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No room for absolutes in Rodriguez saga

August 4, 2013

On August 4th, 2007, Alex Rodriguez was on top of the world. His 500th home run–the one that would make him the youngest in baseball history to reach that feat–had cleared the left field wall only hours before, the ball probably still warm from the mid-day sun.  In that moment, at that time, he was the king of all baseball royalty.  Gliding effortlessly through his third MVP season, he had become the Yankees’ hero–shedding, in one perfect year, the questions and accusations that had dogged him through his first three seasons in pinstripes. Headcase. Choke artist.  Not a “real” Yankee. With each flick of his bat, Rodriguez made them all disappear.

And as he did, he carried the team on his back. Once down 14 games to the first-place Red Sox, the 2007 Yankees would claw their way back to earn a playoff berth, relying, day after day, on a golden season from their larger-than-life third baseman.  But in that moment, at that time, there was no pennant race. There was only Rodriguez, baseball history, and the city that was finally–finally–falling in love with him.

Six years later, the love is long gone.  Lost somewhere along the way to PEDs allegations, on-field inconsistency, and Rodriguez’s at-times grating and out-of-touch public responses, it has been replaced with stunning vitriol. With the Biogenesis saga clearly the final straw, Yankee fans have become villagers with torches, storming the monster in the castle and uniting in a way usually reserved for championships. Rodriguez is an easy villain to many–unrelatable, with his hundreds of millions and rumored unwillingness to give up a penny; distasteful, with his dismissive, sometimes smug sound bytes and calculated PR strategy; and disappointing, with injuries and inconsistency making his heroics (like his contributions to a 2009 World Series win) easy to forget. For a team–and a sport–antsy for a scapegoat amid an unsettling and distracting season, Rodriguez and his legend are a perfect fit.

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Proctor’s reach extends past the numbers

May 24, 2013

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?” -Robert Browning

The way we measure the greatness of a man has changed since Browning wrote those words. Or, rather, our desperation to change it has grown. In baseball and in life, the allure to proclaim success or failure based on what is quantifiable has only become more seductive as the chaos around us increases. Scores, statistics, and neat little numbers that rise and fall inside parameters we set in place help us create order around what we can’t understand.

But in baseball, just like in life, there remains an ineffable quality that transcends the fathomable. Something about the heady rush of hearing the crack of ball on bat or the heart-pounding way a curveball seems to take years to find leather makes the numbers fall away. There’s a beauty in that release–in the idea that maybe success does lie beyond the boxes in a scorebook.  And in that way, we can acknowledge that greatness just may be in reaching beyond what we think we can hold–even if it requires a leap of faith.

Faith is something Scott Proctor understands, though it would be hard to fault him if he didn’t. The right-hander’s personal and professional struggles have been well-documented–a product of the baptism-by-fire Bronx where he started his major league career as well as his own willingness to share his story.  But for all the challenges that have been thrown his way, it’s clear Proctor feels an extraordinary amount of grace.

“I truly believe that things happen for a reason even though we don’t always know why,” he says, without a hint of uncertainty. “And at this point, now, I just try to have the biggest impact in people’s lives that I can and use whatever tools God gives me.”

Visiting patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. 2/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family

Visiting patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. 2/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family

The way Proctor seeks that impact extends past his wingspan–on and off the field–and is firmly grounded in his own humility.  From the meek, almost prayerful way his voice lowers when discussing the past alcohol abuse that very nearly derailed his career to the ease with which he credits others for all the best parts of his journey, Proctor shows an understanding that almost nothing can be accomplished alone–even when standing on a pitcher’s mound.

Of course, the path to the mound has hardly been smooth. Once a setup complement for Mariano Rivera, Proctor has seen his career take several circuitous routes. In 2009, he underwent Tommy John surgery–a moment in his professional life that Proctor says was a catalyst for making changes in his personal one.

“There’s always multiple points throughout your life where there’s a circumstance that happened or a decision to be made and you have to adapt or die. You know, you’re reaching rock bottom, and drinking and everything else has brought you to the end and your career’s almost over and you’re having surgery and it’s just like, ‘Enough is enough. I’ve got to make some changes.’”

And running still as an undercurrent to those changes is the faith that carries him through doubt. If choosing to be better is grace in itself, then it’s no surprise that Proctor acknowledges the hand of a higher power in the decision.

“I believe that God puts you where he wants you to be, and the hardest part is that blind faith–trusting that he knows what he’s doing. We might not agree with it, but you have to just take your hand off the steering wheel and let go.”

Proctor lives by his word. He let go on the road back from surgery–in times when trust was the only way to have the chance to pitch again.  He let go when he made the decision to pitch in Korea last year–a season that saw him break the foreign-born-player saves record. And he let go when he came back, opening camp this spring with the defending world champion Giants.

And on each step of his walk through the game, Proctor has seen God’s hand.

“I’ve been really lucky coming up in my career that in any instance I’ve  been going through a tough time, [someone has been there] to continue to push me,” he says,  offering up brand names like Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, as well as pitching coaches, trainers, and teammates at every level. “It’s easier when you have good people around you…and it just feels like at every stop there’s been somebody.”

One of those people has been Kyle Farnsworth, the Tampa Bay reliever and former Yankee who was the other half of the Rivera setup tandem during Proctor’s time in the Bronx. Farnsworth’s reputation has been one of aloofness and combativeness, and he’s likely just as famous for the on-field brawls he’s incited as the 100-mph fastballs he used to throw. But Proctor, much in the way he reflects on the good that has come from his struggles, has always seen past that. He values their friendship, not just for the camaraderie they built in the bullpen, but for the way Farnsworth has challenged him never to pay mere lip service to his faith.

“The one thing I respected the most about him was that he would always tell me, ‘Stand true to your word. Whatever you’re telling people you are, if you say you’re a Christian, just back it up.’”

It’s that philosophy that remains a driving force in the way Proctor approaches each person he encounters–in baseball, but also in the broader community.  Though typically known as the kind of pitcher who drains himself on every outing (“I’ll go until someone tells me I’m done or I can’t go any more.”), Proctor is quick to acknowledge the opportunities that baseball’s given him in return. But with the same humility that’s been a hallmark in the impact he seeks, he draws inspiration from the ways the game’s allowed him to make his world a little bit bigger.

“I’ve had the opportunity to encounter so many people, whether it be a wounded veteran at Walter Reed Hospital [during his stints with the Yankees, as part of a program Johnny Damon organized through the USO] or a kid with Down Syndrome. And…you can be going through the most miserable time in your life on the field, and you look at theirs and you think ‘what am I complaining about?’”

He almost laughs at the idea.

“We always feel, no matter what we’re encountering, that it’s the end of the world to us. And sometimes you have to look outside the box and really put things into perspective.”

Proctor’s willing to look almost anywhere. He speaks of conversations with fans, ballpark security guards, and clubhouse custodians. He mentions a young barber he frequented in Columbus who floored him with the story of raising his siblings when their parents wouldn’t.  And in these moments, even as he re-tells the stories, it’s clear whom he feels benefited most.

“Those interactions with people have changed my life more than I think I could have ever done for them. And that’s what you take motivation from. That’s what keeps pushing you to continue and pushing you through the rough times…I think we can learn something from everybody, no matter what their profession or their status in life, and if we can’t learn from one another, we’re not doing what we should be.”

Sometimes, those rough times are blessings on their own.  For Proctor, the most terrifying experience of his life has borne the biggest chance he’s had to make a difference.  In 2006, his infant daughter, Mary Elizabeth (M.E.), underwent emergency open-heart surgery to correct a birth defect. Though she would go on to make a full recovery, the experience had a profound impact on Proctor and his wife, Carrie, who felt they had an opportunity to leverage the good fortune baseball had afforded them into a real way to help their community.  From that sense of responsibility grew M.E.’s Team.

Now in its eighth year, the influence of M.E.’s Team can be felt all over the Florida county that once gave Proctor so much support on his road to the bigs. The foundation, whose motto is “Changing Lives Through Teamwork,” offers assistance in many different ways. From the 10th Street Baseball program, which provides stability, guidance, and education to low-income children and their families; to the Challenger little league division, which strives to give mentally and physically disabled youth the same baseball experience as their peers; to the financial, medical, and emotional support given to all kinds of families in need, M.E.’s Team has left its footprint over the entire community. But even about what is arguably his largest off-field impact, Proctor is quick to deflect the glory to the hard-working volunteers on the ground.

“There have been so many people who were way more instrumental than I could have been. Every time I speak at one of our functions or whenever I go speak to the kids, [I tell them that] just like on a team, it takes nine people to win a game. If you took out any one of those people, we wouldn’t be where we are. I just try to give credit where it’s due.”

Still, the magnitude of what being part of M.E.’s Team means to Proctor is difficult to ignore. With each story that he tells about the way the organization has touched lives, it’s clear that he couldn’t be prouder.  But, in much the same way that he feels endless gratitude for those who have walked with him, it’s the foundation’s emphasis on community that means the most.

