Fans packed into Steinbrenner Field to see Masahiro Tanaka, but other games have been less crowded. (Photo: NY Times)

Fans packed into Steinbrenner Field to see Masahiro Tanaka, but other games have been less crowded. (Photo: NY Times)

With 26 non-roster players invited to camp, the Yankees’ clubhouse in Tampa has been overflowing. The same can’t be said about the crowds at Steinbrenner Field.

With four exhibition home games in the books (excluding the contest against Florida State University), the Yankees are averaging well under 9,000 fans per game. Compared to most grapefruit league teams, that’s an impressive figure, but it represents a significant lag relative to the franchise’s recent levels. Despite being buoyed by a near-sellout for last Saturday’s game, which featured the debut of Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ average spring attendance would rank as its lowest since 1995, the year before the team moved from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa  (click here for a chronological history of the Yankees’ spring homes). What’s more, the three non-Tanaka crowds were among the five smallest gatherings to watch the Yankees play an exhibition home game since 2002.

Yankees Historical Spring Training Attendance, 1975 to 2014

Note: Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Source: Yahoo.com, ESPN.com, sportsbusinessdaily.com, springtrainingmagazine.com, and floridagrapefruitleague.com Continue Reading »

Lately, when the Yankees make news in Spring Training, it’s usually off the field. Over the last decade, there have been various press conferences to announce retirements or make controversial admissions, but rarely have the Bronx Bombers used the exhibition season to forge their roster. This year, however, the team’s braintrust will need every last minute of Florida sunshine to make sure the 2014 season still looks bright when the Yankees break camp in April.

cc and pineda

Is Michael Pineda finally ready to join CC Sabathia in the Yankees’ rotation?

Conservatively, there at least five important jobs up for grabs in Spring Training, chief among them being the team’s fifth starter. Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno are all vying for the role, and, according to Joe Girardi, each pitcher is starting off on an equal footing. Although it’s hard to believe Pineda won’t be given a slight edge, the performance of all four pitchers will play a significant role in determining who will round out the rotation. Meanwhile, with David Robertson slated to close, the Yankees will need to choose his replacement in the eighth inning. Shawn Kelley enters camp as the odds on favorite to win the designation, but he could be pushed by upstarts like Preston Claiborne or any of the trio that loses out in the fifth starter competition. Regardless of which reliever the Yankees designate as their late inning setup man, just about every bullpen role will likely remain fluid in the early part of the season, with the team possibly exploring a trade or reclamation signing like Ryan Madson or Joel Hanrahan.

There are also several important roster battles being waged by position players. The back-up catcher competition includes three contenders, including Francisco Cervelli, who, despite being the front runner, will have to re-claim his role after an injury and suspension riddled 2013. Nipping at his heels are Austin Romine and J.R. Murphy, although a strong spring by either could just as easily result in a trade.

After years of boasting one of the best infields in baseball, the Yankees now have more question marks than exclamation points around the horn. Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson are the team’s current answers for second base and third base, respectively, but it’s really more like “what” and “I don’t know”. It’s a stretch to think Scott Sizemore, Brendan Ryan, or Eduardo Nunez will push Roberts or Johnson for supremacy at each position, but if either incumbent should falter badly in March, Brian Cashman could wind up speed dialing other teams for a trade or cozying up to Scott Boras and Stephen Drew. Needless to say, the Yankees less than inspiring infield options not only place an onus on spring performance, but underscore the level of off season neglect in an area that used to be a relative strength. Continue Reading »

It’s not how well you pitch, but when you pitch well. Just ask Homer Bailey and Phil Hughes.

Since making their major league debuts in 2007, Bailey and Hughes have compiled nearly identical career numbers. The similarity is fitting when you consider the two right handers have been closely aligned since each pitcher was selected in the first round of the 2004 draft and subsequently regarded as can’t-miss prospects. However, there was nothing comparable about the contracts signed by each pitcher this winter.

Phil Hughes vs. Homer Bailey: Relative Career Performance

Note: Rates represent the comparison between each pitcher’s aggregate performance in a given statistic.
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

Although Bailey’s and Hughes’ aggregate statistics are indistinguishable, the underlying trends are unmistakable. Despite battling injuries early in his career, Hughes managed to establish himself more quickly than his counterpart in Cincinnati. His gradual progress culminated in an All Star quality first half in 2010, at which point it seemed as if the Yankees’ right hander was poised for the stardom that so many had projected for him. Continue Reading »

(This updated post was originally published on February 16, 2011)

For 18 years, Tampa has been the Yankees’ spring training home, but it still seems like just yesterday when the team’s camp was located down the coast in Ft. Lauderdale. I am sure most fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s still reflexively harken back to those days of yore, while the real old timers’ memories take them all the way back to St. Petersburg, where Yankees’ legends from Ruth to Mantle toiled under the Florida sun.

Over the years, spring training has evolved significantly. Once upon a time, it was a pre-season retreat designed to help out-of-shape ballplayers shed the pounds added over the winter. In the early part of the last century, before even reporting to camp, players would often attend spas in places like Hot Springs, where they would purge their bodies of the inequities from the offseason. Then, games would either be played among split squads (in the old days, the camps would be split into teams of veterans and hopeful rookies, the latter often called Yannigans) or against local minor league and college ball clubs. Finally, the teams would barnstorm their way back up north before finally kicking off the regular season.

