On Thursday night, Alex Rodriguez took 15 young players to the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Tampa as a bonding gesture and to drive home a message — don’t do what I did.
“I want the kids to learn from my mistakes,” said Rodriguez, now a special adviser to Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. “We talked about the good things, but I spent 80 percent of the dinner talking about the mistakes I made and how they avoid those. Life is full of choices and I made the wrong ones. I don’t want any of them to fall into that trap.”
Rodriguez was referring to his use of steroids. This has always been a head-scratcher, given that he was one of the greatest to ever play the game and put up his offensive numbers primarily at shortstop, arguably the second-toughest position on the field other than catcher.
A-Rod retired last August with the Yankees planning to release him. At the time, he was hitting just .200 with 9 home runs and 31 RBIs in 243 plate appearances. He decided against signing with his hometown Miami Marlins. He fielded calls this offseason about postponing his retirement but politely declined. He chose to work for the Yankees in a consultant role.
Has Rodriguez played his last game?
“It’s never ever out of you,” said A-Rod, wearing his old No. 13 jersey in training camp. “I love this game so much. When you’re out here on the grass with my uniform on, you’re always tempted to grab a bat, but I’m also happy with my life.
“I loved the game, playing since I was born. Putting on the pinstripes, I always felt that I could compete and do well. I’m also really, really happy where my life is right now.
“I hit .200 last year. But that wasn’t the reason I retired. Not at all. Last year was a small sample, and yes, I think I can go out there and compete and play well. I just feel I’m in a good place right now.”
Rodriguez is four homers away from 700. The steroid police can claim that total is tainted, but A-Rod is close to a plateau achieved by only three others — Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth.
“You’re four away. Holy smokes. I could almost taste it,” said Rodriguez. “You think about that, four more home runs, but you know, I keep saying it, I’m just happy where I am.”
Rodriguez feels all the years he spent as a disillusioned superstar were a blessing because he wound up understanding himself and life a lot better after sitting out the 2014 season for his second PED suspension.
“Honestly, coming back the last 2½ years, I felt I learned a great lesson from my mistakes,” he said.
A-Rod spent four days at Yankees camp with the young players. He had a meeting with Steinbrenner on Thursday in which they mapped out other possible roles. He said he was leaving camp but would return in mid-March. He said he would also help out with Yankee farm teams from time to time in the summer. He said he was signed with Fox through the All-Star break so he’s planning to take part in the All-Star broadcast and bring his daughters to the July exhibition at Marlins Park. He also talked about a potential role with the YES Network to work on Yankee broadcasts.
Rodriguez will earn $21 million this season in the last year of the 10-year, $275 million contract he signed after the 2007 season.
“This is a very important year for our organization,” he said. “I call it more of a transition year. And we need to transition into the next five years and celebrate that and we have to be comfortable with that. But I would say transition, not rebuild.”
The Yankees need Jacoby Ellsbury to be great again. They need newcomers Matt Holliday and Chris Carter to provide power in replacing Rodriguez and fellow retiree Mark Teixeira, plus Carlos Beltran, whom New York traded to Texas at last year’s deadline.
They need catcher Gary Sanchez to keep taking baseball by storm. They need young hitters Greg Bird and Aaron Judge to be solid contributors. They need Michael Pineda to have a breakout year and CC Sabathia to continue adjusting to pitching with less velocity.
“Patience is really important,” Rodriguez said. “We’re transitioning, and that often has some hiccups. But if you stick with it, it will pay off.”
BOUNCE BACK IN BRONX?
Yankees need a better Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury, 33, is now one of the Yankees’ elder statesmen. But will the former Red Sox standout, who signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with New York after the 2013 season, ever return to being the player he once was?
Taking it a step further, can the quiet, reserved Ellsbury emerge as a team leader?
“Young guys come to me to ask questions and ask for advice,” Ellsbury said. “I’ll always be there for them if they need advice in whatever area they seek it. I had people like David Ortiz who did that for me in those years in Boston and we won championships together. David was a mentor, and if guys need help I can share my experience with them.”
General manager Brian Cashman thinks Ellsbury needs to have a better year and his role as a leadoff man or No. 2 hitter couldn’t be more important.
Ellsbury battled some annoying injuries last year, but they didn’t cost him a lot of playing time. In fact, he played 148 games, but he hit only .263 with 9 homers and 56 RBIs. He had an OPS of only .703 and an on-base percentage of just .330.
That is a far cry from the player Ellsbury was with the Red Sox. He had his breakout year in 2011, when he hit .321 with 32 homers and 105 RBIs. He hasn’t come close those power numbers since.
The Yankees believed that the short porch in right field in New York would trigger a power increase for Ellsbury. But after hitting 16 homers in 2014, he’s hit just 16 the last two seasons. His speed — Ellsbury led the AL in steals three times with Boston — has also waned, showing up in center field and on the basepaths. In three seasons in New York, Ellsbury’s stolen base totals have dropped from 39 to 21 to 20.
Bottom line, Ellsbury has been somewhat of a bust.
“Jacoby has the talent to be a superstar,” former teammate Alex Rodriguez said. “I think it’s all about his health.”
Perhaps that’s true. Remember, Ellsbury played only 18 games for the Red Sox in 2010 because of cracked ribs.
Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are seen as the potential leaders of this offense. They will likely bat 1-2 in the lineup.
“I’ve prepared hard in the offseason for the upcoming season and I feel I’m ready,” Ellsbury said. “All you can do as a player is prepare the best you can and hope you can stay healthy and perform at a high level. I think every player wants that.”
Apropos of nothing
Just for kicks, I asked players and coaches for their most bizarre ideas for speeding up the game.
1. “Have robots call balls and strikes. If the count is 3-0, you walk. If it’s 0-2, you’re out. Each hitter is allowed to see no more than 10 pitches per at-bat. By the way, the home team will provide a technician to fix any robotic malfunctions, but if it can’t be fixed a new already booted robot will be provided.”
2. “Pitchers have to race to the mound to begin an inning, throw as many warm-up pitches as they can within 10 seconds, and then the robot will light up red signaling it’s time to pitch.”
3. “Put an electric fence encircling the batters’ box. If the hitter steps out, he gets zapped. If the batter makes contact, the electrical field is released so he may run. All slow runners will be asked to retire from baseball.”
4. “There will be no conferences between catcher or pitcher, pitching coach and pitcher, and manager and pitcher. But cellphone texting is allowed. Each pitcher will have a cellphone charger located near the rosin bag to be used in times of need, but there will be a ‘no texting while pitching’ rule.”
5. “No throws will be allowed to hold the runner. The pitcher must throw to the batter. It takes way too much time to hold the runner on.”
6. “Upon securing an out, the fielder must throw the ball out of play, in the stands, in the dugout, whatever. For an outfielder to throw it to an infielder and then to the pitcher, that takes way too much time.”
7. “The manager/umpire ground rules conversation before the game is a waste of time. And do we really need lineup cards exchanged? The lineups will be posted electronically on the dugout iPads and the umpires will have electronic devices to make sure nobody bats out of order.”
8. “We must eliminate ‘God Bless America’ in the seventh inning. Some of these renditions drag on far too long and delay the start of the inning. The Jumbotron will suggest fans sing the song to themselves or they will be provided an app to hear their favorite artists sing it.”
9. “If the manager takes one step out of the dugout to argue a call, a bazooka water gun will hose him down. If he’s on the field for more than 30 seconds, security will escort him off the field. The manager will be respectful of the robot.”
10. “First-pitch hits will be rewarded with an extra base. If it’s a triple, you get home. If it’s a single, you get second. If it’s a double, you get third. If you hit a home run, then an extra run is added. So two-run homers become three-run homers, etc.”
Updates on nine
1. Matt Holliday, DH/1B/OF, Yankees — Holliday spent 7½ seasons in another baseball mecca in St. Louis, but the Cardinals told Holliday they were going in a different direction. Holliday broke his thumb last season and missed eight weeks. He signed a one-year deal with the Yankees for $8 million. “I think any player in the game looks at the Yankees as that storied franchise and one they’d love to wear the uniform for. I was no different. I always admired the team from afar and I had the chance this offseason to think about where I was going, and I had the opportunity to come here and I’m happy about that decision,” Holliday said.
2. Bob McClure, pitching coach, Phillies — McClure, who was fired as Red Sox pitching coach during the 2012 season, has enjoyed working with Clay Buchholz again. “Clay is a special talent,” said McClure. “I’ve seen him pitch well but injuries always got in the way. If he’s healthy, he should do very well here. I think I know Clay and what makes him tick so I look forward to the season with him.”
3. Matt Stairs, hitting coach, Phillies — Upon his retirement following the 2011 season, Stairs said he tried to hit a home run every time up when he was primarily a pinch hitter. “But that was at the end of my career in the role I was in,” he said. “If you followed my career when I went to Oakland, I hit the ball to all fields. I tried to drive the ball up the middle. As a hitting coach I’m emphasizing that to our hitters and really stressing situational hitting.” Stairs sees third baseman Maikel Franco as a candidate to become an elite hitter.
4. Daniel Nava, 1B/OF, Phillies — According to Phillies GM Matt Klentak, Nava has a good chance of making the team as a nonroster invitee. “He can play the corner outfield spots, first base, and he’s a switch-hitter, so he’s got a shot,” said Klentak. Nava signed with the Phillies because of that opportunity. “I feel great, switch-hitting again and on a young team where the hitters may need a little more time to develop. I feel good about it,” he said. Nava is good at working the count, which is needed in the Phillies lineup.
5. Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees — People are split on whether Judge can make the Opening Day roster or whether he needs more time in Triple A. Those who support committing to him think the Yankees need to let him struggle and be patient. “If you can get a .240 or so [average] out of him for the first couple of months, just to hold his own and get used to major league pitching, that would be great for the kid. He just needs to play,” said one Judge supporter. “He’s a very good outfielder with a good arm. He has monster power, but you have to put up with the strikeouts and swings and misses for a while.” Judge hit a first-pitch homer against the Phillies on Friday.
6. Matt Wieters, C, Nationals — Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo is a master roster builder. The signing of Wieters could bring dividends as the switch-hitter can still produce offensively. Wieters, 30, signed a two-year deal worth about $21 million with an opt-out after one year. He’s considered to be poor at framing pitches, but Rizzo is savvy enough to know that framing isn’t the only attribute you’re looking for in a catcher. Wieters handles a pitching staff very well. Rizzo has come close to replacing the offense he lost from Wilson Ramos in free agency.
7. David Robertson, RHP, White Sox — There’s belief that the Nationals could still make a deal for Robertson, even after talks broke down. With the Wieters addition, the Nats now have four catchers in Derek Norris, Jose Lobaton, and prospect Pedro Severino. If Rizzo elects to give up Severino, that deal could regain traction. The Nats really need an established closer.
8. Derek Jeter, retired — Yankees pitching prospect Justus Sheffield asked Jeter about his favorite player to watch. Sheffield told NJ Advance Media, “He mentioned watching Mookie Betts. He loves watching Mookie Betts play. Then he said, ‘Anyone who goes and plays the game hard.’ ”
9. Chipper Jones, retired — Jones leads an interesting group of players who will join the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time next year. Jones, a switch-hitting offensive machine, should get in on his initial try. Andruw Jones, Jim Thome, and Omar Vizquel all have legitmate chances as well. Thome finished with 612 homers, 1,699 RBIs, and a .956 OPS. He had a career OBP of .402. Andruw Jones won 10 Gold Gloves and hit 434 home runs as a center fielder. Vizquel was one of the greatest fielding shortstops of his time and finished with 2,877 hits and 11 Gold Gloves. He played until he was 45.
From the Bill Chuck files — “In 2011, Matt Kemp stole 40 bases in 161 games. In 639 games since, he’s stolen 39.” . . . Also, “In 2016, only two players hit at least 20 homers but no sacrifice flies: Mark Trumbo (47 homers) and Mitch Moreland (22).” . . . Happy birthday, J.T. Snow (49) and Jack Brohamer (67).
Let’s win two?
Now that the Chicago Cubs have taken care of their 108-year championship drought, they can set the sights on another rarity: back-to-back titles. The Cubs, who began the preseason as co-favorites with the Red Sox to win the 2017 World Series, are trying to become the first repeat champion since the Yankees won three in a row, ending in 2000. A list of the repeat champions:
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.