“We have [first-time] volunteers who give an hour of their time or go out and donate to one of our events.  And some will say they’ve never understood what teamwork was about until they got plugged in with [M.E.’s Team]. And now they see how it works and they understand it…That’s what’s so powerful about the foundation.”

That willingness to embrace the impact of others on his journey, even as he seeks to expand his own reach, remains a consistent theme in Proctor’s life.  And with each person who’s pushed or guided or inspired in unexpected ways, he continues to see God.

The Proctors at M.E.'s Team Foundation's sporting clay tournament fundraiser. 1/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family.

The Proctors at M.E.’s Team Foundation’s sporting clay tournament fundraiser. 1/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family.

Perhaps no story better demonstrates Proctor’s openness to that power of faith in everyday life than the one he tells of a time he very nearly quit baseball–and the symbiotic way he was brought back:

The fall of 2003 had brought with it several hurricanes that wreaked havoc on Proctor’s hometown, leaving its residents emotionally and financially exhausted. They were still reeling by the time he returned after the season to staff a baseball camp at his high school.

Once there, he says, he came across a young boy–one of the campers–who was clinging to his father while the rest of his friends were in groups, running drills.

This one little kid just would not leave his dad’s side, so I went over to him and I told him, ‘I need some help. I need you to show the kids what to do. I need you to be an example for me. Just stay with me the whole time.’”

He did. Proctor and his new assistant ran pitching drills together, and by the second group, the boy was laughing and talking and eventually relaxed enough to re-join his friends.

Later that day, the boy’s father confided in Proctor that laughter had been hard to come by since the hurricanes–replaced by nightmares and an inability to sleep alone–and that the fearlessness his son had shown by simply playing with his friends had been remarkable in itself.

The following season, Proctor was back in AAA Columbus–now six years removed from his draft–and struggling. “I was [awful],” he says, “I couldn’t get anybody out and I was walking the world and I said, ‘I think I’m done.’”

But Proctor wasn’t going to rely on his hunches.

“I prayed to God, and I said ‘give me a sign. If this is what you want me to do, show me. You know what you want.’  So I was looking for lightning to strike and knock all the power out or [to see] a big white billboard when I was driving to the ballpark. But nothing happened.”

So he went to the park the next day, fully intending to tell manager Bucky Dent that he was ready to hang it up.  He was in the process of packing when something caught his eye.

“I don’t usually read any mail during the season. I wait until the end of the season and send it all out. But I looked at my chair and there was one envelope and I said, ‘All right. I’m just going to read this. It’ll give me more time to think this through.’”

Inside, was a letter from the camper’s father.

“He was talking about the whole encounter that day, and he said, ‘Every day, I have to look you up on the Internet to show [my son] that you’re still playing.’”

Proctor never made it to Dent’s office.

“I think it was a week later that I got called up [to New York]. So you just never know.”

None of us ever know. Proctor couldn’t have known the way one interaction would make a difference to an entire family, just like a father couldn’t have known the way his letter would change a career. But it’s that reach–that faith that we can have an impact beyond what we can see and touch and hold–that hurtles our idea of greatness past what we can define.

Proctor keeps reaching. And each time he does, he becomes a reminder that true success will never be found on the back of a baseball card.  Even if it does require that leap of faith.

(Author’s note: These interviews were conducted at the end of April, and the story was completed in early May. Although Proctor announced his retirement on May 20th, I’ve decided to present the story in its original form. Though Proctor will no longer be toeing the rubber, he’ll no doubt take the same graciousness, humility, and willingness to give back into his next endeavors. His retirement truly is baseball’s loss.

Teaching through writing a natural fit for Red Wings’ Doug Bernier

May 3, 2013

Baseball players enjoy a variety of off-the-field pursuits. Some take up hunting. Some are avid video gamers.  Some are even in bands.

Doug Bernier may have found his second calling.

2011 Scranton 002

Bernier, 2011. Photo credit: Ed Wolfstein

“I feel fortunate that I’ve been taught and got to play with some of the best players and teachers in the world and I want to pass that along,” says Bernier, now with the Rochester Red Wings, the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. “I think I can help other people.”

As a slick-fielding shortstop with 11 years of minor league experience, Bernier’s had the opportunity to learn from some of the best. As founder and lead writer of the baseball instruction and advice website ProBaseballInsider.com, he’s sharing the wealth.

Originally conceived of as a place where Bernier and a collaboration of professional players, coaches, and scouts could offer practical, good-quality instruction to aspiring ballplayers in an effort to instill correct technique, Pro Baseball Insider has become something of a movement. Featuring step-by-step drills, position-specific skills, and a baseball advice column, the website has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception two years ago. In the process, Bernier has carved a niche for himself  with a combination of experience, a unique perspective on the game, and a talent he didn’t even know he had.

