Commentary

Yankees Confidential: Notes from camp

Reading the tea leaves after a week in Tampa: Bartolo up, Joey loose, A.J. uptight

Updated: February 25, 2011, 7:29 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- The New York Yankees have held five full-squad workouts so far and are one day removed from taking the field for their first exhibition game of the spring on Saturday afternoon against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Of course, it is way too early to make final determinations on anything. And of course, that means it is exactly the right time to speculate, insinuate and observate -- is that a word? -- about what has gone on so far.

In that spirit, what follows is a collection of random spring training thoughts at the conclusion of the first full week of camp:

Bartolo Colon, as rotund as he is, is ahead of Freddy Garcia in the all-important Drive for Five, the search for the elusive No. 5 starter. How do I know this? I don't. But I infer it from the fact that Colon is starting Game 1 against the Phillies, while Garcia doesn't go until March 3 against the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, the sixth game of the exhibition season.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBartolo Colon is six years removed from his Cy Young season of 2005.

Also, Joe Girardi has been almost effusive in his praise of Colon: "He's the Bartolo I remember, a guy who uses his fastball a lot, keeps the ball down and is able to hit his spots.'' And watching Garcia struggle in live BP against Russell Martin and Greg Golson Thursday morning, the day after no one got many good swings against Colon, you get the feeling the portly little guy with the barrel neck is slightly ahead of the big dude who won 12 games for the White Sox last year.

Phil Hughes is ahead of A.J. Burnett in the even more important Avis Bowl, the competition to determine who will try harder behind CC Sabathia in the Yankees' rotation.

I get this not only from their comparative records and performances last year -- Hughes was 18-8, 4.19; Burnett 10-15, 5.26 -- but the fact that Girardi flip-flopped them in the first week's rotation, pitching Hughes Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton and Burnett Wednesday against the Houston Astros here. "Don't read anything into that,'' Girardi said the other night. Of course not.

Francisco Cervelli is ahead of Jesus Montero and Austin Romine for the backup catcher's job, if only because of Burnett. Knowing how vital a resurgent Burnett is to the Yankees' success this year, especially after the retirement of Andy Pettitte, it just doesn't make sense that the Yankees would mess with his fragile head by taking away his personal catcher. It makes even less sense when the everyday catcher is a new guy, Russell Martin, whose lingering stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee has prevented him from working with the pitching staff as much as the Yankees would like him to.

Since Girardi emphasizes the importance of rapport with the catcher in the success of a pitcher, I can't imagine him forcing Martin on Burnett unless the two hit it off famously in the next couple of weeks. Then again, even with their fabulous rapport, Burnett hasn't pitched appreciably better throwing to Cervelli than he has when he's thrown to Jorge Posada. So maybe it doesn't make any difference.

• By the way, good rule of thumb: Whenever they tell you something's "not a big deal,'' it usually is. That's why until we see Martin behind the plate in a game, I will be asking him the same question every day: "How's that knee feeling, Russell?"

• I am informed by someone in the know that Hal Steinbrenner happened to be building a new mansion last year, too. Do you think that is who Hank Steinbrenner was really referring to? As Derek Jeter said the other day, "Do not assume, buddy.''

• I have yet to see Rafael Soriano talk to anyone. In uniform or out. So much for that relationship he was going to build with Mariano, who sits right next to him. I have yet to see them have a conversation, probably because Soriano is always too busy glowering into his locker.

• He may still have his loose-leaf notebooks, but Joe Girardi seems looser than he was last year and way looser than he was in 2008 and 2009. He took the beat writers out to dinner Wednesday night and a fine time was had by all. Little-known Girardi fact: He puts ice cubes in his red wine.

• Once again, Nick Swisher is the human equivalent of Disneyland, the happiest place on earth. And why not? He just married an actress and appears to be in better, more muscular shape than he was in 2010. He's been in a great mood all spring. Until, of course, I mentioned to him that Kevin Long told me, "It'll be hard for Swisher to duplicate what he did'' in 2010. That chased the perpetual smile from his face. "He didn't mean that,'' Swisher said.

Actually, he did, but not in a bad way. A .290 average with 29 homers and 89 RBIs will be tough to duplicate. But not, Long pointed out, impossible.

• New pitching coach Larry Rothschild starts his day early and ends it early. A lot of times his pitchers are throwing before the clubhouse opens and before any media is in the ballpark. And by 1 p.m., he's done, which is nice work if you can get it. The pitchers seem to like it. Earlier tee times.

Mark Teixeira, aka the Tex9000 because he seems like a bionic man, is so reflexively cheerful it's as if he's been programmed to be nice. Not that I'm complaining. The Yankees' clubhouse is generally a good place to work but there's more than one guy whose programming seems the exact opposite of Tex's.

• Stories I've heard about what Mark Prior was like during his phenom days in Chicago are belied by his humility and willingness to discuss how his career spiraled down the drain after the 2003 NLCS. Baseball will do that to you sometimes; life will do it to you all the time. I must admit, I hope he makes the team as the long man.

• Even though Alex Rodriguez does his level best to avoid any interaction with media people, I always get the feeling he really wants people to talk to him but is afraid to make the first approach. He almost never says hello unless someone says it to him first. And even then, not always.

• Derek Jeter, on the other hand, almost always makes eye contact and says hello, just like a real live human being. He may not say anything worth quoting in an interview, but at least he has an ingrained sense of human civility.

• Manny Banuelos is a really pleasant kid who doesn't seem the least bit intimidated either by being the youngest player in the room -- he will remain a teenager until March 13 -- or the smallest pitcher on the roster, at a listed 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds. Fires left-handed bullets, too.

• The Yankees have so many giant pitchers -- Andrew Brackman and Andy Sisco are 6-10, Dellin Betances is 6-8, Sabathia of course is 6-7, and Burnett, Hughes, Prior, Romulo Sanchez and Boone Logan are all 6-5 -- that they easily could have put together a package to get Carmelo Anthony if they wanted him.

• This may seem inanely obvious, but the strangest things seem to upset A.J. Burnett. The other day, he snapped at a baseball writer who asked third-base coach Mick Kelleher a question while Kelleher was coming out of the food room with a loaded plate.

"Let the man eat, will you,'' fumed Burnett, who also mixed in an expletive or two. He was a lot more upset about it than Kelleher, who had no problem delaying his feeding for 45 seconds to answer the question.

Thankfully, Burnett did not try to punch out a clubhouse door.

• In all, this is a training camp like any other. The same questions to be asked and seven long weeks to answer them. Some of those answers may start to reveal themselves on Saturday. Some of them will still be hanging around on March 31, Opening Day at the Stadium.

And some of them will never be answered, only to be asked all over again when we open Spring Training 2012.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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