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Pinstripe Alley interviews Joel Sherman of the NY Post

I caught up with Joel Sherman from the NY Post and we talked for 20 minutes about the state of the Yankees. I'm making a lot of progress in getting access to journalists covering the Yanks and hopefully the Yankee front office is next. Joel is a really nice guy for jumping into the blogosphere...He thinks that the Yanks believe Igawa is better than they are letting on and after watching him for most of his starts he may be correct. I'm still a novice at this, but it's fun...

Audio Interview mp3

John: ... But, on that note the signing of Igawa, to me, here you had Ted Lilly - and I don't know if Ted Lilly wanted to come to New York, you would know better than I - but here you have a guy who's pitched in the American League, pitched for Toronto, pitched an incredible game for the A's in Boston. He was on the market for $40 million; the Yankees don't sign him, an ex-Yankee hand. Instead they throw $40 million or plus to Igawa, who to me has looked very nervous, not sure what he's doing yet. They roll the dice on a guy, where they could have signed a man that you put in the lower end of your rotation that's solid. What are your thoughts on Igawa/Lilly?

Joel: Yeah, I think that's like one of those moments again where the Yankees felt they needed to add a pitcher, a leftie was better, and it's an interesting debate between Lilly and Igawa. And again we are going to find out that Brian Cashman and the people who are surrounding him know what they're doing. Because I think you can make a good argument either way, but I'll say this: Ted Lilly absolutely wanted to come back to the Yankees. The Yankees were horrified by his medicals; you know there were a lot of red flags there....

Full transcript below the fold...

John: ...your thoughts are much appreciated and just real quick before we get into the present state of the Yankees.  You know, in their collapse in the playoffs- a lot of Yankee fans on my blog, especially myself, were really angry when Sheffield and Matsui came back to the team because they sort of forced their way on.  Now Shef - uh, Matsui - he did have a month to work out but Sheffield kind of forced his way in and we were really mad at Torre for allowing the players to sort of bully what was in affect sort of the throwback team to the old Yankee teams.  What are your thoughts on that?  

Joel:  Yeah, I'm thinking it's damned if you do and damned if you don't.  If you lose with Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui on your bench, I think you get (not from you and your friends) from an opposite group of Yankee fans who would sit and say "How do you not play guys who are All-Star caliber players?  How do you not find a way to get them in the lineup?"  So I think that was a problematic situation, and I think the reality is that Detroit pitched great in a 3 day period when they lost the 3 games, the Yankee offense went dead and I truly believe none of it matters - who would have played or not.  How the lineup was configured was, in a very small sample - you know, Kenny Rogers began to pitch great either because he was cheating or not cheating, and Verlander straightened out in Game Two and Bonderman pitched great in Game Four - and the Yankees didn't match them in pitching in Games Three and Four.  They had - you know Randy Johnson and Jaret Wright both pitched terrible, and I just don't think it mattered who was in the lineup.

John: you know for myself, and we'll move on after this, when the Yankees did lose in Game Two I just knew it was over because I saw them going right back into that shell and they just couldn't break out of it.  

But, let's move on to this spring's training.  Now, in the new edition, how do you think Brian Cashman is handling the off season?

Joel: I love the philosophy and now we're going to see if he has the right people around him helping him to execute - and himself - executing it.  You know, they get the right people.  John, the way the game is played now in the Major Leagues, there is so much money in Major League Baseball.  It went from a very short time - under a decade - from a $1 billion a year industry to about a $5-6 billion a year industry.  And if you look, teams tie up their best players now, especially their best prime age pitchers.  Cincinnati could tie up an Aaron Harang and a Bronson Arroyo; Toronto could tie up a Roy Halladay; Arizona could tie up Brandon Webb, etc.  And so there's fewer and fewer of those type of pitchers that get out on the market.  In simple supply-and-demand the price goes up not just for the great pitchers but for the Gill Meche's and the Ted Lilly's - the second and third tier guys get a lot of money also.  And now you're at a point where a lot of teams - you know, the highest pick for a pitcher this season was not the Yankees, it was not Red Sox, it was not the Mets, it was not the Dodgers, it was the Giants.  And there's a lot of teams going after this, and the simple lesson here is:  If you develop your own - especially your own pitching - I can't care how much money or how many fans you draw, you're gonna fall off the cliff, especially if you have an older model team right now like the Yankees do.

