MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: PRETTY MUCH NONE (OR ONE)
…Although “Waiting for Melky Cabrera’s Next Hot Streak” would have made for a very good Johnny Cash song, something along the lines of “Big River”:
Now, I taught the weeping willow how to cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky
And I’m still waiting for Melky to start hitting again, Big River
Or I’m gonna sit right here until I die
This is hardly worth a complaint or cavil; with the Yankees having just swept the White Sox, there’s little to complain about. Well, we could always spend more time first-guessing the Joba Rules 3.0, or whatever version Joe Girardi is up to now. The experiment is fascinating in the completely blind way it is being conducted; there is no hope of ever knowing if the Yankees are helping or just sort of messing around. If Joba doesn’t get hurt, it isn’t necessarily because of anything the Yankees did or did not do, and the same thing is true if he does get hurt. Being careful to avoid too large a year-over-year increase in innings pitched seems correct both from an intuitive and anecdotal perspective, but in the final analysis, the only foolproof way to avoid pitching injuries is not pitching.
Simultaneously, if the Joba Rules are in conflict with the goal of developing Chamberlain into a consistently successful Major League pitcher, then it isn’t clear what the Yankees are accomplishing. To paraphrase a tragic Vietnam-era concoction, what if the only way to save the pitcher is to destroy him? Yet another thing we don’t know is if Joba’s recent stretch of weak pitching is due to the rules or just coincidental with their implementation. The righty made 11 starts with a 3.31 ERA in June and July. In August, the month all the messing around really took hold, his ERA was 8.22. If he’s miserable in the playoffs, if he’s miserable next year, then it will be difficult to argue that this was a goal worth pursuing, or that it was pursued correctly.
There is another imperative, one which is in conflict with the Joba Rules, and that is winning ballgames and championships. Had the Yankees been in a tighter race in the middle of this month, they would have faced a fascinating choice between holding to their principles and trying to get back to the postseason. Fortunately for them, and perhaps for Joba, we will never know what would have happened in that situation.
20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. ORIOLES
W-L RS/G RA/G AVG OBP SLG AB/HR SB CS HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Yankees 14-6 6.3 4.5 .298 .357 .513 20 9 2 1.2 2.9 8.6
Orioles 8-12 4.9 5.2 .281 .343 .465 31 11 5 1.3 3.3 5.9
Another August comes to a close, another series against an Orioles team that has packed it in for the year. The Orioles franchise goes back to the founding of the American League in 1901, when it came into existence as the St. Louis Browns. The Browns, as you can probably infer from the fact that they now play in Baltimore, were generally not too successful, their two high points being a terrific but losing race with the Yankees in 1922 and a random pennant in 1944. Much of the rest of the time, including the early Baltimore period, the club was hopeless, twice going more than 10 years without even putting up a .500 record. The first stretch, from 1930-1941, lasted 12 seasons. The second, from 1946-1956, lasted 11. When this season ends, the club will have equaled the former futile run, having not posted a winning record since 1997.
The Yankees have good timing in this series, in that they won’t see the two top pitching prospects the Orioles now have up, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz. Instead, they get the vet Jeremy Guthrie (hot lately, with consecutive seven inning/one run starts), the rookie David Hernandez, who they have handled before — he remains wild and prone to the home run — and another rookie, Jason Berken, who they battered back in July. This is not something to be boasted of, because pretty much everyone else who has seen Berken has basted him. He has pitched a little better of late, going 10.2 innings and allowing five runs in his last two starts.
The hottest hitter the O’s have won’t play against Andy Pettitte. Outfielder Felix Pie has been a bust in both Chicago and Baltimore, but the 24-year-old got a chance to play with Adam Jones nursing injuries and he made the most of it, batting .333/.394/.651 in August. This aside, the sights to see remain the same: veteran keystoner Brian Roberts, the three young outfielders, and rookie catcher Matt Wieters. If it sounds like I’m not too excited by this series, it’s because there isn’t much reason to be. The Orioles hit at about the same level of productivity as the White Sox, but their pitching is far worse. Given how the Yankees just handled the White Sox, there isn’t much suspense here. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be.
WAITING ON SEPTEMBER CALL-UPS
The Yankees still haven’t said who is coming, nor have they designated all of their Arizona Fall League attendees, so the immediate future of Yankees prospect-dom remains murky. One would hope that Austin Jackson is coming. As miserable as he has been lately (.236/.281/.299 since the break and largely pointless since May), the Yankees still need to get a look at him in big league situations to see what they have. There is some interesting slack in his numbers, including a homerless .302/.346/.414 against left-handed pitching, an oddity for a right-handed hitter. This is not something you would expect to continue, unless Jackson has become such a pronounced ground ball hitter this year that his power is going to stagnate from now on. With a big lead, Brett Gardner hurt, and Cabrera endlessly slumping (.212/.225/.333 in August, .239/.308/.380 since May), veterans in need of rest, and all the leverage in the world on Johnny Damon’s side in upcoming free agent negotiations, giving Jackson a cup of coffee in spite of his weak performance would seem the correct thing to do.
