Matthew Pouliot

Jeff Keppinger

Yankees weighing Jeff Keppinger, Kevin Youkilis for third base

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While the Yankees have at least touched base with free agent Kevin Youkilis, Jeff Keppinger appears to be their primary target at the moment. Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan reports that the two sides met yesterday and that the Bombers’ interest in Keppinger is “very strong.”

Keppinger is the more realistic target, given that Youkilis is the top third baseman on the market and is drawing interest from wealthy Dodgers and Phillies teams that have full-time jobs open for him. Keppinger would likely be more open to serving as the stopgap at third base while Alex Rodriguez rehabs from hip surgery and then moving into more of a utility role. Keppinger, though, could command a two-year contract from another team, while the Yankees would much prefer to hand out a one-year deal.

The 32-year-old Keppinger is coming off a great season in which he hit .325/.367/.439 with nine homers and 40 RBI in 385 at-bats for the Rays. He’s a lifetime .288/.337/.396 hitter in 2,459 at-bats. He is much better against left-handers than right-handers, but that’s not such a bad thing in the lefty-heavy Yankee lineup.

Youkilis hit .235/.336/.409 with 19 homers and 60 RBI in 438 at-bats for the Red Sox and White Sox last season.

Update: FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal reports that the price for Keppinger is now $8 million for two years. That will give the Yankees pause, considering that their aim is to reduce payroll for 2014.

Yankees could receive insurance funds if Alex Rodriguez can’t play

Alex Rodriguez
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So, the best thing A-Rod can do for the Yankees now is not play?

CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have insurance on Alex Rodriguez’s contract that would cover 75-80 percent of his salary if he proves unable to play due to injuries.

Rodriguez is currently expected to miss 4-6 months following hip surgery in January, potentially leaving him sidelined until June or July.

The way insurance on baseball contracts typically works is that it doesn’t kick in unless a player misses the entire season. Whether that’s the case here is unknown, but it’s a pretty good case there won’t be any immediate windfall for the team.

Rodriguez is signed for five more seasons at a total of $114 million. If his body continues to break down, then perhaps the Yankees will recover big portions of his salary in future years. It might also have luxury-tax ramifications. Technically, A-Rod’s salary would still count against the tax even if he were injured and insurance was covering it, but if the Yankees dropped him from the 40-man roster, it no longer would.

That’s what happened with disappointing import Kei Igawa before his contract expired. Since he was no longer on the 40-man, his salary didn’t figure in for tax purposes. However, the Yankees also couldn’t pay someone to take him — which would have had luxury tax ramifications — and they essentially held him hostage in the minors until his contract was up.

Red Sox looking at Ryan Dempster, Kyle Lohse

Ryan Dempster
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The Red Sox are sitting out the Zack Greinke chase and they don’t seem very interested in spending what it would take to land Anibal Sanchez, but they are kicking the tires on Ryan Dempster and Kyle Lohse, according to reports.

WEEI’s Alex Speier writes about the interest in Dempster, who is seeking a three-year deal. Dempster, 35, had a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts for the Cubs and then a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for the Rangers last year. His stint with the Rangers was his first in the AL after 15 seasons in the NL.

CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman has the Red Sox and Angels among the suitors for Lohse, who wants a four- or five-year deal. Lohse, 34, went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA for the Cardinals last season. He was also 2-1 with a 3.98 ERA in four postseason starts. Lohse has pitched in the NL each of the last six years after opening his career 51-57 with a 4.88 ERA in six years with the Twins.

The Red Sox are also looking at Brandon McCarthy and could well be in the running for Edwin Jackson and Shaun Marcum before all is said and done. They were among the teams that considered Dan Haren, both before he officially became a free agent and afterwards, but according to the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, they were scared off by his medicals.

The National League is poised to have some excellent rotations

Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez
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Even with Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez still up for grabs, the National League already seems set to sport some excellent rotations in 2013. How about this for the top four:

Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren, Ross Detwiler
Giants: Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito
Phillies: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick
Reds: Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Aroldis Chapman, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey

The Haren addition gives the Nationals an edge over the Giants, in my opinion. There seemed to be league-wide concern about his back and hip, but he should be another above average starter to go along with the three potential aces already in the rotation.

The second four doesn’t look too bad, either:

Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano
Cardinals: Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook
Braves: Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Paul Maholm, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado
Mets: R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana, Jonathan Niese, Matt Harvey, Dillon Gee

The Dodgers may very well add Greinke and join the top tier. They also have Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu pending, and while there’s been some skepticism of late about getting him signed, there’s certainly nothing stopping the Dodgers from coming up with the money.

The Cardinals have question marks in their top five, most notably with Garcia’s shoulder. But they have Shelby Miller and maybe Trevor Rosenthal, if they choose to use him as a starter, ready to step in.