So, it was a moment of crisis.  You know, if you want to compare it to another part of your world John, it's like Global Warming: do you want to want to deal with it now, at some point where you see the crisis and you begin to deal with it, a budget deficit, the war in Iraq - you know, whatever.  Do you want to deal with it at the beginning of when you see the crisis, or do you want to be already falling off the cliff?  At this moment the Yankees are still among the best handful of teams in the sport, they make the playoffs every year, they've won the division a bunch of years in a row, and in the last 18 months they haven't traded any of their top prospects, especially pitching prospects.  Guys like Phillip Hughes.  They went into last year's draft and arguably took two of the ten best pitchers in the draft in Delon Betonsis and Jober Chamberlain, and they traded for a cartload of pitching prospects including Russ Ohlendorf and Humberto Sanchez.  And so they have a lot more inventory than they did 18 months ago.  Did they get the right guys?  Did they protect the right guys?  I don't know, but the philosophy is absolutely the right philosophy.  

John:  I agree Cashman's really starting to build the program the way it should've been run the last few years and I give him a lot of props.  And you're right on the mark.  Just turning towards pitching - another baffling move was, for know, you discussed about the crazy amounts of money that are being spent on lower tier pitchers...and I think it's great that smaller markets can go out and get free agents.  It's almost like Kansas City and the Pirates are the farm system.  But, on that note the signing of Igawa, to me, here you had Ted Lilly - and I don't know if Ted Lilly wanted to come to New York, you would know better than I - but here you have a guy who's pitched in the American League, pitched for Toronto, pitched an incredible game for the A's in Boston.  He was on the market for $40 million; the Yankees don't sign him, an ex-Yankee hand.  Instead they throw $40 million or plus to Igawa, who to me has looked very nervous, not sure what he's doing yet.  They roll the dice on a guy, where they could have signed a man that you put in the lower end of your rotation that's solid.  What are your thoughts on Igawa/Lilly?

Joel:  Yeah, I think that's like one of those moments again where the Yankees felt they needed to add a pitcher, a leftie was better, and it's an interesting debate between Lilly and Igawa.  And again we are going to find out that Brian Cashman and the people who are surrounding him know what they're doing.  Because I think you can make a good argument either way, but I'll say this: Ted Lilly absolutely wanted to come back to the Yankees.  The Yankees were horrified by his medicals; you know there were a lot of red flags there.  And also, as opposed to Igawa, all that money is taxed, and that's not an unimportant issue with these Yankees now, they are trying to watch the bottom line more and they pay forty cents on the dollar for every contract they have now.  They're being taxed at forty cents on the dollar.  And with Igawa the posting money - the $26 million - is not taxed, what's taxed is the $20 million over five years, so $4 million a year.  So it's not quite so terrible for them financially as if they would have went after Lilly.  I would only take exception to one word you used in the whole thing, where you said you thought the guy looked scared.  I don't think Kei Igawa is scared; this guy played in front of 50,000 people for Seibu; Seibu is a huge there, it's a championship level team, it's right there with Yomiuri for the most popular team in the country and so I think he's very very used to dealing with high level pressure.  The question is: does he have the stuff that translates here?  I think the Yankees' quite conceit is that this guy is a lot better than they are letting on to people. I think they want to project the idea of a number 4 or 5 starter, but they think he's a solid, middle-of-the-rotation guy.  And again, time is gonna tell like on your first question, John.  It's how good are the decision makers, Brian Cashman and the people around him?

John:  I have watched a lot of pre-season games - I kind of enjoy it, and I especially look at the pitchers.  And I do think Igawa is better than people think.  He's striking out an awful lot of people.  But when I say scared, I guess I mean more nervous because he is walking an awful lot of people.  I believe his stats - I don't think he walked a tremendous amount of people in Japan.  So we'll wait and see.  It's going to be really cool - I doubt he's going to get a tremendous amount of starts in April, but it's still going to be interesting.

Now we go on pitching to our favorite guy, Carl Pavano.  What have you seen is far with the glass jaw, the glass shoulder, the glass ribs and - he's just been such a letdown.

