Faces change, but Yankees' expectations remain sky-high - NBC Sports

Faces change, but Yankees' expectations remain sky-high
New additions McCann, Tanaka expected to bolster club after several key personnel losses
March 27, 2014, 9:00 am

TAMPA, Fla. -- One of the small joys of sports is watching Tony Pena throw batting practice. He does not so much throw batting practice as he jumps into it; each pitch is a little dance for him. He has had an indestructible right arm every since he was a poor kid in the Dominican Republic, throwing rocks and dreaming, ever since his days as an All-Star catcher for Pittsburgh. Now, at 56, as bench coach for the New York Yankees, he flexes that arm, and he smiles real big, and he does his happy little jump-step before every pitch.

“Every day,” he says. “This arm can throw batting practice every day.”

“How are you guys going to be Tony?” I ask him, because we are old friends and I know what he will say.

“Good,” he says happily. “We’re going to be (bleepin’) good.”

* * *

The Yankees are not the Yankees, at least not the way we’ve known for them for a long time. Who’s on second? Not Robbie Cano. I Don’t Know plays third? Well, it isn’t Alex Rodriguez. Andy Pettitte isn’t picking off runners with that balk move of his. And, perhaps more than anything, Sandman has exited -- Mariano Rivera broke his last bat with that nasty cutter.

“You know, we were lucky to keep those guys together for so long,” Tony says. “I mean, who does that? Mariano was here, how long? Twenty years? Cano was here almost 10. You know -- that’s not how it usually goes in baseball. People come and go. Players get hurt. We were lucky.”

He looks around the field. The new Yankees catcher, Brian McCann, walks by.

“But these guys,” he says. “They’re good. We’re going to be good. Real good. McCann? He’s an animal.”

MORE: HardballTalk previews the upcoming MLB season

Tony Pena is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known so, yes, I knew he was going to say this. A few years ago, when Pena was managing the Kansas City Royals, he had T-shirts made for the players with the phrase “Nosotros Creemos” -- We Believe -- and then he somehow motivated, animated, exhilarated, invigorated and navigated a terrible baseball team that had lost 100 games the year before into a contender.

Then, the next year -- after the team predictably went sour -- he tried every bit of voodoo you could imagine, including jumping into the shower with his clothes on and turning UP the music after a loss so that the guys wouldn’t think of it as some kind of tragedy. It didn’t work, didn’t come close to working, but he never really did stop believing because, as he says, “miracles happen. How else do you explain my life?”

Of course, the Yankees never need miracles. They have money. True, money may not be as much fun or as powerful as miracles, but it’s quite a bit more reliable. After a shockingly bland season where the Yankees (A) missed the playoffs; (B) were only superficially even in the playoff race and (C) actually finished with a worse record than the Kansas City Royals for the first time in almost 25 years, the Yankees went out and got center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, right fielder Carlos Beltran, the aforementioned catcher McCann and Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka, who last year went 24-0 (!) with a 1.27 ERA for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

“We got a bunch of guys here who know what this game is about,” Pena says. “They know how to win. They know how to deal with losing. They just know. I’ll tell you what -- you go into a season with talented players who know, really know, what this game is about, you’re going to be (bleepin’) good.”

* * *

Michael Pineda, a big man, stands in front of his locker, and it’s obvious he’s overcome by emotion. He’s just 25 years old, but already he’s a comeback story. At 22, he made it to the big leagues for Seattle -- he seemed young, but he had signed when he was just 16 years old. He had worked a long time for this. And he was electrifying. When you are a 6-foot-7 pitcher throwing fastballs in the mid-to-high 90s and sliders that seem to dissolve into another dimension, you will electrify. He struck out a batter per inning and the league hit .211 against him. The Yankees, desperate for the young pitching star, traded their own hitting phenom Jesus Montero to get Pineda.

About 10 minutes after he joined the Yankees, Pineda blew out his shoulder.

It was devastating for Pineda, and he readily admits that his life took a bad turn. He was arrested for a DUI. He felt bitter and alone. When asked if he ever lost faith in his ability to come back, he says that the people around him -- the trainers, the support staff -- would not let him lose faith. But those are just words. It was two years of lonely work trying to come all the way back. When asked if there were teammates who helped him, he shrugs and says: “They were playing baseball. I was here (in Tampa).”

But this spring ... he has been electrifying again. The fastball is not quite where it was -- maybe because it takes time, maybe because we’re still in spring training, maybe because there are two or three mph that aren’t coming back -- but it doesn’t matter because the slider is fully operational. And that was the pitch that made him special. You never want to quote spring training statistics like they mean something, but Pineda has 16 strikeouts in 15 innings, just one walk and a 1.20 ERA.

And he’s in the New York Yankees' starting rotation. He called his mom when he found out.

“This is my dream,” he says.

* * *

David Robertson told the story before camp even began -- he ran into Mariano Rivera at the New York Baseball Writers' dinner. People seem to forget: Robertson has pitched for the Yankees since 2008. He has already pitched in as many postseasons as Goose Gossage did his whole career. He has been on an All-Star Team, he has received Cy Young votes, he has been one of the elite setup men in the game -- most of it setting up the great Mariano Rivera.

In other words, he’s no kid.

“So,” he recalls Rivera saying to him, looking as serious as Rivera could muster. “You scared?”

“Typical Mo,” Robertson told the New York Daily News. “He’s already all over my case and I haven’t thrown a pitch in 2014 yet.”

The Yankees will look different almost everywhere ... but no difference will be as magnified, as talked about and as overanalyzed as the sight of David Robertson coming out of the bullpen in the ninth inning to some song that is not “Enter Sandman.” For the first time since 1997, the Yankees will start the season with a closer who is not Mariano Rivera, and you can bet there are tabloid editors just waiting for a Robertson meltdown to unveil back page headlines like “HE’S NO MO” or “CRY ME A RIVERA.”

Thing is, it’s not entirely clear how much the Yankees will miss Rivera’s actual pitching, especially during the regular season. He converted 89 percent of his save chances, which is terrific but not significantly different from other excellent longtime closers like Jonathan Papelbon (88) or Joe Nathan (90) or Jose Valverde (88). There seems little doubt that Robertson, who had a 1.91 ERA and held league batters to a .204 batting average the last three seasons, can come close to Rivera’s effectiveness.

But with Rivera there was always something ineffable, a calm he exuded, a confidence that his teammates always talked about. “Just get the game to Mo,” was like an unspoken mantra for the Yankees for almost two decades and nobody knows how little or how much that is worth. And, of course, in the playoffs Rivera was almost untouchable.

Robertson certainly doesn’t want to get into that losing battle -- THE MAN WHO REPLACED MARIANO -- so he is doing the smart thing. He is simplifying. “You still have to get three outs,” he says, referring to the setup role and the closer’s role. “You’ve got to be effective. You can’t give up the lead.”

Those are smart words to hold on to -- especially when, as is inevitable, he DOES give up the lead. Then, he might do well to remember Rivera, after losing a lead, sitting at his locker, his face blank as paper, and he would say with all the confidence in the world, “Bad one tonight. Got to be ready for the next time.”

* * *

The Japanese media surround the Yankees in force, and why not? On one team, they have two hugely emotional stories. They are covering the final days of a legend, Ichiro Suzuki. They are covering the first days of a phenomenon, Masahiro Tanaka.

Ichiro is rebelling against the idea that he is in the December of his career. Though he is coming off what was certainly the worst season of his career -- though he’s 40, is looking an awful lot like the Yankees’ fifth outfielder and camp has buzzed with rumors that the Yankees would welcome a trade -- Ichiro says retirement is not even something he has thought about. He has said he wants to play “many” more seasons.

MORE: Yankees reportedly would eat salary in Ichiro trade

“Many” is in quotations because he used that word.

Even for those of us who have loved watching Ichiro -- and I suspect this includes most baseball fans -- it’s a little bit heartbreaking to watch him now. He had a .297 on-base percentage last year, which is awful but was not that much worse than the .307 OBP he had the year before, or the .310 OBP he had the year before that. It has been four years since Ichiro was even a good player.

But he is not the first great ballplayer to rage against night. He goes through his intensive preparations just like always. In batting practice, he again has his teammates oohing as he hits consecutive home runs in batting practice. “No you didn’t!” Derek Jeter yells as the second lazily falls on the other side of the fence, and Suzuki smiles a little as he skips out of the cage. All efforts to get Ichiro to ponder his humanity, the way Jeter has, have fallen flat. Ichiro Suzuki explains he is preparing for this season, just like every other. When asked if he can still be a good player, he says that’s for other people to decide.

And then there’s Tanaka, The Yankees have tried very hard to temper expectations and have had very little success doing so. It did cost the Yankees $155 million to bring him in, he did go undefeated as a starter in Japan last year and he has this split-fingered pitch that batters have been swinging over all spring. At the same time, there are those who say he doesn’t throw as hard as the reports suggested, and some of the recently hyped Japanese pitchers -- Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka among them -- had up-and-down first seasons.

That said, Tanaka has impressed ... not only with his pitching but also with the way he seems utterly unflustered by it all. He readily admits that pitching for the Yankees is very different from pitching in Japan, and he certainly knows that there is much to learn. But that doesn’t mean he’s overwhelmed. When asked if he’s nervous to make his first big league start, he listened to the interpreter, kind of laughed, and said one word.

“No,” the interpreter said.

* * *

Nobody -- except maybe for a few folks in the Yankees' business office -- is looking forward to a yearlong celebration of Derek Jeter, and this very much includes Jeter himself. It figures to get pretty, um, Jetery.  Fortune on Wednesday put up its list of the “World’s Best Leaders” and put Derek Jeter at No. 11 ... right between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Geoffrey Canada, who leads the Harlem Children’s Zone that helps more than 12,000 children in the area.

MORE: Jeter ranks 11th on recent list of great leaders

Jeter, for his part, has said again and again that, even though he has already announced his retirement at the end of the season, he is focused on PLAYING the season, not on reminiscing about things. He has been going about his days more or less like always. That said, people around him say that Jeter has been a little different this camp. It’s been subtle but they see him taking in the experience a little more, embracing the moments a little bit more, talking to his friends around the game a little bit more.

But who really knows? Jeter has always kept his opinions close and his emotions closer. The one thing that has been apparent at camp -- Jeter has not hit at all. Again, it’s spring training and so the results are meaningless, but Jeter is hitting .143 in camp and has admitted (against his nature) that he has not gotten comfortable yet.

And this gets to the part of the Derek Jeter farewell season that offers some actual drama: The Yankees need him. He is penciled in at shortstop every day. He will likely hit near the top of the lineup unless that becomes unworkable. If Derek Jeter does not play well, it will be very hard for the Yankees to get into the postseason in a division with the defending-champion Red Sox and pitching-laden Tampa Bay Rays.

So Jeter is right in not wanting to turn this year into a ceremony.

“Jeets?” Tony Pena asks. “Oh, Jeets is going to have a good year. I’m not even worried about that. He’s going to have a very good year.”

“For sure?” I ask.

“Hey, you know me,” Pena says. “I’m always sure.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski