Results tagged ‘ Johnny Damon ’

No apologies for Yankees Stadium II

YANKEE STADIUM II (III) AND ITS DETRACTORS
In yesterday’s chat, I was asked “What do you think of the new Yankee Stadium? Does the avalanche of home runs to right bother you?” My response: “Not at all. It just is what it is. At worst, it really requires the Yankees to re-embrace their traditional love of left-handed hitters and pitchers, something that had gotten lost with the various shrinkages of the left side of Yankee Stadium over the years.”

As the year has rolled on, I’ve been mystified by the cynical response to the way the new park plays, not least because it has been competitively advantageous for the Yankees. The offense has out-homered the opposition 107-78 in the same number of at-bats, and the pitching staff’s ERA is a third of a run lower at home than on the road. As long as the Yankees keep the park in mind when building the team in the future,  it can continue to be so. This year, Yankees opponents have gotten lefties to the plate at Yankee Stadium roughly 850 times, as compared to 1384 tunes for the Yankees. That advantage might be ephemeral — the Yankees won’t always have four switch-hitters and three lefties in the lineup every year — but if they can maintain some semblance of that balance, as well as place renewed emphasis on the drafting a development of left-handed pitchers, and the park should continue to be an asset.

Whatever the Yankees do, I hope that they won’t rush out as soon as the season is over and reconfigure the fences. First, 81 games (plus a few postseason contests) isn’t enough to get an accurate reading on the park. Second, if people talk, let ’em. Whether it’s Coors Field and its altitude or the old Polo Grounds with its shortened foul lines, which resulted in home runs which were criticized as cheap, or even Babe Ruth’s porch at Yankee Stadium I, they’re all legitimate versions of a playing field. The great thing about baseball there are no correct parks or incorrect parks. They just play the way they play. The Yankees have nothing to apologize for.

matsui250_081309.jpgMATSUI’S MASHING AND THE FUTURE OF EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING
Whenever one of the Yankees’ potentially departing free agents has a big night, usually Johnny Damon but on Thursday night Hideki Matsui, a conversation starts up as to whether the player should be retained. The talk has some validity. The Yankees are not deep in outfield prospects, Austin Jackson’s .301/.362/.413 at Scranton translates to only .266/.330/.385 in the Majors, and he’s been cold for about 10 weeks; because the free agent class is going to be on the weak side, with an emphasis on older players. That limits Brian Cashman’s choices. He can let Damon and Matsui go, figuring that although they’ve done well this year, their negatives — age (Damon will turn 36 in November, Matsui next June) and defensive limitations (Damon has slipped, Matsui’s knees don’t even let him play) — are good enough reason to move on.

In a vacuum, letting the oldsters go would be correct call. However, it also means the menu of alternatives could be a Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera/Nick Swisher outfield and a rotating DH, which would be offensively light, or the above with Jackson mixed in, or the above with a very young Jesus Montero mixed in at DH, or giving too much money and too many years to Matt Holliday or Jermaine Dye or Magglio Ordonez … or hope to trade the entire farm system to the Braves for Jason Heyward, which won’t happen. It is because of scenarios like these that general managers are paid the big bucks.  

As always, much pain could have been avoided if the Yankees had been more adept at drafting and development in recent years. The farm system has clearly improved over the last few seasons, but even having said that, it seems that too often there is cause to observe that the development of position players lags far behind that of pitchers. This has been a glaring problem for so long that it’s hard to believe that the Yankees have not spent time identifying the problem (I am not pointing fingers at anyone, but they need to point fingers at someone or someone(s) or some aspects of what they are doing) and doing something to remedy it, which surely would be cheaper than continuing to pay bonuses to players who end up doing little more than filling out the farm system.

Even if those changes are implemented tomorrow, they will take time to pay off for the big team in the Bronx, so this season’s dilemma remains. I wish I had a brilliant suggestion to solve the problem, other than Montero should be allowed into the mix before long if he heals up well — no use wasting a ready bat waiting for a defensive evolution that might never come — but whereas as season’s outset it seemed like there was no scenario in which it would be worthwhile to bring Damon and Matsui back, now one can at least glimpse situations in which retaining one or both on a short-term contract — most likely Damon given Matsui’s utter loss of speed — isn’t more likely to have a worse outcome than any of the other possibilities.

That’s not exactly a strong endorsement, but it’s more than you could have said in April.

Ready for your midterms?

