Goodbye … for now, anyway

Since April, this blog has been a very interesting experience for me. At first, I had no idea what to expect, whether people would read it or leave comments, yet here we are less than nine months later, and Mark it Down has received more than 164,000 comments.

But all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately, Mark it Down will be closing up shop at the end of this month.

While that may come as bad news to many of you, there is good news as well. I am leaving MLB.com, having accepted a job at the Daily News to be the newspaper’s Yankees beat writer.

I have enjoyed my time at MLB.com more than you can possibly imagine. I have made friends here who will be a part of my life for years to come. Thankfully, since I’ll still be covering the Yankees, I’ll be able to see them just as much at the ballpark.

As for you good folks out in Cyberland, the Daily News’ web site will feature a new Yankees blog written by me, so all you have to do to is follow me there. My new blog will debut in mid-January, so keep an eye out for it.

Of course, there are still tons of terrific blogs here at MLBlogs.com for you to visit, including Ian Browne’s Brownie Points, Jason’s Boogie Down Bronx blog, Jeff’s BoSox Banter blog and many others.

I hope you all have enjoyed this place as much as I have. For the regulars, you’ve made Mark it Down the baseball community that it has become, and I hope you follow me over to the Daily News blog next month.

Happy holidays to everybody!

-Mark

Happy homecoming

Andy Pettitte and the Yankees reunited on Thursday after three years apart, and both sides seemed very pleased to be together again.

From the sound of it, Brian Cashman realized that, had the Yankees gone after Pettitte harder at the start of the free-agent process in November 2003, the lefty likely would have stayed in the Bronx. But they didn’t, so Pettitte was lured to his hometown, where he had three seasons in his own backyard.

This time, the Yanks weren’t going to make the same mistake, so they went hard after Pettitte, choosing to pursue him on a short-term basis rather than to go after a guy like Ted Lilly or Gil Meche for four or five years.

Pettitte sounded excited to be back with teammates such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, but more than that, he sounded thrilled to be pitching for Joe Torre once again. Pettitte credited Torre with much of his success, saying that the manager showed faith in him early in his career when many others had lost that faith.

This match seems perfect. Pettitte can come back and try to return the Yankees to the glory of the late-’90s, when he helped them win four World Series. The Yanks get a guy they can trust, a guy they can hand the ball to in October and know he won’t be intimidated by his surroundings. 

Just listening to Pettitte on the conference call today, I forgot how engaging he can be and what a good guy he is to cover. I’m happy that he’s back. But not as happy as the Yankees.

Give the boy his due

So, my buddy Danny e-mailed me the other day, suggesting that I go back and look at my blog entry from April 20. That was the day that our sons — who were still approaching their first birthdays — made their "picks" for the 2006 MLB season.

My son, Ryan, picked the Yankees, Twins, Angels, Blue Jays, Mets, Cardinals, D-Backs and Braves to make the playoffs, with the Angels beating the Braves in the World Series.

That’s four of the eight playoff teams and none in the World Series.

Danny’s son, DJ, picked the Blue Jays, Indians, Angels, Mariners, Mets, Cardinals, Rockies and Dodgers — only three playoff teams — but he had the Cardinals over the Angels in the World Series.

For the record, my picks were the Yankees, White Sox, A’s, Indians, Braves, Cubs, Giants and Phillies. That’s two playoff teams. And my WS matchup of the Yankees and Cubs? Laughable, as it turned out.

The moral of the story here, is that whatever predictions you read from the "experts" next year, take them with a grain of salt. An 11-month old picked St. Louis to win the World Series last year, and I’m guessing that not too many others did.

Holiday shopping

The holiday season is upon us, but the Yankees haven’t finished all of their shopping just yet. While Andy Pettitte was the big gift for the upcoming season, the Yanks are still in the market for a first baseman, a utility infielder and possibly a fifth outfielder and another reliever. They also must come to terms with Kei Igawa, who has until Dec. 28 to sign with the Yankees before he must return to Japan for another year.

First base: Andy Phillips and Josh Phelps are the internal candidates as of now. If Phillips is given a shot, I think he could do a tremendous job. Phelps was taken in the Rule 5 draft, and while he was a nice prospect with Toronto a few years back, I’d be surprised if he made a push for the job in New York.

