As season looms, news gets urgent

March 21, 2013

When the baseball news starts getting more urgent, you know that Opening Day is near.

Well, the news was urgent Thursday, on three different fronts.

Item: Derek Jeter could open season on disabled list.

Such a plan actually is in the works; Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Thursday that Jeter would not play in any more major-league games this spring, enabling the club to backdate his injury if he goes on the 15-day DL.


Jeter, of course, was his usual self — amiable yet defiant — in discussing his comeback from a surgically repaired left ankle.

“I wouldn’t call it a setback,” he said. “It’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s what I’m told.”

Uh, Derek, you didn’t plan for soreness to sideline you, didn’t plan to receive a cortisone shot Wednesday, didn’t plan to play no more than five innings in a game so far this spring.

He’s 38, an age at which players don’t recover from injuries as easily. If he plays in minor-league games the rest of the spring and opens the season on the DL, he will not be eligible to join the Yankees until April 6.

Cashman isn’t ruling him out for Opening Day. Jeter still intends to play Opening Day. But really, the rush to be ready for the opener is silly. The Yankees need Jeter healthy, whether it’s on April 1, April 6 or beyond.

Still, the immediate future is frightening.

Here is what the Yankees’ lineup looked like for Thursday night’s game against the Twins — without Jeter, first baseman Mark Teixeira, center fielder Curtis Granderson and third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

Brett Gardner, CF

Ichiro Suzuki, LF

Robinson Cano, 2B

Kevin Youkilis, 1B

Travis Hafner, DH

Brennan Boesch, RF

Eduardo Nunez, SS

Jayson Nix, 3B

Francisco Cervelli, C

The Yankees figure to add another corner infielder before the end of spring training, but Miguel Cabrera isn’t walking through their clubhouse door.

Jeter has never appeared more important — or more vulnerable. He needs to be handled with care.

Item: Hanley Ramirez out two months.

I know what Dodgers executives and Dodgers fans are thinking: Damn WBC.

Their frustration is understandable; Ramirez tore a ligament in his right thumb diving for a ball in the championship game of the tournament, and now will require surgery that will sideline him for at least eight weeks.

Still, consider what Ramirez’s Dominican teammate, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, said on Thursday:

“That’s the kind of stuff that happens in life. I don’t want to blame the WBC. If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen no matter what. People get hurt in spring training, during the season.”

Cano, of course, is right: Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson (broken forearm) and Padres third baseman Chase Headley (broken left thumb) indeed got hurt in spring-training games.

Yet, critics of the WBC will point to the injuries to Ramirez and Mets third baseman David Wright as proof of the added risk that come with playing meaningful games at a time when players normally are just rounding into shape.

That point is difficult to argue; the question is whether the WBC is worth the tradeoff. I would say yes, but I’m a fan of baseball, not one club. If I had a clear rooting interest, I wouldn’t necessarily be reasonable if my team lost a player as important as Ramirez.

Two other thoughts:

• Ramirez’s injury might come with one hidden benefit. He can use his rehabilitation time to better prepare at shortstop, a position he had barely played this spring.

Jose Reyes was the Dominican Republic’s shortstop during the country’s march to the WBC title; Ramirez usually was at third base or DH.

• The success of the WBC, in the view of its operating partners, Major League Baseball and the players’ union, surely overshadowed any one player’s injury.

Attendance rose by more than 10 percent, according to the organizers. The Dominican Republic, Japan, Puerto Rico and Taiwan reported record TV viewership — and the championship game was the most-watched sporting event in the Dominican Republic in at least 10 years.

Interest grew even in the U.S., despite Team USA failing to advance to the semifinals. The championship game was the second most-watched non-postseason game in MLB Network’s brief history and fourth most-watched overall.

Item: Chapman to close.

This one isn’t confirmed. Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the Reds were expected to name Chapman their closer on Thursday, but general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Dusty Baker denied that the team had made a decision.

At this point, it would be a surprise if the Reds named Chapman a starter. Chapman wants to close. Baker wants him to close. And even though a quality pitcher is far more valuable pitching 200 innings than 60, Chapman’s comfort level, in particular, cannot be ignored.

The problem is that both Chapman and Baker lack patience — but for reasons that are quite understandable.

Chapman knows he is a wipeout closer; he doesn’t want to invest the time and energy necessary to become a top starter, refining his secondary stuff, working at lower velocity, pitching on an innings limit.

Baker, meanwhile, knows the Reds are capable of winning the World Series; he doesn’t want to wait for Chapman to develop as a starter when he can deploy the lefty as a 100-mph weapon in the ninth inning.

All of that is fine, but if this is the Reds’ decision, they need to stick with it. No more talk of Chapman as a starter. No more flights of fancy in spring training. Enough.

The Reds had less of a choice last season; they needed Chapman to close after Ryan Madson underwent Tommy John surgery. This time, they signed free-agent right-hander Jonathan Broxton for $21 million over three years — closer money — but seem likely to go back to Chapman, anyway.

On Thursday, I raised the question on Twitter: Why did the Reds even sign Broxton if they weren’t committed to Chapman as a starter? Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler replied that the San Francisco Giants gave lefty Jeremy Affeldt $18 million over three years, and he isn’t a closer.

True, but the Reds already have a high-paid setup man — lefty Sean Marshall, who is entering the second year of a three-year, $16.5 million deal. Chapman will be arbitration-eligible after this season, so we’re talking, eventually, about an awfully expensive bullpen for a mid-market club.

Of course, as first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips can attest, the Reds occasionally spend quite lavishly. Their owner, Bob Castellini, is hellbent on winning. And ultimately, the return of Chapman to the closer’s role would be a win-now move.

As for Chapman’s long-term potential as a starter, it will become one of those classic what-might-have-been questions.

We’ll never know.