Key additions should keep Yanks atop AL East
TAMPA, Fla. -- All this and Raul Ibanez, too.
The New York Yankees, who transformed their rotation this winter with two significant additions in Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, made a move on the run production side of the game Monday, signing veteran outfielder Raul Ibanez to a one-year deal.
Ibanez will be their primary designated hitter against right-handed pitching and will also be available to play left field. He started 131 games in left for the Phillies in 2011.
The Ibanez signing, for $1.1 million, was another good move for the Yankees. Ibanez, who will turn 40 in June, has had a decline in his overall production over the last two seasons, but he remains a reasonable option against right-handers. His ability to play capably in the outfield makes him, from the Yanks' perspective, a better overall option than, for instance, Johnny Damon. With Andruw Jones on hand to serve as a designated hitter against left-handed pitching, as well as veterans from the regular lineup, the Yankees would appear to have this role covered.
Plus, Ibanez is known throughout baseball as a solid citizen, a positive clubhouse presence. On the personality spectrum, Ibanez would be at the opposite end from, oh, maybe Kevin Brown. In the incessantly under-the-microscope environment of the Yanks, there will be no problem with Raul Ibanez.
The Yankees could not announce the signing of Ibanez because he must first pass a physical exam. But manager Joe Girardi clearly indicated Monday his pleasure with the potential arrival of Ibanez.
"He's a guy that has hit right-handers very well over the course of his career," the manager said. "And he can still play the outfield. He's a guy who has been a productive player."
Yankee pitchers and catchers had their first workout of Spring Training on Monday. This is the time of pervasive optimism in baseball, but with the Yankees, optimism is built into the genetic code. Looking ahead to the 2012 season, they have something more tangible -- a surplus of highly-talented starting pitching.
The signing of Ibanez is a helpful move, although it may not be the kind of move in which the fate of the franchise for 2012 hangs in the balance. The Yankees already made those moves when they acquired starters Pineda and Kuroda. The price of Pineda, a 23-year-old flamethrower of immense promise, was one of the Yanks' top hitting prospects -- catcher Jesus Montero.
Obtaining a pitcher who is extremely talented, young and inexpensive is normally semi-impossible. It took a prospect of Montero's stature to get a pitcher of Pineda's potential. Kuroda was a free agent, signed for one year for $10 million.
Both Pineda and Kuroda threw bullpen sessions Monday. Pineda looks the part of a power pitcher. He is listed at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds.
"I'm always amazed at how big players are today," Girardi responded when asked for his first impression of Pineda. "You put them on a 10-inch mound and they're large humans ... Obviously, he's got a very good arm. I saw a couple of his sliders today, and I was like: 'Wow. For this time of the spring, that's pretty good.' I'm looking forward to watching him compete."
Kuroda has a career ERA of 3.45 in four seasons with the Dodgers. He is 37, but his performance has not declined over time. It could be argued that the degree of difficulty involved pitching in the National League West was considerably less than what Kuroda will face now, but this is not an argument that interests the Yankees. When asked what Kuroda would bring to New York's rotation, Girardi touched on multiple points.
"Consistency -- a veteran presence," Girardi said. "Hiroki is a guy who is going to throw his slider on both sides of the plate. He's going to throw his split. He's going to throw his changeup. He's probably got more weapons than some of our younger pitchers. I expect consistency out of him. He's pitched at a very high level and I expect that to continue."
Other than making A.J. Burnett expendable -- and then gone with a trade to the Pirates -- the result of the pitching acquisitions is that while some clubs have three legitimate starters for five rotation spots, the Yankees have an actual surplus with six genuine starting candidates. CC Sabathia is the obvious No. 1, but there is something to be said on behalf of everybody else in the mix -- Kuroda, Pineda, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes.
"The best-case scenario for us is that everyone is throwing well, there are no injuries and there are no setbacks and you have to make a tough decision," Girardi said.
Girardi said that he thought the Yankees might make one more move with the acquisition of another position player.
"There's time," Girardi said. "You always look for depth and if we can add some depth, we will."
In arguably baseball's most difficult division, you can never have too much pitching, too much run production or too much money to spend. Nothing can be taken for granted in the American League East except that the quality of the competition will be fierce, unforgiving and relentless.
This winter, the Yankees did their bit to bolster their chances of repeating as division champions by making a marked improvement in the most fundamental area -- starting pitching. And they are still making lineup upgrades, as they demonstrated by signing Ibanez, a worthwhile player who fills a specific need. The Yanks won 97 games in 2011, the American League's best record. Relative to the rest of their division, they have not lost an inch of ground.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.