COUNTING OUT TIME
You ever see everything wrong with a team come out in one game? There isn’t a lot wrong with the Yankees. The team won 103 games in the regular season and 10 more in the postseason so far. They’re one win away from a World Series title. And yet, no team is perfect, and most of the weaknesses that the Yankees have bit them all at once in Game 5:
? Last winter, the Yankees were perceived to have paid too high a price for A.J. Burnett, because at times he fumbles on the mound like a schoolboy on his first date, and at others he has not been available at all. Given those negatives, only the Yankees were willing to pay a premium for all the good stuff in between. Last night, they got the schoolboy, the guy who can’t find the zone. As Peter Gabriel sang in “Counting Out Time,” “Better get [his] money back from the bookstore right away.”
I don’t think this was Burnett on short rest (something he hadn’t done this year, though he had a few times in 2008); I think it was just Burnett being Burnett. Still, let us say this: If we say Burnett, or (in the future) Andy Pettitte, or CC Sabathia did not pitched well on short rest for reasons other than the missing day, we’re making an assumption — we can’t know the real answer one way or another. No one can. That said, can we ask if the decision to change the pitchers’ routines was inevitable based on the talent the Yankees have on hand? Heck yes, we can ask, and heck no, it was not inevitable. The “rise” of Sergio Mitre coincided with the infliction of the bizarre and ever-changing Joba Rules II. Had the Yankees been less interested in giving Mitre chance after botched chance, and more alert to other options, such as pulling Alfredo Aceves and his low-leverage innings out of the bullpen (there is another righty long reliever out there) or (dare I say) stop worrying about the eighth inning and let Phil Hughes start, and the Yankees might have had another rotation option now. As things are presently constructed, Girardi has no choice but to push. Had different avenues been pursued beginning three months ago, it might be different now. It is precisely because you cannot precisely anticipate the contingencies that future events might require that I go on and on about seemingly insignificant matters like the Yankees throwing away every fifth start on a punching bag — that punching bag could have been a postseason contributor. Complacency, as the saying goes, sucks.
? Phil Coke is exceptionally home run-prone. In the regular season, he had the 12th-highest rate of home runs allowed per nine innings in the big leagues, relievers who pitched 50 or more innings. Even with Damaso Marte hurting, the Yankees had other options in the Minors. They didn’t try them. Coke’s inability to retire left-handed hitters Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez gave the Phillies the cushion they needed. Remember, the Yankees didn’t need to beat Cliff Lee, they only needed to keep the game close enough that they could beat the Phillies’ relievers. That is almost what happened but for Derek Jeter’s ill-timed double play (with Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui on the bases, Ryan Madson’s mild ground-ball tendencies, and Jeter’s own high percentage of ground ball double plays, this was pretty much as close to an inevitability as you can get) and Coke’s largesse. A home run is a home run, but Ibanez’s shot, one of the longest I have ever seen in person, really sums up the problem with Coke.
? There’s a flipside to Coke’s performance, which is that the fellow has pitched 2.2 innings in the last month, having been pushed to the back of the reliever line by Girardi. I’m not making excuses for Coke, who as I pointed out above, has a tendency to get hit for airline-like distance. Still, it is hard to believe a pitcher can stay sharp on that basis. I also felt — and as for everything here, this was something I first-guessed at the ballpark — that the Yankees could have used a bit more Coffee Joe on Monday. Burnett gave up three runs in the first inning, walked Jimmy Rollins in the second, and opened the third with two walks. We’ve all been down this road with Burnett before; it was spectacularly unlikely that things were going to get better before they got worse. Burnett should have been pulled right after ball four to Ryan Howard. Instead, he remained to pitch to Jayson Werth, giving up a ground-ball single. He also pitched to the next batter, Ibanez, which was two batters too many. By the time Girardi got out of the dugout, the inning was out of hand.
ONE OTHER NOTE, WHOLLY SARCASTIC AND GREATLY BITTER
It sure is too bad that Mark Teixeira was too injured to play in this series and the Yankees had to play some nameless Triple-A guy at first base, Doug Miranda-something. Doug has a good glove, but man, he can’t hit at all. I know Teixeira is trying his best to get back into the lineup before the series ends, but he’s running out of time.
TOMMY’S HOLIDAY CAMP
I had the good fortune to attend Game 5 in the company of a cadre of Yankees employees, who did their level best to root the Yankees on in a highly hostile environment, one marked by a state of denial inhabited by approximately 45,000. It’s fair to chant “A-Rod sucks,” if not particularly original, but if A-Rod sucks, how the heck do you characterize Ryan Howard? Gamesmanship is swell, but let’s maintain at least a slight tether to reality.
