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April 1, 2009

On the Beat

Falling Into Place

by John Perrotto

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The Yankees hope to at least be competitive this season. OK, there's a (weak) April Fools' Day joke for you, because expectations are obviously higher than that after the team's winter activity. Hal and Hank Steinbrenner opened their checkbook wider over the winter than their free-spending father George ever had, spending a whopping $423.5 million on three free agents, giving first baseman Mark Teixeira an eight-year, $180 million contract, signing left-hander CC Sabathia to a seven-year, $161 million deal, and enticing right-hander A.J. Burnett with a five-year, $82.5 million offer.

That was after the Yankees missed the playoffs last year for the first since the players' strike wiped out the 1994 postseason. They certainly don't plan on sitting at home in October again this year after spending that kind of money and opening what should be a gold mine-even in these difficult financial times-in the new Yankee Stadium.

As a result, no team enters the 2009 season under greater scrutiny, and no manager will face more pressure than skipper Joe Girardi, whose legacy so far has been to oversee the end of the Yankees' long streak of post-season appearances in his first season after replacing Joe Torre. "The expectations are always there with this franchise, that comes with being part of the Yankees," general manager Brian Cashman said. "We spent a lot of money, and a lot of it was in anticipation of having greater revenue with the new stadium. We need to put a good product on the field to maximize the revenues from the stadium. Every year, there are a lot of hopes and dreams about the team we put on the field. We spend every year trying to contend. We don't take a year off to rebuild. How it all plays out this season remains to be seen."

There is a strong sense around the Yankees that 2009 had better play out to the Steinbrenners' liking, or Girardi won't have his job in 2010. He had a rough first year; in addition to managing a team that was in transition by using young starting pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy, Girardi found that dealing with the large contingent of media in New York was more difficult than he had anticipated, even though he had played and coached for the Yankees. Girardi exacerbated matters by becoming testy with the media and sometimes bending the truth. He was the antithesis of Torre, a native New Yorker who never seemed rattled by anything thrown his way, and he doesn't have nearly as many allies in the New York press corps as Torre did.

Girardi is a bright and likable guy at his core, and says he plans to be looser and more forthcoming this season. "It's part of being a manager anywhere," Girardi said of the pressure to win. "It's probably greater here than most places, but the goal is always to win."

Though this is one franchise that determines the success of a season by whether or not it won the World Series (something it hasn't done since 2000), the Yankees weren't exactly awful last season. They went 89-73, and they weren't as dominant as usual, finishing a mediocre 13th in the majors in team Equivalent Average with a .262 mark while scoring an average of 4.9 per game, 14th in runs allowed with a 4.5 average, and 25th in defensive efficiency. This year, Teixeira should bolster the offense, and Sabathia should provide a lift to the pitching staff as they are among the game's premier players. Teixeira's combined .328 EqA with the Braves and Angels last season ranked fifth in the majors, and Sabathia's combined 8.7 SNLVAR with the Indians and Brewers ranked first. Burnett was 32nd in SNLVAR with 5.3 for the Blue Jays, and is not considered as safe a bet as Teixeira and Sabathia because of his injury history and his often prickly personality.

"There is pressure on me, and all three of us, but I can tell you that nobody has greater expectations of me than I do," Sabathia said. "It was that way when I was a rookie back in 2001 making the minimum salary, and that's the way it is now that I've signed this contract. I want to the best pitcher I can be, get to the World Series, and win it. I know the fans expect me to come here and be that missing piece, the guy who takes the Yankees to the World Series. That's great. I want them to feel that way, because that's my goal, too."

Sabathia also believes that Teixeira and Burnett will handle the high expectations. "They're veterans and exceptional players," said Sabathia. "You don't reach the level they've reached in this game if you're not confident and mentally strong. We're all in the same boat. We're new here. But we're also here to lean on each other, and that's going to help all three of us."

The Yankees will also begin the season without third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who was second in the AL with a .323 EqA last year. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip last month and is expected to be out until May 15, though he is optimistic about beating that timetable. Rodriguez is an around-the-clock lightning rod for controversy, and it began this year just before the start of spring training when he confirmed a Sports Illustrated report that he had tested positive for steroids in 2003 in what was supposed to be confidential survey testing by Major League Baseball.

Even though Rodriguez is starting the season on the disabled list, it's a subject that's sure to follow him throughout this season of scrutiny for the Yankees. "This is an issue we're going to have to deal with, and he's going to have to deal with," Cashman said. "When you're a Yankee, you're usually dealing with an issue of some sort. That's just the way it is. We understand it, and deal with it."

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New Padres chief executive officer and vice chairman of the board Jeff Moores is going to have to cope with a front office that has become, in the words of one club insider, "dysfunctional," with an apparently fractious division between those who believe more in the value of statistical analysis, and those who place greater stock in the value of scouting.