Doug Mientkiewicz’s name keeps popping up, and I think this would be a good move for the Yankees. He might not be an All-Star hitter, but he can hold his own well enough to get the job done in the No. 9 spot in the lineup. His glove is among the best in baseball, and with Chien-Ming Wang and Pettitte in the rotation, defense is going to be even more important for the 2007 Yankees.

Utility infielder: I’m a bit surprised that the Yankees haven’t signed Miguel Cairo yet, and it still could happen before Christmas. But don’t be surprised to see New York go in another direction. If they liked Cairo as much as it seemed they did, why is he still unsigned?

Nick Green is still looking for a job, and the Yankees liked him during his brief stay in New York last season. Marcus Giles was non-tendered, but I don’t think he’s going to sign a deal to be a backup player anywhere. Jose Vizcaino and Chris Woodward are also on the market. The best bet is that either Cairo or Green will return next year.

Fifth outfielder: The first four spots are solidified with Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu and Melky Cabrera. That doesn’t leave much playing time for the fifth guy, who may or may not be Bernie Williams.

I think Bernie should retire. I’d hate to see him come back, only to be designated for assignment in May or June when the Yankees need to make room on the roster for another pitcher or something. Even if Bernie comes back, how much playing time will he actually get? Not much. Ride off into the sunset, let the Yankees hang No. 51 in Monument Park and enjoy your second career as a musician.

Kevin Thompson would be the leading candidate to serve as the fifth outfielder if Williams does not return. He can play all three positions and can be a pinch-runner off the bench.

Reliever: I still think there’s a chance that Ron Villone returns for another year in the Bronx, but if he doesn’t, there are several internal candidates that can fill the final spot in the bullpen. With Mariano Rivera, Kyle Farnsworth, Scott Proctor, Brian Bruney and Mike Myers in the pen right now, they could use another southpaw who was more than a specialist like Myers.

If the Yanks are looking for a lefty, Ray King and Scott Schoeneweis seem like the best options on the market. If they want another righty, Chris Reitsma would be an intriguing option.

All about Andy

The return of Andy Pettitte makes complete sense to me.

First, the Yankees get a guy who has topped 200 innings for two straight years, showing that his elbow doesn’t seem to be a problem. Pettitte

Second, they get a guy who has gone through everything you can go through in New York and looked awfully darn good doing it.

Pettitte brings a tremendous track record back to the Bronx, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. No, he may not be the 21-game winner he was in 2003, but I don’t think he’s that far off. Plus, when October rolls around, are there many pitchers you would feel that comfortable handing the ball to?

Yes, I know … Pettitte’s career postseason record is only 14-9, but he has pitched some of the best games I’ve ever seen in October. And while his record in the World Series is 3-4, his ERA of 3.92 is pretty good.

I’ll put it this way: If the Yankees have a must-win game next October, I hope for their sake the ball is in his hand.

The other thing about signing Pettitte is that we’ll have a few months of Roger Clemens speculation. I think there’s more than a 50 percent chance that the Rocket will land in New York sometime this year, looking to win one more ring with Joe Torre, Derek Jeter and the rest of the Yanks.

Ted Lilly? Gil Meche? Jason Schmidt? No thanks. I’ll take Pettitte. And so did the Yankees.

Winter Meetings, Day 3

Wednesday was highlighted by Ted Lilly, of all people, whose agent informed the Blue Jays early in the day that they were out of the mix, leaving the Cubs and Yankees to battle for his services.

By the time people began thinking about their dinner plans, Lilly had agreed to a four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs, leaving the Yankees to focus on the true object of their desire — Andy Pettitte.

In my opinion, the Yankees were never truly serious about signing Lilly, who would have cost them $56 million over four years when you factor in the luxury tax. But by making themselves a part of the Lilly sweepstakes, the Yanks forced Pettitte to make a decision regarding his future, as his agent announced that he would play in 2007.

I know that many people believe that Pettitte will never leave Houston, but I’m not so sure about that. If he knows that this is his final season, then there would be no better place for Pettitte to finish his career than in the Bronx.

As for the rest of the day, Jason Schmidt told teammates he was headed for the Dodgers for three years and $47 million, catchers changed addresses as Bengie Molina joined the Giants, Mike Lieberthal became a Dodger and Mike Piazza signed with the A’s to be Oakland’s DH.