Today, spring training is more big business than quaint tradition. Thanks to the growing competition between cities in Arizona and Florida (each state now hosts 15 major league clubs), teams have been able to extract sweetheart stadium deals, allowing them to turn the exhibition season into a significant profit center. Still, at the heart of spring training is hope and renewal as teams begin the long journey that is the baseball season.

The Yankees’ spring history has been a journey all its own. Below is an outline of some significant mileposts along the way.

Yankees’ Spring Training Homes Since 1901

Continue Reading »

And then there were none. The Yankees have said goodbye to a litany of legends over the last few years, but now, with Derek Jeter deciding to call it quits after the 2014 season, a golden era in franchise history is finally coming to an end.

Derek Jeter's leadership has been a throwback to the era of Joe DiMaggio.

Derek Jeter’s leadership has been a throwback to the era of Joe DiMaggio.

The Yankees have had many dynastic eras, and each has seemed to take on the personality of its most prominent player. The emphatic brashness of Babe Ruth was evident during the years of Murderer’s Row, when the Yankees barnstormed across the American League and, in the process, revolutionized the game and established the Bronx Bombers as New York’s most powerful team. Ruth’s braggadocio gave way to Joe DiMaggio’s elegance, which was predicated on quiet efficiency. The Yankee Clipper’s teams were relentless, winning year after year, impeded only by a World War. When it was time for DiMaggio to pass the baton, it ended up in the hands of the magnetic and mischievous Mickey Mantle. During those years, the Yankees were more than just a championship ballclub…they were a road show who hit each town at night just as hard as the opposing pitchers they faced during the day. Finally, in the late 1970s, Reggie Jackson was the straw that stirred the drink, and the entire ballclub reflected his arrogance, especially when the calendar turned to October.

There have been many stars in the Yankees’ universe over the last 20 years, but they all have revolved around Derek Jeter. The epitome of what the franchise aspires to be, the gold glove short stop exuded the same professionalism and dignity as DiMaggio, and his teams followed suit. Also like DiMaggio, Jeter earned the respect and admiration of opponents and teammates alike, and carefully honed an image he imparted to the team. For two decades, the Bronx Bombers were Jeter’s team.  After 2014, they will be no more.

Jeter wasn’t the best player to ever wear pinstripes. Some years, he wasn’t the best player on his own team. However, he will go down as one of the most significant figures in franchise history. His on-field contributions speak for themselves and his post season heroics have become legendary, but the role Jeter played in helping to revive and re-define the Yankees’ brand has been just as important to the team’s sustained success. After all, it’s much easier to talk about pride, dignity and class, and portray the franchise as a model of excellence, when you have a poster boy playing short stop.

For Jeter, team goals have always come first, so there can be no better send-off than a championship. However, because of his stature, the Captain’s victory lap will probably overshadow the team’s pennant chase. Jeter probably won’t like it, but for many fans, getting one last glimpse of the future Hall of Famer will mean just as much as, if not more than, simply going to see his Yankees. Of course, that distraction won’t last beyond 2014. What comes after Jeter? Hopefully not the deluge.

If Mark Teixeira suffers another injury, it could leave the Yankees' lineup limp. (Photo: NY Daily News)

If Mark Teixeira suffers another injury, it could leave the Yankees’ lineup limp. (Photo: NY Daily News)

The Yankees have a lot invested in Mark Teixeira…much more than the $68 million remaining on his contract. Despite missing most of last season with what has gradually become a chronic wrist problem, Teixeira figures prominently in the Yankees’ plans for 2014 and beyond, a leap of faith that may not be justified, considering the progress of his rehabilitation and historical comparisons.

Mark Teixeira is a great player. Among the 1,460 hitters who have amassed 3,000 plate appearances before their age-33 season, the first baseman is one of only 180 to record an OPS+ of 130 or greater. He is also one of only 260 batters to come to the plate at least 6,000 times during the same span. This combination of being prolific and productive should make Teixeira a good bet going forward. However, because of specific injury concerns and general historical trends, his past doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Yankees future.

Playing Time Trends, Age-34 to Age-36 Seasons, 1901 to 2013

Note: Includes all players with at least 6,000 PA through their age-32 season.
*Includes only players from the first group that had 300 or fewer plate appearances in their age-33 season.
Source: baseball-reference.com Continue Reading »

The evaluation of minor league prospects is no longer a cottage industry. Every major media platform seems to have at least one analyst dedicated to tracking baseball prospects, and the highlight of those efforts are annual rankings compiled just before spring training. Although there are many reputable evaluators (as well as many who are not), former Blue Jays executive and current ESPN contributor Keith Law stands out as one of the most perceptive. What follows is a breakdown of Law’s rankings along with commentary about some of the selections (for last year’s breakdown, click here).

Keith Law’s 2014 Top-100 Prospect List, by Franchise (click to enlarge)

Note: Prospect Score is a cumulative total based on the assignment of a score to each ranking (100 for #1 to 1 for #100). It is a proprietary calculation not endorsed by Mr. Law and not intended to suggest the ranking is linear.
Source: ESPN.com

The Astros, who were first in Law’s organization rankings, boast seven prospects in the top-100, including three within the first 20 selections. However, the Pirates, who also have seven prospects on the list, actually edged the Astros in overall prospect score (see footnote above for explanation). Equaling both teams with seven prospects was the Red Sox. Despite having a lower prospect score than Houston and Pittsburgh, five of Boston’s blue chips are position players, including Xander Bogaerts, who ranked second overall. Continue Reading »

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