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Pressing engagement in NY

Postseason stakes highest for Yankees

By Nick Cafardo
September 27, 2009

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Brian Cashman shrugs and Reggie Jackson just laughs when you bring up the word “pressure.’’ The second season is around the corner, and there’s no team under more pressure to win the World Series than the New York Yankees.

“We’re just trying to keep it simple,’’ said Cashman, the general manager. “We’re one of four teams that will be competing in the American League in the postseason, and our job is to win every series and approach it one step at a time.

“We’re in the same boat as the other four teams. We can’t view ourselves as any greater than anyone else. We earned the right to be playing in the playoffs, same as the other three teams, whether we won the division or made it as the wild card. We’re all equal once you get in.’’

That is what Cashman would always say about making the playoffs. But of course it’s different for the Yankees. Of course there’s more pressure.

There’s always pressure in Boston, too, but with two championships in five years, there’s not as much. There’s pressure to win now in Detroit, with a high payroll and aging players, but nowhere near what New York faces. There’s pressure in Los Angeles to get past the Red Sox in the first round. There’s pressure in Philadelphia to win back-to-back World Series, but if they don’t?

There’s no pressure in St. Louis, which won the World Series just three years ago. No pressure for the Cinderella Rockies.

The team that might have the second-most pressure is the Dodgers. They have been so good from start to finish, have survived Manny Ramirez’s suspension, and need to win something soon with Joe Torre at the helm.

But the Yankees failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time in 13 years. They went out and committed almost a half-billion dollars to CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett. They opened a $1.3 billion stadium with premium seating. They had the best team, the best lineup in the regular season.

What if the Yankees were to bow out in the first round, as they did in 2006? What’s considered a success? What’s considered a failure? How far does a team with a $200 million payroll have to get to satisfy its fans?

When you’re the biggest and the best, everyone is trying to shoot you down. Yankee enemies would love to see them embarrassed by the Tigers - and with Justin Verlander perhaps pitching twice, that isn’t far-fetched. Could Verlander beat Sabathia? Of course. Could Edwin Jackson beat Andy Pettitte? You bet. Could Jarrod Washburn beat Burnett? It’s all plausible.

Yet if the Yankees don’t let the pressure get to them, and they play as loose as they have all season, then you can rubber-stamp them for the American League Championship Series.

“There are certainly different degrees of success,’’ said Cashman. “We did everything we could to win the division. We’ll be very proud of that when we do it.

“We’re proud of making the playoffs. That’s a big accomplishment and we treat it that way. Having the best record is an accomplishment we’d like to have because that ensures us home-field advantage and we play very well in this ballpark.’’

But most baseball observers think it’s World Series or bust for the Yankees.

For most of this season the Yankees have enjoyed good vibes in New York, especially given the disaster that the Mets have been. The news has been positive on virtually every front.

Alex Rodriguez survived steroid revelations and hip surgery. Derek Jeter, at 35, discovered the fountain of youth and had one of his best seasons. Sabathia has lived up to expectations. The old guys - Johnny Damon, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, and Mariano Rivera - have had excellent seasons. Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera took their occupation seriously.

It has all been good.

But in one short Division Series, all the goodwill could vanish. Imagine being eliminated by the Tigers. Would Joe Girardi go from Manager of the Year to dismissed, as he was in Florida in 2006? Would Cashman’s job be in jeopardy? The coaches?

As Cashman pointed out, the last thing he wants is to answer questions about how the Yankees “coughed it up,’’ which he had to in 2006, the last time the Yankees met the Tigers in the playoffs.

“There’s pressure here every day, every year,’’ said Jackson. “That never goes away. We’ve had players here over the years who have thrived on pressure.’’

Like Mr. October.

But the Yankees haven’t had a Mr. October for many years. They need one now.

Under new management

If the Indians truly believe that Eric Wedge was a victim of the roster Mark Shapiro handed him - and has subsequently stripped him of - he’ll continue on as manager. If not, speculation has already centered around Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell as a possible successor.

Farrell might be the highest-paid pitching coach in baseball; there are varying reports as to whether it’s him or St. Louis’s Dave Duncan, who reportedly earns $750,000.

That is more than some managers make. The Indians paid Wedge $1.3 million, but would they pay Farrell more than $1 million?

Farrell lives in the Cleveland area and is quite familiar with the organization, having been its farm director.

If Wedge is replaced, it’s likely the Indians will go outside the organization. Torey Lovullo is their Triple A manager and is highly regarded, but they might look for the next up-and-coming guy.

In Houston, where Cecil Cooper was let go, general manager Ed Wade will gravitate toward people he’s worked with. One is Jim Fregosi, who has been eyeing a return to managing for some time. Fregosi is a tremendous baseball man, but the recent trend toward younger managers has hurt his chance to get back in. Boston coach Tim Bogar also will be on Houston’s short list.

With Bobby Cox announcing he’ll return for one more season in Atlanta, speculation will begin on a successor. Hitting coach Terry Pendleton will likely be a top candidate.

The odds are 50-50 on whether Jim Riggleman returns to manage the Nationals; he didn’t fare any better than the fired Manny Acta. General manager Mike Rizzo may consider former Arizona manager Bob Melvin, or he might go high-profile for Bobby Valentine, who is looking to return after several seasons in Japan.

Ken Macha? Brewers owner Mark Attanasio has left it up to GM Doug Melvin to make the decision. Melvin is one of the fairest men in the game and will likely give Macha another chance, with a roster to be upgraded in the offseason.

Dave Trembley could be in jeopardy in Baltimore.

Scouting for an owner? Gilbert would be a good choice

If Dennis Gilbert’s ownership group gets the Rangers, there will be no shortage of baseball people wanting to work for him. Gilbert has done tremendous work for professional scouts and has donated and raised a lot of money for the “RBI’’ program (“Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities’’).

Gilbert is a former Red Sox farmhand who was nicknamed “Go Go’’ because of his speed. He befriended Tony Conigliaro and spent time as his roommate in the minors. Gilbert stays in touch with the Conigliaro family and cherishes the time he spent with Tony C.

His playing career got as far as Double A, then Gilbert became an insurance executive in Beverly Hills and wound up becoming one of the most powerful agents in sports. He is currently a special assistant to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

“I managed him at Williamsport, and he was very fast,’’ said Sox consultant Dick Berardino. “I’d say [Jacoby] Ellsbury fast. The year I had Go Go, the league experimented with a designated runner for the pitcher. If Go Go wasn’t playing, he’d be my guy running the bases when the pitcher got on.’’

The five other groups bidding for the Rangers have not been revealed, but Gilbert would have instant credibility. So often, owners come from other successful businesses but are anonymous in the baseball industry. Some, such as David Glass in Kansas City and Ted Lerner in Washington, find the sledding tough and can’t get the right people to run the baseball business the way they could in their other businesses.

Gilbert’s Scouts Foundation in Beverly Hills helps scouts who don’t have medical benefits or are down on their luck, and one scout who has been helped by it said, “That would be a major shot in the arm for scouts around baseball. Go Go understands the value of the people who are the lifeblood of baseball more than anyone else out there.’’

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. If Red Sox groundskeeper Dave Mellor pulls off the Fenway opener next April 5 vs. the Yankees after two weeks of midwinter hockey games at the park, it will truly be a miracle on ice; 2. Always wondered what former Sox architect Janet Marie Smith would do with Wrigley Field, but for now she’ll be designing the Orioles’ new spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla.; 3. It would be a shame if Nick Green didn’t get a chance to participate in the playoffs after his contribution this season; 4. Whoever hires Rick Peterson this offseason will get the best pitching coach in the game; 5. Can we start the playoffs now?

Updates on 9 (disappointing seasons)
1. B.J. Upton, CF, Rays - His tremendous athleticism led this correspondent to call him the “breakout player of 2009’’ before the season. Good call, huh? Upton, 25, has hit .240 with 10 homers, 48 RBIs, and 39 steals, though he had a good stretch last week, producing five RBIs in two games with good defense. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said, “That’s what he showed us in the past, and the old scouting adage is, ‘If he’s shown it to you in the past, he’s going to show it to you again.’ It’s all about confidence. He’s a young man whose confidence is going to come back. He’s going to show it to you again.’’ One scout noted that Upton chases breaking balls from pitchers he’s never faced before, a sign of indecision at the plate.

2. Milton Bradley, OF, Cubs: Nothing went downhill faster than Bradley in Chicago. He was an emotional player teamed with an emotional manager (Lou Piniella), a red flag. Couple that with his horrid start (4 for 34), a couple of ill-advised comments about Chicago fans, and it was a recipe for disaster. General manager Jim Hendry sent him home with pay for the rest of the year, but the Players Association will likely win a grievance in this matter if the situation isn’t resolved. Problem is, will the Cubs be able to move Bradley in the offseason?

3. Alfonso Soriano, OF, Cubs: The least productive season of his career is over because of knee surgery, but scouts who watched him feel he regressed at age 33. “Still one of the most undisciplined players in the league, especially for a guy who has been around this long,’’ said an NL scout. Soriano hit .241 with 20 homers and 55 RBIs and had some very ugly at-bats.

4. Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers - One scout’s view of Ordonez, who two years ago hit .363 and is a career .311 hitter but slipped to .295 with 7 homers and 41 RBIs: “You see declining physical skills, and the strange thing is that he’s playing harder than ever with few results. His skills have slipped noticeably in the outfield, where he doesn’t move as well or throw as well. He doesn’t drive the ball like he used to and he rarely pulls a fastball.’’

5. Vernon Wells, OF, Blue Jays - He has never lived up to his seven-year, $126 million deal. “I think he leads the league in check swings,’’ said the NL scout. “He’s a gifted center fielder, but it seems as though he has no rhythm at the plate whatsoever. He hits a lot of ground balls where it seems like he’s rolling over. I don’t know what the answer is with him, and I’m sure he’s just as frustrated as anyone.’’

6. Alex Rios, OF, White Sox - A big disappointment since the White Sox claimed him off waivers from Toronto. When Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen was asked what Rios was doing, he answered, “He’s making a lot of outs.’’ The skinny, from the NL scout: “Very undisciplined at the plate. It looks as if he has absolutely no plan at the plate.’’

7. Dioner Navarro, C, Rays - An All-Star a year ago, Navarro went downhill fast (.218), to the point where the Rays will likely be in the market for a catcher. “Looked like he put on weight again and just didn’t work as hard as he needed to,’’ said the NL scout. “It’s strange because you look at him in 2008 and you saw a very dedicated kid who wanted to show everyone how good he was.’’

8. Jermaine Dye, OF, White Sox - His second-half decline is surprising, and while the White Sox may not pick up his $12 million option, the NL scout thinks Dye would be a good free agent pickup. “I suppose Father Time catches up to everyone,’’ said the scout, “but I think with Dye, he’s just a guy where you have to manage his games and innings. To me, he just wilted. I don’t think it’s a lack of bat speed or diminished skills. I think he just got worn out.’’

9. Francisco Liriano, LHP, Twins - The Johan Santana comparisons disappeared after his Tommy John surgery. Liriano (5-12, 5.75) is in the bullpen now. The saving grace could be his age - 25 - giving him time to find the stuff that many thought would lead to an All-Star career. “You look at him now and you just don’t see that explosion on his fastball that he once had,’’ said an AL scout.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: “Jermaine Dye hit .189 in August and is at .179 for September, which puts him just .054 better than Jason Varitek in August and .058 better in September.’’ Also, “Brian Fuentes last season with Colorado had a 1-5 record, same as this year with the Angels. The similarities end there; his ERA is up from 2.73 to 4.21 and his WHIP is up from 1.101 to 1.442.’’ . . . Happy 90th birthday, Johnny Pesky.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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