Ready to save a season?
It’s not that simple, of course. A few extra home runs aren’t going to paper over all of the areas where the Yankees are failing to perform right now. The starting pitchers have the third-worst ERA in the league, and while the bullpen has not been the worst in the league (Cleveland and Anaheim are vying for that dubious title), it has been weak enough to earn a failing grade to this point in the season.
The offense, which is averaging 5.6 runs per game played, hasn’t really been the problem. Sure, a hot-hitting Rodriguez might help the team overcome a few badly pitched games by helping to pile on the runs, but with the Yankees apparently taking the express elevator to the sub-replacement level at catcher (welcome, Kevin Cash), Rodriguez will not fully plug the resultant hole. The place where Rodriguez’s impact is most likely to be felt is on defense. The Yankees, as has typically been the case in recent years, do not excel at turning balls in play into outs. A-Rod isn’t Brooks Robinson, and Ramiro Pena has done decent work on the fielding job, but there’s something to be said for having an experienced player out there.
That said, the team has been miserable in the clutch and the third basemen have been even less contributory than the replacement catchers are likely to be (well, maybe), so perhaps Rodriguez can contribute in ways that go beyond the overall offensive totals.
The pitching should come around. Unless the Yankees have somehow ducked into a perfect storm of nervous breakdowns and physical injuries, the many good arms they have on hand will not struggle forever. The overarching problem is one of depth. A-Rod returns, but Jorge Posada is down, Molina is down (and he wasn’t very good) and now Cash is up. Cash and Cashman go well together, because the former represents the latter’s blind spot. The general manager has never been one to worry much about contingencies, and now the Yankees are carrying a career .184 hitter/.248 OBP backstop, this even though there were many reasons to doubt Posada’s durability. There are reasons as well to doubt Rodriguez’s durability. And Johnny Damon’s. And Hideki Matsui’s. The question for today is not, “What will it mean to have Alex Rodriguez back?” but “Who’s next?”
Francisco Cervelli, of course, has barely played at the Double-A level and has an offensive profile that would seem to translate into a few singles at best. He has been willing to take the odd walk offered to him, so the Yankees can hope that even if all other production is lacking he might accept the odd fourth ball, more than could have been said for Molina.
In fairness to Mr. Cashman, the problem with depth has long been an organizational one. Unlike most other organizations, the Yankees have not been able to draft and develop even a few solid, second-line players. The pitching has been coming along, and that has been a huge step forward, because a few years back we couldn’t even say that much positive about the Yankees’ farm system.
However, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, and Austin Jackson notwithstanding (and Jackson is unlikely to be an impact player), a parallel improvement in position players is overdue. This has acted to hamstring the GM both in terms of trade fodder and in injury replacements and bench strength for the major league team. That said, the catching problem, along with the advanced age and concomitant brittleness of the big club, not to mention the specific injury situations of several prominent players, should have been taken into account.
As for Rodriguez, a few heroic home runs would go a long way towards saving his reputation and helping his team out of its current rut. The opposite is almost too painful to contemplate as we will never hear the end of it. If Rodriguez goes 0-for-20 to open his season, it could be because he’s still not 100 percent or it could be because he happened to go 0-for-20, but we’ll hear a lot about how he’s not the same guy now that he’s clean. Actually, we will likely hear that anytime he slumps over the rest of his contract. Anyone got a spare set of noise-canceling headphones?
REST IN PEACE, DOM DIMAGGIO
Farewell to the last of the three DiMaggio brothers who lit up the major leagues in the 1930s and 40s. Joe, of course, was the Yankee Clipper. Vince struck out a lot but was a great ballhawk (some said the best outfielder of the three) and had his career damaged by starting it playing in Boston’s Braves Field, a terrible park for a low-average power hitter, which is what Vince was. From 1940 to 1945, his post-Braves period spent mostly in Pittsburgh, Vince hit .256/.331/.433, safely above-average for the time, and combined with his defense that made him a solid player, though not a star. Dom was a star, a seven-time All-Star for the Red Sox, and though he wasn’t, as the song parody went, better than his brother Joe, he was a very solid, Brett Butler-type player — Butler with better plate judgment and a bit more pop at the plate (some of it no doubt provided by Fenway Park, but still). He was also the top defensive center fielder of his time, probably better than Joe on the fielding job (for Joe, being third in his own family still meant he was better than everyone else), and if he wasn’t a Hall of Famer in his own right he was at worst the next level down. He was a key part of the great Ted Williams-driven Red Sox offenses of the 1940s and the team’s 1946 pennant winner. He will long be remembered.
