Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Stars in Their Courses

The Stars in Their Courses
By David H. Lippman

Right before Cole Hamels demolished the Yankees on May 22nd, he made a cryptic statement to the media on how he was hoping he would get a chance to pitch for a contending team in critical games in September and October. As the Texas Rangers were 10-31 before that game, playing with overmatched minor-league call-ups in lieu of skilled veterans like Elvis Andrus and future Hall-of-Famers like Adrian Beltre, it’s unlikely that there will be a pennant chase in Arlington, Texas.

So what did Hamels mean? The answer was simple, of course: later this season, the Rangers, like most teams falling out of contention throughout baseball history, will sell off their higher-priced assets to acquire cheaper minor leaguers for the endless “rebuilding” campaign. Hamels expects to be one of them, and he probably will. He said so.

But what’s interesting about this routine statement was the timing – the Yankees were making their annual visit to the Dallas-Fort Worth blast furnace, and is the one large weakness on this otherwise astonishing Yankee team is their questionable pitching rotation. Despite his age, Cole Hamels would likely fill a critical gap. He knows that. The Yankees know that. And Hamels was smart enough to remind us with that fact before the game and during it.

He’s not the only well-known lustrous ballplayer making such noises. Last year, Bryce Harper, the signature player for the Washington Nationals, told interviewers during the All-Star Game that he didn’t think he wanted to go to the Yankees when his contract expires this fall. Now he’s making noises about the possibility of doing so, reversing his previous stand. And Manny Machado, who is doing a fine job of impersonating a shortstop for the otherwise hopeless Baltimore Orioles, also made similar noises, which got Aaron Judge in trouble when Aaron made them to Manny.

In theory, the Yankees could acquire two of these players (Hamels and Machado) this year, at least as rentals, and all three after the season, putting Miguel Andujar or Didi Gregorius out of a job, or Aaron Hicks out of a job, or filling up holes in the pitching rotation.

Why are these players making these noises? Well, obviously they all want to reel in the immense bucks that the Yankees can (and historically have) throw at the players they want. They also know that playing for the Yankees increases the side money (endorsements and appearances), post-game fun (nightclubs), and opportunities for post-season appearances (and more money). All ballplayers want to ride in the float with their wives and kids down the city’s main street at the World Series Victory Parade. The sole exception was Catfish Hunter, who was a very humble guy – as soon as the World Series was won, he would race for the Stadium exit, the taxicab, and the flight to North Carolina, to return to hunting, farming, and his family.

But this is all a gigantic change from the 1980s and 1990s, when free agents and big-name players would not come to New York and genuinely feared doing so.

Time after time in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, the Yankees would make their best pitch to some of baseball’s biggest players, and get turned down repeatedly. A three-team trade that would bring New York-raised master hitter Rod Carew to The Bronx fizzled out when Carew refused to play for the Yankees. Bobby Grich, seen as the possible replacement for Fred Stanley at shortstop after the 1976 World Series, instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, claiming Yankee owner George M. Steinbrenner III “threatened” him.

The result was that the Yankees could not sign a great number of top-line free agents – even during the mid-1980s time of collusion, when Commissioner Peter Ueberroth convinced the owners to resume treating players as chattel. Nobody wanted to join the Yankees.

The reasons in the 1980s were obvious to anyone who remembers the era. Even long-time Yankee fans have trouble keeping tracks of who was manager in a given year. Billy Martin as a default answer usually works. His presence, paranoia, and fondness for alcohol made him a periodic menace to himself and his own team. The Yankees were in perpetual disarray, and players staggered out of the team dazed, exhausted, confused, and relieved.

This kind of atmosphere and the stories the survivors told in their new clubhouses frightened pending free agent ballplayers and their negotiators. Despite the Yankees’ core of talented players – Winfield, Mattingly, and Guidry – their tradition (which needs no rehearsing), and the numerous advantages of playing in New York (endorsement deals and extracurricular activities), “franchise players” avoided The Bronx, except with their visiting teams.

That “boycott” reached its peak or nadir in the late 1980s, when anybody who’d played in an All-Star Game was eager to flee New York or avoid it in the first place…with the result being the horrific 1990 Yankees, whose high in low was Andy Hawkins losing a Chicago game in which he did not give up a hit. Since he lost, the game is not recorded as a no-hitter.

All that changed once Joe Torre and the Core Four replaced Stump Merrill, Steve Howe, Oscar Azocar, Mike Witt, and Pascual Perez. Once again, the Yankees were the hot place for free agents and their spokesmen to bring their wares.

The Yankees promptly re-filed their lineup with a great many talented ballplayers, to the point that players who had no idea of what being a Yankee truly meant were begging to play in pinstripes.

That had some good results: Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina, to name three – and some horrific ones: Kevin Brown, Rondell White, and Carl Pavano of hated memory. Now we have top players dropping their “no-trade” clauses to accept moves to New York, like Giancarlo Stanton.

But despite revenue sharing and post-season defeats from between 2000 and 2008 and from 2010 and to the present, the big players are seeing the point, and headed for The Bronx. Yankee Stadium is the place to be, and the stars are coursing toward The Bronx.

The Yankees may not gain the services of Harper, Hamels, and Machado this year, or even next. But it’s clear that talented and established players will want to come here. They may not push out the young guys – Torres, Andujar, and Bird, for example – but it’s a pleasant problem for a general manager to face, be he or she sitting in a luxurious office in Yankee Stadium or in a less-than-luxurious living room.

My Reaction To Jordan Montgomery Getting TJS

It was recently announced that this Thursday Jordan Montgomery would undergo Tommy John surgery. While losing Monty for the rest of this season isn't going to hurt the Yankees shot at the World Series, the loss of Jordan Montgomery is far from insignificant. 

In 35 starts for the Yankees, between last season and this one, Monty has thrown to a solid 3.84 ERA. Yet his value to the rotation has been greatly overlooked.

I'm not saying he should be considered the team's ace, and was on his way to starting the Wild Card game or Game 1 of the ALDS. Actually, I don't think he would have started a postseason game at all. Severino, whoever they trade for, and Tanaka would likely be the starters then. But way more often than not, when Jordan started the team had a chance to win. And you can't ask for more than that from your #4 or #5 starter. 

Actually, there are plenty of teams that are lucky to get one win out of five starts from their 4th and 5th starters.

I don't want to say I'm concerned about the team's chances to win it all this season due losing Montgomery. The aforementioned Severino and Tanaka, along with Gray, Sabathia, and German should be able to keep leading the Yankees to plenty of victories. Not to mention an addition to that rotation via trade. But if you are waving this off as nothing, possibly comparing it to the team not having Jacoby Ellsbury around, you haven't been paying attention.