Let it not be said that the Yankees’ staff lacks a sense of humor. If you’ve been to the new Yankee Stadium, you’ve seen those ballpark flight attendants carrying “May I help you?” signs with the Yankees’ logo on them. The staffers appropriated these for the ballgame, and frantically waived them whenever the Yankees came to bat or took the field (the photo is from the top of the first). The Phillies fans loved this and chuckled kindly at the New Yorkers’ amusing antics. Or something like that. One Phillies follower shouted, “Go back to your apartments!” I think might have been an attempt at class warfare, though not a very wise one. Does he know what those apartments are worth? There were other comments, some wholly inappropriate in any venue, and mostly went to underscore why I rarely attend games as a civilian — drunk people say and do stupid things. I got to my seat at about 5:50 p.m., or two hours before game time. The beer vendors were already working the stands.
Human beings, tough to tolerate anywhere, aside, I enjoyed Citizens Bank Park. The interior design is industrial, featuring brick, high metal catwalks, and exposed girders. The effect is of going to see the world’s most highfalutin factory team. This is both sad and amusing, as America distinctly lacks factories these days. In that sense, CBP isn’t a throwback ballpark, it’s throwback Americana, the playground of Ozymandias the Industrialist. It’s as if Rome had a team and they built a replica Colosseum, complete with missing walls and fractured statures. “Celebrate the grandeur that was the empire! Have a hot dog!” As I walked through this memorial to Philadelphia’s receding industrial past, down concourses that would have been wide had they not been stuffed with choke points due to various vendors, displays, and a sit-down restaurant, I kept imagining a sign that said, “If you worked here, your job would be in China by now.” There has always been a school of thought that criticized America’s predilection for creating faux experiences in place of actual ones. Disney architecture, with its miniaturized versions of actual places, is supposed to be th
e height of this tendency to vulgarize the real, creating facades that trivialize and sanitize without providing any illumination. I never felt that way before. CBP made me empathize for the first time.
Just as I was mulling these things over, two men in business suits pushed past me. One was tall and heavy, the other short and thin. It was kind of a Mutt and Jeff cartoon come to life. The taller one was carrying a huge, overstuffed cheesesteak sandwich in his giant paw. The shorter man looked down at it. “How can you do that in this economy?” he asked. The big man strode away, the shorter one hastening to keep up. At that moment, the ballpark PA system blasted a cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma:” Instant Karma’s gonna get you… Gonna knock you off your feet… Better recognize your bothers: Everyone you meet… My favorite moments in life are the ones in which the universe acts as your iPod.
I spent a few minutes at the Phillies’ MLB-authenticated collectables booth. An autographed Jayson Werth ball (regular season) will set you back $60. Brad Lidge will bite you for $125. Happy people in red drifted past, holding hot dogs the size of my forearm.
On the whole, though, CBP seems like a fair place to see a ballgame, and probably a friendlier one on days in which the championship is not at stake and fewer Yankees are waiving “Can I help you?” signs around. You can see a few things not evident at Yankee Stadium, like fans standing along the railings during batting practice. Also, note the woman in the lower right-hand corner. Is her jersey:
A) A tribute to Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ, misnumbered and misspelled?
B) A tribute to 1940s outfielder/first baseman Johnny Hopp who never played for the Phillies but did play, briefly, for the Yankees?
C) A tribute to rabbits, who both hop and breed frequently, hence the high number?
D) Just a boring personalization?
I never did find out. I should have approached her with a “Can you help me?” sign. Finally, I never did find McFadden’s Restroom, but it sounds enchanting, the Fiddler’s Green of bathrooms.
(AND LAY OFF THE COFFEE, COFFEE JOE)
The postseason’s many off days have frequently been observed to allow shenanigans with starting pitchers that wouldn’t be possible in the regular season, such as reducing the rotation to three pitchers as the Yankees are doing in the ALCS.
Less often remarked upon is the freedom it allows a coffee-achiever/manic manager to run pell-mell through his bullpen, pulling out relievers like they were blades on a Swiss Army Knife — Mariano Rivera is the bottle-opener, Phil Hughes is the screwdriver and Alfredo Aceves is the one whose function you’re not quite certain of. If a manager acted that way in the regular season, he’d burn out his bullpen in about a week.
Thanks to the schedule, Joe Girardi has had the freedom to ignore questions of fatigue and can make changes on a whim, or at the command of a black binder that suggests you ignore what’s happening right in front of you in favor of oracular advice in the form of head-to-head data and scouting reports. In the case of the former, the samples are so small as to be meaningless, and as to the latter, whatever Howie Kendrick’s preferences are insofar as whether he likes fastballs better than curveballs or boeuf bourguignon to Lobster Thermidor, his interactions with David Robertson have been so limited that all you really have is a theory along the lines of, “If a tiger fought a lion, we believe the tiger would win,” or “In our prior experience we have seen that when sodium hits the water, things go boom, and we believe that Robertson is sodium and Kendrick is water.”