Likewise, the Braves’ group isn’t quite so impressive at the moment, but their best pitcher, Brandon Beachy, is planning a midseason return from Tommy John surgery.

And then there’s the Mets, if they don’t trade their Cy Young Award winner.

Honorable mention to the Diamondbacks, who have Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and some excellent prospects behind them, as well as Daniel Hudson perhaps returning from Tommy John in June or July.

Inducting Jack Morris would lower the bar for the Hall of Fame

jack-morris-03jpg-3f54fc94864f2ba1_medium[1]
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I’ve covered this territory before, and I realize I’m mostly preaching to the choir here. Still, it needs to be written again: Jack Morris did not have a Hall of Fame career.

The funny thing is that the writers once knew this. When Morris debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2000, he received 22 percent of the vote. His support dipped to 20 percent in 2001, and he only reached 30 percent on his sixth try in 2005. Now he’s all of the way up to 66.7 percent, still for no good reason that I can see.

Morris’ backers say he was the best pitcher of the 1980s and that he pitched one of the greatest games of all-time to clinch the 1991 World Series for the Twins. I take no issue with the latter statement; Morris’ stellar duel with the Braves’ John Smoltz in which he went the distance for a 1-0, 10-inning victory was a true masterpiece and should never be forgotten. And it won’t be.

The rest of the case for Morris is weak.

Morris is only a candidate for “best pitcher of the 1980s” because it just so happens that no elite starters showed up during that 1975-1980 timeframe and had their peak years during the 1980s. No one would ever think of Morris as the top pitcher of the 1970s or 1990s had his 1980s happened in another decade.

Also, one can put together a pretty good argument that Dave Stieb was actually the best pitcher of the 1980s. Morris topped Stieb in wins 162-140, but it was closer in winning percentage (.577 to .562), even though Morris played for superior teams. Morris had a 3.66 ERA and a 109 ERA+ for the decade, while Stieb came in at 3.32 and 126.

Even if you still want to give Morris “best pitcher of the 1980s” honors, he certainly wasn’t the best pitcher of the first half of the decade (Steve Carlton, 88-47, 2.91 ERA; Morris 86-62, 3.66 ERA) or anywhere near the best pitcher of the second half of the decade (Roger Clemens 86-41, 2.92 ERA; Morris 76-57, 3.67 ERA).

And Morris wasn’t the best pitcher in any season of the decade. Not only did he never win a Cy Young Award, but he never even finished second.

It’s the Cy Young balloting that is particularly telling, in my opinion. Some of those who argue for Morris like to tell us that we weren’t there, that we didn’t see Morris when he was winning all of those big games.

Well, look at the people that were there. Morris pitched for 18 seasons, all of them in a 14-team American League. During that time, there were 504 ballots cast for the Cy Young Award. Morris received a first-place vote on five of those ballots. One percent. He got two first-place votes in 1983, when he finished third in the balloting behind the immortal LaMarr Hoyt and a reliever in Dan Quisenberry. He got the other three in 1991, when he finished fourth behind Clemens, Scott Erickson and Jim Abbott.

And while I wasn’t covering baseball in those years, I was there, at least for the latter half of Morris’ career. I think everyone respected Morris. I don’t think anyone was afraid of him. No opposing fan ever went to the ballpark and said “we’ve got no shot today, Morris is starting.” Morris was a workhorse, a battler. There’s no evidence to support the pitching to the score argument, but Morris worked deep into games and usually gave his team a chance to win. And his team did more often than not (it helped that those Tigers had two guys who really should be in the Hall of Fame in Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker).

Of course, having to be the game’s best pitcher shouldn’t be the standard for the Hall of Fame. Bert Blyleven and Don Sutton were never the best in their leagues. Tom Glavine and Curt Schilling weren’t either, yet both of them should be enshrined.

Morris, though, still doesn’t compare. His 3.90 ERA would be the worst in Cooperstown. Even in seemingly weak fields, his best AL ERA finish was fifth place. He led the league in wins twice; once in the strike-shortened 1981 season with 14 and later in 1992 when he went 21-6 with a 4.04 ERA. He led the league in innings and strikeouts once apiece. His win total of 254 is pretty good, but it’s still behind that of 41 other starters in history and it’s really the strong point of his case. Also, it should be noted that the AL was the weaker of the two leagues during Morris’ career. He was facing easier competition than his NL counterparts.

Jack Morris was a very good pitcher, one of the last to average 250 innings and 10 complete games per season in his prime. He turned in one of the greatest postseason starts in history. That’s how he should be remembered. He just doesn’t come all that close to meeting the current standards for Hall of Fame¬†enshrinement, and voting him in would be a mistake.