Evaluating the Yankees as They Prepare for the Stretch Run
With the trade deadline now behind us, baseball fans can now relax a little and stop checking the web for hourly updates on what deals their teams have cooking. Fans in Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland can safely focus on football now that they know which prospects their teams got back for their serviceable players.
In the Bronx, the trade deadline represented a last chance to throw spare change at some problems that have festered all season. Think of them as small warts on a swimsuit modelâ€™s ankle. Quite frankly, the Yankees snapped up Lance Berkman, Kerry Wood and Austin Kearns at almost no cost to erase the stain of their abysmal off-season deals.Â â€œIt gives us a lot of depth,â€ said Manager Joe Girardi, in a classic understatement, as if he is somehow annoyed that his roster carries only 13 All-Stars.
The Yankees whiffed on every deal they did last winter. Instead of resigning Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, Yankees GM Brian Cashman went to the Dollar Store and picked up Nick â€œMr. DLâ€ Johnson and 36-year-old Randy Winn. Winn was released in May after hitting .213 and doing his best impression of Dave Kingman in left field. Johnson, shockingly, has been injured almost all season so Yankee fans have not have the pleasure of watching him lumber around the bases after he gets his one walk a game. Johnson hit just .167 while slugging a putrid .306.
While spouting off about his desire to develop a younger and cheaper roster, Cashman next unloaded 23-year-old top prospect Austin Jackson to the Tigers for 29-year-old Curtis Granderson, a move that bumped up the payroll $5 million. Jackson hasnâ€™t shown much power and strikes out a lot, but heâ€™s leading the league in triples, hitting .310 and making highlight reel catches in center.
Granderson, on the other hand, came in with a reputation for failing miserably against lefties. Since he hit 30 home runs in cavernous Comerica Park last year, it was thought he could do serious damage with the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium. He has hit just 10 homers, 5 at Yankee Stadium, and is batting .214 against lefties. So much for hitting coach Kevin Long being able to fix Grandersonâ€™s problems against lefties.
The bullpen was a strength for the Yankees in 2009, especially when Phil Hughes joined the pen for the stretch run and playoffs. One key contributor, lefty Phil Coke, was jettisoned to the Tigers in the Jackson-Granderson deal. Coke has been very effective for the Tigers, posting a 2.66 ERA in 51 appearances, while the Yankees have struggled to find a reliable lefty with Damaso Marte on the disabled list and Boone Logan walking a lot of batters.
Chan Ho Park was brought in to be another reliable arm in the bullpen and when healthy he was horrible. Park was mercifully designated for assignment to make room for Wood after pitching to a 5.60 ERA and giving up 7 home runs in 35 innings. Parkâ€™s disappointing performance has been exacerbated by the absence of Alfredo Aceves and the erratic performance of Joba Chamberlain, who has demonstrated that he is not the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera as closer.
OK, so the Yankees struck out with Winn, Johnson, Granderson and Park. That leaves one more key offseason acquisitionâ€”Javier Vazquez, who was acquired from the Braves so the team could have a reliable fourth starter in the playoffs. At the end of April, Vazquezâ€™s ERA was 9.78 and Yankee fans were longing for the days when current pitching coach Dave Eiland was in the rotation and going 2-5 with a 5.33 ERA in 1991. To Vazquezâ€™s credit, he has turned things around and now sports a 9-7 record with a much more respectable 4.61 ERA. Lately heâ€™s been giving them a chance to win every time out, so that off-season move now gets a passing gradeâ€”C+.
Berkman was brought in to do the job Johnson couldnâ€™t, while Kearns was brought in to do the job Winn couldnâ€™t. Now when the Yankees face a left-handed starter they can park Granderson on the bench and put Kearns in left while shifting Brett Gardner to center. Gardner is a much better fielder than Granderson anyway, with a stronger arm. Kearns can actually be trusted to play in the field, unlike Marcus Thames, who was butchering the ball so badly in left one had to wonder if he was on the Tim Donaghy mob retirement plan.
Now if we can only figure out who had the comical idea to stick Thames at third base late in a blowout game against the Indians on July 29. Thames has played the outfield and a little bit of first base over his nine-season career, but never third base. Heâ€™s never even played third base in the minors. But there he was when Jayson Nix came up to bat and hit a wicked shot near the third base line. Thames, to his credit, moved his feet and made a brilliant diving stop of the ball, then got up and heaved the ball to the Hamptons. He missed the bag by at least 50 feet with his throw, with fans ducking as the ball landed in the stands. His teammates on the bench sure got a kick out of it and letâ€™s hope Manager Joe Girardi doesnâ€™t stick Thames at third again under any circumstances.