Joel:  Yeah, I don't trust anything I see with Carl Pavano until he gets out on a Major League mound in some regular season games and does something.  With that being said, he's doing fine right now.  He's getting out there.  The ball is doing close to what he wants.  We do have to remember, whether it was real or fake, he did not pitch for a year and a half.  The idea that he's going to come back from not pitching in Major League games for a year and a half and be crisp, his precision is going to be good, he's going to have total command of his stuff, that's folly.  But his arm action is good, the ball is moving and it has some life on it.  In the context that he's with the team now - assuming health, which is always a big question - but assuming health for Wang and Pettitte and Mussina, they're asking him to be no more than the number four starter.  They're no longer talking about (like they did when they signed him) that he was 29 years old and that he'd be part of building a rotation around.  He's a stop-gap guy now at most; he's going to pitch this year and next year for the Yankees.  I think there's probably a plan with the Yankees that if he pitches really well in April and May that he'll be a good chip for them to use come June or July to make a trade.   You know, as desperate as everyone is for pitching they'll see two good months out of Carl Pavano, there will be a market.  I think the Yankees feel pretty strongly that they're in it for Roger Clemens, if they're able to sign Clemens.  You know they have a good chip to trade in Pavano, and/or Phillip Hughes gets off well at Scranton AAA I think they'll feel they have a guy they call up and Pavano becomes marketable.  So, I do think Carl Pavano is an important guy for them, either as somebody to bring some stability to the back of the rotation, or somebody to use in a trade.  But to be honest with you, I've gotta see it to believe it, and I don't mean in Legends Field in March.

John:  I'm right there with you and I've seen him pitch and the announcers - sometimes you get frustrated when he throws a strike and the announcers go crazy, but more shall be revealed.  And I have really been pleasantly surprised, I thought Jeff Karstens did very well when he came up with the Yankees, but this spring - and again it's only Spring Training and the hitters aren't as caught up - but his stuff looks really nasty and every curveball, fastball, off-speed pitch, it's just been - has he just been the most impressive Yankee pitcher this spring?  

Joel:  Impressive might not be the word I'd use, but there's been some revolution there and there has been for a few reasons.  Number one, he's thrown the ball harder this Spring Training than he did last year in the Cameo and in the Cameo he did fine.  He had a winning record, I think he had a sub-4 ERA. It was not a big sample size, but it was someplace between 6 and 8 starts.

John:  He actually had a great game against the Angels in Los Angeles, and we know how the Angels play the Yankees.

Joel:  Right, and so I think his fast ball is fine, it's at least Major League average if not slightly above.  His big asset to me, watching it, is that he can throw a curveball for strike pretty much whenever he wants; and he does seem to have some stomach for the fight, which is important in general in the Major Leagues and really important when you play for the New York Yankees because of the history and the media attention and the owner and the inherent pressure that comes from playing for the Yankees.  So, I think he has some assets and I think if he's sitting down at Scranton as the first call-up or the second call-up if there's an injury, the Yankees are better protected rotation-wise than they've been in while with a sixth or seventh starter.

John:  Yeah, I think he would be better served going to the minors because he needs to pitch.  Putting him in long-term, he just won't get the work.  And I read today that Andy Pettitte's back spasms are easing up - I mean, everybody's really thrilled to have him back on the Yankees, and he's had a good spring up until these little back spasms.  Has his back been a problem in the past?  It's usually been his elbow, correct?

Joel: Yeah, you know I think this is normal Spring Training wear and tear and aches and pains for a guy once he reaches his mid-30s.   To think you're going to get through is, again, more folly.  And I think the Yankees are, when it comes to injuries especially to their most precise commodities - especially to their over-30 commodities - they are extremely cautious.  There's no sense pushing somebody in March when you are planning on playing games in October.  So I think they'd rather pull the guy back now, make sure everything's good, and then move forward.

John:  I agree.  Another quickie on Jose Tabata:  Watching this kid it reminded me of when I first saw Soriano come up in the pre-season.  He looks like he's the total package, he's - is he 18 or 19, I forget - but I see him in Yankee Stadium in two years.  What's your take on Jose Tabata?

