With the Yankees about to embark on their quest for a 28th World Series crown, the YES Network crew of Michael Kay, David Cone and Paul O’Neill fielded some questions from Post columnist Steve Serby:
Q: What does Opening Day mean to you?
Kay: It’s always meant to me through all these years as a new beginning, everybody starts fresh. But not to sound overly dramatic, but it kind of almost indicates a new beginning for everything, to see people in the stands again, and enjoying themselves, and smiling after what the world has gone through. It’s gonna mean a lot, it’s gonna be a little emotional just to see people sitting there and cheering after what everybody has gone through and the way the season was last year. It’s gonna be Opening Day times 10.
Cone: It means hope, it means that there is hope. That we’re coming out of it. Baseball has always been something that’s kind of marked the culture as we go, going by, all the way back to players that had to go to the army during wars — Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra — all those guys had to give up part of their careers to go to wars and when they came back … it just marked time. And maybe this is another one of those times where baseball Opening Day marks a transition, certainly for the New York area who’s been through a lot over the last year.
O’Neill: I was always trying to get off to a good start, so it was always a little anxiety, but I’d just say exciting because you’re so tired of spring training, and you finally got to the point where the games matter and the season’s at hand.
Q: How much fun will these Subway Series matchups be with the Steve Cohen Mets?
O’Neill: I think that definitely adds some excitement to it. Obviously the Mets are a much better team, they’ve got some star power now with (Francisco) Lindor and (Jacob) deGrom. Let’s face it, the Yankees over the past years have had a better team than the Mets, so for the Mets to be relevant as far as trying to win the National League and the Yankees expected to win the American League, that could add a lot of excitement to the Subway Series.
Cone: It’s a huge game-changing difference for the Mets franchise, their fan base. I think they feel that finally, they’re gonna have some sustained resources that are gonna be put into the team that are on par with the Yankees. And that’s saying something. Because they haven’t had that in a long time, going back to the Nelson Doubleday days. You get the feeling now that their payroll will be very similar to whatever the Yankees payroll is … at or near the top.
Kay: I think it’s lost a lot of its luster the last couple of years. I think there’ve been too many games, to tell you the truth. But if both teams are good — and the Met offense is gonna be top-of-the-line good this year — if you give me a (Gerrit) Cole versus deGrom game in the Subway Series, there’s juice there. It’s gonna be fun.
Q: Impressions of Gerrit Cole?
O’Neill: He can be overpowering, he’s smart, great stuff. He doesn’t shy away from being the ace. Coney was one of those guys, too. If he was deemed the No. 1, that didn’t bother him. Some people don’t want to be the No. 1, they would rather be the No. 2 or the No. 3. When he talks to the media, it’s almost like a perfect script, he says the right things. He didn’t really have an adjustment period last year.
Kay: I’ve been so impressed with the responsibility that comes with a contract like that. He’s embraced it. He’s been The Guy. It seems like the media is therapeutic for him. I really like that about him. He doesn’t shy away from being a spokesman for the team.
Q: Does his stuff, his demeanor, remind you of anybody?
Cone: Max Scherzer … the arc of their career is similar in that they were pretty good and then they got better and then all of a sudden, they were on top of their game, they really figured it out.
Q: How would you compare Cole to deGrom?
Cone: Similar, I would say. DeGrom is a cut above everybody right now, I think, he deserves that kind of respect. You kinda feel Tom Seaver dusting off a seat in the Mets lore, here’s deGrom, your chair is waiting for you. Before he’s done, he’s gonna take a seat right next to Seaver … You’re looking at Hall of Fame pitchers in the making. It’s fun to watch.
Q: Thoughts on Jameson Taillon?
Cone: You talk about adversity, he’s been through it all, and everybody universally says what a great guy he is to be around. If you’re gonna be a starting pitcher for the Yankees, you gotta be accountable. You gotta face the music when you’re good, bad or ugly. If you get consumed with trying to control the narrative in New York, you’ll get swallowed alive. I think those guys understand it, they’re accountable and they’re honest.
Q: What do you think of his stuff?
Cone: His curveball’s legit, it really is. One or the better curveballs I think I’ve seen. The thing that’s in vogue with pitchers nowadays is that everybody’s shortening their arm swing, and he’s one of those converts.