Writing may seem like an unorthodox foray for an active player, but the 32-year-old has grown into the hobby.

“I hated writing in school, [but] now that i’m out of school, I enjoy it. Sometimes baseball gets so monotonous and the days and nights become so routine-oriented and it’s just the same, day after day. Writing [became] kind of an escape, and even though it is about baseball I feel like it’s still a way for me to relax, and I enjoy that.”

The enjoyment is evident, as Bernier generates content that belies his late start, offering crisp, easy-to-read essays on everything from equipment reviews to the importance of mental fortitude. And with this newfound skill comes an outlet for imparting his positive, focused brand of baseball to a new generation of players.

Though never counted among the elite infielders in baseball, Bernier remains focused on the basics–crediting his longevity to good, old-fashioned hard work and a lot of listening–an ethic he brings into his instruction.

“I’ve always had to grind it out as a player. I feel like some guys are just so incredibly talented and they might not know why they do what they do–they’re just good.  Maybe there’s something to me having to grind it out, learn why I do what I do, and understand what makes me play well and what makes me not play well, and to try to just learn about my game, and hopefully when I understand what I do I can pass that along a little bit.”

One thing he’s passing along is a lifetime of being receptive to solid fundamentals. As a high school athlete, he had the opportunity to hone his fielding skills with MLB infielder Brad Wellman, who emphasized the importance of learning technique and practicing it until it became rote. From the experience, Bernier built on a skill set that would eventually lead to a reputation as one of the best shortstops in the league.  But even more than that came an appreciation for instilling correct habits  before bad ones become unbreakable. As a professional ballplayer, that thirst for knowledge hasn’t waned.

“I think every day, as long as you apply yourself, you’re learning something new. I know…sometimes it’s cliched, but I think you really can. I’ve been in the game for a long time, and I still feel like every day I’m trying and learning. I’m more receptive [now] to what coaches are saying because i think it could be an opportunity to pass it along to someone else.”

And Bernier leads by example. Coming from the unique vantage point of a player who still very much gets to take his own advice, he can point to his own career with pride in going about the game the right way–a valuable carryover lesson for anyone who might have been introduced to his words first.

Diagram from Baseball Hitting Drills for a Batting Tee. Photo credit: Sarah Bernier

Diagram from Baseball Hitting Drills for a Batting Tee. Photo credit: Sarah Bernier

“I feel like I give everything I have that day on that day. I try to pride myself on running hard all the time, being prepared, and  being ready to go. I don’t want someone to ever look at me and say, ‘That guy wasn’t hustling’ or ‘That guy wasn’t trying hard.’  There’s a lot of things you can’t control. The things I can I want to do them well and play hard.”

In understanding that technique can only go so far before drive and sheer will to leave it all on the field have to take over, Bernier brings an invaluable perspective to his website. And that blend of precision mixed with dogged determination should be enough to draw prospective ballplayers to Pro Baseball Insider. But that’s not the whole picture. Not even close.

When Bernier discusses his website, he lights up. He speaks about the family element to the project–his wife, Sarah, serves as webmaster, managing the layout and acting as creative partner while his parents edit copy. He discusses future endeavors –the Berniers are working on the second in their new series of books on practice drills, as well as planning to expand the website even further.  He revels in the opportunity he has to reach out to younger players and the positive feedback he’s received in return.

And running as an undercurrent to all of that–to the zeal for instruction and the excitement of being able to share what he’s learned–is genuine joy.

“I love baseball. I remember how I felt when I was a little kid playing, and it’s just so much fun. When you see kids [playing baseball], they’re having so much fun. It’s just 100% a game and that’s it.  I get so excited and I just want to help those kids.”

That love for the game is evident, whether it’s in the countless hours Bernier puts into his own performance or the way he delights in discussing the “chess game” that is baseball. But what is also evident is his boundless desire to share that enthusiasm with a whole new generation of ballplayers. With Pro Baseball Insider, he’s given himself the opportunity to showcase both, and done so in admirable fashion. The advice and instruction he and his team of professionals have put together are a clear extension of the philosophies that have brought Bernier this far–and are allowing him to have an influence far beyond his own diamond.

And what’s the biggest advice he would offer–with all his experience and dedication and passion for the game?

“First of all, you have to love [baseball]. And then just work hard every day. You don’t want to look in the mirror after you’re done playing and think ‘Man, I could have tried a little harder or could have done a little more.’ Play hard, work hard and have fun, and everything else will take care of itself.  If you can give a good effort every day, you’ve got to let the chips fall where they may. You might not make it; you might make it. But you’ve got to be happy with the effort you give, and at the end of the day that’s what matters. You’ve got to be happy with the effort you give.”