THE DREADED MIDTERM GRADES
On Sunday, the Yankees played their 81st game. The season’s official halfway point comes at the All-Star break, but this is it’s actual halfway point. In my ten years as pinstriped armchair detective, I’ve sometimes resorted to the clichéd midterm grades and sometimes not. This year it seemed like a helpful device to review the season. Today we’ll cover the position players, tomorrow the pitching staff.

As you review the report card, remember that the same grade might not mean the same thing for two different players, because each player must be viewed in the context of his position, his career, and his role. Expectations for Mark Teixeira are different than they are for Brett Gardner, so the latter could conceivably get a better grade than the former without implying that he is the better player in a head to head comparison. With that in mind, feel free to offer your own grades in the comments section.

posada_250.jpgJORGE POSADA-CATCHER
Putting his 25 days on the disabled list aside, you can’t fault Posada’s season. When a 37-year-old catcher is hitting .284/.368/.523, you give thanks for your good fortune and try not to ask too many questions. On defense, he’s thrown out over 30 percent of runners trying to steal, a solid number (the overall Major League success rate on stolen bases this year is 73 percent). The notion that his handling has damaged Joba Chamberlain or anyone else is farfetched bushwah given his career record, as well as those of his many battery-mates. As with several Yankees, Posada has done far more damage at home than on the road. GRADE: 89/100

MARK TEIXEIRA-FIRST BASE

Teixeira has been quite streaky, only reaching a “hot” temperature in May. He’s been vastly more successful at home (.310/.402/.632), but his road production (.243/.373/.472) also gets the job done, albeit at a far more pedestrian level. He’s also been a revelation on defense, even if for some reason the metrics don’t show it. While Teixeira’s season is consistent with his work in previous seasons, he’s not quite at the level of the last two years (.307/.406/.557 in 289 games),  and it’s worth noting that he’s having only the fifth-best season among AL first basemen, trailing Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis, Russell Branyan, and Miguel Cabrera. Of these, Branyan probably won’t hang on until the end, but the others almost certainly will. Bumped out of the “A” range, but only in comparison to previous performances. The 20-game homerless streak with which he ended the half (.244/.366/.321) didn’t help. GRADE: 86.5/100

ROBINSON CANO-SECOND BASE
Cano has bounced back from his spectacularly miserable 2008, but a league-average on-base percentage is still a bridge too far, as is consistency–in May and June combined, he hit .271/.302/.439, which doesn’t help all that much. He’s on a pace to ground into 24 double plays, and he’s batting .196 with runners in scoring position. There are certainly worse second basemen to have–Howie Kendrick is actually the evil Cano from the Star Trek mirror-verse–but as usual, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. GRADE: 79/100

ALEX RODRIGUEZ-THIRD BASE
With 45 walks and 14 home runs in 51 games, A-Rod has been productive despite his low batting average. Eleven of his 14 homers have been hit at home. Conversely, he’s hitting just .211 in the Bronx, with a truly strange .131 average on balls in play–one wonders if he’s trying to get the ball in the air at the new park, trying to catch up on all the short fence/jet stream-generated fun his teammates had without him. His hip problems seem to have sapped his speed and defense, and he hasn’t been around that much. Docked a few points for days absent and the whole juicing thing, which is spectacularly annoying. GRADE: 83.5/100

DEREK JETER-SHORTSTOP

There are a few nits you can pick with Jeter’s season. He’s only hitting .264/.340/.383 against right-handers, most of his damage coming thanks to .452/.524/.644 rates against lefties. All of his power seems to be a product of Yankee Stadium II; just two of his ten home runs have come on the road. On the plus side, his walk rate is up, he seems more limber this year, both on the bases and in the field, and though he still hits everything on the ground (he ranks 11th among players with 150 or more plate appearances this season), he’s kept his double play rate in hand. Overall, I’m not complaining–after the lethargy of last year, this qualifies as a comeback. GRADE:  91/100

JOHNNY DAMON-LEFT FIELD

Damon hit 17 home runs last year. He’s hit 16 in 76 games this year. The difference is Yankee Stadium II; the former Caveman is hitting .289/.390/.592 with 12 home runs (one every 12.7 at-bats) at home, .278/.340/.465 with four home runs (one every 36 at-bats) on the road. Now, that doesn’t mean that Damon shouldn’t get his due, as being able to take advantage of one’s environment is a skill. It’s much like Jim Rice’s home-road splits in Boston: if everyone who played in Fenway hit like Jim Rice, you’d have an argument about discounting his stats. Damon’s road stats are also sufficient–the average Major League left fielder is hitting .267/.342/.433 overall. At his current pace, Damon is going to obliterate his career high in home runs, his career high in walks is also in reach, and he’s easily going to have his tenth 100-run season. Stolen base frequency is down and his range in left seems down a bit, but as with Jeter I’m not going to complain about a late-career high. GRADE: 90/100

