SOMETIMES IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK
Before Game 1, I suggested that the Yankees’ trademark patience would test Cliff Lee’s exemplary control. Score that one a clean miss. Unlike just about every other pitcher in the biz, Cliff Lee, who had the demeanor of someone who had just enjoyed a Prozac cocktail, did not bend, did not waver for even a moment. He threw nine innings of mistake-free baseball, never giving the Yankees a chance. A team that walked 38 times in six games against the Angels did not earn one free pass in the game.
You could dismiss this performance as just one game, and say, “Let’s see the next guy do that,” but for two problems. One, the bullpen took a close game and turned it into a rout. Two, Pedro Martinez. Martinez isn’t the old most-dominant-pitcher-ever Martinez, but the new version, which throws strikes and pulls strings, is still plenty good. He completely embarrassed the Dodgers in the NLCS. I will again cling to the belief that the Yankees’ lineup isn’t the Dodgers’ lineup, isn’t a National League lineup, and that lefties hit Martinez reasonably well in the future Hall of Famer’s brief regular season tune-up. The Yankees have also done good work against him (and bad, that also) in postseasons past.
Lee’s start and Pedro’s excellent control points up a way in which this Phillies rotation can take the Yankees’ best trait, their patience, and turn it against them. The Yankees like to work counts and take ball four. Phillies starters just don’t issue ball four. As a whole, Phillies starters averaged just 2.5 walks a game. Lee walked just 1.1 batters per nine innings as a Phillie, Martinez 1.6, Cole Hamels 2.0. The National League average was 3.5 walks per nine innings (the American League was roughly the same). Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, the club’s wildest starters, walked 2.7 and 3.0 respectively. This staff is simply very good at throwing strikes, and if the Yankees play their usual game — and it’s not advisable that they start hacking, because that doesn’t work either — they may find themselves facing some long counts.
As for the bullpen failure, it had limited bearing on the outcome of the game — you could imagine that if the relievers had held serve, Charlie Manuel might have been more inclined to go to his bullpen — but since the Yankees never made up the initial deficit that resulted from the CC Sabathia-Chase Utley confrontations, it didn’t matter. The real impact is in the uncertainty about the bullpen unit as a whole, which seems to have gone down the rabbit hole this October. Perhaps the relative inexperience of the unit has got them twitchy. Whatever the reason, they have to get over it quickly, particularly Phil Hughes, or this Series is going to end a lot faster than anyone anticipated. Worse, a bad performance could mean a winter of reaction from the Yankees’ front office, chasing veteran relief hands at high cost. This is a subject for another day, but that would be an extremely counterproductive strategy that has rarely worked for any GM that has tried it. It’s a quick path to a job on ESPN, however temporary.
We shouldn’t overstate the impact of one game. Two is a different matter. A lot of pressure falls on A.J. Burnett’s right arm. Does he come ready to dance, or does the wild, uncertain version of the pitcher show up? Mister Cream Pie could do more to improve the Yankees’ morale tonight than all of the cans of shaving cream he’s gone through put together — or he could break it.
AND ONE COFFEE JOE NOTE: THINK!
I buy that Nick Swisher needs a mental health break, but considering yesterday’s performance to be part of his slump isn’t exactly fair given the way Lee pitched. After Lee, the whole roster might need a mental health break. In addition, Swisher continues to get into good counts, working the pitcher, which has value in itself if you want to get to the Phillies’ relievers already. In any case, Jerry Hairston is a bizarre choice to substitute for him. I’m thrilled that Hairston has had 10 hits in 27 at-bats against Martinez IN A PERIOD THAT BEGAN IN 1999 AND ENDED FIVE YEARS AGO. Martinez ain’t the same Martinez, Hairston ain’t the same Hairston, and the relevance is extremely, extremely debatable. As with Jose Molina’s time in the game, we’ll assume that this decision won’t have more than an at-bat or two’s worth of impact, but wow, Coffee Joe, that’s an odd call. You readers know I believe in the stats, but you can’t be a slave to the numbers. You also have to THINK.
More to come…
As I write this Thursday morning, there are just two shopping days left until the non-waiver trading deadline falls and every deal essentially requires the approval of 29 other teams. Several deals dropped on Wednesday, though none had the participation of the Yankees (their sole transaction line was the release of the ungrateful Brett Tomko).
The Phillies picked up Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco (I hear Jeannette McDonald sing, “Ben Francisco, open your golden gates” every time I think of that guy, and it never fails to disturb me) from the Indians, the Tribe picking up several players who could be useful contributors in the near future but almost certainly won’t be stars, with the possible exception of New Jersey native Jason Knapp, a teenaged righty whose fastball reaches atmospheric escape velocity.
