Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jorge Rides Off Into The Sunset

Tuesday morning, Jorge Posada said goodbye to the New York Yankees organization. A "family" that he had been a part of for 17 years in the Major Leagues and 21 years since he was drafted in the 24th round of the 1990 amateur draft out of Colegio Alejandrino (Guaynabo, PR) High School.

After initially playing 2nd base, Posada was converted to catcher, a switch that may potentially land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That debate will be talked about over the next five years until Posada first appears on the Hall of Fame ballot and for years beyond. But what Posada meant to the Yankees wasn't just about his own personal statistics. It was his love for the game, his drive to win, and his leadership in the Yankees clubhouse that made him special to the fans and the organization.

All those sentiments were echoed at Yankee Stadium yesterday, when Posada, his wife Laura and children Jorge Jr. and Paulina met with members of the media to officially announce his retirement. Among those in attendance were former teammates and close friends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, along with CC Sabathia, retired teammates (John Flaherty), former coaches (Willie Randolph), his last manager (Joe Girardi), and of course, members of the Steinbrenner family and Yankee Stadium front office and other employees. Posada thanked everyone in attendance, those who meant the most during his career, and most of all his family, calling wife Laura, "His rock".

He became very emotional, switching to his native Spanish, to talk about his parents, and was choked up discussing his relationship with Jeter, Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, all of whom grew up together in the Yankees' organization. He thanked the two Major League managers who watched over him in all but one season (1995 and Buck Showalter), Joe Girardi and Joe Torre, the latter to whom he referred to as a father figure. He reiterated that he only wanted to wear the Yankees pinstripes in his career and had told his agents not to bother pursuing any deals with other teams for the 2012 season.

He told reporters how he would quote Joe DiMaggio, "I want to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee" each time he entered Yankee Stadium. He recalled some of his finest moments- catching David Wells' perfect game- and talked openly and honestly about the many bad nights as well. Those spent in the minors when he was making the transition to catcher and those nights in the Majors when he felt like a failure beyond the plate. But Posada swung a steady bat throughout his career and his catching improved, in large part thanks to work with Gary Tuck, as the years went by. (I'll skip talking about his poor base running.)

There were, of course, tributes to Posada, including a video montage of Yankees fans thanking Posada for his career contributions and his time in pinstripes. Diane Munson, widow of the Yankees last great catcher Thurman Munson, spoke glowingly of Posada and his family. She told those in attendance that it was "Jorge who got me back to baseball." When Thurman had died, Mrs. Munson had lost her passion for baseball, but after meeting and getting to know Posada, that passion had returned. She felt privileged to have "Loved two catchers" in her life. When the two had first met, Posada told of his admiration for Munson and showed her the quote ("Batting fourth and being in the lineup is important, but I think the stuff I do behind the plate is more important.") that he kept taped to the wall of his locker.

The Posadas have also done tremendous work with their foundation for children afflicted with Craneosinostosis and their families. Jorge Jr. has gone trough several surgeries due to the condition and if not for the work of the Jorge Posada Foundation many families might still feel alone and uninformed in their fight against the congenital disorder. One such family is Lisa Niederer and her husband, and their son Brett, who was diagnosed with Craneosinostosis when he was 2 1/2. That's about a year later than the disease should be diagnosed, Lisa pointed out. Lisa, with Brett at her side, spoke glowingly of the Posada Foundation and how it helped turn their lives around upon learning of its existence during the 2002 All-Star game. In fact, Lisa now mentors other families in her work with the foundation.

Posada's Yankee career began in the Major Leagues in 1995, as a pinch-runner no less. Posada spent the next few years being groomed to take over for Joe Girardi. Five World Series rings would be captured over his career, the last coming in 2009 when he played for Girardi, and was reunited with Andy Pettitte, who along with Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, was on all five title teams.

But 2011 was a challenge, by far the toughest season of Posada's career. (Not counting when he had to balance playing with Jorge Jr.'s surgeries.) He was told prior to Spring Training that he would not be catching at all during the upcoming season. He was to be the team's full-time DH, a role he was not accustomed to, and it showed. He struggled at the plate, lost at-bats to others and was eventually benched. For the most part he handled it professionally, especially since he knew he wasn't hitting. But on May 14, all that changed.

Posada arrived at the ballpark to find out he was not in that day's lineup despite the fact a right-hander was on the mound and Posada was getting all of his at-bats from the left side of the plate. He was unhappy and approached Girardi at 6 p.m. to ask out of the lineup. Posada's wife, Laura, took to social media to tell everyone that her husband had a stiff back. Things were then inflammed when GM Brian Cashman told the media that Posada had asked out of the lineup and no physical issue was mentioned.

Girardi publicly backed his player, telling the media that sometimes a player needs a break during stressful times. Posada, meanwhile, went along with his wife's explanation and told reporteres that his back had acted up on him. Not too many believed him. His struggles continued throughout the season, but when the Yankees needed him most, Posada came through. There was the game against the Angels in September when he was forced to go behind the plate for the first time all season. Howie Kendrick immediately tried to steal second base and was thrown out by the proud Posada. He also had several big hits down the stretch as the Yankees held off Tampa Bay to win the AL East. Posada finished off his career by batting .429 and posting a 1.150 OPS in a first round loss to the Detroit Tigers in the post-season. Posada had trouble talking to reporters after the deciding game five, and had to choke back tears. He knew his time with the Yankees and in baseball was likely over.