Q: Thoughts on Corey Kluber?
Cone: I was always a big fan of his stuff. He’s an elite control and power pitcher together. If he can paint his fastball — ’cause he’s never really had an explosive high-velocity fastball, he’s always had late movement on his fastball and excellent control. The Kluber slider’s been one of the best sliders in the game since he brought it in. He’s still got that, he’s still got the spin on the breaking ball. The supreme command of all those pitches really was his calling card, that’s the part that we’re kinda waiting to see if he can retain that.
Q: What is your definition of a “Savage in the box?”
O’Neill: It almost becomes a mindset. It becomes kind of a team concept … being in there every pitch, having long at-bats, not allowing pitching to just mow through your lineup. Those wear on even the best of pitchers. Long at-bats and owning the strike zone are a big part of that.
Kay: I think their lineup is as good as any lineup in baseball. Every single one of those guys is gonna give you a quality at-bat and make it dangerous for the pitcher to attack him.
Q: Who’s “The Warrior” on this team?
O’Neill: I like the way (DJ) LeMahieu goes about the game, I love the way (Aaron) Judge goes about the game. I think Aaron Judge a lot of times is overlooked how good a baseball player he is because he hits the ball so hard. … Luke Voit, another guy that you enjoy watching because he has a lot of intensity, everybody’s wired a little bit different, but some people need to grind every single day and some people need to just sit back and know that it’s gonna happen.
Q: Why is Gary Sanchez such a polarizing figure?
Kay: He’s polarizing because so much is expected out of him. He burst upon the scene in such a way that you just assume that he was gonna be one of the greats of the game, and he’s had his ups and downs. I think that the Yankees’ dogged defense of him, no matter how much he struggles, probably rankles fans. … In terms of what do I expect this year? I don’t know. I think it’s imperative for him to get off to a quick start, because with fans in the stands, if he has a bad two months, they’re gonna be all over him and all of a sudden that’s gonna be the story that everybody’s gonna be commenting everywhere on social media. … People are gonna be calling for him to lose his job. I think fans have this perception that he doesn’t work hard, and I think that’s wrong. I think he probably puts too much pressure on himself.
O’Neill: I expect him to get off to a good start this year and have a good year. He wants to have a good year. Sometimes, as a player, when you want something too much, you try a little bit too hard. And he’s a guy, to me, that has power everywhere, and when he gets in that pull mode, he can get himself in trouble.
Q: How much progress has he made behind the plate?
Cone: It’s a full buy-in on the new catching style, down on one knee. It has never been harder or more difficult to be a major league catcher nowadays. All the things that they have to understand and do and the signs and the wristbands. … It can create paralysis by overanalysis. I think at times that’s what happened to Gary last year, too much thrown at him, and a lack of feel.
Q: How critical a year is this for Judge?
O’Neill: Aaron Judge is the leader of the team, whether he’s having a great year, whether he’s having a great game. He helps the young guys right when they come up, he is the face of the franchise so to speak, and he doesn’t shy away from that. Part of being that is being able to stay on the field. … It does get in your head that every year seems to crop up with something. I’m rooting for him. I’d love to see him get back to his rookie year where you’re seeing him day in and day out.
Kay: I look at him as a top-five player in baseball when he’s healthy. Some might say he legitimately won the (2017) MVP, it was given to somebody (the Astros’ Jose Altuve) who kinda knew what the signs were. On a more personal level for him, I think it’s important for him to start putting 150-game seasons on the back of his baseball card. Because when he becomes a free agent, you’ve got to know that he’s durable, because he’s gonna become a free agent in his 30s. Just being in that clubhouse after they lost to Houston, David and I walked over and talked to him, he was almost inconsolable. He cares about winning as much as anybody in that room, and I think that’s kinda what makes him a special player.
Q: Who was the most intimidating hitter you faced in the batter’s box?
Cone: You always remember your first, so the first most intimidating hitter to me was Andre Dawson, and I caught him in his peak. He would stare at you on the on-deck circle, I’d peek over and glance at him and know that he was just staring daggers through me on the mound. As a young pitcher, that unnerved me.