MELKY CABRERA-CENTER FIELD
He’s doing some things he’s never done before, like hitting as a right-hander and taking the occasional walk–he had 29 free passes all of last year, compared to 22 now. That said, he’s mainly helping with his defensive versatility, not his bat. His home runs are a gift of YS II, with seven of eight round-trippers coming in the friendly confines, and coincidental with the injury he suffered in Texas or not, his bat turned off at the end of May and hasn’t come back–even with a semi-hot streak over the last couple of weeks, in 31 games since the end of May he’s hit .221/.303/.379. Given that Cabrera hit only .235/.281/.300 after April last year, the idea that the injury is what’s holding him back should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Cabrera is an asset as a reserve, but he’s not a starter. Alternatively, he’s playing hurt under the misguided belief that he’s helping. At that point, Austin Jackson would be the better choice. GRADE: 72/100

NICK SWISHER-RIGHT FIELD

What a weird player, inconsistent in every phase of his game. At his April level of production, he was a Ruthian terror. In June he hit .253/.379/.506 and was still plenty productive. In between, he took a lot of walks but hit .150. Six games into July he just drew his first walk of the month and was 4-for-22 with one walk in seven games since hitting his last home run going into Tuesday, when he finally broke through with three hits (which doesn’t count towards the midterm). He hasn’t been all that productive with runners on–this seems to be a career-long problem, as if he shortens up his swing and worries about striking out in those situations. The result is quite a few walks but not many hits. His defense is usually solid, but he also has his off days. As he did last season, Swisher has a pronounced home-road split. He’s batting .279/.373/.625 with 11 home runs (one every 12.4 at-bats), but only .181/.347/.302 (again, through Sunday) with three home runs (one every 38.7 at-bats) at home. He’s been helpful on the whole, but the only reason he ranks among the top 15 right fielders in productivity is
that there are only 15 right fielders having good years. In short, I don’t know what to make of him. GRADE: 80/100

BRETT GARDNER-THE OTHER CENTER FIELDER

Gardner is listed among the starters because he’s actually started more games in center than Cabrera, even though Cabrera has played more overall. Given what little was expected of Gardner, not to mention the way he started the season, he probably deserves an A grade just based on performance vs. expectations. He started only 25 games across May and June, but he also appeared in 21 more and hit like crazy, batting .330/.427/.510 with four triples, three home runs, 16 walks, and 12 steals. He has not been handled brilliantly. After Gardner’s 5-for-6 game against the Mets on June 26, he was given just two more starts (he went 0-for-7) before Joe Girardi presumably decided he had gone cold and it was time to try Cabrera again. It’s not clear how a kid is supposed to build up any momentum under those conditions. When he sits, the Yankees aren’t suppressing a great bat, but they do lose some patience (Gardner has drawn a walk every 9.7 plate appearances, whereas Cabrera has taken a pass every 11.6 plate appearances), their best baserunner, and their best center field defender. Despite the hot streak, it’s doubtful that Gardner will ever be a big run producer, but he’s certainly been worth playing. GRADE: 85/100

Appreciating the Mo masterpiece

rivera_250.jpgMO, 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. 

The trouble with offense … and A-Rod

SO, WHAT HAVE WE GOT?
During the offseason, I frequently argued that though the Yankees had their attention focused overwhelmingly on pitching, the offense might prove to be a bigger problem. Then they signed Mark Teixeira, and I promptly shut up. It seems odd to talk about a team that has averaged more than five runs a game as having offensive deficits to make up, but the truth is that the particular construction of the Yankees means that it’s still a realistic possibility. The Yankees have to guard against being fooled by the numbers they are seeing, many of them distortions caused by their generous new home park. To this point in the season, certain aging Yankees would seem to have found the Fountain of Youth. What they’ve really discovered is a beautifully appointed new ballpark with wide concourses, laptops in the lockers, and a loving right-field power alley.