A new, undecided chapter now begins in Posada's life. He'll spend summers with his children for the first time. Perhaps some time in the future he'll want to coach or manage, and it would not be surprising to see him back as a Spring Training instructor down in Tampa. For now, he walks away on his own terms and no player can ask for more than that. For the rest of us, one final "Hip Hip Jorge" and may the Hall of Fame debate continue.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Baseball Digest | Friday Night Flights: Montero, Pineda Swap Coasts

Shortly before 8 p.m. EST Friday night, you may have heard a blood curdling scream in the New York/Metropolitan area. It came from the lungs (and fingers for those who scream in type) of Yankees fans who had just learned of the trade of the team’s number one prospect, Jesus Montero.

Similar reactions may have been heard on the left coast when Seattle Mariners fans found out their young stud pitcher Michael Pineda was headed east. The Yankees and Mariners have reportedly completed a four player exchange with their young studs as the centerpieces.

As first reported by the Seattle Times’ Larry Stone, the Yankees sent Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Pineda and pitcher Jose Campos. Noesi was one of the Yankees promising young starters on the rise, and showed some of his mettle as a reliever at the Major League level last season. Campos is a 19-yr old right-hander with potential (Evaluator John Sickels rated him as the #5 M’s prospect for 2012 and had this to say, “Grade B: We need to see him at higher levels and his secondary stuff needs refinement, but his upside is very high, he throws hard, and already throws strikes.”), but will not have an impact for quite some time.

Clearly this deal was about the Yankees need to boost their starting rotation and the Mariners need for a big bat. After being rebuffed in their attempt to acquire Felix Hernandez, the Yankees went after his young teammate (Pineda will be 23 next week).

Pineda’s rookie season of 2011 saw him finish 9-10, 3.74 with a 1.10 WHIP and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings. The 6’7″, 260 pound native of the Dominican Republic limited AL hitters to a .211 batting average and gave up just 133 hits. He also held right-handed hitters to a .587 OPS with a torrid fastball and nasty slider. According to, Pineda averaged 94.7 mph on his fastball, the fourth best mark in the AL.

>Pineda dominated in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field (2.92 ERA in 12 starts) and was much better in the first half before tiring down the stretch. In fact, the Mariners limited his innings per start over the final two months of the season.

With the Yankees lacking pop from the right side, Montero got the call to the bigs in August and produced a .996 OPS in 69 plate appearances. Among Montero’s 17 hits were four home runs and four doubles, and he drove in 17 runs. Montero has good power to the opposite field and averaged 18 home runs in his first four full seasons in the minor leagues. He was nearly dealt to the Mariners at the 2010 trade deadline for Cliff Lee, but Seattle opted to obtain Justin Smoak from Texas instead.

In Montero, the Mariners get a player with 30 home run potential, even if their ballpark is not suited to a hitter’s needs. There were mixed feelings within the Yankees organization as to whether or not the 6’4″ Montero could make it in the Major Leagues as a catcher and that certainly played into the decision to deal him. With 1st base occupied (Mark Teixeira) and the DH slot needed to give the Yankees aging stars (Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, etc.) a rest, there wasn’t much room for Montero to flourish. With Seattle, he’ll get that chance.

Brian Cashman told the Bergen Record’s Bob Klapisch that he believes he took a big gamble. ”I gave up a ton (for Pineda). To me, Montero is Mike Piazza. He’s Miguel Cabrera.” He may have taken a risk, but this deal appears to be a “win-win”, with both teams profiting. It also puts the Yankees back on top as the favorite in the AL East.

Cashman wasn’t done dealing on Friday night though. A short time after the trade was reported, word came that the Yankees and free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda had agreed to a one year contract, pending a physical, worth $10-11MM. Kuroda was thought to be seeking a $13MM deal.

Kuroda, who turns 36 in February, came over from Japan in 2008 and was 41-46 in four seasons with the LA Dodgers, despite a 3.46 ERA. He’s coming off a 13-16 season with a career low 3.07 ERA and a 3.7 WAR, also tops in his four seasons.

With the two acquisitions, the landscape of the Yankees’ starting rotation changed drastically. Prior to Friday evening, the Yankees five man squad was made up of ace CC Sabathia, 2nd year man Ivan Nova, the erratic A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, and surprise 2011 stand out, Freddy Garcia. Hughes’ immediate future is now up in the air and he could be used as trade bait to bring back a bat. The Yankees would most certainly rather trade Burnett, but the $33MM owed to him is an albatross around Cashman’s neck.

The Yankees would be looking for a short term, low salaried player. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported tonight that Carlos Pena was among the bats that were piquing the Yankees interest.

Yankees sign Hiroki Kuroda too.