Appreciating the Mo masterpiece
MO, MO, MO (497 MORE MOS TO GO)
You can’t follow the Yankees without appreciating Mariano Rivera. He’s superhuman and yet human, approachable and professional. No doubt you’ve read a thousand thoughts along the same lines already today, so instead of heaping on more superlatives, let’s look at the actual record in all of its glorious length. Indeed, length is the key. What makes Rivera great is not only his rare dominance with one special pitch, but for just how long he’s maintained his high level of performance. Many closers rocket up the pop charts, but few have anything like the staying power of Rivera. Generate a list of the top 200 single-season performances of the last 55 years by a reliever (I’m using the context-sensitive wins added, or WXRL) and count everyone who appears on the list more than twice and this is what you get, ordered from lowest to highest:
3 Bruce Sutter
3 Eric Gagne
3 John Smoltz
3 Keith Foulke
3 Lee Smith
3 Lindy McDaniel
3 Randy Myers
3 Rollie Fingers
3 Stu Miller
4 Billy Wagner
4 Dan Quisenberry
4 Francisco Rodriguez
4 Joe Nathan
4 Trevor Hoffman
4 Troy Percival
4 Tug McGraw
5 Armando Benitez
5 Goose Gossage
9 Mariano Rivera
This is a fairer reflection of Rivera’s dominance than something more basic like seasons leading the league in saves-Rivera has done that only three times in 15 seasons. It’s not the number of saves that matters, it’s the quality of the performances, and no one has been as good as often as Rivera has. Twenty-four pitchers appear on the list only twice. There is normally a lot of turnover in the closer department, just as there is for all relievers. There is also much variability depending on how pitchers are used by their managers. Rivera has stuck there like no other pitcher in history. Throw in his extraordinary postseason work, his humanity and professionalism, and this is one inner-circle Hall of Famer that no one will be able to second-guess on induction day.
NADY BE GOOD (EVERYONE’S FAVORITE GERSHWIN TUNE)
The future is now, but in order to win the American League pennant, the Yankees will need to fight the future. No doubt few readers pity Brian Cashman, but he’s in the difficult position of needing to win this year while also thinking about how the Yankees win next year and in the years going forward.
While this page never roots for a player to suffer injury and never will, the removal of Nady for the season (if confirmed) helps to clarify the outfield picture for the rest of the season, or at least until the trading deadline. Nady had some value, but on the whole, 30-walk a year players who don’t also hit .330 or slug .500 are to be avoided. Nady is a stopgap-level player. The Yankees needed that kind of help last year, but don’t this year. The Yankees, particularly Joe Girardi, devoted a lot of air to Nady’s contribution in 2008, but it would seem that the first impression was a lasting one, because .268/.320/.474 isn’t memorable by the standards of corner outfielders. There was a reason that Nady played for four teams in four seasons from 2005 to 2008. The Yankees would have found out why at their own peril. The troubling aspect of the affair was that they seemed willing, if not eager, to do so.
Ironically, they might need Nady-style assistance next season. With Nady’s contract up, that might be the end of him as a Yankee, but one could imagine the team signing him to a low-base, make-good contract, because the outfield shelves could be bare this winter. The contracts of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon are up, and the arguments for bring each back are not strong. Matsui’s lack of mobility constricts the Yankees’ roster while his declining bat adds less than the team would should get for paying that price. Given his age, a multi-year contract would also be dangerous even if one expects a bounce-back next year, even if Matsui returns to Godzilla-style smashing in the second half (not that Matsui has been above Rodan-level in the U.S.).
Damon has obviously had a good year, and a couple of big nights in Atlanta and Queens have helped bring up his road numbers. Still, he too is 35, and there’s no guaranteeing that his Yankee Stadium II power boost is more than an ephemeral event. Last year, at 34, Damon was better than he had ever been before. This year he’s been better than that. That’s an unusual progression and one not likely to sustain itself over the course of another three-year contract, and perhaps even not over another two.
Thus, by the end of the World Series, three of the five current outfielders (counting the gimpy Matsui) could be in the wind. The free agent possibilities are not promising: Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay (if the Red Sox don’t extend him, which seems unlikely), Carl Crawford (a team option of $8.25 million seems likely to be picked up), senior citizen Vlad Guerrero, a long-ago Cashman crush vetoed by ownership, Randy Winn… There’s not much. Help won’t be coming from that direction.
Perhaps by the end of the year, Brett Gardner will have cemented himself in center field for a time. Melky Cabrera is not a sufficient bat for a corner, though the Yankees may choose to see him there, and at present levels, he can hit enough to be a rotating jack of all trades, though it should be noted that he’s going to be increasingly expensive in the coming seasons. As far as the farm system goes, you know about Austin Jackson (currently in a mini-slump). With two home runs, he doesn’t seem like a corner outfielder. A Jackson, Gardner, Cabrera outfield would be strong defensively but not very powerful. Swisher, who is signed through 2012, suddenly becomes very important in any conception of next year, not to mention this one.
This leads to an interesting question. If Matsui and Damon are truly to be gone next year, if Jackson is to be among the possible replacements, is it in the Yankees’ best interest to get him at least 100 plate appearances of Major League time this year? The answer is almost certainly “not yet”–while Jackson has had a solid season, his lack of power and moderate selectivity don’t portend production at the big league level. Remember, in the Majors the batting average is likely to slip, which leaves a medium walk rate and, at least this year, little in the way of power. This would change, though, if Jackson surged and/or Matsui or Damon began to slide. Then the needle that swings between present and future would be stuck exactly in the middle of the dial.