Doug Bernier has a lot of reasons to be happy.

Visit ProBaseballInsider.com for advice and instruction on all aspects of the game, or check out the Berniers’ first book,  Baseball Hitting Drills for a Batting Tee, for a step-by-step guide to begin to build the fundamentals of a great swing.

Quentin’s charge brings to light baseball’s double-edged sword

April 12, 2013

One of the undeniably attractive qualities baseball offers its fans is a sense of intimacy. Over the course of the 162, and season after season, players become familiar. We come to know their rituals, superstitions, and quirks. The spot on the cap that’s always caked with rosin. The moment the bat comes off the shoulder. The way the cleat hitches against the rubber.  The charming nuances become comforting, in a way, and remind us that there’s something beyond the name on the back of the jersey.

It’s fun, right? We watch our favorite players, remembering that story we read once about how Kevin Gausman eats a sleeve of donuts between each inning, or wondering if one of these days Lincecum’s just going to tip over. It’s America’s pastime, everyone’s happy, and we all remember why we loved the game so much as kids.

And then something happens.

Something like Carlos Quentin purposefully charging the mound on an imagined vendetta in a one-run game, breaking the collarbone of a smaller pitcher and shelving an ace for two months. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t in the script of the quirky, feel-good human nature of the game.  But each incident like Quentin’s–each time a player reveals something of himself we’d rather not see– reminds us that there can be a dark side to that comfortable familiarity that makes baseball so appealing.  We like our players flawed in palatable ways, like the french fries that fall to the bottom of the bag.  But when dealing with human beings prone to human failings, there’s no such thing as pick and choose.  Even if baseball makes us want there to be.

What Quentin did was inexcusable. He let anger and paranoia rule over common sense, driving him to turn his beef with Greinke physical, instead of calmly tossing the bat and walking to first base. And in that act, he made us all uncomfortable. Baseball doesn’t feel like it should breed villains–at least not outside a 90s movie–but that’s exactly why it’s at its ugliest when it does. We revel in every feel-good story–every pitcher who makes his debut after Tommy John and every backup infielder who drives in the winning run, against all odds. The grind-to-a-halt, center stage aura of the game breeds those moments. But the spotlight shines just as brightly on the things we’d rather not see. Greinke’s injury will be an eight-week reminder of that.

Chamberlain, Yankees regret missed opportunities

April 8, 2013

Please note: This post also appears here on Bronx Baseball Daily, Rob Abruzzese’s collaborative Yankees blog. 

 

Joba Chamberlain looked lost. That much was clear in his outing on Saturday in the Yankees’ 8-4 loss to the Tigers. Pitch after pitch failed to hit catcher Francisco Cervelli’s target, and with each hitter who reached base, his bewilderment appeared to grow. A line-drive single, a four-pitch walk, a ball that skipped to the backstop. At one point, after yet another four-seamer missed the zone, Chamberlain took a walk around the mound, looking to the sky as though the answer might be written there. Frustration was mounting, and all other paths to success seemed to have been exhausted.

And if that lost feeling on Saturday is any kind of apt interpolation of Chamberlain’s career, the Yankees might want to check the heavens, too. Maybe it could spell out exactly what might have been.

Baseball, by its very solitary nature, lends itself to questioning and reflection. With results sometimes contingent on inches, second-guessing becomes a natural part of the game. Still, some story arcs loom more regretfully than others. And in the case of Joba Chamberlain, the fall from can’t-miss hurler to unsettled footnote has become perhaps the Yankees biggest current disappointment.

Six years ago, the Yankees thought they’d hit pay dirt. With their supplemental first-round draft pick in 2006, they landed a flame-throwing righty out of Nebraska. Impressive in both his durable stature and his biting arsenal, Chamberlain hit the fast track to the bigs, and by August 7th, 2007, he was making his major league debut. With a dangerous slider and blistering fastball that topped out at 100, Chamberlain immediately rewarded the Yankees for their loyalty, pitching 16 consecutive scoreless innings and finishing the year with a 0.38 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings. Though eventually felled in the ALDS by Cleveland midges and what was likely a healthy dose of inexperience, Chamberlain looked to be the Yankees’ perfect solution to the effective setup man they’d been looking for since Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton both donned pinstripes. The excitement surrounding him was palpable.

