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Productive spring camp for the Yankees
Brian Cashman isn’t in the mood to pick a fight with the Boston Red Sox, not the way Buck Showalter inadvertently did last week in Men’s Journal magazine. Ask the New York Yankees' general manager about the fear factor in the American League East, and he’ll tell you that not only do the Red Sox have it, but they look like natural-born killers.
“To me, they’re still the team to beat,” Cashman said over the weekend, beginning what promises to be a summerlong game of rope-a-dope with his rival, Theo Epstein.
The Yankees are emerging from a near-seamless spring, all the potential crises flip-flopped into best-case successes. Yet, Cashman wants the Sox to believe they’re the heavies, if for no other reason than to allow the Yankees to surprise the world come September.
Not that anyone’s going to actually fall for that, but the Bombers are at least trying to avoid being seen as the favorites. Better, for now, to be assessed as weak at the back of the rotation, dragged down by the soon-to-be 37-year-old Derek Jeter and a relatively light-hitting designated hitter, Jorge Posada.
Internally, the Yankees concede those concerns were valid in February, but the equation has changed since then. Even Cashman drops the pose long enough to admit, “I feel a lot better about this team than I did six weeks ago.”
The optimism is fueled on three specific fronts, starting with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia’s March performances. Just as important, though, were Alex Rodriguez’s .404 average and A.J. Burnett’s 2.77 ERA. Of course, spring-training stats are guaranteed to burn brightly only when taken to a match, but if confidence counts for anything on the eve of Opening Day, it ranks as the Yankees’ most precious currency.
Here are the hows and whys:
A-Rod: The third baseman showed up in camp lighter and more flexible, prompting some to wonder if that would mean less power than in 2010, when he hit 30 home runs, his fewest since 1997. But Rodriguez says this is the best he has felt since his MVP season in 2007, not just swinging the bat but moving laterally at third base.
If A-Rod has finally gotten past the chronic hip problems of the past — they’ve limited him to an average of 133 games a year since 2008 — it’s possible to imagine him returning to his 40-homer days.
Scouts say Rodriguez is generating lower-half torque as if he were pain-free.
“He’s driving through the ball now, not just using his arms,” said one talent evaluator. “That would worry me if I’m the one pitching to him.”
Hitting instructor Kevin Long said: “(Rodriguez) has certainly shown that he’s ready to go, maybe more ready than anybody on our squad. He looks terrific.”
If nothing else, A-Rod intends to improve on those 30 home runs and his .270 average, which he called, “unacceptable.” Still, by topping 30 HRs and at least 100 RBI every year since ’08, A-Rod became one of three players to do so playing in fewer than 140 games. The others were Joe DiMaggio and Chick Hafey, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Burnett: The enigmatic right-hander has forged a bond with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, able to act on a suggestion about his delivery. Instead of landing fractionally toward first base, Burnett now drives directly toward home plate, which not only has increased the radar gun readings but has created a downward tilt for the slider.
If Burnett can force hitters to defend against his breaking pitches instead of just ambushing his fastball, he stands to improve on last year’s 1.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio — his lowest in eight seasons.
We’ll know soon enough if the upgrade is permanent, as the Yankees head to Fenway in the second week of the season. If Burnett starts panicking, trying to speed up his arm and bouncing breaking pitches in the dirt, Rothschild’s lessons will have turned to mist. But Yankees people say Burnett is more mature this year, less prone to meltdowns, in part because his personal life is in order.
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Remember, this is a player who showed up at the ballpark last September with a black eye. Although Burnett refused to discuss the matter with reporters, it might not be a coincidence that he and his wife are now wearing matching tattoos inscribed, in Latin, strength and loyalty.
“I’m finally in a good place,” Burnett said.
Colon: Cashman appears to have hit the lottery with the right-hander, who turns 38 in May. Colon hasn’t been anywhere near his prime since 2005, but his 2.40 ERA this month suggests he could help the Yankees more than just as a long reliever. It’s Garcia, not Colon, who’s nestled in the No. 5 spot in the rotation, but one talent evaluator says, “I’m betting it doesn’t stay that way for very long.”
Colon could, arguably, match up with Daisuke Matsuzaka, just as the Yankees believe Ivan Nova could at least neutralize Josh Beckett in the No. 4 spot. Those are all best-case scenarios in the 100-year war with the Sox, of course, just as the Bombers hope that Jeter, who’s hitting .321 this spring, has synthesized his new, short-stride approach to the ball.
Cashman acknowledges many things must go right for the Yankees to take down the Red Sox: "They have the inside track right now.”
But with that concession comes a warning, meant to be heard from here to Fenway.
“Everyone is picking the Red Sox, but things can always change,” Cashman said. “I look forward to knocking them off.”