The news was capped off by an evening trade which sent Freddy Garcia from the White Sox to the Phillies for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. That deal ended my colleague Ken Mandel’s dinner, as he left our table to head back to the Dolphin Hotel to pursue the story. Sorry Mandel, it was a pretty good meal.

As I dined with my colleagues, we began discussing the greatest sitcom characters of all-time. So I pose the question to you: Who is the greatest sitcom character of all-time? There is no real criteria here, so just throw out your answers.

My top 4: George Costanza, Archie Bunker, Norm Peterson and Homer Simpson.

The Rule 5 Draft takes place Thursday morning, though the Yankees won’t be making any news there. Brian Cashman takes off on Thursday afternoon, and in all likelihood, will head back to New York with the same team he had when he got here.

Winter Meetings, Day 2

Another rather uneventful day at the Swan and Dolphin. The general consensus is that these Winter Meetings aren’t even producing good rumors, which is a bad sign.

The big buzz in Yankeeland came in the form of a report that the Yankees were nearing a deal with Andy Pettitte. Several people told me that they believe it could happen before the end of the week, and that even Pettitte’s wife had given him the go-ahead to pitch one more year in New York if that’s what he wanted to do.

Personally, I think this is a plan designed to get more money out of the Astros. Do I think it is possible that the Yankees could sign Pettitte? Sure, why not? But do I think it will happen? I’d put it at 60 percent he plays for Houston, 30 percent he plays for New York and 10 percent he retires.

The Yanks have also expressed interest in Mark Buehrle, though they don’t plan on dealing prospect Humberto Sanchez for a guy with one year left on his contract.

Brian Cashman was set to meet with several agents on Tuesday night, including Arn Tellem (Kei Igawa) and Larry O’Brien (Ted Lilly). I think Cashman is just keeping himself in the loop for Lilly in case the price isn’t as steep as it would seem to be. I still think he goes to the Cubs.

The A-Rod rumors just won’t go away, only it’s the reporters from the towns that want to deal for him that keep bringing it up. The New York writers have stopped talking about it, because it’s a non-story.

The big newsmakers today were actually the Red Sox, who spent $106 million on J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo. The Lugo signing makes sense to me, as they need a shortstop and he’s a solid player (though for $9 million a year, you’d better be getting a solid player).

The Drew signing puzzles me in more ways than one. Why would you give a guy $14 million a year over five years when he has shown throughout his entire career that he can’t stay healthy? Yet a year ago, the Red Sox refused to give Johnny Damon — the heart and soul of their team — $12 million a year. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Barry Zito (Rangers? Mets?) and Jason Schmidt (Cardinals? Mariners?) remain on the market, waiting to cash in on their own big deals. I doubt either will get done in the next two days, though if they do, it would at least give people here something to actually talk about.

Winter Meetings, Day 1

Welcome to Orlando, home of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the 2006 MLB Winter Meetings.

I’m here at the unbelievably large Swan & Dolphin hotels, where the entire baseball world has gathered to meet. Agents will be peddling their players, GMs will be bouncing trade ideas off one another and writers will be scurrying the lobby, looking for any nugget of information they can find.

I will be providing updates throughout the meetings, trying to give you a feel for what is going on here.

I don’t expect the Yankees to do that much this week, as their biggest needs are a backup catcher, right-handed hitting first baseman and utility infielder, though Miguel Cairo should return to fill that final spot.

The Yanks could also look at another arm or two, but don’t expect it to be any of the major names on the market such as Zito, Schmidt, Meche or Lilly. Andy Pettitte seems like a more likely candidate if he wants to pitch next year and is willing to leave Houston, but only time will tell.

I’ll be back later when there’s some news to report.

7:00 pm: Relatively slow day in the lobby. The only official moves to be announced were Jose Guillen to the Mariners, a contract extension for Chris Carpenter with the Cardinals and the Giants bringing back Rich Aurilia and Pedro Feliz.

Of the hot rumors floating around, Ted Lilly to the Cubs was probably the most talked about. I think this would be a good move for the Cubs, since Lilly has shown his ability to pitch in the American League. Moving to the National League can only help, so he could be a nice addition for a team that desperately needs pitching.

If the Cubs sign Lilly, I could see the Blue Jays moving to sign Gil Meche, since they’ll have to replace Lilly. Toronto has money to spend, so they won’t be scared off.