But the Yankees had other ideas. In what became a well-documented and heavily scrutinized process, Chamberlain began transitioning to the rotation in May of 2008. Though claiming that the move was part of the team’s long-term plans for the righty, the Yankees’ hands were forced by injuries and ineffectiveness in their rotation–one that saw pitchers like Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson make starts for the struggling team. The switch was bizarre, as Chamberlain made starts that expanded by two-inning increments every five days, remaining with the big-league team and being forced to exit effective outings once he’d reached his limit.

Chamberlain did eventually slot into the rotation, but results were mixed. Though he finished the year with a 2.60 ERA and strikeout rate of 10.6/9, he won only four games for the Bombers in an injury-shortened season that saw the Yankees miss the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. Though Chamberlain’s role on the team wasn’t close to being the pivotal force in finding October success that year, the impact he had in his first full season was a let-down compared to the hype following his 2007 campaign. The second-guessing had already begun.

If excitement had marked the first phase of Chamberlain’s career, inconsistency would be the hallmark going forward. Though seeing flashes of effectiveness in the years following, including a 154 ERA+ to begin his 2011 season, Chamberlain never approached the success he saw in the first 24 innings of his career. After the excruciating process of converting to a starter, he would pitch only one full inconsistent season in the rotation before losing his spot to Phil Hughes, who went on to become an All Star in 2010. Over the following three seasons, in between missing significant chunks of time to Tommy John surgery in 2011 and a severe ankle break in 2012, Chamberlain would appear in 122 games, posting a 4.02 ERA and 1.281 WHIP and seeing his strikeout rate tick down slightly to 9.1/9. Though acceptable, especially in the AL East, the numbers are a far cry from what the Yankees envisioned from their Midwestern boy with the golden slider.

There are many checkpoints on the road of Chamberlain’s career that lend themselves to the “what if.” What if the Yankees had given in to the multiple trade inquiries that dotted his early success? The front office famously made Chamberlain untouchable during Johan Santana talks following the 2007 season, but they also saw interest from the Orioles, White Sox, and A’s, including by Billy Beane in a possible trade for Dan Haren. Because the Yankees never put Chamberlain on the table, there’s no way to know whom they could have received at the height of their power righty’s career, but with the relatively small impact Chamberlain has made on his team since that first season, it’s hard to envision a situation where an enticing trade prospect wouldn’t have been an upgrade.

Or what if the Yankees had never transitioned Chamberlain out of the bullpen? How far could his star have risen had he been allowed to pitch in short, high-intensity bursts for the next several seasons? Could he have achieved the allure and legend of an Aroldis Chapman, overpowering hitters with sheer firepower and a flawless specialty pitch? Though a pitcher’s trajectory can be difficult to predict, the way in which the Yankees shuttled Chamberlain back and forth, imposing unusual restrictions on his arm, didn’t lend themselves to consistent late-inning success.

The answers are neither simple nor clear. Pitching is always at a premium, and the value of a starter versus a setup man can be debated in circles. But the inconsistency with which the Yankees treated Chamberlain combined with the inconsistency he gave them set both up for disaster. Out of that perfect storm comes far more questions than answers, and makes for years’ worth of alternate scenarios. As it is, the 21-year-old has now hit his late-20s with a legacy of disappointment rather than glory. The slider doesn’t bite nearly as much as it did, and the fastball has slowed down considerably.

 

Still, there may be time for the Yankees and Chamberlain to write a new story. With a strong 2013 spring training (2.61 ERA, 0.774 WHIP, nine strikeouts in 10.1 innings), Chamberlain drew at least preliminary interest from the Rangers. And though the Yankees appear eager to unload their big righty, numbers similar to the ones he showed in March will put New York in a much stronger position to either use his success to bolster a thin bullpen or have a trade chip to fill a need elsewhere. Having already invested over $6.1 million into a pitcher who will become a free agent at the end of the season, the Yankees are likely hoping for the latter.

Ultimately, Detroit scored only one run off Chamberlain on Saturday. But whether he ever found the answer he was looking for won’t become clear until he pitches again. What is clear is that the Yankees and their formerly untouchable pitcher are approaching the end of the road. And all the what-ifs will become a very expensive regret unless they can somehow make magic again together. Because what baseball also lends itself to are second chances. Chamberlain and the Yankees have one more left.

 

 

Surplus of catching talent makes Opening Day decision easy for Girardi, Yankees

February 20, 2013

With Jorge Posada now three years removed from the game, and Russell Martin pricing himself out of the Bronx, the Yankees face an Opening Day dilemma they haven’t encountered since 1989: no clear candidate for the starting catcher job.

Just five years ago, the Yankees looked lousy with catching prospects. Powerhouse slugger Jesus Montero—he of the home run swing and wobbly defense—ranked as the organization’s No. 1 position prospect by the time he was 20, and looked to be able to make everyone forget about his limited range behind the plate with power to all fields and a generous learning curve.