Joel:  My take is, let's pull back the reigns a little.  He is - whether 18 or 19 - he's a teenager.  He hasn't played above A ball, and I believe below A ball, he has a long way to go.   And I always tell people "Look, he might turn out to be Soriano or better."  I think, you know, who knows.  But I'll say this:  Anybody who does what I do and has been around for awhile will tell you that when they saw the young Ruben Rivera in the early '90s in Spring Training, in Spring Training games, you would have sworn you were watching the next great player in the Major Leagues.  And he didn't make it because it's a long way from Spring Training in the Minor Leagues to hitting the best pitchers in the world over and over again, and having the endurance to do it and the skill to do it and the commitment to do it.   So, let's pull back a little bit.  You know when Spring Training began a guy who was a lot closer to the Major Leagues, John, is Phillip Hughes, is a guy we were all wondering "Could he have a big Spring Training and convince the Yankees to bring him to the Major Leagues now?"  He did not have a good Spring Training; He did not have a good Spring Training in any way.  His stuff wasn't very good; he didn't have a lot of passion for the fight.  It was almost like he had brainwashed himself not to get into the competition because he had been told he wouldn't make the team.  While he's still among a handful of best prospects in the Major Leagues, we feel a little different about Phillip Hughes, who's very close to playing in The Show today, than we did even six weeks ago.  And Jose Tabata, at best, the best timetable, has him playing sometime late in the 2009 season, probably not until 2010.  And so there's an awful lot that can happen between now and then, including a little thing called "the slider" from a better pitcher, split form a better pitcher, and that he simply might not be able to handle.   So let's see a little more before we get too excited.

John: I hear you.  It was just kind of fun watching him, and he does look to me like a can't-miss.  Now is this rumor true, that last season the Nationals had offered Soriano back to the Yankees if they would have included Jose in a trade


Joel:  I'm sure that the two teams talk a lot.  I mean, the guy who is running their baseball department, Jim Boden, he'll throw anything against the wall.  So I'm sure he probably offered Soriano the third (sic) for their top 3 prospects.  So you see, nobody bid and he made one of the dumb mistakes of the last five years by not turning Soriano into something.  I mean baseball people as a group agree on very little as a group, but there's one thing everyone agrees on:  the Nationals are going to be the worst team, and that it might be historically bad.  And one of the reasons is they have no good, young players.  Their farm system is bereft.  And here goes - last July - a chance for him to turn Alfonso Soriano into a chip, and he held out and he held out and he ended up getting nothing for him, so.

John: you know that was a huge surprise to me.  I mean, there was no way he was going to sign with the Nationals again.  But you know, teams live and die on these decisions and the Nationals are, outside of Ryan Zimmerman, there's not much hope.  And I do like Nick Johnson a lot.  But there's not much hope for them.

But let's turn to first base, because I think the first base position really impacted Bernie Williams.  I was really surprised - well, I don't know if it was surprise, but you know, Joe Torre opened the door, called him a couple of times to get him to Spring Training.   Now, he refused.  We love Bernie - I can't wait to see "Bernie Williams Day."  But the fact that they signed Meintkiewicz, did that impact the whole Bernie Williams coming down to Spring Training, maybe even offering him a contract?

Joel:  It did and it didn't.  It did to the extent that on the surface, it kind of blocked the spot.  The Yankee brain trust was committed to not giving Bernie Williams a 40-man roster spot this year.  They felt that the goodbye tour was last year, that if he wanted to come and prove that he was in shape and that they had a desperate need for him to begin the season they would do it.  They kind of wanted to move on.  You can clearly see where they are as an organization:  They're trying wherever they can to go younger, less expensive, more athletic, more well-rounded.  And you know the other thing is:  Even if Bernie Williams is on this team, where and when does he play?  You know, they're going to have trouble getting Melky Cabrera on the field which they desperately want to do for 350 plate appearances.  My suspicion is that Melky Cabrera is going to end up back at AAA because there's not going to be places to play him and they're not going to want him to go sour sitting on the bench.  So, I think already they have that issue to deal with.  And as far as Meintkiewicz, I think it's a big mistake to the Yankee off-season.  I am not a fan of this player, I saw him play a lot with the Mets, John.  He's a terrible offensive player, he's not very good in the clubhouse, and I even think his defense (which everybody raves about) is overrated; especially he doesn't seem to like to throw the ball a lot.  My suspicion is by June or July they'll be looking for another first baseman.

