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NY Sports Report with Mike Lalor

As we reach the final weekend in January – the lull weekend between the NFL’s Conference Championship games and Super Bowl – there are less than three weeks (20 days as of Saturday) remaining before baseball pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. For many in the Northeast recovering from Winter Storm Jonas or dealing with Lake Effect snow, that is music to the ears.

For those of us on the Spadora On Sports team, it’s time for the annual Hot Stove show this Saturday morning, January 30th, from 9-11am. In preparation, we are going to take a look at the offseason for both New York baseball teams. In the weeks ahead, we’ll look more in depth at the Mets and Yankees prior to Spring Training…and then, we’ll breakdown each division as we steam toward Opening Day.

New York Mets

2015 finish: 90-72, 1st National League East
Playoffs:
• NLDS: Defeated Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2
• NLCS: Defeated Chicago Cubs, 4-0
• World Series: Lost to Kansas City Royals, 4-1

Returning / Welcome to Flushing: OF Yoenis Cespedes (Free Agent – returns to NYM, 3 years / $75M; 1 year opt out clause / $27.5M); RHP Bartolo Colon (FA – returns to NYM, 1 year / $7.25M); 2B Neil Walker (acquired from Pittsburgh for LHP Jonathon Niese, FA entering 2017); SS Asdrubal Cabrera (FA – Tampa, 2 years / $18.5M; team option for 2018); OF Alejandro De Aza (FA – San Francisco, 1 year / $5.75M); LHP Antonio Bastardo (FA – Pittsburgh, 2 years / $12M); LHP Jerry Blevins (FA – returns to NYM, 1 year / $4M)

Key departures: 2B Daniel Murphy (FA – Washington Nationals), OF/1B Michael Cuddyer (retired), LHP Jonathon Niese (traded to Pittsburgh)

Off-season recap: After signing OF Yoenis Cespedes during the last week, the New York Mets appear to be complete with their major off-season maneuvers. In our Winter Meetings Preview back on December 5th, we assessed the Mets’ needs as Assistant GM John Ricco led the organization down to Nashville:
• An impact, middle-of-the order bat (Check…Cespedes returns)
• Middle Infield help – defensively and offensively (Check…2B Neil Walker and SS Asdrubal Cabrera)
• Corner infield depth…bench help (Partial Check…as the Walker and Cabrera signings move SS/2B/1B Wilmer Flores and SS/2B Ruben Tejada to bench roles)
• Bullpen help (Partial Check…LHPs Antonio Bastardo and Jerry Blevins)

GM Sandy Alderson, A/GM John Ricco and J.P. Ricciardi have had an excellent off-season. Sandy Alderson and the Mets exercised patience, listened to their energized fan base, and seized on the opportunity late last week to bring Cespedes back into the fold as their impact, middle-of-the-order, difference-maker. A “win-win” deal for both parties, Cespedes has the opportunity to return to a team and city where he fit in quickly and feels welcome. The Mets are not encumbered with a long-term deal for the 30-year old OF and Cespedes will be motivated for the potential of a longer-term, more lucrative deal should he put up big numbers in 2016…and should he stay past ’16, into 2017-2018.

The middle infield is upgraded with the acquisitions of 2B Neil Walker and SS Asdrubal Cabrera. Both are also on short-term deals and will enable more time for 2B Dilson Herrera (Mets/AAA Las Vegas) and SS Gavin Cecchini (AA Binghamton) to develop. These acquisitions permit SS/2B/1B Wilmer Flores (fractured left ankle in Winter Ball) and SS/2B Ruben Tejada (broken right leg; NLDS vs. Dodgers, Game 2…”Utley slide”) more time to recover from injuries; both players shed walking boots during the last week. Additionally, Walker can play 3B, and Cabrera can play 2B…so Manager Terry Collins has some versatility to work with, and the ability to give 3B and Captain David Wright days off.

The team’s defense is still a concern and its primary weakness, but is slightly upgraded overall…the key positive change being the addition of 2B Neil Walker, in place of Daniel Murphy. Yoenis Cespedes will primarily play CF, and that will bear watching over the course of a long season as he is not a natural CF, and more equipped to play a corner outfield position. CF Juan Lagares provides Gold Glove quality depth as the team’s 4th OF.

