Pitchers and catchers report sooner than you think. It's fewer than 30 days now. That means the off-season is nearly over. In today's edition of Deep Thoughts I asked Mike Axisa, Editor and Chief of River Ave Blues, for his opinion of the Rays winter and asked him a few questions about the Yankees 2012 outlook. Enjoy.
Erik Hahmann: As an outsider, albeit with some bias as a Yankee fan, how do you feel about the off-season the Rays have had thus far?
Mike Axisa: Pretty good considering they didn't [do] much of anything until the last two weeks or so. I don't really understand the Fernando Rodney pickup, but one-year and $2M for a reliever isn't the end of the world. Jose Molina can't hit at all, but he's really good on defense and can actually throw some runners out. I remember the Yankees running wild on Robinson Chirinos when he first came up last season.
Without looking up any numbers, it feels like Tampa's gotten nothing out of their DH spot the last few years, and Luke Scott should fix that. He might be insufferable, but he can hit if healthy. The Pena pickup scares me only because he tends to destroy the Yankees. Casey Kotchman had a nice year in 2011, but that doesn't change the fact that he's still Casey Kotchman -- a powerless first baseman. Pena can actually hit the ball out of the park on occasion and fits into the whole run prevention idea on defense.
Here's the question I have for you: are you worried about the offense against lefties at all? There's a lot of good southpaws in the division, and Pena, Scott, and Matt Joyce all have pronounced splits.
EH: The numbers aren't pretty if you look them up, but Johnny Damon was an average hitter last season. He hit third the most home runs from the DH position, but that says more about the current state of DH's than anything.
I'm not so much worried. Scott actually has an .801 OPS against lefties over the past three seasons -- I'll take that from Pena or Joyce in a heartbeat. People freak out about Pena's numbers against lefties, but his OBP over the past three seasons is higher than Kotchman's, yet there wasn't a rallying cry to platoon him last season. Strikeouts scare people. That's not going to change. It's a bit more troubling with Joyce, but I don't think there's a big enough sample to be making definitive statements. He's going to get every chance to hit them until he proves he can't and someone like Brandon Guyer platoons with him. Also, it isn't like the Rays lineup is short of right handed hitters; Upton, Longoria, Jennings and Rodriguez excel against southpaws. If the lineup is staggered properly it shouldn't be too big of an issue.
Two questions for you: How do you expect the Rays rotation situation to shake out. Ditto for the Yankees? Is Burnett going to be the fifth starter?
MA: I have no idea what the Yankees are going to do with their fifth starter, my opinion changes by the day. I really don't feel all that strongly about who should get the spot (Burnett, Phil Hughes, or Freddy Garcia), and I think each candidate has their strengths and weaknesses.
I've seen Wade Davis' name pop up in trade rumors this winter, but I figure that will change with Pena and Scott signed. Matt Moore's new contract means they might as well start him in the bigs since there's no point in keeping his service time down, so I guess either Davis or Jeff Niemann will be the odd man out. Part of me thinks they should trade Niemann before his shoulder explodes again.
One thing I'm really curious to see is the David Price situation, since he's going to get really expensive soon via arbitration. From the outside, it seems like he's a candidate to be traded within the next year. What do you think?
EH: As a Rays fan I hope to see Burnett in pinstripes next season. If he doesn't start, though, what role would he take? They couldn't put him in the pen, could they?
Trading Niemann would be ideal in that sense, sure, but Davis and his contract would likely net a bigger return. They actually could move both if they felt strongly enough about Alex Cobb, but I doubt they want to go into the season with two rookie starters.
Yeah, it's been talked about around here how Price may be a candidate to be traded before James Shields. He would net a huge return, for sure. Imagine if the Rays are out of the race at the trade deadline and have Price to dangle as trade bait? Local fans would flip out, but I'm sure it's something Friedman would certainly entertain.
Since you brought up DH's earlier, who do you think the Yankees are going to sign? Or will they rotate their older players like they did last season?
MA: I was hoping they'd sign Pena, but that's off the table now. They've talked about trading Burnett for a DH type (bad contract for bad contract) or a younger pitcher for a cost-controlled bat, but I don't think either will happen. I think they're just waiting for Johnny Damon to drop his price into the one-year, $2-3M range, then they'll sign him. They know him, he knows them, easy move to make.
I think they will put Burnett in the pen if it comes to that, and there reasons to think he'll do well in that role. He tends to lose velocity after 60-75 pitches or so, he gets hit much harder the second and third time through the order, and he could just scrap his changeup and go with the fastball-curveball at all times.
I'm sure these things will work themselves out, the extra starters and the lack of a clearly defined DH. It's hard to complain when those are your two biggest problems.
EH: Are you suggesting that money is an object for the Yankees when it comes to signing Damon? They just traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda to fill out what was a weak rotation. Being a Rays fan, how scared should I be of those two?
MA: Yeah, money is always an object. $1 isn't really $1 to the Yankees, it's $1.40 because of the luxury tax. If money was no object, they'd be fitting Prince Fielder for pinstripes right now.
I think Kuroda is more important in terms of 2012 while Pineda is more of a long-term thing. They need Kuroda to step in and basically do what Burnett can't, and that's eat innings at an above-average rate. Pineda still has to work on the changeup and keep the ball down, but man is he starting from a high baseline. More than a strikeout per inning and fewer than three walks per nine last year as a 22-year-old in the AL? His ERA will inevitable go up with the league and ballpark switch, but that kind of performance will do just fine.
What was it like from your perspective to see one of the Rays' primary competitors pull off two moves like that in a matter of hours?
EH: Adding those two knocked the Rays from the top of any type of divisional power rankings, so that wasn't fun. Like you said, Kuroda is more important this season and he scares the hell out of me. A career 3.55 FIP is no joke. I'll still take the Rays rotation over the Yankees', though. The bullpens are each pretty solid, though the Rays have a lot of questions in Lueke and Rodney. The Yankees' offense is going to be better than the Rays, but with the additions they've made the Rays should score a lot more runs than last season.
What do you see A-Rod being able to contribute this season?
MA: I really have no idea. He looked great in Spring Training and early in the season last year -- .304/.379/.509 through the beginning of July -- but then he hurt his knee and jammed his thumb and just wasn't the same. He's been on the DL in each of the last four years, and at this point I'm hoping for 140 games and a .370-ish wOBA but will settle for 125 and .360. He's not the A-Rod of old, but I also think he's actually kind of underrated these days. Third base is pretty weak around the league, and there's a large faction of fans -- including Yankees fans -- that think he's morphed into a .270 singles hitter, and that's not the case.
EH: Gun to your head, give me some predictions for the Yankees this season
MA: They're going to win a lot of games, but that's the easy part. Curtis Granderson won't hit 41 homers again, but he will come close. I do think Mark Teixeira will get his batting average (and OBP) out of the gutter after acknowledging that he changed his swing because the short porch in right is so tempting. David Robertson will be good but not as super amazingly awesome as last season, and Rafael Soriano will actually contribute more than Cory Wade. Really going out on the limb with that last one!
Thanks again to Mike for joining me. Follow him on Twitter @mikeaxisa. He may root for the enemy, but he's still a must follow.
Deep Thought of the day:
"Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis."