Masahiro Tanaka will help, but the Yankees need much more than him to be a contender

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The offseason distorts things. The wintertime focus on individual player signings and the underlying optimism everyone seems to have about the prospects of their local nine often makes us forget that, in baseball, one player cannot make the difference between winning and losing. Heck, sometimes even three players don’t. Just ask Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson and thousands of disappointed Angels fans these past couple of seasons.

Which isn’t to say that Masahiro Tanaka was a bad signing for the Yankees. Anything but. The Yankees had serious issues in their rotation and Tanaka was, by far, the best pitcher available on the open market. Tanaka’s presence will dramatically improve the Bombers’ rotation even if his numbers pale compared to the video game stats he posted in Japan this past season.

But before Yankees fans clear their October calendars in favor of watching a deep playoff run, they need to remember that, despite the nearly half a billion dollars the Steinbrenners have devoted to free agents this offseason, their local nine still has a lot of holes.

Mariano Rivera is gone and, though David Robertson is one of the best relief pitchers in the game, one does not simply replace the greatest of all time. Maybe more to the point, with Robertson moving in to the closer’s role, the rest of the bullpen is thrust into flux. Lefty Matt Thornton was a nice pickup, but New York could really use another solid reliever.

The infield could be a much bigger problem. Heck, if things break bad it could be a hot mess. Mark Teixeira’s wrist, which kept him out of the entire 2013 season, is already giving him some problems, with MLB.com reporting earlier this week that he’s likely to have a late start to spring training as a result. Derek Jeter is back, but he is no safe bet to be healthy and/or effective at his advanced age. His fill-in — Brendan Ryan — is a slick fielder but worthless at the plate. And he may be covering second base anyway if Brian Roberts, imported from Baltimore, is unable to shake the durability issues he’s had for the past several years. Finally, while everyone is happy that A-Rod is gone, third base is a question mark. Kelly Johnson hasn’t played much third in his career., and he may need to cover first base if Teixeira is gimpy.

That sound you hear is Stephen Drew’s agent clearing his schedule to take meetings with Brian Cashman. Or, if Cashman is smart, it should be.

Even before the Tanaka signing, the Yankees addition of Brain McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran made them better. But there’s no escaping the fact that this was an 85-win team last year which arguably overachieved to get even that far (their Pythagorean expectation was 79 wins). To compete with the defending world champ Red Sox and the always pesky Tampa Bay Rays, the Yankees needed to improve significantly.

There is no question that the Tanaka signing is a significant upgrade to the rotation. But to the extent anyone says it “buys the Yankees a championship” or anything close to it, they’re ignoring the fact that an awful lot has to go right for this team, as currently constructed, to even be assured of the playoffs. They’re a reliever, an infielder (or two) and a couple of bounceback years from some aging veterans away from printing playoff tickets.

Sometimes all of those things break just right. They’re not the sort of things people wager a lot of money on, however.

Javier Baez: “This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it.”

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Infielder Javier Baez is back in camp with the Cubs after helping Puerto Rico to a second-place finish in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He was the focal point of what was, to many, the most memorable play of the entire tournament: Baez pointed at catcher Yadier Molina, who was attempting to throw out a would-be base-stealer, before applying the tag for the final out of the eighth inning.

While Baez didn’t receive much criticism for his theatrics, aside from an insignificant handful of spoilsports, he is one of the players who most exemplifies the emotional, celebratory culture that foreign players bring to Major League Baseball. U.S. (and Tigers) second baseman Ian Kinsler is on the other side of that spectrum, as he said prior to the WBC final that he hopes kids mimic the solemn way U.S. players play the game rather than the emotional, passionate way players from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic play the game.

Baez isn’t about to apologize for the way he and his teammates play the game. Via CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney, Baez said, “We do a great job playing and having fun out there. That’s what it’s all about. This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it. but, you know, everybody’s got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.”

He continued, “It’s their choice to look at how we play, how excited we get. To us, it’s really huge what we did, even though we didn’t win. All of Puerto Rico got really together. We were going through a hard time over there and everything got fixed up for at least three weeks. Hopefully, they keep it like that.”

Mike Trout proposes change to spring training umpiring

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Angels outfielder Mike Trout came up with an idea that would allow less experienced umpires an opportunity to call some major league spring training action. As ESPN’s Buster Olney reports, Trout thinks the veteran umpires should only call five or six innings as they get back into regular season shape. The rest of the innings could be called by minor league umpires.

According to Olney, baseball officials loved Trout’s idea when they heard about it last week. One official said, “It makes a lot of sense for a lot of different reasons.” Another said, “That’s Trout — he’s always paying attention to stuff beyond what he’s doing.”

Of course, I have to agree that the suggestion is a great one. As Olney notes, the turnover rate for umpires every year is relatively low, so younger, less-experienced umpires have few opportunities to get a feel for what it’s like calling major league action. Even beyond the actual interpretation of the rules, interacting with big league personalities would also be helpful for minor league umpires.