Monday, April 21, 2008

The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

Maybe it's been a while since we've had a fully-functional Steinbrenner in the Bronx, or maybe I'm just choosing to focus on the benevolent, turtlenecked, weepy Big Stein of the 90's, but I was genuinely taken aback by Hank Steinbrenner's latest outburst: Start Joba now!

"I want him as a starter and so does everyone else, including him, and that is what we are working toward and we need him there now."

Tell us what you really think, Hank.

"There is no question about it, you don’t have a guy with a 100-mile-per-hour fastball and keep him as a setup guy. You just don’t do that. You have to be an idiot to do that."

That was just a figure of speech, but thanks for that, Hank. Of course this begs the question: Just who is the 'idiot' here? Is it Brian Cashman, who assembled the current rotation and opted out of the Johan Santana sweepstakes? Is it Joe Girardi, the new skipper, whose job it is to orchestrate the current crop of Yankee pitchers, ultimately determining who starts and when? Or is Hank going "old school" on us and blaming the mythical "Tampa Brain Trust" (which doesn't actually exist anymore... much like George).

Anyway, there are just so many problems with Hank's bluster, er, statement, including, but not limited to:

(a) Moving in direct opposition to the Yankees' stated plans to leave Joba in the bullpen until mid-season
(b) Rushing Joba into the rotation without stretching out his innings
(c) Bailing on either Philip Hughes, Ian Kennedy, or both, during a critical time in their developments

Fortunately, as we are slowly learning, a "pronouncement" by Hank Steinbrenner is usually an off-the-cuff misstep, something to be heard, marveled at for its sheer outlandish nature, and then tucked away. Gone is the power that a Steinbrenner directive once had in Yankee Stadium, now that George has ceded the real control to Cashman. And for a change, Cashman was able to quell the Joba uproar, simply and succinctly, stating that the Yankee plans remain the same:

"We discussed this extensively this winter about how things would unravel or unfold. Right now, that can’t change. There’s no reason for that. Hank knows that."

Thanks for the clarification.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

That's one for the books!

Rangers take the Devils, 4 games to 1.
And now on to Round Two...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why, Donnie, Why?

When I first heard the news that Donnie Walsh had been hired to revive the Knicks, my initial reaction was, "Okay, it's an improvement, but so what?" But then I looked at his record -- in the draft, in free agency, on the court -- and decided that if anyone could imagine a way to fix the Knicks, perhaps it could be Donnie Walsh. But I couldn't escape the constant chatter that even though Walsh would overhaul the team, he hadn't quite made up his mind what to do with Isiah Thomas:

“He is a great basketball mind, and I’m not going to judge anything from afar,” Walsh said. “I’ve told him that we’re going to sit down and talk in the coming days, and then we’ll go from there.”

Okay, so you want to turn around the Knicks but you're not sure if doing away with the most reviled figure in the history of the franchise is the first step to take. Way to alienate the fan base on Day 1, Donnie. But maybe he's just trying to spare his old buddy Isiah a little more humiliation? (Though it's not like Isiah hasn't earned 100% of any further humiliation.)

But now the Knicks' season has ended (officially, according to the schedule; the actual Knicks' season ended shortly before Thanksgiving), it's time for Walsh to start working his magic. So what's he do? Fire Thomas as head coach but retain him as some sort-of "My Man Friday", super-secret advisor:

“I value Isiah’s knowledge of the game and his opinion,” said Walsh in a conference call Friday afternoon.

Really? Isiah has knowledge of the game? Then why didn't Isiah use any of that knowledge when he was in charge of the Knicks? How can they allow Isiah Thomas to remain anywhere near the Garden? They ought to file a restraining order.

Besides, if Donnie Walsh is so smart, what, exactly, is the mastermind of the disaster that is the current New York Knicks going to tell him? How to hit on staff members? (And even that Isiah couldn't do without screwing it up.) If Walsh values Isiah's opinion so much, give him a call every now and then. Maybe he'll tell you something of value. Or not. But at least he won't be walking around the building that really, really needs a clean break from the Thomas Era.

Maybe the public outcry will convince Walsh to change his mind. (I can't be the only one that finds this ludicrous.) C'mon, Donnie -- show New York some love.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Rumble in the Bronx

It was inevitable. Phil Hughes makes two sub-par starts and suddenly they're coming out of the woodwork: "Why didn't the Yankees trade Hughes for Santana when they had the chance???" Now I'm not going to tell you that I was dead-set against the deal (though I did think the Yankees were making the right decision to pass). But I also recall that opinion was fairly divided in the two camps. To listen to the chatter now, it's as if everyone had volunteered to pack Phil's bags.