Here’s a projected 2016 Mets lineup – I think OF Michael Conforto will be this team’s #3 hitter by mid-year, if not earlier:


• RF – Granderson
• 3B – Wright
• LF – Conforto
• CF – Cespedes
• 1B – Duda
• C – D’Arnaud
• 2B – Walker
• SS – Cabrera
• P


In a move we advocated for, the return of RHP Bartolo Colon will help the Met pitching staff by providing leadership and depth. Colon, 43, provides the Mets with a strong 5th starter to begin the season, veteran leadership, and the ability to spot start and relieve – as he displayed in the 2015 postseason. This is especially important with the trade of LHP Jonathon Niese to Pittsburgh and with the unchartered innings that some of the Mets’ young starters – Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, and Noah Syndergaard – pitched to last season. Colon has been a leader through example for the team’s young pitchers over the last two seasons (2014-2015). He also provides more time for RHP Zack Wheeler to return from his post-Tommy John surgery rehabilitation; Wheeler could be ready to return to the Mets next summer in the June-July timeframe.

The bullpen is upgraded – especially from the left side – with the signings of LHPs Antonio Bastardo and Jerry Blevins. Bastardo can get both left-handed and right-handed hitters out, while Blevins will fill more of the lefty specialist role. From either within the organization, or possibly another late off-season signing, the Mets still have room to improve the capability and depth of the bullpen and help the bridge to RHP Addison Reed in the 8th, and RHP Jeurys Familia in the 9th. If RHP Jenrry Mejia can recover, display maturity, and return to the team in early-August 2016 from his 2nd PED suspension, that could potentially be a big boost late in the season.

Analysis: The Mets are a “win-now” team, and GM Sandy Alderson and his team appear to have addressed most of the concerns entering the off-season. You may ask aloud, why do I consider the Mets a win-now team?

One, because they are not as young as most may think: RF Curtis Granderson is 35, 3B David Wright is 33, Walker, Cabrera, Cespedes, and 1B Lucas Duda are all 30. Many of their other key players are either entering, or in, their prime years: RHP Matt Harvey is 27, RHP Jacob DeGrom is 28, C Travis D’Arnaud is 27, and LHP Steven Matz is 25.

Second, the exciting and powerful young staff is financially under team control…for now. Matt Harvey will be a Free Agent after the 2018 season, Jacob DeGrom and RHP Noah Syndergaard are Free Agents after 2020. The key is to capitalize on, and leverage, their youth, talent…and cost, while it’s possible. This Mets staff will not be the Atlanta Braves staff of the 1990s-early 2000s, when Hall of Famers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz were drafted (Glavine), acquired (Smoltz), or signed through FA (Maddux) – and stayed with the franchise for entire decade and beyond. That does not appear to be possible given baseball’s current salary structure. But, while it is together, this Mets staff does have the potential to pitch like that vaunted Atlanta staff…or possibly, even better.

The Mets have a nice blend of youth, player in or entering their prime, and veteran experience – their window is open. Right now.

Something to consider: in their 54-year history, the Mets have never won consecutive Division titles. They’ll be the prohibitive favorite in 2016, over a very-capable Washington Nationals squad, a talented Miami Marlin team that appears to lack pitching depth, and rebuilding franchises in Philadelphia and Atlanta.

• 1969: 100-62; 1st NL East and WS Champs
o The year after — 1970: 83-79 (3rd NL East, 6 Games Behind Pittsburgh)
• 1973: 82-79; 1st NL East and NL Champs
o The year after — 1974: 71-91 (5th NL East; 17 GB Pittsburgh)
• 1986: 108-54; 1st NL East and WS Champs
o The year after — 1987: 92-70 (2nd NL East, 3 GB St. Louis…pre-Wild Card)
• 1988: 100-62; 1st NL East
o The year after — 1989: 87-75 (2nd NL East, 6 GB Chicago…pre-Wild Card)
• 2006: 97-65; 1st NL East
o The year after — 2007: 88-74 (2nd NL East, 1 GB Philadelphia…the ‘collapse’, did not qualify for Wild Card)
• 2015: 90-72; 1st NL East and NL Champs
o The year after – 2016: ?

…..

New York Yankees

2015 finish: 87-75, 2nd American League East
Playoffs:

• Lost AL Wild Card Game to Houston Astros, 3-0

Returning / Welcome to the Bronx: OF Aaron Hicks (acquired from Minnesota for C John Ryan Murphy); SS Starlin Castro (acquired from Chicago Cubs for RHP Adam Warren and INF Brendan Ryan); LHP Aroldis Chapman (acquired from Cincinnati for 4 minor league players)

Key Departures: LHP Justin Wilson (traded to Detroit for 2 minor league pitchers); RHP Adam Warren (traded to Chicago Cubs); INF Brendan Ryan (traded to Chicago Cubs); OF Chris Young (FA — Boston); and RHP Andrew Bailey

Off-season recap: GM Brian Cashman made one of the early acquisitions of the offseason, acquiring switch-hitting OF Aaron Hicks from Minnesota during the General Managers meetings in early November. As he headed to Nashville, here’s how we assessed the Yankees’ needs for the remainder of the offseason:
• Starting pitching depth (not addressed, but bolstered the bullpen with the acquisition of
Chapman)

• Right-handed hitting (Check…Castro and Hicks provide support from the right side)

• Second Base help (Check…Castro arrives from the Cubs as a probable upgrade over Drew, 2B/OF Dustin Ackley and 2B Rob Refsnyder)

• Youth, speed, and energy (Check…Hicks and Castro continued the organization’s movement toward youth and athleticism; Chapman will also provide energy)

Right-handed hitting. GM Brian Cashman struck quickly during the General Managers meeting in November to obtain switch-hitting OF Aaron Hicks from Minnesota in exchange for C John Ryan Murphy. Hicks, age 26, provides a young, athletic defender with upside, in an effort to combat a glaring Yankee weakness vs. left-handed starting pitchers. But, he is only part of the equation. Class AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre (SWB) OF Aaron Judge is on the horizon, and is likely to make his first appearance in the Bronx in ’16. Class AAA SWB C Gary Sanchez will compete to back-up C Brian McCann in spring training, and is also a right handed hitter; he debuted with the Yankees at the end of ’15, and will get a longer run in the Bronx at some point in ‘16.

Second Base help. The Yankees obtained the 3-time, All-Star Starlin Castro from the Chicago Cubs, continuing their efforts to get younger and more athletic. Castro played extremely well after moving from SS to 2B in late August; he will turn 26 in March. Castro has the potential to be an above-average defensive 2B, and in the Yankee lineup, he will be asked to be an important part of the equation – but not a key and determining factor for the team, as he was prior to the 2015 season with the Cubs. The Yankees will look to their veteran leadership to mentor Castro and ensure his work ethic develops, ultimately keeping him physically fit and motivated – both are concerns with this young player. In Warren, the Yankees traded a pitcher they drafted and developed, creatively using their own assets to acquire younger players, and not spending on free agents…a trend that has now held for the last two off seasons. Warren will improve the Cubs major league pitching talent and depth. Ryan has already been released by the Cubs.

Youth, speed, and energy. The Yankees will look for ways to infuse these elements into the team more in 2016 and beyond. As we discussed late last season and in preparing for the Yankee offseason, this is an older team, and its age showed itself more and more as 2015 progressed. Last year’s off-season trades for SS Didi Gregorius and starting RHP Nathan Eovaldi truly helped in this regard, and GM Brian Cashman continued his commitment to it this offseason with the acquisition of Hicks and Castro. The Yankee everyday lineup in 2015 was very station-to-station on the basepaths, and it inhibited Manager Joe Girardi’s options to generate offense when the team did not hit. This potential lineup should provide some more athleticism, although older legs clearly dominate the middle of the lineup:

• CF – Ellsbury
• LF – Gardner
• DH – Rodriguez
• 1B – Teixeira
• RF – Beltran
• C – McCann
• 3B – Headley
• 2B – Castro
• SS – Gregorius

Bullpen. The Yankees seized on the opportunity to acquire one of MLB’s best relievers in LHP Aroldis Chapman – at a low price. The Reds are re-shaping their roster and did not want to have a high-priced closer on their books in ’16. The addition of the hard throwing Chapman fortifies a bullpen that already had, arguably, the best back end in MLB, with RHP Dellin Betances and LHP Andrew Miller. This move may provide Manager Joe Girardi the mid-‘10s version of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds “Nasty Boys” with LHP Randy Myers, LHP Norm Charlton, and RHP Rob Dibble…or of more recent vintage, the 2014 Kansas City Royals with RHP Kelvin Herrera, RHP Wade Davis, and RHP Greg Holland.