That brings us to one of Cashmanâ€™s failuresâ€”he was unable to secure a reliable infielder who can take A-Rodâ€™s place in the field or spell Derek Jeter without being an automatic out like Ramiro Pena, he of the .209 average and 30 OPS+. Cashmanâ€™s other failure, obviously, was to deliver one more ace starter to the Yankeesâ€™ embarrassment of riches. The Mariners foolishly turned down a package built around Jesus Montero so they could add promising slugger Justin Smoak from the Rangers for Cliff Lee. Smoak, who disappointed with a .209 average for the Rangers in 70 games of action this year, performed even worse for the Mariners and was sent down to the minors after batting .159 in 16 games. Meanwhile, Montero has been wreaking havoc at Scranton/Wilkes Barre, batting .350 over his past 50 games.
Itâ€™s actually kind of funny to watch teams turn down good deals with the Yankees so they can take lesser deals from other teams. That way they donâ€™t have to take any grief from their fans about helping the rich get richer, but instead get to watch their teams flounder around for another decade. Â If the Astros had told teams like the Yankees they were willing to eat half of Roy Oswaltâ€™s contract they would have gotten back better prospects than they got from the Phillies. Same with the Blue Jays, who turned down a chance to get Montero for Roy Halladay and instead wound up with a package centered on Kyle Drabek, who is a year or two away from being a back-of-the-rotation guy.
How hard must it be to sit in the Rays clubhouse and see your team prepare for the stretch drive by not picking up an impact bat but instead acquiring Chad Qualls? All Qualls has done this year is surrender 61 hits in 38 innings with an 8.29 ERA, adjusted ERA of 54 and a putrid 2.000 WHIP. Nice to see the Rays really go for broke with Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena set to leave as free agents at the end of the season.
Back to the Yankees, who were sitting in a precarious position just two games ahead of the Rays despite their 66-37 record. The Bronx Bombers are getting an MVP-type season from Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and Gardner are having career years and Sabathia, Pettitte and Hughes all made the All-Star team from the starting staff. Mo continues to be unhittable in the ninth inning, which is good because the teamâ€™s other aging starsâ€”Jeter, Posada, Pettite, Rodriquezâ€”are starting to show their age a little.
With Joba scuffling as the eighth inning guy, the Yanks knew they needed a more reliable bridge to Rivera. Now theyâ€™ve got Wood to mix in with Joba and Robertson, with Hughes joining them later in the season after he reaches his innings limit. If Wood can throw heat and throw strikes, heâ€™ll be a difference maker for the Yanks. After losing out on Lee and Dan Haren, the Yanks now have to keep their fingers crossed that the enigmatic A.J. Burnett and Vazquez can provide quality starts in the postseason as the Yanks wonâ€™t be able to get by with a three-man rotation this year.
As for Berkman, it is hoped that he can provide some pop and a high OBP in the number two hole, a role that Johnson has been unable to fulfill. There is also some thought that Berkmanâ€™s bat will be rejuvenated after being rescued from a lost season in Houston to join a postseason race for the first time in five years. It remains to be seen how quickly Berkman can adjust to playing in the American League, playing mainly as a DH and playing in a big city with exceedingly high expectations.
“Ever since I’ve been active in professional baseball, the Yankees have either won the World Series or were extremely upset they didn’t win the World Series,” Berkman told writers after arriving at the Yankees clubhouse before his first game with the team. “That’s a different deal. There’s not another organization in the game that has that kind of expectation.”
After going 0-4 in his first game as a Yankee, Berkman was the surprising starter the next day at first base to give Mark Teixeira a breather. He quickly set about doing his best Jason Giambi impression. In the second inning he failed to reach a looper over first hit by Kelly Shoppach, then in the second he failed to scoop a low throw by Cano. Finally, in the fourth inning he booted a slow rollerâ€”three miscues in half a game, all plays Teixeira makes look routine. Hopefully, Girardi doesnâ€™t get any bright ideas about sitting his Gold Glove first baseman in the seven games they have left with the Rays.
At some point, the Yankees will be batting in a close playoff game on the road and Girardi will send up to the plate not Damon or Matsui, but Berkman or Kearns. Or he will ask Wood to protect a one-run lead in the eighth so Rivera can work his magic. Then, and only then, will we know if these deadline deals were smart moves.
Chris Jensen is a SABR memberÂ who grew up in the shadows of Cooperstown but now lives among the Yankee haters in Indiana.