But while I find the current overreaction somewhat laughable (and utterly predictable) it should not take away from the fact that Phil Hughes is genuinely struggling. But, that, too, is less laughable but still fairly predictable. Coming into 2008, Hughes had made 13 starts in the major leagues, sandwiched around a lengthy stay on the DL. Anyone who thought his transition from minor-leaguer to #2 starter was going to take place without a hitch needs to readjust his expectations.

While there's no rule that every starting pitcher takes a year or two before he figures it all out -- C.C. Sabathia went 17-5 in his rookie year, with nearly a strikeout per inning -- it's more often the case. Just look at some the current "aces" around the league and you'll see a group that struggled in their first full seasons on the mound: Jake Peavy, 12-11, 4.11 ERA; Josh Beckett, 6-7, 4.10; John Lackey, 10-16, 4.63; Erik Bedard, 6-10, 4.59. Hughes may very well suffer the ups and downs of a young pitcher this season, but those struggles won't necessarily preempt a stellar career.

Yet in addition to resetting their sites on Phil Hughes, Yankee fans need to readjust their expectations for 2008, as well. Not only has Hughes struggled early on, but so has his young rotation-mate, Ian Kennedy. Add to that the inconsistent Mike Mussina, and the older, fragile Andy Pettitte and the Yankee pitching is riddled with question marks. Past its #1 hurler, Chien-Ming Wang, just how many quality starts can this group be expected to produce?

Fret not, though: the Yanks are on the right track. Mussina will be gone next season, along with a number of other dead-weight contracts. (Carl who?) With another year of experience under their belts, Hughes and Kennedy might be fighting Wang for the #1 slot in the rotation by 2009. Throw in Joba (starter or reliever), Cabrera, and Cano, and the Yankees have a solid, young nucleus with more farm-system talent on the way. So what if the Yankees miss the playoffs this year? The payoff will be that much better in the end.

* * * * * * * *

By the way, since last we spoke, the Tigers won a game! Unfortunately, that win did not herald a turnaround. Not only have they not played at that super-charged .700 level, they aren't even winning more than they lose. At 2-10, now 29th in hitting, dead-last in slugging and ERA, one could make the case that the Tigers are actually playing worse now than during their winless streak. More and more, it looks like it will be a long season in Tiger Town.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Break up the Orioles!

The 2008 baseball season is not even two weeks old and some teams' starts are raising eyebrows, especially the bad ones. The Mets, after an Opening Day loss at Shea to the Phillies, are now 2-4. At that pace, the Mets stand to lose 108 games this season! What? Six games isn't much of a sample? Forgive my over-eager extrapolation. I suppose they've got a chance to turn things around over the next 156 games.

But there's another contender off to an ever worse start and the next 150 games may not hold so much promise. The Detroit Tigers, picked by many as World Series hopefuls, are shockingly 0-7 to start the season. Sure, it's a long season, but 0-7 is still a legitimate hole.

Let's say the Tigers shake off the slump and start playing .700 ball, a pretty impressive clip. (Over a full season, a team that played .700 would win 113 games.) So at that rate, over the next two weeks, say 14 games, the Tigers would be 10-11. Ugh. But what if they could keep that torrid pace for over a month? The Tigers might make it to 21-16. Okay, that's certainly better, and .568 baseball leaves you with about 92 wins. But winning 21 out of 30 games after you've lost your first seven sounds like a tall order.

Now look, no one is going to confuse this Detroit team with the 1988 Orioles, a team that lost a record-setting 21 straight to open the season. But so far, the Tigers have earned those losses and the numbers aren't pretty:
  • a .234 team batting average (24th in MLB)
  • a .332 team slugging percentage (29th)
  • a staff ERA of 5.20 (27th)
Bad hitting + bad pitching = bad baseball. So far in 2008, that equation fits no team better than the Tigers.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Not So Cranky Today

It's hard to be cranky all the time, even for the Sports Crank. Baseball season is underway, the NCAA tournament is almost over, and the Rangers clinched a playoff berth last night by sweeping the ice with the Islanders.

And they get to do it again tonight at the Garden.