The home/road splits are damning: Derek Jeter, .295/.364/.381 with two home runs in 239 at-bats. Melky Cabrera, .278/.329/.354 with one home run in 79 at-bats. Johnny Damon, .260/.317/.449 with four home runs in 127 at-bats. Jorge Posada, .253/.348/.440 with three home runs in 75 at-bats. These numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re more realistic than what the players have done at home, more in line with what the players have done in the recent past and what we might have projected them to do this year.

arod250_062209.jpgThe Yankees are a .500 team on the road so far this season. Their road production has been, overall, quite good, given that Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui have done the bulk of their hitting while traveling. Teixeira has also done his part. Still, this hasn’t been enough to give the team the same explosiveness that it has had in the Bronx, especially when you throw in Alex Rodriguez’s post-surgical problems. (Likely unrelated to his staying up late. Though I’m sure we all want to jump on Rodriguez for his latest transgression, I’m pretty sure that sitting on a barstool next to Kate Hudson doesn’t stress his hip as much as playing does, which was more the point of his “fatigue” problems than his lack of sleep, dig?)  

Insofar as winning the division goes, this bifurcation would present less of a problem if the Yankees had won more than 60 percent of their games at home. The 1987 Minnesota Twins showed that in a soft division you could be a hundred-loss team on the road if you were a 100-win team at home. The Yankees are a few games off the latter pace. Say they were just a few games better in their own park, 25-10, instead of 21-14. That’s asking a lot of the Yankees, but we’re in the land of make-believe just now, so stay with me. Were the Yankees to maintain that kind of pace at home while staying around .500 on the road, they would finish the season with a record of somewhere around 99-63, and be in very good shape to win the Wild Card if not the division. They may win the Wild Card anyway, but you can’t take anything for granted.

There is something to be said for players that can take advantage of the features of your home park. Not every Yankee has popped a home run every 13 at-bats at home, as Damon has. The problem is that the park can’t discriminate. The Yankees have outscored their opponents by just 13 runs at home. Over time, that gap may narrow, perhaps because of the park, or maybe because Brett Tomko is pitching. Or Brett Tomko is pitching in the park. The players who have reaped the extra support might also regress, simply through age, fatigue (to use a dangerous word), injury, or changing weather patterns or other effects of the new park we can’t yet foresee.

In June, the Yankees are batting .247/.342/.424, roughly a league mark. The pitchers have been fine. June’s ERA is 3.85, actually the team’s best of the season. June’s starters have an ERA of 4.40, above-average for the league, and the transformed, Veras-free bullpen has an ERA of 2.87. Assuming that CC Sabathia isn’t hurt in any long-term-kind-of way, the pitching staff may well have achieved stability. It is the offense that should now be the source of worry. The lesson for the Yankees is clearly that if opportunities to upgrade the offense present themselves, any chance to replace a middling 35-year-old bat, they have to take it. If finances mitigate against such a move, that’s one thing, but sentimentality or the belief that Melky Cabrera (injured shoulder or not) is going to achieve consistency or Hideki Matsui is going to turn back the clock need to be ignored.

And most of all, perhaps more than anything else, a day-in, day-out A-Rod substitute must be found. Applicant should be able to out-hit Angel Berroa and outfield both he and the less-than-limber Rodriguez. Rodriguez could struggle all season, even if he takes a vow of celibacy. Again, the Yankees don’t want to take anything for granted.

To the mats with reader comments

veras_250_061609.jpg1: FROGPEN
Frogs worldwide are dying off at a high rate, which is depressing. Add in the state of Yankees’ middle relief and I am almost unbearably sad. Reader Ben is too:

Honestly Steve, your comment about the Yankees overusing Phil Coke, Alfredo Aceves and Mariano Rivera are not well-thought out. Jose Veras is as inconsistent as can be. His stuff is so great, yet never can stay in the strike zone on the first pitch. I swear, it is a loud exhale every time when he throws ball one and you see 15,000 beads of sweat on his face with that deer-in-the-headlights look and it’s like Kyle Farnsworth all over again. Great talent, no clue how to pitch.

I don’t mean to pick on him, but Jonathan Albaladejo and David Robertson can at least claim they have not had much Major League experience. The Yankees have no one else dependable to go to. Maybe things are different with Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte healthy, if that ever happens. But right now, they don’t have depth, because of health and ineffectiveness.