W-L R/G AB/HR PA/BB SB CS AVG OBP SLG
YANKEES 9-11 5.6 23.5 8.9 16 2 .277 .365 .463
ORIOLES 6-14 4.6 34.0 12.6 12 6 .256 .321 .399
ERA RA H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
YANKEES 6.10 6.54 9.9 4.3 7.4 1.6
ORIOLES 5.04 5.62 10.3 3.0 6.8 1.3
You would think that given the pitching matchups of this series (Sabathia-Guthrie, Hughes-Eaton, and Chamberlain-Uehara) the Yankees would stand a very good chance of not only ending their losing streak but sweeping the series. Don’t place any bets on that evaluation, because we’ve seen the Yankees find some new ways to lose lately, particularly struggling to hit in situations like having a runner on third and less than two outs (.261/.298/.391, seven sacri
fice flies in 56 opportunities). As for the Orioles, there’s not a lot that’s good here. The big story is that Adam Jones (.346/.413/.598) has seemingly taken a big step forward to join Nick Markakis as one of the team’s building blocks. The bigger story is that no one else has stepped up to join him. Maybe the Yankees haven’t been competitive with the Red Sox to this point, but if they’re not competitive with these guys…
THAT DIDN’T GO AS PLANNED
Strange, isn’t it, the way baseball toys with your expectations. CC Sabathia pitched quite well in Spring Training, while Jeremy Guthrie was messed up worse than the Elephant House on bran peanut day. The bell rings and it’s Sabathia that required the cleanup on aisle pachyderm and Guthrie who put in the solid performance. It’s a heck of an omen for the Orioles, given that the rotation goes rapidly downhill after Guthrie — a solid season from him and that might not lose 100 games.
As for the Yankees, getting a wild, no-strikeout start from your ace is always frightening, but Sabathia has been there before and recovered, so there’s no use getting to exercised about today’s performance. Ditto that of Mark Teixeira, who went 0-for-4 and stranded five runners — no doubt some in Yankeeland are already fitting him for the “not a true Yankee” pants. This too shall pass, though in truth Teixeira does deserve to wear the horns for this one, Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon having combined to go 5-for-8 with a walk in front of him. The bullpen didn’t help, but Cesar Izturis’s home run was a matter of inches, as all Izturis home runs are likely to be. He’s hit just 13 of the things, and if you give one up to him, well, you’re a member of a very select club that includes a strangely large number of former Yankees or Yankees-associated pitchers, including Tony Armas, Brandon Claussen, David Cone and Eric Milton. Welcome, Phil Coke. Your commemorative pin is in the mail.
At least Nick Swisher didn’t leave anyone on base.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Life is a changeup pitcher. Hence, several candidates for their league basements won on Opening Day … I said in an earlier installment that I was looking forward to seeing what Jason Motte could do as Cardinals closer. Today I got my answer: four runs on four hits and a blown save against the Pirates. I haven’t seen the highlights yet, but I wonder how many were line drives and how many were just the Cardinals being weak on balls in play … Headline on MLB.com regarding former Yankees first baseman Nick the Greenstick: “Johnson excited to be healthy in ’09.” Missing from that headline: “For now.” That fellow had Hall-of-Fame hitting ability at one time. Now, who knows? … Leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio of the Marlins is probably a fantasy baseball darling after a 4-for-5 with an inside-the-park home run and three stolen bases, but this was the last such day of his career … After not watching “ER” for the last five years, I tuned in for the finale last week and was intrigued enough by the part where the entire cast was imprisoned in the stockyards and slowly minced by the ghosts of 19th century meatpackers to go to Hulu and watch the rest of the season for clues, but that whole abattoir scene remained an inexplicable non-sequitur … Why isn’t Brad Hawpe’s nickname “Hee?”… Back in October 2004, when Tony Clark was on the verge of leaving the Yankees, if you had offered to bet on his still playing five years in the future, few would have taken the pro Tony position, likeable guy or not. Well, he’s still here, and he socked two home runs today. Clark and his ballpark were apparently built for each other; through last season, he’s a career .281/.350/.620 hitter at Arizona with 39 home runs in 405 at-bats (make it 41 in 409) … If you’re the Indians you have to worry about Cliff Lee, abused during Spring Training and by the Rangers on Opening Day (no Andruw Jones sighting despite the lefty opposing starter) … The offseason formula worked better for the Mets on Opening Day than for the Yankees, as their reconstructed bullpen delivered 3 1/3 scoreless innings, something that seemed impossible as of last September.