On the other side of the coin, defensive wiz Austin Romine had everything Montero lacked: arm precision, range, ability to read pitchers. But where Montero was a buzzworthy slugger, Romine fell into the category of “he’ll make up for it behind the plate.” Still, between the two prospects, as well as second-tier options like P.J. Pilittere, Kyle Anson, and Jose Gil all languishing in the minors, the Yankees were sure to strike gold somewhere. Besides, with their war chest of seemingly unlimited funds, a productive backstop was only a contract away.

But, as any big-league team could attest, there’s no such thing as too many catchers. Montero was famously traded away before the 2012 season for phenom righty Michael Pineda—who promptly needed major shoulder surgery and has yet to play a game for the Bombers. Romine’s bat has progressed slowly—probably more slowly than the organization had imagined—and hit a wall at the AAA level. And Pilittere, Anson, and maybe-sort-of option Jason Brown are no longer in baseball.

Yet there is good news, and plenty of it. The Yankees have been spoiled for decades now with offensive production behind the plate. From All-Star Mike Stanley, whose departure from the Bronx in 1996 met with scathing criticism, to potential Hall of Famer Jorge Posada, the organization and its fans have become accustomed to seeing their catcher in the meat of the lineup. But a defensive wall with a pinpoint arm and a rapport with the pitching staff is worth his weight in contact money—even if he flirts with the Mendoza line all season.

With those criteria in mind, the Yankees have some options for a stop-gap season, as well as a new crop of notable prospects who are gaining momentum down on the farm.

The Yankees have been particularly reluctant in past years—to some criticism—to rush top-tier prospects, particularly if no emergency need arises. Though Romine could—and should—be given a look, the organization may break camp with a tandem of familiar players behind the plate.

Francisco Cervelli has become something of a household name among Yankee fans, after his infectious energy and bulldog work ethic played a part in the team’s 2009 World Series win. The effort landed him a large chunk of playing time in 2010, as well as the reputation for being an excellent pitcher’s catcher. CC Sabathia, in particular, lauded Cervelli for his dedication.

“He wants to learn,” Sabathia said, after the duo’s second consecutive win in early 2010. “He’s always asking questions. He wants to go over the first couple of hitters of the inning every inning. I think that helps out a lot. He watches a lot of video, and he’s pretty sure of himself when he calls a pitch, so that helps.” Pitching to Cervelli, Sabathia has put together some of the best numbers of his career, with a 2.98 ERA, 8.3 K/9, and .230 opponent BA over 272 innings.

In addition to his growing prowess behind the plate, Cervelli put up a respectable .275/.341/.357 slash line from 2009 through 2011, which made his last-minute exclusion from the 2012 roster even more surprising.

Unfortunately for Cervelli, he doesn’t project to be the starting catcher of the future. He managed just a .657 OPS for the 2012 Empire State Yankees—a disappointing number for a former world champion—and he’s currently embroiled in the same BioGenesis scandal that’s implicated teammate Alex Rodriguez. But for the time being, his energy, speed, and familiarity with the staff may make him the Yankees’ best bet.

The other veteran option is Chris Stewart. A full season into his second tenure with the Bombers, Stewart has gained a reputation as a good plate-blocker with an accurate arm. He, too, found some success with Sabathia.

Offensively, Stewart wasn’t a disaster. He managed only a .611 OPS, but his woes at the plate were largely unnoticeable given his solid presence behind it. (For what it’s worth, the .611 was a career high). Stewart would likely serve as backup, given his experience in catching approximately a third of each season.

Though a Cervelli/Stewart complement when camp breaks would be a surprise to no one, there are exciting options waiting in the wings.

If Romine doesn’t get his shot out of spring training, he’ll be the first line of defense as the season progresses. Long touted for his skills behind the plate, the former second-round draft pick has been named the organization’s top defensive catcher three years in a row. One member of the front office even referred to Romine as a “plus plus defender.” It is that promise, in fact, that kept the Yankees from pursuing more expensive free-agent options like A.J. Pierzynski this offseason.

But Romine’s growth has been stunted by injury. He’s missed chunks of time over the past two seasons with back issues, limiting his play to only 120 games since 2011. Without a consistent, healthy season, Romine’s development is difficult to extrapolate. He did average a .725 OPS over parts of those two seasons. Still, given that the Yankees don’t project to carry an offensive dynamo at catcher, there will be room for experimentation. If a healthy Romine can make the big league roster, he may not want to relinquish the position.

