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February 17, 2008

Every Given Sunday

The Bronx Challenge

by John Perrotto

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It is never easy replacing a legend, and make no mistake, that is what Joe Girardi is doing. Girardi is entering his first season as manager of the New York Yankees, taking over for Joe Torre. In winning four World Series in 12 seasons, Torre was beloved by everyone except George Steinbrenner and his sons for his calm demeanor and soothing manner, which brought a sense of an inner peace to the franchise that never sleeps. "Joe Torre for me was a father figure," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada reflected. "He's a great man and we're going to miss him dearly."

However, Girardi insists he feels no extra heat in following Torre. The Yankees have had other great managers, including Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Billy Martin, and they continued their winning tradition after each man's tenure ended.

"All I can be is myself," Girardi said. "Obviously, there have been expectations on this club long before Joe Torre was here. He had to come in to fill someone's shoes and Buck Showalter before that and it just goes on and on. The expectations have always been here and that's one of the things that make this job so great."

However, the expectations might be lower on this Yankees team, more so than any time since Torre replaced Showalter a dozen years ago. Boston is considered the favorite to repeat as American League East champion after winning the World Series last season and many feel the Yankees aren't a lock for a 14th consecutive playoff appearance because of their likely reliance on young pitchers this year. The Yankees will have two reliable veteran starters at the top of their rotation with southpaw Andy Pettitte and right-hander Chien-Ming Wang. Righty Phil Hughes figures to be the No. 3 starter in his sophomore season following an injury-marred rookie campaign, while veteran Mike Mussina is expected to battle left-hander Kei Igawa and right-hander Ian Kennedy for spots in the rotation. Rookie right-hander Joba Chamberlain, a sensation late season as a reliever, will work on a starter's schedule in spring training, but is expected to begin the regular season back in the bullpen. Hughes is just 21 and has logged only 72 2/3 innings in the major leagues. Kennedy is 23 and has but 19 big-league innings on his resume. If the Yankees reverse course and put Chamberlain in the rotation, the 22-year-old will have only 24 innings of major league experience to fall back on.

Girardi has experience handling a young pitching staff: in his only season as a major league manager with the Marlins in 2006, he guided a roster full of youngsters to a surprising 78-84 record that garnered him National League Manger of the Year honors. That Girardi has worked with young pitchers is both good and bad, though. While he got a lot of production from those starters, he was also criticized for the way he handled them. Josh Johnson missed all of last season because of shoulder surgery; some identify his being brought back to pitch following a long rain delay during a game late in the 2006 season as the last straw. Anibal Sanchez had shoulder surgery last year after being allowed to throw at least 98 pitches in each of his last nine starts in '06.

Unbowed, Girardi does not shy away from working with another young pitching staff. "This is not going to be a five-man rotation that consists of guys that have six, seven, eight years of development," Girardi said. "We're going to have many young kids starting some games. I think the experience with the young guys and protecting the young guys was probably valuable for me."

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman has been adamant in recent years about trading the organization's top pitching prospects, sometimes to the chagrin of the Old Boss, George Steinbrenner, and the New Boss, Hank Steinbrenner. The young pitching will be the key for the Yankees, as they will again field a star-powered lineup featuring Posada, first baseman Jason Giambi, second baseman Robinson Cano, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, shortstop Derek Jeter, left fielder Johnny Damon, center fielder Melky Cabrera, right fielder Bobby Abreu and designated hitter Hideki Matsui.

Girardi believes he can fashion a championship team by blending the new with the old. "You can compare this team a little bit to 1996," Girardi said of Torre's first Yankees team that began a string of four World Series titles in five years. "Obviously, the pieces were spread out a little bit but you had a rookie shortstop (Jeter), you basically had rookie pitchers in Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera and think about the roles they played that year for the New York Yankees in winning a championship. I'd to parallel it that. Yeah, two of our young pitchers might be starters, one might be in the bullpen or three might be starters or one of them might be a starter. They will be expected to step and I think they will be ready to make that step."

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This season marks the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Cubs' last World Series championship. As the Cubs opened spring training this past week in Mesa, Arizona, with nary a billy goat in sight, closer-turned-starting candidate Ryan Dempster predicted that this season would end the century-long title drought. "I think we're going to win the World Series," Dempster told the Chicago Tribune. "I really do. I wouldn't show up here and have worked as hard as I did, and everyone worked as hard as they did, to not believe that. You believe it. You really do. Enough of all the curse this, curse that, the goat, the black cat, or 100 years. Whatever it is, we're a better team than we were last year. And last year we made it to the playoffs."

Cubs manager Lou Piniella, whose team was swept by Arizona in the National League Division Series last season after winning the Central, wasn't upset about Dempster's prediction. However, Piniella added that the Cubs should be cautious about getting overconfident. "I like the confidence our players have," Piniella said. "As a team, we were disappointed the way our season ended abruptly last year in the playoffs. I remember when I played for the Yankees in '76 and Cincinnati swept us in the World Series. To a man we vowed we would do better, and '77 and '78 turned out pretty well because we won the World Series both years. But remember, our division has gotten tougher; the National League as a whole has gotten tougher, so we have to go out and play."

Piniella knows much will be made of the Cubs' 100-year anniversary and plans to address that to his players before the first full-squad workout of the spring this week. "Don't put that pressure on yourself," is how Piniella described his message. "Let this team stand on its own merit. What has happened in the last 99 years? Hell, I've only been here one, so I'll take responsibility for only one."