Similar to the Nasty Boys and the ’14 Royals, this Yankee group will throw extremely hard and potentially shorten games for their own injury-prone, less-than-durable starting pitching staff. The Yankees did not go after a high-end, expensive FA starting pitcher or hitter this offseason, but they did leap at an opportunity to pour cost-effective money into their bullpen. This serves as another way to meet their fiscal goals while concurrently creating time and space for the young pitching in their system to develop. Manager Joe Girardi announced that Chapman will serve as the closer, with Betances and Miller setting him up in the 7th or 8th depending on matchups. Betances pitched a high number of innings in ’14 and ’15, and his command noticeably started to degrade from August 2015 to the end of the season. After trading LHP Justin Wilson to the Tigers during the Winter Meetings, adding another high-end reliever helps…and provides depth and insurance to a team strength. LHP Chasen Shreve and RHP Bryan Mitchell look to join the Big 3 (Chapman, Miller, and Betances) while a host of young power arms – led by LHP Jacob Lindgren, LHP James Pazos, RHP Nick Rumbelow, RHP Nick Goody, and RHP Branden Pinder — will compete for the remaining spots in the bullpen and rotate in throughout the year from AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre.

Starting Pitching. The Yankees did not add a big name FA pitcher, but will head into 2016 with a solid 6 starters — RHP Masahiro Tanaka, RHP Michael Pineda, RHP Nathan Eovaldi, LHP C.C. Sabathia, RHP Luis Severino, and RHP Ivan Nova. While it will not occur all season, there will be stretches where the Yankees go with a 6-man rotation. If the bullpen is again the team’s strength, Manager Joe Girardi and Pitching Coach Larry Rothschild will be better able to manage this group’s innings (Sabathia led the staff with only 167 1/3 in ’15) and limitations, while maximizing their potential.

Analysis: The Yankees are the only MLB team that has not signed a Free Agent this offseason. Let that sink in for a second – it is not a misprint or typo.

If it continues for the remainder of this offseason, it will be the first time since Free Agency’s introduction in 1975 that the New York Yankees have not signed even one Free Agent. There have been a few times in the last 40 years where the Yankees only re-signed their own Free Agents…but still, this is new territory for the franchise…and its fan base.

GM Brian Cashman continues to rebuild the Yankees during a period of transition. Owner Hal Steinbrenner and Cashman are committed to building a more sustainable business model that incorporates youth and depth from its farm system to help the major league team, while that farm system provides assets that will enable trades to address gaps and weaknesses. The Yankees will have a lot of payroll come off the books after 2016 (1B Mark Teixeira, RF Carlos Beltran) and 2017 (DH Alex Rodriguez, LHP C.C. Sabathia – has a vesting option for ’17 that will likely trigger), and 2018 (C Brian McCann – team option for ’19, LF Brett Gardner – team option for ’19, and 3B Chase Headley). The Yankees still have an eye on lowering the team’s payroll below the current $189M luxury tax threshold; the 2016 payroll projects to be $229M.

As I wrote at the end of last season and again before the Winter Meetings — the Yankees exceeded expectations in 2015. They made the playoffs (with a quick entry and exit), without mortgaging any of their future in RHP Luis Severino, 1B Greg Bird, or OF Aaron Judge. In the Wild Card game, Manager Joe Girardi started a 22-year old in Bird, 24-year old Rob Refsnyder at 2B, and a 25-year old SS in Didi Gregorius. Definitely, 2015 was a sea change for the Yankees in their full employment of their 40-man roster and the farm system to effectively navigate the long season – look for more of the same in 2016. The Yankees remained patient this offseason, worked to get creatively younger through trades, and await the expiration of long-term Free Agent contracts.

It truly feels now like the Yankees and the ancient rivals, the Red Sox, have temporarily reversed roles. New President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski has arrived in Boston in win-now mode, and the signing of David Price and trade for closer Craig Kimbrel reflect that reality. The Yankees are now the team working to stay away from long-term free agent deals, bring the payroll down, and utilize their farm system to reinforce needs at the major league level.
The Yankees will still start 2016 with American League’s highest payroll; in terms of commitments, the payroll is already at $206M – and this is prior to agreeing on contract with their arbitration-eligible players and club renewals. But, that will change over the next two seasons, and the Yankees will look to build a winner while moving under MLB’s luxury tax threshold. Fans in the Bronx can get excited about the arrival of more young players…and in an ironic twist, may need to be the more patient fan base in both New York City and the Northeast I-95 corridor.

