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February 25, 2013

On the Beat

Aged to Perfection?

by John Perrotto

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With a nod of respect to Joe Garagiola retiring from the booth at 87, let’s take one of all-time great broadcaster’s best lines and massage it to fit the 2013 Yankees: The Yankees are so old, man, they served as the waiters at the Last Supper.

OK, Mariano Rivera didn’t really refill the apostles’ water glasses. However, it seems like the 43-year-old closer and his teammates should be playing in local recreational senior league than in the major leagues. Just one of the Yankees’ projected nine opening position player starters is under 30—center fielder Brett Gardner, who is 28. In addition to Rivera, the Yankees pitching staff includes 40-year-old left-hander Andy Pettitte and 38-year-old right-hander Hiroki Kuroda.

Of course, with age comes more injuries, and three of the Yankees’ superstars are coming off major surgeries. Rivera blew out a knee last May, 38-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter broke his ankle in the opener of the American League Championship Series last October, and 37-year-old third baseman Alex Rodriguez underwent a hip operation in January. Rivera should begin the season on time, and Jeter will start playing exhibition games in two weeks, but Rodriguez won’t be back until at least July. Compounding matters, outfielder Curtis Granderson suffered a broken right forearm Sunday when he was hit by a pitch from Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ in an exhibition game in Tampa. Granderson will likely be out until May.

The Yankees look so fragile that one rival American League front-office type believes New York will not only miss the playoffs for just the second time in 19 seasons but be fortunate to finish above .500 this season. The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992, when Buck Showalter was a rookie manager and Andy Stankiewicz was the shortstop.

“I think everyone in baseball knows this is the year to get the Yankees,” the FOT said. “They are extremely vulnerable. They’re old, they’re hurt, they don’t have much depth, and their farm system is pretty thin at the upper levels. Rare is the time when you can catch the Yankees in a down cycle, but this is the year to do it. I can see their year being a real disaster.”

Naturally, the Yankees disagree with this assessment. When asked if he and his teammates were too old to defend their AL East title, Jeter smiled.

“We’re not old. We’re experienced,” he said. “Everyone gets older. I’m getting older. You’re getting older. I still have faith in the guys in this clubhouse.”

First baseman Mark Teixeira, who is 31, also has that faith. A thoughtful sort who looks at things from all angles, Teixeira has a hard time coming up with a scenario in which the Yankees would not contend.

“Anything is possible in this game, I know, but I think maybe some people are underestimating the talent on this team,” Teixeira said. “I know we have an older team but we still have an awful lot of good players, I think as much talent as any team in baseball. We have guys who take the game seriously, take care of themselves and know what winning is all about. I don’t think you can discount what having that kind of experience means.”

The AL East, of course, is no longer the domain of the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays have made the playoffs in three of the last five years, the Orioles ended a 15-year playoff drought last season and the Blue Jays are looking to get to the postseason for the first time in 20 years following an offseason in which they added left-hander Mark Buerhle, right-handers R.A Dickey and Josh Johnson, shortstop Jose Reyes, infielders Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis, and left fielder Melky Cabrera.

“I thought the Blue Jays were an up-and-coming team before they made all those moves, and they’re really going to be a beast now,” Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia said “I think it’s great for that organization and their fans. I think it’s great that all the teams in this division are competitive. That’s what sports are really supposed to be all about, everybody having a chance to win.”

That begs the question of what the Yankees’ chances are of winning this season. Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds favors the Yankees to capture the division and gives them a 69.9 percent chance of getting to the postseason.

“I wouldn’t sleep on us,” Sabathia said. “The expectation here is the same as it always is, and that’s to win the World Series.”

---

It is far too early in spring training to get excited about much of anything. However, one scout covering the Grapefruit League and another covering the Cactus League did pass along interesting observations from the early days of the exhibition season.

The Florida scout was quite impressed with the mobility of second baseman Chase Utley, who had been unable to play in spring training games each of the last two seasons because of chronic knee problems. It is doubtful the 34-year-old Utley will approach his 7.3-WARP campaign of 2007, but the scout thinks Utley could be poised for a bounce-back year.

“I haven’t seen him move like that in a couple of years,” the scout said. “The thing that impressed me the most was that he hustled from first base to third base on a groundout to the right side of the infield when third base was left uncovered. Who does that in a spring training game, especially a veteran like Utley? That tells me he’s feeling pretty spry again.”

New Indians utility player candidate Ryan Raburn, in camp on a minor-league contract, caught the eye of the Arizona-based scout. Raburn popped three home runs in the first two days of the Cactus League after connecting only once in 222 plate appearances for the Tigers last season.

“The ball flies out here in the dry air,” the scout, “but he looks like he’s already in midseason form. The ball is jumping off his bat.”

Raburn averaged 15 home runs a year for the Tigers in a three-year span from 2009-11, but his slash line was a paltry .171/.226/.254 last season. A Tigers insider believes Raburn could have a productive year for the Indians off the bench.

“He’s the type of guy who applies a lot of self-pressure, and a lot of it comes because he became perceived by the fans as (manager) Jim Leyland’s pet,” the insider said. “That wasn’t fair to Ryan. He’s a very useful player, but it seemed like he never was totally appreciated in Detroit.”

---

Yes, the daily stories that come out of spring training that talk about a player being in the best shape of his life have long been cliché. However, Braves third baseman Juan Francisco really is in the best shape of his life, according to scouts.

“The belly is gone,” one scout said. “It looks like, to me, that he is finally going to take his career seriously.”

No one has ever questioned Francisco’s raw power, but the Reds grew weary of waiting for him to make a full commitment to conditioning and raising his level of play. They traded him to the Braves for reliever J.J. Hoover last year at the end of spring training. Braves general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez told Francisco point blank midway through last season that he needed to take his profession more seriously or risk being out of the game.

The 25-year-old Francisco took the advice, and now he and Chris Johnson, acquired from the Diamondbacks in a trade last month, figure to wage a spirited battle this spring to replace the retired Chipper Jones at the hot corner. The lefty-swinging Francisco would get the long end of a platoon, but Gonzalez says he would comfortable with someone winning the job outright.

One scout compared Francisco to another former Reds third baseman, who did not find success until he switched organizations—Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion, now a Blue Jay, blossomed last season when he hit .280/.384/.557 with 42 home runs.

“Francisco has that type of power,” the scout said. “It wouldn’t shock me if he hit 40 some year, it really wouldn’t.”

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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