Posted: Friday, 16 March 2007 5:05PM

Spring Training Yankee Blog: Two weeks from Opening Day ..3/16

Two weeks from Opening Day still and it canít come fast enough.  This is the part of spring training that really starts to drag.  The position players are pretty much in shape and want to start now, because many are hot and donít want to cool off in the next two weeks.  The pitchers, on the other hand, need a little more time, and thatís why weíre here for 7 weeks.  So letís take a look right now and see how the pitching is shaping up in Yankee-land as we get ready for the season to start.

It hasnít been announced yet, but itís a good bet Chien Ming Wang is your Opening Day starter.  A 19-game winner last year, heís clearly the ace of this staff and deserves the honor.  After all, he did start Game 1 of the Division Series last October, and would have started Game 5 if it had gotten that far.  Wang is a solid choice.  Heís featuring his slider and splitter a little more often, hoping to put another pitch into hittersí heads than just that deadly sinker.  If he mixes them in well, his strikeout total may increase.  But I spoke to a few opposing hitters last year about Wang, and they all say that sinker is fine all by itself.  He throws it for strikes, so they have to swing at it, and when they do it just gets beat into the ground.  Bowling balls, shot puts, all those analogies have been made about Wang and his amazing sinker.

Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina will line up next in the rotation.  Pettitte was pleased early this spring about his changeup.  As his arm strength builds, his cutter will become more effective, and Pettitte will be Pettitte---the pitcher we all know and remember.  If he stays healthy, he could 15 or more games.  Just remember, itíll be an adjustment going back to the American League.  His career ERA is about half a run lower in the NL. 

Mussina has struggled a bit this spring, and thatís normally not a concern.  But he seems a bit frustrated that he canít locate his fastball or throw his breaking pitches for strikes.  Spring Training is a gradual process and for veterans there is little point in worrying about results.  Mussina himself laughed off a disastrous outing against the Tigers last spring when he gave up 10 runs and a succession of home runs, each one going further than the one before it.  Mussina struggled at the start of the 2005 season, but got off to a great start last year.  Heís got enough guile to figure out what he still has in his holster, but donít look for him to win 18 games.  Iíd peg him for something in the 13-15 neighborhood.

Hereís where it starts to get interesting.  Carl Pavano should be next.  Heís looked okay in his previous two starts, but itís still a process with him too.  Itís been 21 months since heís pitched in a major league game.  Hard to know what to expect.  Being healthy is the biggest thing, just having him take the ball and actually pitch.  He doesnít have to win a Cy Young.  He just needs to take his turn at least 30 times.  Do that, and even pitching to a 4.50 ERA will be enough to win 12 games with this offense and Mariano Rivera behind him.

Kei Igawa is the mystery here.  Heís going to strike some guys out, that much is clear.  How many he walks will determine his success.  So far in 7 innings: 7 walks and 12 strikeouts.  Itís hard to decipher what Igawa is doing this spring.  Heís a veteran pitcher, just not in the US.  Heís got a routine that made him a successful pitcher in Japan, but there is an adjustment period that includes things like living in the States to communicating with his catcher.  The little Iíve been around him over the last month, Igawa doesnít appear to be the type of guy who will be overwhelmed by the attention in New York.  But it may take some time to figure out exactly what Igawa is.  Theyíre paying him a lot of money, so heíll get the opportunity to work though troubles if he has a few bad starts.  Igawa wasnít projected to be more than a 4th or 5th starter, so if he wins 12 games it will be a successful year. 

Jeff Karstens could crack this group, but is more likely looking at a role as long reliever.  Joe Torreís bullpen was chewed up last year when the starters couldnít go deep enough into games.  Itíll take a guy like Karstens to eat up some innings from time to time and take pressure off other relievers who need the rest.  Karstens has been impressive, and though itís dangerous to make assessments based on spring training alone, he did have a few good outings at the major league level late last year.  As a long reliever, he could also be used as a spot starter in case of a short-term injury to one of the other five. 

That leaves 6 more spots in Joe Torreís 12-man pitching staff:

Mariano Rivera has a pretty good chance to make the team.  The best closer in history has made 5 scoreless appearances this spring and doesnít show any signs of slowing down, even at 37 years of age.  His contract squabbles silenced for now, its business as usual for Rivera.  There was some buzz last week when Rivera started showing a changeup.  Itís not new actually.  Stick Michael told me a long time ago that when Rivera was a starting pitcher coming up through the system his best pitch was his changeup.  After becoming a short reliever and developing that lethal cutter, there just wasnít any need for that pitch anymore.  If he begins to lose a little something off his fastball and needs to make an adjustment, the changeup is still in his back pocket and thatís why he tinkers with it every spring training.  It gets scouts talking and gets hitters thinking.  Roger Clemens used to joke about a changeup, calling it his ďPresidentialĒ pitch, that he would break it out when he needed 4 more years.  Rivera may not need it, but its there just in case.