It’s speculation. There’s no fact behind it, just inferences. You can’t know if those inferences are correct until you test them. Girardi opted not to, and in a situation where he had the platoon advantage all along. Unless Aceves is harboring a specific pitch that we’ve not yet heard of — The Klingon Ball? The High ‘n’ Tight Hemingway Paragraph? The Astro Orbiter? — and Kendrick has been seen to wet himself at the sight of the Klingon Ball, there is no advantage that Aceves could have had over Robertson to justify the switch.
In fairness to Coffee Joe, we don’t know would have happened had he stuck with Robertson. Perhaps Kendrick would have hit the ball to the moon and the game would have ended right there. It could be that the manager’s hunch was correct and Aceves didn’t execute. What we do know is that Robertson was doing a fine job, has done a fine job, and that learning to trust him is a big part of this manager’s and this team’s future. If Hughes rejoins the rotation next year, Robertson could be your eighth-inning guy, and no reason that he shouldn’t be.
The Robertson/Aceves switch, and the Damaso Marte/Phil Coke switch earlier in the game, or all of the hectic pinch-running (which has not availed the Yankees and has actively hurt them) are also symptomatic of a manager who is managing too much in the moment and not thinking about what will happen if it turns out he needs the player he just chucked away. In particular, he seems to have forgotten that Brett Gardner is not just a runner but a full-function player. Since Eric Hinske is not on the roster, he’s the closest thing the Yankees have to a competent hitter on the bench. Because of the way he’s been used, the Yankees have been forced into having Freddy Guzman, Jerry Hairston, and Francisco Cervelli hit in key spots and potentially lost an extra inning of work from Rivera because they gave up the DH to replace Johnny Damon on defense.
This is the opposite of good managing. For the rest of the series, Girardi might better focus on imparting some of his high-caffeine mojo to his hitters, who haven’t had a hit with a runner in scoring position in the last two contests. The speed of the runners on base matters not a bit if the next three guys make outs and that is exactly what’s been happening. Alas, this aspect of things might be out of Coffee Joe’s hands.
YESTERDAY, CC SABATHIA SEEMED SO FAR AWAY
BUT OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR
As for today’s matchup, when the three-man rotation concept was first floated, I brought up Luis Tiant in the 1975 World Series. El Tiante, who had been just so-so in the regular season that year but was nonetheless the team’s ace, had a week to get ready for Game 1, and he pitched a five-hit shutout. He pitched Game 4 on three days’ rest and was just good enough, holding the Reds to four runs in nine innings as the Red Sox won 5-4.
After Game 5 there was rain, which meant that Tiant got to pitch Game 6 after a five-day layoff. He shut out the Reds for four innings, but they broke through for three runs in the fifth, two in the seventh, and one more in the eighth. Given the long rest, the issue wasn’t fatigue, but familiarity — the Reds had seen all of Tiant’s tricks and were ready for them (they would go on to lose the game in extra innings on Carlton Fisk’s famous home run).
Obviously the Yankees don’t want this series to go seven games, and if Sabathia pitches well tonight it might not have to, but they have an extra reason to hope that it does not — a third helping of Sabathia might prove to be too much of a good thing.
ONE AND ONE
Friday was a sort of good Yankees day (great hitting, no pitching) and Saturday was a very bad Yankees day, which sounds like some kind of weird children’s story: “Jorge Posada and the Rumpy Grumpy Starting Pitcher.”
It does seem like Posada has had more than his share of disagreements with his starters this year, but in many ways there is a culture clash at work with the Yankees in a minor key way. The team has a new pitching staff. Few of the current pitchers — CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, David Robertson, Chad Gaudin, Damaso Marte, and Sergio Mitre (that is, just about everyone except Andy Pettitte and Brian Bruney) — have much experience being Yankees and throwing to Posada. The veterans among them have their own way of doing things. The rookies may be headstrong or timid. Posada, one senses (at least from trying to talk with him in the clubhouse), may not be the most diplomatic guy in the world. You can see how this could lead to conflict on those days when defeat wants to be an orphan. Suddenly it’s not what the pitcher threw, but what the catcher called.
When it comes to an established veteran like Burnett, the final responsibility must be with him. He certainly has the standing on the Yankees to call his own game. It’s not important that he disagrees with Posada, only that he either shake Posada off until they come to an agreement (that is, doing it Burnett’s way) or Burnett throws Posada’s selection with confidence. An in-between approach — resignedly throwing Posada’s pitch — can lead to disaster, apparently what happened yesterday.