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Short of improving on his .331 career on-base percentage, it would seemingly be hard for Philadelphia shortstop and reigning NL Most Valuable Player Jimmy Rollins to trump his 2007 season. He became the first player in major league history with 200 hits, 20 triples, 30 home runs, and 30 stolen bases in the same season. He also set NL records for most runs scored (139) and extra-base hits (88) by a shortstop.

So how can Rollins do better in 2008? "Win a World Series ring, I guess," Rollins told the Philadelphia Daily News. "I don't know. I don't worry about going out there and trying to do better next season. I put things out there for myself that I want to improve on and hopefully I improve on them. And if I do improve on those things and continue to be good where I've been good, I'll be better. I'd like to score more runs, steal third more, hit for a better average, make three or four fewer errors. Other than that, I don't know if there's much more I can do. But scoring those six, seven, eight more runs is probably going to take me stealing probably 10 to 15 more bags."

Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson believes Rollins is ready for another big season after working with him during most of the offseason. "He's looking great. Oh, my goodness," Thompson said. "He's really found himself as a hitter over the last year. He can make adjustments, not just at bat to at bat, but pitch to pitch. We've been back at it since November. He's of the mindset that there's room for improvement. One key thing is that he's learned how to 'catch' the baseball as a hitter. Not try to kill it or knock the cover off it, but trust his hands and just catch it with his bat."

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Seattle GM Bill Bavasi believes the time is now for his Mariners, which is why he was willing to trade five players to acquire left-handed starter Erik Bedard from Baltimore. The Mariners have gone from 63-99 in Bavasi's first year on the job in 2004 to 88-74 last season. "Now we think we're kind of through with the building stage," Bavasi told the Seattle Times. "Now, it's time to go out and try to win."

The Mariners believe their window of opportunity may have also opened a little wider in the past few weeks since it has been revealed that right-hander Kelvim Escobar will miss at least the first month of the season for the AL West rival Los Angeles Angels because of a sore shoulder. Furthermore, Boston right-hander Curt Schilling might possible miss the entire season with a shoulder injury, which could impact the AL wild-card race.

Meanwhile, Bedard welcomes the pressure of being considered the final piece to a puzzle of a potential playoff team. He admits he got worn down by the constant losing in Baltimore, as the Orioles have had 10 straight losing seasons. "With Baltimore, it seemed like we were going backwards," Bedard said. "Obviously here they're going forward and trying to build a team that's competitive and can get in the playoffs and win now."

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Rumors and rumblings: It is becoming more likely that Baltimore will hang on to second baseman Brian Roberts for at least the start of the season, and then try to trade him again at the July 31 non-waiver deadline. While Detroit manager Jim Leyland is saying there is a strong possibility displaced third baseman Brandon Inge will be traded this spring, some in the Tigers' brain trust want to hang onto him as a potential replacement for catcher Ivan Rodriguez next year. With its shortstop situation unsettled, Baltimore is interested in free agent Alex Cintron and is also exploring making a trade for the White Sox's Juan Uribe Rookie Clay Buchholz will have to earn the spot opened up in Boston's rotation by Schilling's injury, as veteran Julian Tavarez will also be given consideration for the job. The Red Sox are thinking about giving hard-throwing Manny Delcarmen the chance to close some games on days Jonathan Papelbon is unavailable. Angels sources say that Erick Aybar has the inside track to win the starting shortstop job, in part because of Maicer Izturis' lack of durability and Brandon Wood's inexperience. Kansas City is leaning toward having rookie Luke Hochevar begin the season in the bullpen rather than the starting rotation.

Master mound craftsman Greg Maddux is giving indications that he will retire once his contract with San Diego runs out at the end of this season. Mark McGwire seems ready to come out of seclusion for a short stint as a guest hitting instructor at Cardinals camp for spring training. Cincinnati still has interest in right-hander Joe Blanton, but has balked at Oakland's asking price of either Homer Bailey or Johnny Cueto plus Joey Votto. While Adam Eaton has first crack at Philadelphia's fifth starter's job, the Phillies will pull the plug if he struggled this spring and take a look at Travis Blackley, Chad Durbin, and J.D. Durbin. Pittsburgh will look at veteran first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz at third base and the outfield corners during the exhibition season to see if he can provide some versatility to their bench.

All-time home run leader Barry Bonds is still on the free agent market, and the only team rumored to even remotely have interest is Tampa Bay. Outfielder Shawn Green will retire unless he gets a chance to stay in Los Angeles with the Dodgers or Angels The following players are out of minor league options and could be traded by the end of spring training: Texas outfielders Jason Botts, Nelson Cruz, and David Murphy; San Diego outfielder Paul McAnulty, Detroit relievers Danny Bautista, Francisco Cruceta, and Steve Grilli; and White Sox pitchers Gavin Floyd and Nick Masset. Batterymen have reported to spring training but all of these free agent pitchers are still unemployed: Shawn Chacon, Bartolo Colon, Josh Fogg, Freddy Garcia, Byung-Hyun Kim, Kyle Lohse, Rodrigo Lopez, Eric Milton, Tomo Ohka, Russ Ortiz, Odalis Perez, John Thomson, Jeff Weaver, and David Wells.

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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