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Keefe To The City: Yankee Baseball Is Back In The Bronx

By Neil Keefe
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It's been 159 days since the Yankees last played, but hey, who's counting? Now there's only one day until Opening Day. Baseball is back!

The last thing to do before Opening Day is to talk to Sweeny Murti, The Voice of Reason, one more time. Sweeny joined me for an e-mail discussion to preview the 2011 Yankees and sort out the last few issues with the team with just a day to go until there's baseball in the Bronx.

LISTEN: Juliet Papa In The Bronx Where Fans Are Getting Ready


Keefe: I don't know where to start. So much happened during the Murphy's Law Offseason that my emotions were toyed with like David Norris' in "The Adjustment Bureau". It's a lot easier to stomach offseason acquisitions like Javier Vazquez and Nick Johnson when the Yankees are coming off a World Series win. It's a lot harder to accept not signing Cliff Lee, the retirement of Andy Pettitte and the idea that Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon are part of the $200 million Yankees, when the 2010 season was "a failure" by the Yankees' standards (and mine).

I guess it only makes sense to start with the starters – where the Yankees' problems start and where their season could be finished. After I made one last stand against letting Bartolo Colon join this rotation in a piece last week, it made a lot people angry because if this guy can dominate in spring training then of course he can dominate in the regular season! Yankees fans began finding ways to support Colon and statistics to prove that he can be of value to the Yankees. It's likely these same people were the ones questioning Derek Jeter's value and saying that he needed to be paid according to his 2010 season.

Colon did make the team as the long reliever, and I guess I'd rather have a former Cy Young winner coming out of the bullpen than Sergio Mitre or Chad Gaudin (thankfully neither of them are still with the Yankees).

I understand why Joe Girardi made the decision to make Garcia the fifth starter and not Colon (and it was the right one), but he made such a big deal about the competition ... a competition that Colon did technically win. It seemed like all the beat writers were on board with the idea that Colon had won the No. 5 spot, but Girardi decided against it. Why did Girardi go against the decision of a competition he created and how does this make you view the fairness of future position competitions in spring training?

Murti: Colon did indeed outpitch Garcia this spring, but the determination also had to be made as to how to get the most out of both pitchers. I had taken the position that it would be best to let Colon start now because you don't know how much you're getting out of him. Why not ride him while he's hot? If and when he fizzles out, you can make the move then.

Girardi looked at it a different way. He is trying to get the most out of Colon for as long as possible, and because there was a need in the absence of your favorite punching bags (Mitre and Gaudin), he determined that Colon's "stuff" plays better than Garcia's out of the pen. Colon threw 92-94 mph consistently all spring. In one or two inning stints, he believes that could probably play up a couple of notches into the mid-90s. That plus his slider and change-up could be more effective out of the 'pen than Garcia, whose fastball was anywhere from 85-90 all spring.

Garcia is the better long term bet for certain. But part of me is really anxious to see your reaction when a rainout or injury causes the need for a spot start and you, Neil, have to see Colon start a game. Call me cruel if you want.

Keefe: Thanks, I appreciate it. I probably won't be able to watch that game, if it does take place, and especially if it takes place at Fenway.

It's no secret that I probably won't ever be invited to A.J. Burnett or Boone Logan's birthday parties (Colon's now too). I have used up a lot of words on sharing my feelings about the two, but on Thursday everyone gets a clean slate from me. I know you probably don't believe that, but it's true. At least I'm trying to convince myself that it's true. But since it's not Thursday yet ... let's talk about Burnett.

I'm not sure how to make it clear to everyone how important Burnett's success is to the 2011 Yankees. When your fourth starter has one career win and your fifth starter had to beat out Colon for his job, you know times are tough. If Burnett has another 15-loss season, my summer will be ruined and you will be covering a team in September that's just playing out the schedule and waiting for the offseason.

After A.J.'s 2010 season and the emergence of Phil Hughes, how is Burnett the No. 2 and Hughes the No. 3? Is it because of salary? Is it because Burnett's ego? Is it both?

Murti: You're trying to make the No. 2 and No. 3 starter mean something like this is a playoff rotation. They both pitch the same amount no matter what order they're in! Don't get caught up in the labels. They both have to make 32 or 33 starts this year, so relax on the No. 2 or No. 3 stuff. When it comes playoff time, that is when these discussions become legitimate again, and a lot of factors will go into that plan like who's pitching better, the opponent matchup, home vs. away, etc.

As for Burnett in 2011, it can't be worse than 2010 can it? He clearly has to bounce back. Will he? We can't really say that with any certainty now, can we? I think the one positive thing to look at with Burnett is his attitude and spirit haven't broken the way, say a guy like Jeff Weaver's did. Burnett believes he's going to pitch well.

One more thing about Burnett is that the biggest knock against him before he became a Yankee was that he couldn't stay healthy. He seems to have found something by staying healthy each of the last three seasons now. That's not to say he can't get hurt again, obviously, but as long as he's healthy, you have to have some level of confidence that he can perform for the Yankees. (Not like it was with Carl Pavano year after year.)

Counting Down To Opening Day
(Photo/Juliet Papa)

Keefe: A-Rod has been on a tear in spring training with six home runs and while it's only spring training, it's still a good sign that he is hitting with power regularly again. I like how in spring training some players have a good or bad spring and we aren't supposed to read it into, and some players have a good or bad spring and it doesn't matter because it's just spring training.

I don't want to say that A-Rod's last two regular seasons were bad, but they certainly weren't A-Rod-like. In 2009 and 2010 he still hit 30 home runs (miraculously both times), but it seemed like he became a name at the plate (because of his career numbers) and not a presence like he was before.

I have a good feeling about A-Rod this year returning to regaining his place as one of the elite power hitters in the game. But it seems like everyone is jumping onto the Return of A-Rod in 2011, and like Vegas, when everyone likes the same thing, it's usually bad.

Murti: Well he hasn't given anybody any reason not to like him this year, has he? Go back to my post from Monday and you can hear A-Rod talking about his spring and his swing and the health of his hip that's responsible for it. You can also read a quote from Kevin Long explaining why his swing is so much more "explosive" this year.

Is there a reason to think he's going to have a big year? Sure, why not. But it's a big year for him, no doubt. We make a big deal out of Jeter turning 37 and coming off the worst year of his career. Well, A-Rod will be 36 and many of his numbers were his worst since 1997.

Keefe: Brett Gardner will lead off on Thursday and Derek Jeter will hit second. I'm a "Derek Jeter for leadoff" guy, but to me this decision doesn't make that much of a difference even though I don't like the idea of not having a consistent lineup. Though if Gardner doesn't succeed quickly in the role, I'm sure it will be good for the WFAN phone lines.

What does make a difference is the No. 3 and No. 5 spots in the order. Robinson Cano is the best hitter on the team, and over the course of a season the difference of two spots in the order will translate into a lot more at-bats for Teixeira than Cano.

I know people are scared of change, but this would be a change for the better. Teixeira has become Giambi-esque with the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium and his average has become a product of the shift. Where was this problem hitting going the other way as a lefty when he was with the Rangers and Angels hitting against the Yankees?

The only reason I can think of for Girardi keeping Tex third and Cano fifth is that it's the way he's always done it and he doesn't want to change it now. Call me crazy, but I think Cano should be hitting third.

Yankee Stadium Opening Week
(WCBS 880 / Peter Haskell)

Murti: It appears the leadoff hitter will depend on whether a righty or a lefty is starting that day. Gardner will get the extra at-bats vs. a righty, which makes some sense. I'm not a fan of changing it around that much day to day, but I can see the value in it.

Personally, I think having a 9-1-2 of Gardner-Jeter-Swisher will lead to more production opportunities for the middle of the order than Martin-Gardner-Jeter.

As for your rant against Teixeira, I'm really not sure where that came from. He got off to a terrible start last year (again), but this time it lasted longer than it normally does. Still, after July 1, he batted .281/.387/.550 (with 20 HR and 60 RBIs) in 81 games. His career averages are .286/.377/.536. He does need to start the season better, and he's changed his hitting routines slightly for that reason. Let's see if it works.

As for batting Cano higher, I like him right where he is. Teixeira has been a higher on-base guy than Cano throughout their careers (last year was the exception). Putting Teixeira in the 3-hole gives potentially more RBI opportunities to A-Rod and Cano, and I think that's how the lineup should be built.

As for his at-bats as a lefty, if I'm reading his splits right off his Baseball-Reference page last year Teixeira hit .431 when he pulled the ball as a lefty and .133 going the opposite field. And you want him to pull the ball less?