Perhaps, though, we need not delve that far to find the source of Saturday’s discord. Burnett has rarely been a consistent pitcher. There are days his control just doesn’t show up for work, one of the reasons he currently leads the American League in walks issued. This has been a career-long problem for Burnett, and blaming his catcher would be unfair given just how many catchers have received his pitches on days like Saturday. Note that Burnett did not blame Posada. We shouldn’t either.
SWISHER’S WEIRD SPLITS
If you average Nick Swisher’s 2008 road stats with his 2009 home stats, you get .198/.343/.309. Miserable. If you put last year’s home stats with this year’s road stats, you get .263/.363/.552. Brilliant. I have no further comment, except to say that if the fellow could just get his concentration down in both places, he could have a 40-homer season. Of course, that he hasn’t is why he was available to the Yankees for Wilson Betamax. As with Burnett’s occasional wild days, Swisher’s oddly bifurcated production represent the invisible hand of human psychology at work on the game.
Without endorsing the idea of the Yankees acquiring Roy Halladay, I want to point out that one universal theme of the commentary regarding such a trade, that the Jays would be unlikely to deal Halladay to a divisional rival like the Yankees, is one of those stock things that writers say without really thinking it through. Anyone who writes that must not watch YES much, because the obvious counterpoint is a fixture in the booth. How do they think David Cone got to be associated with the Yankees?
On July 28, 1995, the Blue Jays traded David Cone to the Yankees under very similar circumstances. The general manager at the time was Gord Ash, not J.P. Ricciardi, but I guarantee you his preference wasn’t to send Cone across the water to New York, but he did. The Yankees had prospects to deal (none of them worked out, unfortunately) and they were willing to risk Cone leaving as a free agent (he did declare for the market, but was re-signed about five weeks later). Halladay isn’t a free agent until after the 2010 season, but the expense of his current contract is going to scare off a lot of teams given the economic environment. A team that picks him up tomorrow is going to be on the hook for half of this season and all of next year, which comes out to something like $23 million. It could be that the pool of bidders will be small enough that Ricciardi will have no choice but to look closely at the Yankees.
That’s if the Yankees are interested. I don’t know if they are, or if they even should be, but being division-mates with the Jays hasn’t stopped them in the past and won’t stop them now.
A QUICKER NOTE ON ACEVES VS. MITRE
Good call by the Yankees plucking Alf Aceves out of the bullpen to make Thursday’s spot start against the Twins. As outlined in an earlier entry, Mitre’s Major League track record is spotty enough that Thursday would have to be rated a throwaway game, regardless of his current minor league record. Pitchers are the ballplayers most likely to reinvent themselves, but a 5.36 career ERA is what it is… kind of like Brett Tomko’s 4.69.
The only disturbing aspect to the decision is that it exposes Joe Girard’s proffered rationale for stranding Aceves and Phil Hughes in the bullpen, that they could not be “stretched” in time, as a canard. Why not just give an honest answer, which would have been something like, “We’re having a pretty fun time with the current bullpen composition and we just don’t want to mess with it?” That might not have been the correct answer to the problem of the spot start, but it would have been truthful.
With Aceves sprung, possibly for more than one start, the Yankees do have to identify an option to replace his very productive relief work. Right now they’re carrying a pen that is two pitchers short of a full load, given that Brian Bruney isn’t exactly trustworthy right now and Brett Tomko doesn’t have any function beyond trash-time relief, if that.
I’d still like an explanation of why it’s more valuable to the pennant-winning effort to have Tomko in the Majors and Mark Melancon and his 2.50 ERA in the minors. I know he walked five guys in three innings in the majors, but at Scranton he’s walked just two batters per nine innings, the same rate he had last year. Meanwhile, the same minor league staff that allowed him to throw nearly 100 innings last year, after the pitcher already had Tommy John surgery, is using him for two and three innings and appearance. If the Yankees don’t use him soon, he might break before he can be used.
AN EVEN QUICKER QUESTION (UNANSWERABLE FOR NOW) ON SABATHIA
Is it meaningful that CC Sabathia’s strikeout rate is his lowest since 2003?
THE NEVER-ENDING STORY
Brett Gardner, May to present: .312/.414/.496.
Melky Cabrera, May to present: .265/.319/.395.
Gardner starts again tonight. All hail Joe Girardi.