…..

NBA Shoot Around.
• Golden State and San Antonio. The Warriors blew out the Spurs, 120-90, at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night, reaffirming their status as the NBA’s best team. But, good news for basketball fans, these teams will meet again 3 more times in the regular season – March 19th, April 7th, and April 10th. And, they are on a collision course to meet in a Western Conference Final for the ages, with both teams playing at a better than .800 clip; Golden State enters the weekend at 42-4, while San Antonio is 39-7.

• Cleveland coaching change. Last Friday, the Cavaliers fired Head Coach David Blatt after 1 ½ years at the helm, with the team atop the Eastern Conference with a 30-11 mark and coming off a 2015 Finals loss (4-2) to Golden State. The Cavaliers named former assistant and NBA player Tyronn Lue as the team’s new Head Coach. Lue lost his debut at home to the Bulls last Saturday, but the Cavs rebounded to win successive home games against Minnesota and Phoenix. It’s virtually unprecedented to see an NBA head coach – or any coach / manager in the North American Big 4 (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) – fired with his team sporting the best record in its conference. It speaks to the power that LeBron James wields – whether he acknowledges it or not. James is one of the most powerful men in sports, if not right at the top of the list. Blatt was hired before James elected to re-sign as a Free Agent with Cleveland in the summer of ’14, and he never appeared to be a fit with the Cavs as James and Kevin Love joined the team…and expectations rose dramatically. That said, there’s a strange culture with this team, and James is at its epicenter. The Cavs play San Antonio at home on Saturday night in the second installment of ABC’s new Saturday night game package this season.

• Blake Griffin and the Clippers. As odd as the culture is in Cleveland, the corresponding team dynamics with the Clippers may be even more dysfunctional. During the week, the story emerged that PF Blake Griffin – already out since late December with a quad injury — sustained a broken right hand while punching a team equipment manager / employee during a fight outside a Toronto restaurant last Saturday night (1/23). Griffin was sent home from Toronto while the team continues its investigation of the incident. Last fall, Griffin was involved in an altercation at a Las Vegas night club, after a man accused him of taking his cellphone and grabbing him after the man photographed Clippers players in the club. That misdemeanor battery case was dropped after prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence. The Clippers are 30-16, 4th in the Western Conference and PG Chris Paul is having an outstanding bounce-back season, but the roster still seems to be missing something….besides restraint and maturity.

• Knicks. On Tuesday night, the Knicks played one of the most entertaining games of the NBA season at MSG, battling with, but ultimately losing to, the Oklahoma City Thunder 128-122 in OT. F Carmelo Anthony missed the game against OKC with a sore left knee, but the Knicks played at a high level led by SG Langston Galloway. New York led by 4 with less than 1 minute remaining in the 4th quarter…they just could not close. Anthony’s left knee is a concern; in February 2015, he underwent season ending surgery to repair a torn patella tendon in the same knee. He may have re-triggered problems in the knee after sustaining a sprained ankle against Boston on January 12th at MSG. Anthony missed the next two games with the sprained ankle and possibly altered his gait – affecting his knee — upon his return…Thursday night in Toronto, the Knicks played without Anthony, F Kristaps Porzingis (upper respiratory illness / flu – missing his 1st game of the season), and PG Jose Calderon (groin). The Knicks lost to the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors, 103-93.

The Knicks have lost 4 in a row, and are sliding, now at 22-26 and 3 games out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks are rumored to be engaged in talks with the Atlanta Hawks about PG Jeff Teague…the Knicks play Phoenix at home on Friday (1/29) to complete the back-to-back, followed by the World Champion Golden State Warriors on Sunday (1/31). In the week ahead, the Knicks play Boston at MSG on Tuesday (2/2), in Detroit on Thursday (2/4), and home against the Miami Heat on Friday (2/5).

 

Mike Lalor can be heard talking NY Sports on the Spadora on Sports Radio Program. His blog can be found at spadoraonsports.com

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