John: I agree.  I think they're going to wind up - they may even just cut him.  I mean, he hasn't performed, he's not hitting, he's not playing a good first base.  And Andy Phillips showed a surprisingly incredible glove, I thought, last year for a guy really switching positions.  So, I thought it was a bad signing as well.  We'll see on that.

Another big problem I had is with the catcher spot.  As much as I've loved Cashman, to not try to bring - maybe there wasn't the person around that he liked - but to go into Spring Training with basically nobody to back up Jorge is just a major blunder.  What do you see out of the backup catcher spot?

Joel:  I think it's a major blunder.  I think that Posada is the most indispensable - not the best player on the team - but the most indispensable player on the team because the falloff from him to what they would have to put behind the plate in the batting order, you know to what any other position.  I think they it's easier to survive if they had to play Miguel Cairo short of third for an extended period of time.  Posada has gotten really in tune with his pitchers the last two years.  I think Tony Pena's been a big help in getting his head into it.  I think he's an invaluable guy as a switch-hitter.  I think he helps in late games keeping opponents from being able to do the 'lefty-righty' switch with pitchers very easily.  This is a team without a lot of righty might, and he is part of that as a switch-hitter.  I just think he's an invaluable guy and I think they needed to address that issue in the off-season a little better.  Again, to me it will be an issue sometime during the year they'll have to address.  And a bigger deal to me, John, is regardless of whether they re-sign Posada or not (and my suspicion is they'll re-sign him at the end of the season) they need to be thinking long-term about finding a young catcher, putting him in the system, using some of this pitching inventory maybe to find that guy.  Because catchers are hard to find, it's a historic low point for catching in the Major Leagues, and the Yankees have to think about their next championship-level catcher.

John:  Right, they're woeful in that spot.   I do like the outfielders they have in the system:  Sardinha has had a good Spring Training and I also liked Thompson when he came up.  He seems to be kind of a gritty player.  So they do have - Kevin Reese - they do have other chips to throw into a deal.  They aren't deep in the outfield.  The infield, second base and short stop is very weak.  But they are - and again Cashman has done a great job loading us up with pitchers.  I was glad to see Sheffield go, and of course he had to throw dirt on Torre on the way out.  So, it looks like it's going to be a very interesting year.  

Have you seen Mr. Japanese pitcher in Boston pitch yet?

Joel:  I have, I saw his first game that he pitched.  Daisuke Matsuzaka.  My suspicion is that he's going to be very good but people need to be very careful about talking about just how good.  Josh Beckett has great stuff - great stuff.  And he only went from the National League to the American League East.  And his ERA was 501 last year.  When you go there's going to be a cultural and an at-the-plate, facing these guys shift coming for Matsuzaka.  There is not the power up and down the lineups in Japan that there is in the American League, especially in the American League East.  And I just think there's going to be days where he gets beat up and beat up bad, especially early in the season.  And the thing about him is not going to be about whether he's got the stuff or not; he has the stuff.  He has a multitude of pitches; he has a feel for pitching.   I watched him, the game he pitched he had a little bit of what David Cone had with his slider.  Not only a good slider, but a slider he knows how to use by adding and subtracting speed, by changing the arc on it.  It's like taking one pitch and turning it into four or five with what he can do with it.  There's magic to it.  Even with that, he's going to get beat up some, and the question about him is not going to be 'the stuff'.  It's going to be about character, about fortitude, about coming back when you get beat up and beat up bad.  Because there's no way to avoid it in the American League.

John: I hear you.  It's going to be another interesting story.  This is going to be a great season of baseball.  I know you've got to go, so we'll just finish off the interview and again thanks a lot for joining me and the Pinstripe Alley folks.  And we'll put this to rest, but Mr.  A-Rod I think that he was pretty open and he's been pretty open this spring.   Do you think it's going to be a media circus, because that's going to drive a lot of us crazy if after every game, no matter what happens, there are questions about A-Rod arising.  How do you think the media - not how he plays, I guess that does factor in - but how do you think the media is now going to handle A-Rod after he did publicly come out and say "Yes, my friendship with Jeter" and Jeter somewhat addressed it in his own fashion.  What do you see and how do you think the media is going to be treating A-Rod with the Yankees?

