Will the Yankees Make Some Noise This Year?
The Yankees began making noise in the off-season, starting with the adversarial negotiations with Captain Derek Jeter, the failed signing of Cliff Lee, the retirement of Andy Pettitte and the signing of free agent reliever Rafael Soriano against the wishes of General Manager Brian Cashman. More recently the noise has been the debate over whether Jeterâ€™s batting was in permanent decline, the awful showing by Soriano on and off the field and the furor caused by Jorge Posadaâ€™s refusal to play after being dropped to ninth in the order.
What Yankees fans really want to know is whether the team can make some noise in the postseason. A more pertinent question is whether they can even make it into the postseason. With a 27-21 record after 48 games the Yankees are on track to win 91 games this season. Although they are currently in first place by a half game over the Red Sox, 91 wins will generally get you third place in the AL East.
Letâ€™s dissect the roster to see where the Yankees might be making changes at the trade deadline. The starters have actually been a pleasant surprise, with the exception of the injured Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett has not only matched CC Sabathia with a 5-3 record, heâ€™s posted better numbers for WHIP and H/9. Still, thereâ€™s no question which pitcher you want on the mound for a big game.
Retreads Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia have been surprisingly effective, but itâ€™s hard to imagine both veterans holding up through the end of the season. Colon has 56 strikeouts in 57 innings, while Garcia has the same record (3-4) as Cliff Lee does for the Phillies and a better ERA and ERA+. Ivan Nova is maturing with every start and finally demonstrating that he can pitch deeper into games.
If you had told me the Yankees would lose out on Lee, watch Pettitte retire, not trade for a front-line starter and see Hughes go winless through the first third of the season, then I probably would have needed to be talked down from the ledge. Stud prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are at least a year away from coming to the Bronx, so the retread brigade will have to do for now. Itâ€™s likely that the Yankees will kick the tires on the starting pitchers available at the trade deadline, but the likes of Brett Myers, Derek Lowe and Edwin Jackson are not really an upgrade over Colon, Garcia and Nova, so there is no reason for the Yankees to turn loose with coveted prospects for such a move. Aces like Jeff Weaver and Felix Hernandez are not going to be made available and it wouldnâ€™t make sense to trade their top prospect, Jesus Montero, in a package for a starter such as Chris Carpenter or Francisco Liriano.
The bullpen remains a work in progress beyond the reliable trio of Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain. Robertson has struck out 30 batters in 19 innings and has a sparkling 1.42 ERA, while Joba has a Rivera-like SO/BB ratio of 5.0. The only healthy southpaw in the bullpen, Boone Logan, is pitching more like a right-handed specialistâ€”righty batters are averaging .118 against him while left-handed batters are pounding him at a .323 clip. Â Â
The biggest bullpen problem is the fact that Soriano has been ineffective and now is out for at least two months, which means they are getting very little return for their sizable investment. Furthermore, it means theyâ€™re stuck with the selfish pitcher for two more years, the type of bad deal that would cripple most teams. Thank goodness for the stellar work turned in so far by the unheralded group of Luis Ayala, Hector Noesi, Lance Pendleton and Buddy Carlyle. The Yankees still have Mark Prior stashed in the minors so their only bullpen move would be if they discover a reliable lefty available, which is unlikely since even mediocre southpaws are a highly valued commodity.
The starting lineup has established veterans everywhere, but several are scuffling with low batting averages. Jeter has turned into a groundball-hitting magnet who has no business hitting leadoff with a .303 OBP and 72 OPS+. Moving him down in the lineup will evidently have to wait for a later date, but it would be nice if Manager Joe Girardi stopped using Jeter in the DH spot. Thatâ€™s like using Adam Dunn as a pinch-runner.
Posadaâ€™s inability to hit lefties (heâ€™s 0-for-26 this year) means heâ€™s relegated to platoon duty at DH. Itâ€™s going to be a sad and painful ending for a great and proud Yankee, but right now Jorge is hurting more than helping the team. Look for Andruw Jones to start taking at-bats away from Posada and Nick Swisher, who has been in a season-long funk and is in danger of not having his option picked up for next year.
The Yankeesâ€™ aging but potent lineup is not exactly hitting on all cylinders, with the exception of Curtis Granderson and Russell Martin. Mark Teixeira has good power numbers, but he is hitting just .253. Robinson Cano has been in an uncharacteristic slump, but no one expects that to last long. A-Rod has started producing again and Brett Gardner has caught fire, but the team has shown an inability to hit with runners on base. One more impact bat is needed, and it could come from calling up Montero or Jorge Vazquez, who is tearing it up with a .301 average, 17 homers and 43 RBI after 41 games at Scranton/Wilkes Barre.
It doesnâ€™t do Cashman any good to point out that someone else negotiated the bad contracts with A-Rod and Soriano, or that he only wanted to go three years on Posadaâ€™s last contract. Heâ€™s stuck with an aging and expensive roster and the situation is only going to get worse the next few years. In the off-season, he will be forced to add another two to three years to Sabathiaâ€™s contract to keep him as their rotation ace, and that will probably come back to haunt the Yankees on the back end of the deal. Just imagine what a mess the bullpen would be if Mariano Rivera started showing his age, which still hasnâ€™t happened.
One certainty is that Joe Girardi will continue to over-manage, wasting too many outs with bunts and going to the bullpen even when the starter is cruising along. He will stay with his worst hitter (Jeter) in the leadoff spot, stick his best leadoff option (Gardner) at the bottom of the order and keep his best hitter (Cano) in the number-five hole. Evidently his binder doesnâ€™t cover what to do with aging stars who havenâ€™t figured out theyâ€™re not as good as they used to be.
The Rays turned over half their team in the off-season, yet picked up a wily veteran in Johnny Damon, who is showing his young teammates how to win. If the Red Sox can find suitable replacements in the rotation for John Lackey and Dice-K, then itâ€™s hard to see them not finishing in first. That leaves the Yankees battling the Rays for second place, with the Blue Jays not to be overlooked. It doesnâ€™t look like weâ€™ll be seeing another trip down the Canyon of Heroes, but donâ€™t count out the Yankees just yet. After all, who thought the Giants were going to make any noise last season?
Chris Jensen is a SABR member from Indiana who has been published in Elysian Fields Quarterly and the Yankees Annual 2011 Yearbook from Maple Street Press.