SO LONG TO FRANCISCO CERVELLI
He’s athletic and mobile and therefore fun to watch… but as a hitter he wasn’t any better than Jose Molina. The difference between the two is that Cervelli has a small chance to be better than that, whereas Molina is what he is. Cervelli’s 48 percent caught stealing rate is something special, and if he continues to throw like that he’s almost guaranteed to have a long Major League career even if his bat stays exactly where it is right now.
Chien-Ming Wang headed back to the disabled list and Joba-To-the-Bullpen became Joba to Nowhere, but winning trumps everything. Adding to the sweetness of the proceedings was the fact that the victories came at the expense of an AL East opponent, pushing the Yankees to one game under .500 against divisional rivals. They kept the pressure on the Red Sox, who dropped two of three to the Mariners, and put some distance between themselves and the rest of the competition. The Rays, swept by the Rangers, are now six games behind the Yankees in the loss column, the Jays eight behind. The wild card standings remain close, with AL West co-leaders Texas and L.A.-Anaheim just two games back of the Yankees.
How long this happy situation persists will depend in part on how the Yankees choose to compensate for the loss of Wang. This seems a bit odd to say, “compensate for the loss of Wang,” because the Yankees haven’t really had Wang all season long. For all their patience, prodding, and pushing, Wang has yet to record a quality start. Now, quality start is just a made-up statistical category (heck, they’re all made up) denoting a starting pitcher having done certain minimal things in his games — throw six innings, allow three or fewer earned runs. It’s not a crazy high standard, as all it asks a pitcher to do is post a 4.50 ERA. Wang is 0-for-9, and whatever achievements exist in the past, they clearly don’t have much bearing on this season.
Since returning to the starting rotation on June 4, Wang’s ERA is 6.43 in six tries. His rate of home runs allowed per nine innings is a career high, and it didn’t dramatically improve during Wang’s latest sting. He allowed four home runs in 28 innings, which doesn’t sound like much, but it works out to 1.3 per nine. The career rate for the sinkerball artist coming into this season was 0.5. Wang’s latest injury is just the latest clue that anything the Yankees need to cultivate a solid alternative and view anything they get from Wang this year as a bonus.
That alternative is almost certainly not Sergio Mitre. While you can never preclude a team catching journeyman lightning in a bottle (see Aaron Small ’05), Mitre seems a long shot to click. Frequently injured, Mitre is a heavy ground ball type who has never found consistency in the Majors due in large part to control problems — a pitch-to-contact type can’t walk three or four batters per nine innings and expect to succeed. There are simply too many balls in play with runners on base for the pitcher to succeed, even with the enhanced double play rate of the sinker ball pitcher.
One intriguing note here is that Mitre has done great things with his walk rate in the Minors this year, passing just five batters in 39.2 innings. If Mitre can carry that kind of control back to the bigs, it will be almost as if the Yankees were trying a brand-new pitcher, not a 28-year-old retread. Even then, success is not assured. This is a pitcher against whom Major League batters have averaged about .300 — they’re not fooled, and while Mitre might cut down on the number of free passes he gives out, he will still have to keep the batters from simply banging their way on base.
With the All-Star break coming up, the Yankees will have a few days to reorder their rotation and figure out what they want to do with Wang’s spot over the longer term. As much as Alfredo Aceves and Phil Hughes are overqualified to be relievers, they’ve done so well in that role that it’s understandable that the club would be reluctant to pull them from the pen at this juncture, not without some kind of viable alternative to take the spot (the problem of “stretching them out” into a starting role is transient, especially given that Aceves threw 43 pitches on Sunday).
Here is yet another occasion to point out the way the Yankees have hurt themselves by perpetuating Brett Tomko in the Majors at the expense of Mark Melancon, lefty Zach Kroenke, or practically anyone else in the organization. Tomko’s trash-time work could have been developmental time for any number of virginal relievers, relievers who might now be promotable to more important roles, something that clearly isn’t going to happen with the 36-year-old, home run-happy Tomko. That theoretical pitcher might have enabled the Yankees to feel more comfortable about elevating Hughes or Aceves. Instead, they have blocked themselves. Much as with the bench space wasted on Angel Berroa until quite recently, Tomko demonstrates that there are no small roster spots, only small players.
To put the matter in proper perspective, one sentence: The loss of Wang expresses itself as a bullpen problem, not a starting pitcher problem. Corollary to the foregoing: the Yankees need to do more to solve their bullpen problem.
In the long term, one interesting starting option within the organization might be right-hander Zach McAllister, currently of Double-A Trenton. If you take his work from the second half from last season, spent at Tampa of the Florida State League, and add it together with that of this season, from Double-A Trenton, you get a stunningly good line: 28 starts, a 13-9 record, 169.1 innings, 139 hits, 36 walks (1.9 per nine), 128 strikeouts (6.8 per nine), just nine home runs, and an ERA of 1.81. The strikeout rate should be a clue that McAllister is not a 95 mph burner. He’s actually somewhat Wang-like, getting by on a sinking fastball. It seems unlikely that a jump to Triple-A, or over it, would be much of an impediment. McAllister may seem like a long shot, and given the organization’s nervousness about the untested, he probably is, but the Yankees owe it to themselves to investigate these possibilities before they start throwing out good players for the detritus of other organizations.
MORE TO COME…
With the Yankees having reached the 81-game mark, the PB hands out the dreaded midterm report cards.
It’s always shocking when the Yankees start going for three, even with fast guys like Johnny Damon and Brett Gardner in the lineup. Traditionally the team just doesn’t hit many triples, in large part because the late Yankee Stadium just didn’t give up many. If a Yankee, even a speedy one, was going to get a lot of three-baggers, he had to leg them out of the road as the team did last night. The last Yankee to hit even 10 triples in a season was Jerry Mumphrey in 1982. Willie Randolph did it a couple of times in the late 1970s (1977 and 1979), and then to find the previous example you have to go back to 1955, when both Mickey Mantle and Andy Carey got there.
That’s trivia. Potentially more interesting was the sight of Gardner turning on a couple of fat inside pitches and smashing them for extra bases. This is a welcome return to what he did in Spring Training, when his swing seemed to have more leverage. It’s foolish to overreact to one game — you can pick moments out of any player’s career when, if considered in isolation and ignorance, the Mario Mendozas of the world looked like Babe Ruth, and vice-versa — but perhaps Gardner is finally awakening from his long funk. Now all he needs to do is find a way back into the lineup, which won’t be easy.
American League pitchers are averaging 3.6 walks per nine innings pitched. Yankees pitchers are averaging 4.1, which ties them for worst on the circuit with the Red Sox, just ahead of the Cleveland Indians, who are walking an even 4.0. A good deal of the blame most go to the bullpen, which is averaging 4.5 walks per nine innings. After Andy Pettitte walked four in his six innings of work last night, which didn’t help matters, Alfredo Aceves pitched a seemingly miraculous two innings of walk-free baseball, but Jon Albaladejo evened things up by passing two in his single inning of work. Given that the current pen has too many similarly inclined pitchers when it comes to control — and Brian Bruney has never been one for pinpoint pitching, though it seemed like he was getting there before he got hurt — that one possible solution is to forget Aceves’ possible usefulness as a long man/spot starter and instead try him in a few higher leverage situations than last night’s semi-blowout.
Then, of course, there’s the other kind of obvious solution, which is a trip to the Minors for Edwar Ramirez. Given his combined walk rate and home run rate, he’s less a reliever now than an unsecured weapon of mass destruction. He’s averaging close to seven walks per nine innings and a home run every three. He can’t survive those rates, not even with his impressive strikeout rate. Ramirez, for all the wonderfulness of his change, is essentially a trick pitcher. The league has caught up, and he needs to find a new wrinkle to be useful.
NOW OUR REVELS ARE ENDED, KIRK
With the demotions of Alfredo Aceves, Dan Giese, and Brett Tomko, all but one of the spring’s competitions and mysteries have been resolved. Brett Gardner (3-for-4 today) is your center fielder. Xavier Nady is your right fielder. Jon Albaladejo is in the bullpen. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui are more or less ready to go. Mariano Rivera seems more than ready to go. Southpaw Phil Coke should make the team, and he looks like he’ll be a weapon. Joba Chamberlain started the spring in the rotation and will finish the spring in the rotation. Any time a setup man blows a lead all season long someone will second-guess his being there, even if he’s 16-1 at the time, but he’s in the rotation. All that remains to be determined is the identity of the reserve infielder, a player who may only cling to the roster until Alex Rodriguez returns. Assuming no major injuries and a timely and effective return for Rodriguez (which is assuming a lot, but let’s go with it), that player should only have minimal playing opportunities… Unless, as I hopefully speculated yesterday, Joe Girardi is brave enough to use a late-inning defensive replacement for Derek Jeter.
