Today’s Pinch Hitter is a familiar part of this series. Pete Colgan lives in Peoria, Ill. – the hometown of Joe Girardi – and he’s followed the Yankees since 1962. Pete and Joe actually went to the same high school, but 10 years apart, and they’ve never met. Although Pete’s always lived in Peoria, he wrote that he has many fond memories of visiting New York and going to Yankee Stadium, especially in the 70s and 80s.
For his blog post this year, Pete reflects on what it means to have lost Robinson Cano. Specifically, how have other teams moved on, and how can the Yankees do the same?
Robinson Cano is gone. Had he stayed with the Yankees, he might have become their all-time greatest Yankees second baseman. At the very least he would have remained the anchor of the infield. Make no mistake, it was a significant loss. Losing your best player is never a good thing, but it happened. Time for a little perspective and a look ahead.
From a perspective standpoint, the Yankees have been here many times before in some manner. Babe Ruth retired, and within a couple of years, Joe DiMaggio arrived and the Yankees won four straight championships. Lou Gehrig benched himself early in the 1939 season with what turned out to be a fatal illness, and the Yankees went on to win the 1939 World Series. DiMaggio retired, and Mickey Mantle arrived, and through that transition the Yankees won five straight championships. No, it is not always that easy. When Mantle retired there was no one to replace him, but within a decade the Yankees assembled a team that won championships again.
You see, the Yankees have a long history of overcoming adversity. There always seems to be a new chapter right around the corner. So, when Buck Showalter was fired and Don Mattingly’s career ended following the 1995 playoffs, it seemed the longest World Series drought since Babe Ruth appeared on the scene would continue indefinitely. But the guy someone called “Clueless Joe” in a newspaper headline arrived the next year and a championship roster was assembled and the Yankees have been competitive ever since (in case you haven’t heard, “Clueless Joe” Joe Torre is headed for Cooperstown wearing a Yankees cap on his plaque).
I could write all day about adversity and player losses turning into something positive. We can only hope the loss of Cano becomes a positive in the long run. At least the Yankees did not go 10 years again on a player on the wrong side of 30 years old. A signing like that creates adversity (see the A-Rod contract details and all his issues). But my all-time favorite story of adversity turning into a positive occurred in August 1964. I was celebrating my 10th birthday, and the Yankees were in a tight race with the Orioles and the White Sox. In Chicago, the Yankees ended up losing all four games of their series against the Sox. I listened to all the games on the Chicago radio station in disappointment. What happened after game four, a day game, seemingly put an end to any hope of a pennant in New York. The team bus was stuck in the afternoon Chicago rush hour traffic when reserve infielder Phil Linz pulled out his new harmonica and began to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Yankees manager Yogi Berra took exception to Linz’s playing telling him to “put (the harmonica) in his back pocket” (at least that is how Bobby Richardson recalled the incident in his recently published book). Words were exchanged, according to reports from that incident, but not much else happened. Except that the story was reported in the national media and seemed to be a huge embarrassment for the organization. But an amazing thing happened next.
The Yankees started winning and wound up winning the pennant by a game over the White Sox. Some have pointed to that day as a turning point in the Yankee season that caused everyone to focus on playing well and ultimately asserted manager Berra’s authority (most of his players were his teammates just one year prior). Of course it all fell apart immediately after the 1964 World Series and for nearly 10 years that followed until George Steinbrenner bought the franchise, which began the next turnaround. Phil Linz, never a household name, would likely have been forgotten had it not been for that incident. Many have possibly forgotten Linz hit a ninth-inning home run in St Louis off Bob Gibson in the seventh game of the World Series as part of a rally that unfortunately fell short by two runs.
So with spring training right around the corner and no Robinson Cano reporting to camp, a new focus is needed. One could argue the infield is a mess, and that may be correct. But championship teams have been assembled with spare parts or players from the “scrap heap.” The addition of guys named Ellsbury, McCann, Beltran and Tanaka may ease the blow of the Cano loss. But even with these additions a few things are needed for a serious run this coming October.
1. Comeback Player of the Year
At least two Yankees with multiple years remaining on their contracts need to be in the running for this designation. CC Sabathia is coming off a rough 2013 campaign and must return at least close to his former ace status. Mark Teixeira. who recently has admitted to some tightness in his surgically repaired wrist, must also prove he can return to form. Derek Jeter may also belong on this list, but his contract ends at the conclusion of the season, so there is possibly more focus on key players whose contracts run a few more seasons.
2. Youthful pitching must step up
This is an ongoing process that is needed, not only in 2014, but in 2015 and beyond. The Tanaka signing is a positive step, and there is hope that the Pineda trade will finally pay off. Then there is a need for some of the young pitchers to finally regain their health, which starts with Manny Banuelos and includes a number of other (far too many) recently injured young pitchers, a list that would include Vidal Nuno and David Phelps, both of whom appeared in the Bronx last summer. The back end of the bullpen will be assembled for Opening Day likely from the residuals of the fifth-starter competition. So the expected Opening Day rotation of Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Tanaka and “to be determined” from spring competition might have some issues as well. It is looking more likely that any new openings to the rotation will have to be filled from within. A trade or perhaps a late free agent signing is possible but not likely. Pitching is what wins championships (see 1996-2000) and a lack of sufficient pitching depth has the opposite effect (1980’s come to mind).
3. Meaningful September Call Ups
Even with several players coming to New York on multiple-year contracts, there are many contracts which expire after 2014. A few names on the list include Jeter, Soriano, Kuroda and Suzuki along with potential free agents Gardner and Robertson. So the in-season and particularly September call-ups need to include players ready to step up, and possibly be ready for a key role the next Opening Day. The process needs to repeat in coming seasons as well. This list includes the young pitchers but also position players, perhaps Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams and Gary Sanchez among others. The Yankees could be in a world of hurt if their upper-level prospects fizzle out as some believe they might.
4. No more “56”
This represents the number of players who put on a uniform for the Yankees in 2013, mainly due to injuries and an unfortunate need for multiple players to pass through the revolving door looking for the right fit at certain positions (shortstop and third base mainly). This simply cannot happen if the Yankees expect to contend again (am I the only one that in retrospect is amazed that the 2013 Yankees won 85 games?).
So while Cano could have become the all-time great Yankee at second base with his number 24 immortalized in Monument Park, he is gone and the direction of the franchise has changed drastically over the winter. Big signings from this year’s major league free agent pool and one BIG international signing have happened. But are those offseason maneuvers enough? Spring training is upon us and we are about to find out. My take is it will be as much about the newcomers as the players returning from injuries and bad seasons and ultimately must come from organizational depth assuming the talent is there, obviously a concern. Time for a few good young men to step up.
Associated Press photos