Q: What do you like most about LeMahieu?
O’Neill: He’s not the everyday player that you see this day and age. He makes tons of adjustments. He hits from line to line. He knows what he does best and he doesn’t try to get away from it with changing his launch angle and trying to hit more home runs. I was born and raised in an era where there were .300 hitters, and pure hitters, and they all used the whole field, and I love to watch him hit because he has a plan every time up there.
Q: Does he remind you of anybody in the batter’s box?
Cone: There’s a little bit of Ryne Sandberg. I think maybe Ryno might have gone for home runs a little bit more, slightly more of a pull hitter and a fly-ball hitter that let him hit more home runs, but very similar players — both very athletic, tough to strike out and played good defense, around second they moved well. LeMahieu leads by example, he’s very Don Mattingly-like in that regard. … I see league leaders in a lot of categories for DJ LeMahieu.
Q: Were you surprised that Gleyber Torres regressed a bit last season?
O’Neill: I look at some players that kinda benefitted by the short season, and some players that were kinda hurt by it. I think Gleyber probably would have caught up with a full season. Here’s a guy that can make a ton of adjustments and be a .300-plus hitter in my mind if that’s what he wants to be.
Kay: I think he’s gonna have a really good year. I think the pause really affected him, and I think the narrative that he was out of shape last year is unfair because he came into Tampa in February in great shape. When he got into shape last year, you could see the skills were still there. I don’t think he’s ever gonna be Ozzie Smith in the field, but all he has to do on this team is field the ball hit to him, make the throw to first base.
Q: Is Giancarlo Stanton finally ready to have a big year?
O’Neill: I watched his at-bats the other day, and he looks extremely comfortable. I think that the Yankees realize how much he is capable of doing, and I think that’s why this DH role has kinda been thrown in his lap too, to keep him in the lineup offensively.
Q: How did your bat speed compare to Clint Frazier’s?
O’Neill: He’s a true hands guy, kinda on the back foot and just really, really quick hands. I used my hands kinda level through the strike zone. He had a lot of pop, too. He’s a guy that’s gonna be able to, if he uses it to his advantage, to wait a little longer on pitches and see ’em a little bit longer because he’s just so quick.
Q: Did you wonder whether he would mature in time to stay a Yankee?
Kay: Buck Showalter had a saying: If you have a guy who’s a little different, just surround him with all people that are the type of way you want them to act, and they’ll fall into line.
Q: Who had similar bat speed?
Cone: The whippy style of action with his hands, a couple of hitters come to mind: Gary Sheffield, stylistically, had that kind of whippy, wristy, very quick bat … and Darryl Strawberry had that buggy-whip style of swing.
Q: Thoughts on Jordan Montgomery?
Cone: His whole repertoire together makes him a little better, because they all work off of each other. No one pitch jumps off the page at you in terms of wow, explosive-type stuff, but all of them together are good, at least average. He understands how to pitch now and how to use all of his pitches and to be able to throw any pitch at any time.
Q: Has Domingo German recaptured what he was?
Cone: Obviously the question is maturity and what happened off the field (domestic violence) and whether that’s reconciled or not is always gonna be the issue. But stuff-wise, he’s been as good or even better than he ever was.
Q: With Zach Britton out until June or July, and Justin Wilson iffy early, how much of a left-handed concern is there in the bullpen?
Cone: Not as much, because your closer’s a lefty in (Aroldis) Chapman, and the relievers have to still face three batters when they come in so the lefty specialist from the left side is certainly something that’s not as important as it once was. They feel like their right-handers can get out left-handed batters. … (Jonathan) Loaisiga has looked great in the spring. … Somebody like a (Nick) Nelson, you just want to see more from him. Is he a starter? He’s got that kind of power arm.
Q: What are your areas of concern for this team?
O’Neill: Obviously injuries is on the top of everybody’s list. Gerrit Cole is so important to the pitching staff. You’ve got Taillon and you’ve got Kluber with tremendous talent but haven’t thrown the ball, so it is health and pitching to me. Their depth in the everyday lineup is pretty strong. I don’t ever see this happening, but you just can’t come into the season knowing you’re a good team and just show up everyday and expect it to happen. You’ve gotta start playing in April to be playing well in October. Just don’t have a switch turn off and turn.