The Phillies now get another reliable, top of the order type who can not only help them maintain their current lead but can get them through the playoffs — Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, and Joe Blanton seemed like less than sure bet to get them through Round 1, let alone to the World Series. Lee, Hamels, and Happ seem like a much better bet, and a real threat to an opponent with too left-handed a batting order. The Phillies still have a problem too address, and solving it doesn’t involve blowing their remaining prospects on Roy Halladay, but finding someone who can supplant Brad Lidge at the end of games.
As good as Lidge was last year, the Phillies can’t blow their season on sentimentality. A reliever who is giving up two homers per nine innings pitched isn’t worthy of his job (just ask Edwar Ramirez). I’ve seen some commentary on the deal worrying about how the Phillies are going to accommodate their current rotation plus Rodrigo Lopez and Pedro Martinez. This is much ado about nothing; in the case of the former, the Phillies can thank their various gods that they got some good work out of junk pile pickup, and as for Martinez, his utility is purely theoretical at this point. If he can pitch, perhaps he can add some depth to the bullpen.
The Giants tried to bolster their slim wild card lead by pulling second baseman Freddy Sanchez away from the Pirates. It cost them their No. 2 pitching prospect, righty Tim Alderson. While I am not completely sold on Alderson’s future as an ace (his control is of the finest quality; his stuff isn’t), the Giants might have picked the wrong spot to fix — Sanchez will upgrade their production at second base if he hits at all, but in the grand scheme of things he’s not a big generator of offense (his current .334 on-base percentage is about league average), not even at his batting title best (back in 2006), and he’s just an average glove. The Giants could have tried to live with what Juan Uribe was giving them at second while addressing themselves to left field or even shortstop, where the five-time All-Star Edgar Renteria is having a miserable year. Parenthetically, if Renteria has a couple of decent years left in his bag, he’s going to finish his career with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 career hits and make for a really annoying Hall of Fame argument.
The Mariners acquired Ian Snell and Jack Wilson from the Pirates for reasons that are sort of hard to figure. They gave up five, count ’em, five players in the deal. Wilson has a superb glove, but while he should give the M’s more offense than they’ve gotten from their shortstops this year (.222/.249/.320, numbers that deserve a double-take and a whispered prayer), he’s only a career .269/.311/.376 hitter himself and the difference won’t be enough to make a real dent in the Mariners’ major problem, which is that the league-average offense is scoring 4.8 runs a game and they average 3.9.
For their trouble, the Pirates pick up quite a bit of depth. They get a futile shortstop placeholder in Ronny Cedeno, but the real haul is 25-year-old Jeff Clement, a former No. 1 pick who still has a lot of offensive potential (his .288/.366/.505 at Tacoma translates to .255/ .329/.462 in the Majors), especially if the Pirates can live with his defense at catcher. The three pitchers the Buccos got in the deal are lower echelon prospects, but when you’re the Pirates, depth is not a bad thing, as you need a lot of pieces to sort through if you’re ever going to build a competitive roster with the kind of budget that their city requires.
Finally, the Reds picked up outfielder Wladamir Balentien from the Mariners, who had designated him for assignment last week. Balentien looked like he might be a solid prospect a over the last couple of years, hitting for real power in the minors, but his plate judgment is so bad he may never be able to be a regular contributor. Still, he’s only 24 and has a career slugging percentage of .526 in the minors. The Reds, who suffer from the worst outfield production in the bigs, have a much better chance of gaining a lasting asset by playing Balentien than they do by giving more playing time to Laynce Nix — or Willy Taveras, though Balentien can’t play center field. Tavaras’ current .240/.279/.290 would qualify as among the bottom five seasons turned in by a regular outfielder in the history of the game were he to carry those rates through to the end.
In his last 20 games, not counting appearances as a defensive substitute, Melky Cabrera has batted .317/.403/.444, numbers which include five doubles, one home run, nine walks, and only one double play hit into. Much like his running mate Robinson Cano, Cabrera’s hot and cold streaks can make him a frustrating player to watch; he’s seemingly at his best or his worst, with little in between. Last year that divide broke down as best in April, worst the rest of the year. At the very least, Cabrera is mixing it up a bit more this season, and you can’t fault his timing — his first hot streak this year came when Brett Gardner struggled out of the gate, the second after Gardner broke his thumb. Perhaps Cabrera is the kind of player who needs to be in fear of his job to play well. After all, had he continued to slump with Gardner on the shelf, Austin Jackson was just a phone call away.
TERROR IN A TINY TOWN
Yesterday, electrical storms rolled through the obscure village in which I lived and disrupted Internet service for a good chunk of the day; I couldn’t even get on line with my phone. I was quite fearful that the Yankees would acquire Babe Ruth in exchange for $100,000 and the mortgage on Fenway Park and I wouldn’t know about it, but Brian Cashman was good enough to hold off on making any moves. I just want to thank him publicly and let him know that I am back on line and he is free to proceed with any acquisitions he would like to make … as long as they don’t involve dealing Jesus Montero.