Ben, I don’t see how my observation and your point are incompatible. I said Joe Girardi was turning to certain relievers with frequency because the others had been unreliable. You seem to agree with that reason. I didn’t say that Girardi was wrong to do this, but merely pointed out that there can be consequences to overusing certain relievers (call this the Proctor Rule). If there was any criticism even implicit in what I was saying it was meant not for Girardi but for the front office for not shuffling the bullpen deck again: “Given that the Yankees have other options in the Minors, it would make far more sense for the Yankees to try something new than to continue to burden Girardi with options he’s already discarded.”

By that I meant (at minimum) giving Mark Melancon another shot rather than persevering with Veras — and the Yankees have just taken a step in that direction by designating Veras for assignment. No doubt that move was prompted by the need to keep Phil Hughes around should Chien-Ming Wang fail to pitch well on Wednesday, but with any luck it means that when the club finally is able to have one starter for that spot (as opposed to the tandem starter Chien-Phil Hughes), the resultant opening in the pen will be filled by a fresh face.

2: PESSIMISM, DEAR LIZA, DEAR LIZA
They say I tend to look at the glass as half full. Reader Kevin here sees a hole in the bucket. Truncated some for length and several ill-considered word-choices:

This is not a special team yet. But it is need of some special help. We are seeing this far too often for a Yankee team: 1. Derek Jeter. The “Captain” of the team. He is hitting ok. Every once in a while he is ok in the clutch. But more than not, when he gets up to the plate you are waiting for him to hit that pop-up or hit into the double play. I don’t get it.

2. Johnny Damon. He is hitting “ok” but not clutch. He looks like a nine-year old boy in a little league game every time the ball is hit towards him in left field. No confidence… Wang. Why he is still with the team and not down in AAA I don’t know… Joba. Needs to be a reliever. Bottom line. Pull Wang, insert Hughes. Joba in the bullpen as a reliever. Girardi is acting too optimistic as a manager right now… We went 13 years in a row making the post season until….2008. Common denominator…Girardi. He is too much like a buddy than a manager. It’s obvious to me due to a lot of the decision making that is going on by him.

Jeter is batting .308 with men on, .316 with runners in scoring position, .476 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .375 late and close… What do you want from the guy? Damon is batting only .254 with men on, but has hit six home runs with runners on base, is hitting .355 late and close, and had a memorable walk-off homer against the Twins exactly a month ago. I can’t defend his defense, but he’s 35. He’s still far from a Pat Burrell out there given his speed… Wang isn’t in Triple-A because he’s out of options. Get over Joba as a reliever. He’s about 1.5 changes of role short of becoming Neil Allen. Just relax and let him settle in, try to suppress your panic every time he doesn’t pitch well. Joba has made 24 career starts and has a 3.29 ERA. I don’t have an exact list on hand, but my guess is that very few starters have begun their career with those kinds of results. True, he has only averaged five innings a start, but that’s partially due to the way the Yankees have chosen to manage him. It might also be better to have a starter who throws five strong innings than a pitcher who throws two, no matter how dominant, though I don’t know that for sure.

3: BATTING ORDERS AND THE INTIMATE LIVES OF YOUR FRIENDS DON’T MATTER MUCH…
…But they sure are fun to talk about, as reader Alightningrodfan shows:

I have been critical on these blogs in the past of Robinson Cano, but only regarding his hitting behind A-Rod. I think Jorge Posada hitting behind A-Rod would lead to better protection for A-rod and that might help A-Rod get better pitches, fewer walks, and a chance to more quickly get his groove back after surgery. However, Cano can sometimes do very well. And it seems as if A-Rod, despite his .234 average, keeps finding ways to help his team win and provides inspiration. Even through a pop-up! In any event, since it seems that Joe is going to keep Cano in fifth, I will cheer Cano on to have a successful season.

One of the better things to come out of the Mets-Yankees series was Cano going 5-for-12 with two doubles and two home runs, as he really hadn’t yet taken advantage of Yankee Stadium II. Even after his hot weekend, he’s still batting just .278/.324/.452 at home, compared to .301/.350/.534 on the road… The average AL No. 5 hitter is batting. .269/.340/.456, with a home run every 24.5 at-bats. Yankees No. 5 hitters are batting .241/.285/.425 with a home run every 26.1 at-bats. On the whole, Joe Girardi’s choices for the fifth spot haven’t worked out, but Cano isn’t the major part of the problem, having hit .301/.316/.484 in the spot. His other choices, primarily Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, and Nick Swisher, have bombed there. The sample is small enough for each that it wouldn’t be useful to read anything into that. In the long run, Posada is the better choice. It’s fascinating that Posada has spent most of his career batting fifth or lower — the Yankees have given up a lot of Posada plate appearances over the years by keeping him buried. I’d be very curious as to if Girardi or Joe Torre think they see something emotional in Posada that makes him a bad choice to bat up in the order. In his career he’s been much better when batting sixth (.295/.400/.518) instead of fifth (.277/.378/.460), so maybe there’s something to that.