Kay: Losing Britton is a big deal, but if they can avoid further injuries, this team could be a 105-win team and win a World Series.
Cone: It’s the management of the overall pitching staff.
Q: Pitching coach Matt Blake?
Cone: As advertised. … That’s why you’re seeing a lot of the younger guys get hired that are experts in biomechanics and know-how to run this equipment, know-how to build these labs.
Q: What kind of an impact or difference can Luis Severino make when he returns?
Cone: Huge. They’re having trouble holding him back right now, he’s already throwing that hard off the mound. When Sevy comes back, I anticipate him throwing 100 miles an hour, and giving a huge lift to the Yankee rotation. He’s gonna light it up when he comes back.
Kay: Both New York teams are gonna make acquisitions of No. 1 or 2-type starters midway through the season, Severino and (Noah) Syndergaard, without having to give up a player. … Kluber and Taillon, it’s a mystery what to expect in terms of innings.
Q: Who could be an under-the-radar Yankee who could make an impact?
Kay: I think Aaron Hicks is in the perfect spot in the lineup, I think everybody would want to hit between Judge and Stanton. So if he’s healthy, he’s the one left-handed batter in that lineup because he’s a switch hitter, he’s gonna see good pitches, and he’s very selective. So if he gets pitches in a zone he can really drive them.
Q: How would you have fared pitching in an empty ballpark?
Cone: I go back to the example of Ron Guidry’s 18-strikeout game, when the fans started to rhythmically chant for the strikeout every two strikes, and how exciting that became, and all of a sudden we started to have K Korners in all the stadiums, Dwight Golden had one at Shea, I had one at Shea back in the day. … The fans clearly impact the game.
Kay: They impact the broadcast, too. You could ride the crest of a crowd, they could kinda be the frame to the picture. Their energy level lifts your energy level. Yankee fans will make a lot of noise, I think it’s gonna have an impact on the team. The Yankees lost their home-field advantage, not because the fans would spur them on, which they do, but they would also intimidate the other team. And (Buck) Showalter told me something last year too; he said even great teams need fans. Because when you’re playing teams like the Red Sox, you don’t need it. But when you’re playing teams that aren’t good, the fans help you get up for that game.
Q: Could you have thrown a perfect game with no fans?
Cone: I couldn’t imagine doing that alone.
Q: Biggest threat to the Yankees?
Kay: The second-best team would be the White Sox. I never discount Tampa Bay.
Q: The Yankees-Rays rivalry?
Cone: Ironically, it was really important to George Steinbrenner. Spring training games George Steinbrenner would pop into the clubhouse and say, “Hey big game today, we gotta beat the Rays here.” You have to admire the Rays, they are one of the smallest markets, one of the most revenue-challenged, stadium-challenged teams, and they are up against the Yankees, the Evil Empire. It really is a classic “Star Wars” Darth Vader story for the Rays, and they play it up. David and Goliath.
Q: Is there bad blood between them?
Kay: I don’t think the players love each other. It’s not at the level of Yankees-Red Sox, but it’s getting there.
O’Neill: You gotta look at it as the Yankees are trying to catch the Rays now, it’s not vice versa, which it was for years. You have to respect them, you know that they know how to win.
Q: How driven is this Yankee team to win a championship?
O’Neill: When you start to get close, as they did last year, you start to feel how disappointing it is not to, and on paper every year, everybody’s expecting the Yankees to win the World Series, and it’s been a drought now. …. There comes a point in time where you gotta quit talking about it and get it done. But that’s easier said than done. It took the Dodgers a long time, and now they’re gonna be a better team because they’ve got that monkey off their back.
Q: Do you expect the Yankees to win the championship?
Kay: I have the Yankees against the Dodgers in the World Series. I’ll say yeah, they’re gonna win the championship if they stay healthy, but who can predict health?
Cone: They feel like they’ve got more weapons this year, this is the best they’ve felt going into a season. Confidence is important in this game, and they look like they have it going into this year.
O’Neill: I do. If I had my life savings to put on one team, I would have to go with the Yankees.
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