Joel:  I just think that Alex Rodriguez is a big story and there is a big media contingency in New York.  I think that one of the things that people who will watch it don't understand is, you know, that very similar questions are being asked across the baseball landscape.  But instead of five or ten people covering anything, because of the size of who the Yankees are there's a hundred people asking the same question.  And so it just sounds like more than it is.  And that's one of the realities that guys like Alex Rodriguez have to get used to when they come to New York.  He says he's used to it, I'm not quite sure.  He's a huge story, you know.  There's just about nobody with common sense who believes that he's going to be a Yankee in 2008, so there's a feeling about the clock on now.  This is his last season with the Yankees, how's he going to handle that?

I'll make two observations on Alex on the way out which is this:  He's an incredibly talented player.  I always say I think his brain gets in his way -   The only thing that can beat Alex Rodriguez is Alex Rodriguez. But I watched him play this Spring Training and his footwork at third base was terrible, OK?  It looked like his first year there instead of his fourth year there. In fact, I thought he was much better in his first year at third base than he was in his fourth year at third base.  And my second observation on him is:  In my mind's eye, when he played in Texas and Seattle, he's what I would call a Hunter and Killer as an offensive player.  He hunted fast balls and killed fast balls.  I think he's a guy who wants to please all the time, and he came to a team whose reputation was "the patient Yankees" the "take pitchers Yankees."  And instead of being a Hunter/Killer he's a guy who takes way too many hittable pitches.  You know, this idea of trying to be Jason Giambi when you're not Jason Giambi, trying to take that pitch just off the corner.  To me, he's got great skills: hunt and kill, hunt and kill.  That's what he did in Texas and Seattle - hunt fast balls and kill them.  The walks will come when you hunt and kill because people will then not throw it anywhere near the plate because he has such great skills.  I think he should be up there looking - his role model should be more Robinson Canoe right now than Jason Giambi because he's not going to walk as few times as Robinson Cano because once he hunts and kills they'll stop pitching to him in the way they're pitching to him now.  Be aggressive.  Be aggressive in the field on defense, be aggressive at the plate.  I think if he does that, he rises up to an MVP-type level again.  If he doesn't, he goes out meekly in his last year of the game.

John:  Right.  And that's something - any player doesn't want to leave a town or a city as a failure and let's is a lot between his ears.  I'll leave you with this:  I actually have some very good sources around the league and I don't know if you've heard this, it's just a complete rumor so I'm not saying anything, but from what I've just heard there was real trade talks between the Dodgers and the Yankees for A-Rod that just broke down.  Have you heard anything on that front?

Joel:  I would be surprised if it was going on right now.  I mean, I think in the winter several teams, including the Dodgers, called and expressed high serious interest in him.  I think the Dodgers, the White Sox, the Angels, the Indians and a few other teams called and said "If he's available, we're in it" and Brian Cashman went to Alex Rodriguez and said essentially "Are you interested in being traded?"  And when Rodriguez said no, he controlled the game.  He had a no-trade clause, and once he said no Brian Cashman knew he had a lot business he had to take care of this winter:  He had three veteran players he knew he had to trade; he had a starting rotation he needed to reassemble; there's some stuff structurally he wanted to change.  And he didn't want to waste his time when he knew the player had told him he would not accept a trade.  So, I would be surprised if anything got to a very high level.

John:  I know.  Once you have that trade clause then that's when he did come out and say it did make Brian have to address it.  Now, also it looked like the Yankees had a better deal for Randy Johnson going to San Diego - from what the rumors were they would have gotten Scott Linebrink- but he wanted to go to Arizona and they were I believe kind enough to accommodate his wishes.

Joel: Right.

John:  So, anyway Joel thank you for your time, I know you've got to go, you're covering and as always you're always welcome back at the Pinstripe Alley.  We link you a lot and keep doing what you do.

Joel:  All right John, thanks for your time.

John:  OK.