…A walk is obviously not as valuable as a home run, but as long as Rodriguez keeps taking those walks while mixing in the odd home run, he’s going to be productive at the plate regardless of where his batting average ultimately falls.

4: THE UNSUBTLE PLUG
Charlief writes:

The thing to remember about the Nats is the hitting is actually quite good. You say average, but up until the last two weeks – when Guzman, Dunn and Zimmerman all fell into slumps, they were 3rd in the NL in scoring. I think that will tick back up at some point. Throw in future Met Nick Johnson, plus Josh Willingham’s .891 OPS, they aren’t slouches with the bats… In terms of pit
ching, it’s just not there. All rookie starters other than Lannan means a rough go. Lannan vs. Wang should actually be a great matchup. They are similar in more ways than they’re different, strikeout rates aside. I think from a Nats fan point of view it’s good that Detwiler and Zimmermann don’t start in this series. They will be needed in 2010 along with Strasburg, and the Yankees at home can mess with pitchers heads. Also needed are some people who can field, if you know any. This may be Manny Acta’s last series, and Mets fans, he could be sitting on a bench near you in the near future..
.

I purposely left Josh Willingham out of my evaluation because he’s currently on the bereavement list due to the sad death of his brother in an auto accident, and I wasn’t sure if he’d be back in time for this series. It is true that the Nats were hitting a bit better just a couple of weeks ago, but I’m reluctant to say that that was their true offensive level. I think it more likely that Zimmerman, Dunn, Nick the Greenstick, et al were playing a little over their heads, and what we’re seeing now is a return to a more realistic level of production.

I wish Manny Acta all the best, and hope he gets another chance with a real ballclub, should the Nats pull the trigger as was rumored. No manager could have overcome a bullpen as poor as that of this year’s Nats club. As always, whenever Acta comes up I feel proud to point out that he has cited the book I edited and co-authored, Mind Game as having been an important influence. Someone should get him a copy of Forging Genius as well, given that it’s about a manager who gets fired a lot before going on to greatness. It could be therapeutic… And he’ll probably be more careful about looking both ways before crossing the street. Four things Winston Churchill and Casey Stengel had in common: (1) late-career success after they had been written off; (2) handy with a turn of phrase; (3) enjoyed alcohol, perhaps a bit too much; (4) hit by cars while attempting to cross a street in a major American city. I’m sure there are more…

5: SCARCITY
…Or is that Scar City? Midcoaster asks:

My big question about Jesus Montero is – if he is not expected to be a catcher in the big leagues why is he still catching? Should’t he be learning how to be, at least, adequate in a position he will be playing? Looks like the Yankees are making a career DH. Please no more DH only types. Get him to learn a position he will be playing while he is still on the farm. Yes a big clunky guy could play the outfield if he gets gets experience and is well coached. The way ball are flying out of the new stadium it might be a good idea to keep him.

Jesus Montero is definitely a keeper. The reason he’s still catching is that the Yankees know how hard it is to find a top bat to stick behind the dish. If they can keep Montero back there, he’ll be infinitely more valuable than if he’s a first baseman, left fielder, or designated hitter. They’ve made a determination that until he proves that he absolutely cannot catch he’s going to stay, and it’s a good call, especially since Mark Teixeira has him blocked at first base for the next hundred years. His Tampa numbers this year are equivalent to his hitting .301/.325/.470 in the Majors as a 19-year-old. He could be Mike Piazza for the Yankees, with all the associated pros and cons. There’s no rush to move him.

MORE OF ME–TV
I’ll be on the YES’ Yankees Batting Practice Today show tomorrow, Wednesday, at 6 p.m.. Hope you see me then. 