KEPPINGER (A BRIEF NOTE)
Earlier this spring I touted Jeff Keppinger as a player who would make a useful A-Rod substitute and post-Rod utility player. While not a defensive standout at any position, he’s adequate around the infield and has a far better bat than either Angel Berroa or Ramiro Pena. Today, the Reds dealt him to the Astros for a player to be named later. As the Astros’ farm system is drier than my aunt’s Thanksgiving turkey, the PTBNL isn’t likely to be anything special, which is to say that the Yankees, had they been in on Keppinger, likely could have topped the offer without giving away anyone of real significance. As the Yankees found out last year, the better your bench players, the better the club’s insurance against injuries to star players. I wrote yesterday that Ramiro Pena could be a fine late-inning defensive substitute, but if he has to start for two weeks the Yankees will suffer greatly. You can’t just look at these reserves as guys who are only going to pinch-run and start once a month when someone needs a day off, and you certainly can’t take the health of your players for granted. Jose Molina should have taught the Yankees that. He’s the true example of what happens when a star player gets hurt, not Erick Almonte.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
It was a bad couple of days for ex-Yankees as Gary Sheffield (499 home runs) and Mike Stanton (1,178 games, second all time) hit the release pile. The Tigers are now free to rotate some useful players, like Marcus Thames and Jeff Larish, through the DH spot. In a spot of good news for a former Yankee, it looks like utility infielder Nick Green has made the Red Sox, Julio Lugo being out and Alex Cora being a Met… Amazing that Alfredo Simon, a pitcher with a career 5.04 ERA in the minors (and a 23-40 career record) will be in the Orioles’ rotation… Chan Ho Park is the Phillies’ fifth starter; in other news, the Phillies will not be defending their championship. They also released Geoff Jenkins, who was made redundant last season after Jayson Werth emerged as an everyday player… The Marlins are going to start Emilio Bonifacio at third base; here’s hoping they enjoy their .350 slugging percentage at the hot corner… Dear Royals: Why Sidney Ponson?
Peter Abraham, live-blogging today’s game, reported that Nick Swisher batted with the bases loaded, was behind in the count 0-2, and came back to work a walk. I got curious as to how often that actually happened in real games, and which Yankees were the best at rescuing a bad situation with patience and selectivity. Working our way around the diamond:
Career walks after down 0-2:
Jorge Posada, 39 in 906 PA (4.3 percent).
Mark Teixeira, 29 in 619 PA (4.7 percent).
Robinson Cano, 7 in 386 PA (1.8 percent).
Alex Rodriguez, 53 in 1597 PA (3.3 percent).
Derek Jeter, 69 in 1442 PA (4.8 percent).
Johnny Damon, 37 in 1445 PA (2.6 percent).
Melky Cabrera, 4 in 269 PA (1.5 percent).
Nick Swisher, 20 in 405 PA (4.9 percent).
Xavier Nady, 10 in 473 PA (2.1 percent).
Hideki Matsui, 24 in 477 PA (5.0 percent).
I don’t know if this tells us much more than that the most patient hitters on the team are able to carry that patience through even the most difficult situations. Before running down the numbers, I had made a little bet with myself that Jeter would be tops in this category, not because he’s the most patient Yankee, but because of how many times I’ve seen him bear down in such situations. My guess was close, but it’s Matsui that takes the prize. Often you hear that clichéd description “professional hitter” applied to players who are no such thing, but what Matsui does, turning lost times at the plate into something positive, is truly deserving of the appellation. Hobbled Godzilla has only hit .220/.262/.342 in his career when down 0-2, but that’s actually a big accomplishment — no-hitter does well when he has only one pitch to work with; last year the American League as a whole batted .185/.217/.274 after an 0-2 count, so Matsui is well ahead of the pack.
I know you’re wondering about Jeter in such situations. He’s been even better than Matsui, batting .230/.283/.340 after 0-2. Hey, you’ve got to do stuff like that to get to the Hall of Fame.
DON’T BURY THE LEAD(OFF HITTER), STEVE!
In this morning’s entry, I wished that Brett Gardner would hit a triple today. Instead, he led off the game with a home run, pulling the second pitch of the game over the right field fence. Your move, Melky. And Kei Igawa pitched well, too, but we’ll pretend that didn’t happen.
According to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, Brett Tomko is in competition with Dan Giese and Alfredo Aceves for a spot as a long man out of the pen. All three of those guys would probably make spot starts as well, should any be necessary. As I suggested this morning, Tomko really has no case to make here, having been roundly pounded every year since 1997, with the exception of 2004. As a starter last year, his ERA was 6.17. He pitched 16 innings as a reliever and slowed 12 runs, including four homers. In 177.1 career innings out of the pen his ERA is 4.92.
The best choice here might actually be Giese. Aceves seems like a very interesting starter, and I’m all for the Yankees embracing what little youth they chose to bring to camp, but I worry about his low strikeout rate and high home run rate in a bullpen role. He may simply be unsuited. It won’t hurt the Yankees to try, of course. Giese didn’t pitch that much between injuries, but was more or less effective when he did, particularly before his post-injury appearances in September. He got hammered in five innings that last month (we should watch out for any carryover to this spring), but to that point his ERA was 2.58 in 38.1 innings. Giese seems to be comfortable in the swingman role, and as a 31-year-old rookie last year is no doubt just happy to be in the majors.