Unfortunately for Romine, he may not have a choice. Already leapfrogging the defensive powerhouse in the Baseball America prospect rankings is 20-year-old Gary Sanchez. Sanchez came out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 with a monster signing bonus and potential to burn. Groomed in the vein of Montero, with a solid frame and power stroke, his passable defense (literally: he’s allowed 60 passed balls in 181 games) is readily overshadowed by his .286/.350/.496 career slash line. With only 245 games under his belt, Sanchez ranks as Baseball America’s #56 prospect and top power hitter in the organization. Sanchez should start the year at high-A Tampa and should progress steadily, perhaps reaching AA Trenton by mid-season. Though not projected to reach the majors until 2015, Sanchez may be the homegrown catcher needed to finally fill the Posada-shaped hole in the clubhouse.

That is, if J.R. Murphy doesn’t get there first. Though not the offensive threat that Sanchez is, Murphy, 21, is powering his way through the Yankees’ farm system with eye-popping defense. In 2012, he allowed only 13 passed balls in 97 games and threw runners out at a 32% clip. And where Sanchez had garnered criticism for his focus, Murphy has shone. He even caught the eye of the big league skipper:

“I was impressed when I saw him catch the other day,” Joe Girardi told Bradenton Herald reporter John Lembo after a 2012 spring training start. “[He has a] tremendous work ethic, very bright, knows what he’s doing.”

The hard work paid off; midway through the 2012 season, Murphy was promoted to Trenton, surpassing expectations this early in his career. And though not billed as a slugger, Murphy hit .243/.316/.386 in his split season, with nine home runs. With the organization so high on his performance behind the plate and his focus already legendary, it may be only a matter of time before his services are needed in the Bronx.

Ultimately, what the Yankees will see when they look behind the plate will be plenty of options and little need to panic. Money saved by not signing Pierzynski or the far-less-affordable Mike Napoli has been spent on veteran pitching not dependent on the experience of its backstop. Meanwhile, prospects wait at every level, developing and growing and putting pressure on those ahead of them to play at high levels. Competition is good for a player, but it’s even better for an organization. The Yankees don’t have a dilemma at all.

Hernandez’s glory overshadows Cabrera’s shame

August 15, 2012

Felix Hernandez has always been a breath of fresh air for his downtrodden Seattle Mariners, but on Wednesday afternoon, he was an infusion of life for a sport that could have used a second wind.

Just as Hernandez was about to toe the rubber for his start against the Tampa Bay Rays, news broke that San Francisco left fielder Melky Cabrera had tested positive for a prohibited substance under MLB’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and would immediately begin serving a 50-game suspension.  One of baseball’s breakout stars, Cabrera was in the depths of a career season, leading the league in hits and collecting an All Star Game MVP while charming fans with his good-natured interviews and easy-going play. Though a smattering of players have turned in positive tests since the inception of mandatory screenings in 2006, Cabrera is far-and-away the most high-profile name to emerge from the post-steroid generation.

But Hernandez knew none of that on a sunny afternoon at Safeco Field. Long the lone bright spot for the 55-64 Mariners, who are mired in the middle of their seventh losing season in nine, Hernandez has kept the fanbase close. In his eight seasons with Seattle, King Felix has twirled a 3.19 ERA, made three All Star teams, and redefined what it means to be a Cy Young award winner.  And as he systematically sent the Rays down in order, pitching to contact and keeping plenty in the tank, the ballpark was energized. Melky Cabrera was light years away.

There is nothing more pure than perfection–nothing more lily-white in its time-stands-still kind of masterpiece.  No runners mar the basepaths; no cleats graze home plate.  The 60 feet and six inches between mound and leather become sacred ground and the neat rows of zeroes take on a cherubic cast.  Perfection is baseball at its inarguable best. What happened to Cabrera–what he brought about because of greed or hubris or stupidity–is baseball at its arguable worst.

Hernandez wasn’t that ugly black smear of a positive test. He wasn’t forced statements to the press and tight-lipped admissions. He was baseball on Wednesday, and baseball had risen above.

Sean Rodriguez was already 0-2 when he faced Hernandez in the top of the ninth.  In an ironic twist on a day full of juxtaposition, Rodriguez’s hard-nosed play and valuable grit as a major league asset have only become popular again because of efforts to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs–otherwise known as the last time baseball needed to be saved from itself. But there he was: all hustle and steel and ready to spoil the King’s perfect day.

Instead, it was Rodriguez who blinked. Flummoxed on a 2-2 fastball, he froze, and let baseball’s newest golden boy, on loan from Seattle for just an afternoon, be the inarguable best.

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