Please, stop trying to tell me what a bad hitter Mark Teixeira is. It's embarrassing.

Keefe: Don't get me wrong, I'm a big Teixeira fan, and I didn't say he's a bad hitter ... I said he's not the best hitter on the team. And looking at his splits from 2007-2009 and prior to his time with the Yankees, his averages up the middle and the other way as a left-handed hitter have declined over the last two seasons.

So, I'm not crazy, the shift has hurt him, and he's sort of following in the Giambino's footsteps. But I hope you're right and I hope that his new routine works for him early on in the season.

I was excited for the Jesus Montero era to begin in the Bronx this season, but it's been put on hold for the time being with Montero going back to Triple-A to begin the season.

With Jorge Posada being relegated to designated hitter, Russell Martin coming over to fill a void and to try to resurrect his career and Francisco Cervelli going down with an injury, it seemed like the stars were aligning for Montero to get his first taste of the majors. Instead it will be Gustavo Molina backing up Martin.

Do you think Montero will play any sort of role with the Yankees in the majors this season? Or are we going to have to wait another year to see Montero? Or might we never get to see Montero as a Yankee with a move for a starter down the road?

Murti: Montero got his first extended look as a candidate to be a major league catcher and the reviews weren't good. Most scouts and observers told me he wasn't even close to major league ready behind the plate with some going so far as to say he never will be. But there are also those who point out he is only 21 years old and has played only one season above Double-A.

There's a chance you will see Jesus Montero in the Bronx this year, or next year, or not at all. That's just the way things work around here when the Yankees are in need of a pitcher. I mean c'mon, the Yankees in essence already traded him once when they included him in the package to Seattle for Cliff Lee last summer. So, it's hard to say with any certainty if or when he will be a Yankee.

Austin Romine impressed many of those same scouts and observers as a kid who can catch every day in the big leagues soon and hit well enough to hold the job. For now however, it's Russell Martin's chance to show he is healthy and productive. He will have a lot to say about how this staff performs early on. CC Sabathia spoke glowingly about him after their first extended outing together last week.

Yankees Country
(Photo/Juliet Papa)

Keefe: Oh, the Montero for Lee trade that fell through and potentially cost the Yankees a trip to the World Series and ultimately a chance to sign Lee in December. I had forgotten all about that...

Now, let me take a minute to compose myself.

We talked about the starting pitching and the lineup and the touchy subject of Mark Teixeira. That leaves us with the bullpen or what is being called the Yankees' strength on paper for 2011.

I would take this time to question how Girardi could even think about taking Steve Garrison or Luis Ayala as the 25th man, but you've told me before that someone that someone has to be the worst pitcher on the team (see: Chad Gaudin). But to take another lefty in Garrison just have two lefties even if that other lefty isn't very good is great baseball strategy!

OK, but seriously ... you have said that Rafael Soriano will only ever be a story with the Yankees when he blows a lead in the eighth inning, so I'm hoping we don't hear from him all year. But when you're the setup man making $12 million a year, blowing a game in New York City is a little different than blowing a game in Tampa Bay. What kind of vibe have you gotten from Soriano on how he will handle being the setup man and how he would handle blowing a game in a completely different setting?

Murti: Soriano is kind of a hard guy to read. I didn't spend a whole lot of time interacting with him this spring and I don't think many of his teammates did either to be honest. People from the Rays told me he's a little unusual, keeps to himself a lot, but that matters very little if he pitches like he did last year.

What happens when he blows a game and faces a few dozen reporters in New York compared to a handful in Tampa? No clue. But how he reacts after that is going to be key. Everybody that pitches in New York has to deal with pressure. Sometimes you can fail and the team still wins – no harm, no foul. That's rarely the case with a late-inning reliever, so we will wait and see how he responds.

Keefe: I know predictions are somewhat meaningless, but they can be fun and everyone else does them so we might as well too. I think the Yankees will win the division (obviously) along with the Twins and Angels as division winners, and the Red Sox will settle for the wild card.

Murti: I haven't really thought about predictions. As you said, they are quite meaningless. Let's just say I think the Yankees are a playoff team. However, I think I can quite accurately predict that it will be a long season of therapy sessions with you, Neil. I look forward to the next one.

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