseball. I would like to think that between now and Opening Day I won’t need to bother you to be reassured that this isn’t the year when the Yankees finally bottom out like the 2012 Red Sox, but I know there will be an issue to address between now and April 1 at 1:05 p.m. I will keep your email and phone number handy.

Murti: Jeter joked the other day that he didnt’ get to talk to Mariano very much this winter because Mariano changed his phone number. Not that I’m comparing either of us to either of them, but it does give me an idea.