Kyle Farnsworth will be the primary 8th inning setup man.  Farnsworth canít be used back to back days and he canít be used for more than 3 outs.  If the Yankees can handle that, heíll be effective.  Watch out for his bad back that made him unavailable without notice on 5 different occasions last year.  Having to baby Farnsworth through the year puts extra importance on getting another reliable reliever in the pen.  Enter stage right, Luis Vizcaino and Scott Proctor.

Vizcaino is a durable righty acquired in the Randy Johnson deal.  The Yankees hope he can do what Farnsworth canít, that is go back to back days or more than one inning.  Proctor was driven into the ground last year, and if Vizcaino is part of the equation it should help lighten the load.  The ideal is to be able to use any two of those three, but never all three, in leading up to Rivera.  Thatís what made the Mendoza-Nelson-Stanton combo so effective, that they rarely had to go to all three and one of them was always rested. 

The last two spots will go to lefties.  Ron Villone is in camp on a non-roster invite, but has been all but guaranteed of making the team.  Heís another guy who suffered from over-use last year.  Having an extra dependable reliever and a starting staff that can give you more innings should be key in keeping these guys fresher.  Torre has remarked earlier this spring that Villone looks better at this point of the spring than he did a year ago, and you can hear in his voice that he regrets burning him out in the second half last year.  Villone has had poor second halves the last two seasons actually, so it will be important to keep him fresh as well.

Mike Myers will be the lefty specialist.  Lefties actually had a better average against him last year than righties.  Heís one of these guys that simply have to do his job every time out.  He could not give up a hit for 9 straight appearances, but the 10th time if he gives up a hit itís likely in a crucial spot.  Thatís just the way it goes.  Myers will make his money in the AL East against guys like David Ortiz, Lyle Overbay, Jay Gibbons, and Carl Crawford.  If he doesnít do the job early in the year it would not be a surprise to see the Yankees move him out and try Sean Henn, a starter turned reliever within the system.  Henn hasnít shined in his brief major league stints and his numbers didnít look good in the Arizona Fall League.  But Henn is a guy scouts have watched closely.  Heíll be 26 in April, and there are teams out there that still feel like he can be a big league pitcher.  The Yankees refused to include him in the Shawn Chacon deal two years ago, and even if he doesnít make it to the big leagues with this team, he could be part of a deal down the road.

Thatís a look at your pitching staff as of March 16. 
 


 
*It wasnít the spring Phil Hughes hoped to have.  His spring ERA in 3 outings was 7.71.  Hughes knows he has work to do, especially with his changeup.  Remember, heís still only 20.  Even a full year at Triple-A wonít be bad for him.  Itís actually what the Yankees have in mind.

*Joe Torre says that Bronson Sardinha has been his biggest surprise in camp.  Sardinha was a top Yankee prospect years ago, but fell off most lists over the last few years.  Heís turning heads again with a huge spring, hitting .400 through March 15. Sardinha will probably be in the starting outfield with Kevin Thompson and Kevin Reese at Triple-A Scranton.  He falls into the same category as those other two, as guys who could come up and fill a role during the season if needed, although those other two will be ahead of him on the call list.  Both Thompson and Reese are having good springs too.

*Alberto Gonzalez, the young shortstop the Yankees acquired in the Randy Johnson deal, is a good enough fielder to be a major league shortstop right now.  That was the word from scouts I spoke to when the trade was made, and thatís the word from inside Yankee camp after they got a look at him this spring.  Everyone says the same thing.  ďGreat hands.Ē  He does tend to get a little flashy sometimes, which leads to errors, much like Robinson Cano. 

*The players arenít the only ones dragging this time of spring.  Even if it is snowing back home, its time to get back to New York and get this thing started.  Always one good time to look forward to about the same time every year:  the best party of the spring thrown by my friends Andrew Levy, Tim OíNeill, and Bobby Cerullo at Wish You Were Here Productions (wywhp.com).  Always a fun time.  Check out their site.  They set up many former Yankees for charity events.

Thanks for checking in.  And special thanks to all the Yankee fans that have come through Florida the last few weeks and said hi.  Send comments and questions to Yankees@wfan.com

Sweeny