All of that said, we’re talking about the last man on the staff. Given the quality of the Yankees rotation and their other bullpen options, this should be the last important decision Joe Girardi makes. Last year Giese generally relieved in low-leverage situations, and it seems unlikely that Girardi would have to call on him, or Brett Tomko, to protect too many leads. Still, if healthy, the guy knows how to pitch and deserves to have something of an inside track given his incumbency. Tomko does not know how to pitch, or if he does hasn’t translated that into consistent big league success — if he had, he wouldn’t be pitching for the last spot on the Yankees, he’d be in someone’s rotation.
It doesn’t quite deserve Gladys Knight, does it? While I wait, a few thoughts on Andy Pettitte.
Now, I am in something of a bubble while traveling, so if in the time I compose this dispatch Pettitte has re-signed with the Yankees, joined Joe Torre in Los Angeles, retired in a fit of Cajun pique, decided to discover Japan, or volunteered for the Roger Clemens Memorial Witness Protection Program, forgive me. YES is very generous, but they haven’t yet volunteered to subscribe me to a portable broadband service and I’d feel kind of Oliver Twist-y asking. I mean, I’m the only guy in the company with his own bunker. Sure, Bob Lorenz is a much bigger name than me, but when the blow down storms come, it’s me Bob is going to have to ask for a seat in the safe room. And he’s going to be very disappointed, because my chair sucks compared to his.
Earlier this week, I remarked that the Yankees need to leave a spot in the rotation open for youth. The most obvious candidate for that spot is Phil Hughes, but it could just as easily be taken up by Alfredo Aceves, Ian Kennedy, or a darkhorse candidate like George Kontos. The Yankees need the flexibility that youth generates, because as we’ve seen this winter, we’re entering a new paradigm when it comes to free agent action. The arbitration-based compensation system is dying.
Even the Yankees were reluctant to offer their departing free agents arbitration for fear that they would accept (in retrospect, had they known the Players Association was steering free agents away from accepting such offers, they might have been emboldened to take the chance). Simultaneously, those players who were offered arbitration have seen their possibilities dry up, because the buyers have finally, finally realized, decades into the free agent process, that a team’s chances of developing a decent player for a first-round pick, one that they control for the first six years of his career, are good enough that it’s just not worth forfeiting a pick for a player like Jason Varitek, who is going to come in for a year or two, be a character guy, and then retire.
With the pick you gave up for Varitek, you could have made a conservative draft pick, selecting the proverbial polished college pitcher who is not going to develop much but should safely turn into a solid four-five starter within those same two years. Given what four-five starters cost on the open market, it’s just not worth passing one up for a 35-year-old catcher. There really was a point at which teams did not get this. At one point the Montreal Expos gave up a first-round pick to sign a third-string catcher named Tim Blackwell. You could look it up.
As a result of this, hoarding old guys has less value than ever. It used to be that a departing vet classified as a Type A or Type B free agent would leave a parting gift in the form of a draft pick. Now, with clubs hesitant to buy into the system at both ends, when they depart all the leave is an empty locker. Bobby Abreu is going to play for another few years, but the Yankees will have nothing to show for it but memories of the many fly balls that went over his head.
This makes an Andy Pettitte something of a dead end in the life cycle. Sure, he might help the club to a pennant, but you can make a strong argument that the Yankees are close enough to that already that the marginal wins he provides over a youngster — we have to acknowledge that the big zero that the Yankees received from Kennedy and Hughes last year was an unlikely to be repeated fluke — are not only not worth the money but will also leave the Yankees naked when he finally heads off into retirement. He will have blocked off a youngster for small return, won’t be bringing a draft pick, retirement or no, and so when he’s gone, there’s a vacuum where there should have been the next guy standing ready.
Conversely, if the Yankees invest 20-25 starts in a young fifth starter this year, they might get 30 starts a year for the next five, at prices they control. There’s a lot of value in that achievement and not much risk. This is particularly true because given the team’s depth in young pitchers, they can pull the plug on any failing experiment very quickly. Hughes not working out? Back to the Minors and ring in a new Kennedy administration. Kennedy has a Bay of Pigs? It’s Aceves time. Aceves’s arm falls off? Try Kontos. The point is, at the end of the season you have something you didn’t have before, an additional asset to carry you forward into 2010.
Having written that, I am mere minutes from heading into the YES studios to get my spray-tan. Once again, the show airs at 6:30 p.m., and I’ll be checking through your comments for juicy tidbits with which to wow Bob and the gang. See you in the bunker.