As for the Yankees, not much going on. Brian Cashman continues to say that he is in no rush to do anything, and quite frankly, why would he be?

Cashman said that teams have still been calling occasionally about A-Rod, but he hasn’t changed his mind when it comes to trading his third baseman. Teams can call all they want, Rodriguez isn’t going anywhere.

Chris Britton showed up in Cashman’s suite and spoke with the beat writers for a few minutes. He lives about three hours away, so he decided to come up and meet with the Yankees’ executives for the first time since being traded. I’ll say this … he’s a big boy. I wasn’t sure if he was a reliever or an offensive lineman.

Octavio Dotel, who didn’t make much of an impression during his brief time in New York, is talking with the Red Sox, Devil Rays and Indians.

One name noticably absent from the lobby buzz is Barry Bonds. This guy may break the all-time home record next year … if he can find a team to sign him. The guess here is that he ends up back with the Giants, because I can’t see any other team taking a chance on him. Maybe the A’s, but that’s about it. And if Oakland signs Mike Piazza as they have been rumored to do, that would end the Bonds speculation.

One name that seems to be on everybody’s lips is Manny Ramirez. It seems like every time I talk to someone new, the conversation turns to, "Where do you think Manny will wind up?" The latest buzz has the Dodgers, Mariners and possibly the Giants in the mix, though Los Angeles seems like the most serious of the three. If the J.D. Drew deal is made official with Boston this week, I’ll believe Manny is going to be traded. Until then, it’s the same old Manny talk.

Mark your calendars

The Yankees released their 2007 regular-season schedule on Friday. Some of the highlights:

The 105th home opener at Yankee Stadium will take place on Monday, April 2 at 1:05 p.m., kicking off an 81-game home schedule which will feature nine games against each of the team’s American League East foes, including the rival Red Sox.

The Yankees will host Interleague series against the Mets (June 15-17), Diamondbacks (June 12-14) and Pirates (June 8-10) — all former World Series opponents. The Bombers will visit the Giants (June 22-24), Rockies (June 19-21) and Mets (May 18-20) as part of Interleague Play.

New York and Boston meet for the first of 19 times on April 20 at Fenway Park, opening a three-game series. The Red Sox visit the Bronx a week later, as the two rivals play three games at Yankee Stadium from April 27-29. The two teams meet again six times in May, three times in August and three times in September.

Joe Torre’s team will get its first look at Gary Sheffield and the defending AL champion Tigers on August 16, the first of four games at Yankee Stadium. A week later, the two teams renew acquaintances in Detroit for four games.

For the complete schedule, go to Yankees.com

$26 million? Really?

I realize that people have been scratching their heads over the Yankees’ $26 million bid for the rights to Kei Igawa, but the move makes total sense to me.

Who knows how good Igawa will be? I doubt the Yankees are expecting more than for him to be a No. 4 or 5 starter. He is no Matsuzaka, this much we know.

The Yankees bid $32 million for Matsuzaka, fully believing that their bid would be competitive. The Red Sox crushed it with a $51.1 million bid of their own. This time, the Yankees weren’t going to be outbid for another guy they wanted.

But at $26 million, plus the $15-20 million he is expected to sign for, the Yankees will pay out about $45 million for him over four years. Had they decided to give Ted Lilly or Gil Meche the same money (they, too, would have been No. 4 or 5 starters), the Yankees would have been subjected to an additional $16 million in luxury tax. With Igawa, they are only on the hook for whatever his contract is in terms of luxury tax, so the cost is much less.

Would you feel any better with Lilly or Meche? Maybe. But who knows, maybe this kid turns out to be pretty good. Gaku Tashiro, my colleague from Sankei Sports newspaper in Japan, compared Igawa to a "skinny David Wells," a comparison I found quite amusing.

I think the Yankees will probably get one more starter this winter, though they don’t really need to. They’re confident that Scott Proctor could start if necessary, and with Jeff Karstens, Darrell Rasner, Phil Hughes, Humberto Sanchez and Tyler Clippard at Triple-A, they can always hold the fort if Randy Johnson’s back or Carl Pavano’s entire body aren’t ready by Opening Day.

Give Igawa a chance. He could be the next Hideki Matsui, or he could be the next Hideki Irabu. Only time will tell.

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