The insider told Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune that the split began two years ago, when former CEO Sandy Alderson hired Paul DePodesta as a special assistant to GM Kevin Towers, and Grady Fuson to oversee the scouting department. "Paul is really a bright guy and a nice guy, but it's just been an impossible situation," the insider said. "It was a train wreck waiting to happen. You have all these different groups reporting to Sandy, and it's created all this division. Grady's looking over his shoulder at DePo in the draft. It's hard to know who makes the decisions. At the end of the day, Sandy becomes GM. I don't think there's a real bad guy in the bunch. It's a dysfunctional organization. It's dysfunctional by the way it's organized."

One Padres scout, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, told Baseball Prospectus that the organization has tilted too heavily toward stats in recent years, and is paying the price by having one of the weakest farm systems in the game. "Talent evaluation doesn't matter anymore, because it's all about what the computer says," explained the scout. "Stats can tell you something about a player, sometimes a lot about him, but it's different using stats to evaluate amateur players. You have to take into account the level of competition, and that a lot of teenagers and guys in their early 20s tend to develop at their own pace physically. Stats can't always tell you that story."

The Padres did guarantee $5.5 million to foreign amateur free agents last season, and statistics for many of those players are either nonexistent or very spotty. At the same time, one of the Padres' analysts apparently tried in 2006 to convince then-manager Bruce Bochy to hit pitcher Woody Williams second in his batting order.

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The Rangers' Jon Daniels is among the GMs who believe that statistics have their place in helping make player evaluations, but he also feels that intangibles play a role in a club's chances for success. That's why he's excited about his team this spring. "With the core group of players and the young players from our system, there's a camaraderie, a togetherness," Daniels told Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I don't think you can overstate how important that is to a team."

You also can't overstate the importance of pitching, and the Rangers were last in the majors in runs allowed last season, giving up an average of 6.0 per game, finishing 79-83 despite leading the majors with a .278 team EqA and in runs scored with 5.6 a game.

The Rangers don't look appreciably improved in the pitching department, but that doesn't dull Daniels' enthusiasm. "I'm never going to put out numbers or predict anything, but having been around this club for a while and watching the way they get after this spring, I would not put anything past this club," he said. "These guys believe they can win. There's not an if, maybe, when, shoulda, coulda mentality. That's half the battle."

---

The Diamondbacks' ownership group took on a massive amount of debt when it bought the club from franchise founder Jerry Colangelo in 2003. Colangelo brought a World Series title to Arizona in just the D'backs' fourth season in 2001, but it came at a high cost. He signed many star players to back-loaded contracts, and owed them more than $200 million in deferred salaries when he sold the club.

Current ownership has cut that figure to a little more than $50 million, and managing general partner Ken Kendrick told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic that the bad economy will not cause the Diamondbacks to spend less. Though their player payroll figures to dip slightly from $75 million last season to $74 million this year, the snakes have budgeted more money to sign players from the first-year player draft. "We're very determined to stay the course," Kendrick said. "The only thing that could occur that could change our thinking is if there is a very significant downturn in the economy, something very severe. We, like every business, can be affected by the economy, and we'd have to assess if there were significant problems in revenue streams that are tied to the economy."

While Major League Baseball is bracing for what it predicts will be a six percent drop in attendance this season, the Diamondbacks are confident they can match last season's figure of 2.5 million at Chase Field. "We think we're affordable, even in a tough economy," Kendrick said. "We try to give people a good experience when they come to the ballpark."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs are trying to find a taker for right-hander Chad Gaudin and his $2 million salary, and though they will begin the season with Kevin Gregg as the closer, many close to the team believe that Carlos Marmol will eventually move into the role. ... The Padres are interested in trading for Rays right-handers Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel, and the Pirates are also eyeing Niemann. ... The Rockies are expected to go with Huston Street as their closer to begin the year, but he'll be on a short leash with Manuel Corpas also in the bullpen. ... Rookie Jason Motte is expected to get the majority of save chances for the Cardinals, with Ryan Franklin and Josh Kinney backing him up, while converted outfielder Skip Schumaker will be the starting second baseman. ... The Astros plan to platoon the newly acquired Jeff Keppinger at third base with Geoff Blum. ... Micah Owings will be the Reds' fifth starter. ... Livan Hernandez will the Mets' fifth starter. ... Long-time Mexican League pitcher Walter Silva will the Padres' third starter. ... Chan Ho Park will be fifth in the Phillies' rotation.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Tigers plan on going with a platoon of Jeff Larish and Marcus Thames at designated hitter in the wake of the release of Gary Sheffield. Sheffield is drawing interest from the Phillies, but he's looking for a place where he can play regularly. ... The Mariners have decided that Brandon Morrow's future is in the bullpen, and they'll make him a full-time reliever. ... Brett Gardner will be the Yankees' starting center fielder. ... The White Sox will begin the season with DeWayne Wise and Brian Anderson platooning in center field and at leadoff, while rookie Chris Getz will be their second baseman. ... Top prospect Trevor Cahill will be the Athletics' second starter behind Dallas Braden, while Brad Ziegler will get the majority of save opportunities with Joey Devine on the DL, though Santiago Casilla could also get some saves. ... Ricky Romero will be the Blue Jays' fourth starter with Brad Mills and Scott Richmond in the hunt for the fifth-starter's slot, while Scott Downs will begin the season as the closer if B.J. Ryan isn't ready.

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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