Pitching, bullpen and depth are still problems

THE LAWS HAVE CHANGED
The timing of today’s installment is brought to you by the drive-through line at the local major pharmacy chain store. I suppose there’s no rule book that establishes basic courtesy for the drive-through line, but “drive-through,” taken as literally as you can take it under the circumstances, suggests you drive through, without stopping if that were possible — just roll down the window and the clerk heaves the bag at you. Anything transaction takes would seem to require more standing around than that should require a trip inside the store. It’s just common sense and a bit of courtesy. If you need to discuss the history of Western civilization with the pharmacist, park it. You won’t be idling up clouds of exhaust while holding hostage those who just want to pick up or drop off a prescription. Think about it: would you order French fries for 100 at the McDonald’s drive-through? Better yet, would you ask for a treatise on the potato starting with the primal atom, then order? If you’re guilty of this, please turn yourself in immediately.

REVIEWING THE LAST ENTRY (WITH A FEW REACTIONS TO THE COMMENTS)

I missed a day due to a bad reaction to some medication — I know I’ve quoted Mickey Mantle’s “Kid, don’t be like me” many times before, but it’s worth saying again. Not everyone chooses how they get cancer, and I sure as heck ain’t complaining about surviving it, but my time is no longer my own, ironically so I can be sure of having more time. Hey, you over there! Drop that cigarette! This is not a lifestyle you want to choose! Got it? I’m begging you here. Anyway, that gave the last post a chance to sit around while the Yankees won their seventh straight game in grand style. Before we get to that, stats for the winning streak: .271/.358/.521 for the offense, with 13 home runs, one every 18.2 at-bats. The batters have also picked up a walk every 8.9 plate appearances — the league is taking a pass just once every 11 PAs. On the pitching side, the club has allowed just 21 runs in its last 66 innings.

After five straight wins, I wrote (as you can see below) that it wasn’t yet conclusive that the Yankees had turned a major corner (is there such a thing as a minor corner?). You can pull five games out of any team’s schedule and get a picture of that team that isn’t necessarily accurate, even — or especially — if they are all wins or losses. As the old saying goes, you never look as good as when you’re at your best or as bad as you do when you’re at your worst. Now, since I wrote those words, the Yankees have tacked on another two wins to make it seven straight victories, and those doubts can be eased a bit. And yet, yet, yet, the walks by the pitching staff, the bullpen, the lack of depth are all problems that the team will have to overcome in more than seven games, but over the rest of the season.

Pointing this out isn’t negativity, it isn’t pessimism, it’s your humble old commentator trying to do more than cast runes and read chicken entrails. I’m all for feeling good and going with the flow and enjoying it while it lasts, but I don’t like being taken by surprise, particularly when it’s my job not to be taken by surprise. As such, my method has to be to take theories like, “The Yankees have won seven in a row, so it’s a straight line from here to the next championship” and test them looking for strengths and weaknesses. I figure out what I can, then report back to you so you can test your judgment against mine.

Speaking of which, “4everbronx” says, “Whew, it’s a good thing they didn’t lose those games…What would your reaction have been?”

Almost the same. One-run games are, on the cosmic level, coin flips. This seems especially true when a team’s bullpen is as questionable as the Yankees’ pen has been to this point. If we were talking about a hypothetical pen with Bruce Sutter handing off to Rollie Fingers handing off to Dennis Eckersley (or maybe even Jeff Nelson to Mike Stanton to Mariano Rivera), I would be more accepting of these games as indicators of a repeatable skill on the part of the club. Perhaps now that Brian Bruney is back they will be. For the most part, though, when you look over the history of the game, one-run decisions aren’t something you can extrapolate from.

mark_bible_blog_052009.jpgObviously it is better for the Yankees to have won these seven games than not, but prior to that they weren’t exactly burning up the league. The Yankees have played 39 games, not seven, and those other 32, however mixed the results, can’t be totally discounted. If the Yankees of the last seven games are substantially different from the Yankees of the previous month’s worth of games, we have to be able to articulate why. I can give you two reasons, actually: A-Rod is back, and Mark Teixeira is finally hot (Teixeira claims the two are not unrelated). However, that doesn’t address the pitching side of the equation.

Despite this, as I suggested in that last entry, some will want to view this winning streak as a matter of character. A seemingly irate “yankee apologist” writes: “As a D-1 college baseball player whose career was derailed by injury I can tell you first hand or anyone else who ever played the game at a high level a win is a win no matter how it happens. If you don’t think that these wins have anything to do with grit and a never say die attitude coupled with some big hits from some key guys (damon, arod) then you’re not watching. If u think damon and arod were the beneficiaries of wind aided homers then that’s a joke. These wins build character and ingrain the players’ minds that this can happen for them at anytime they are trailing late.”

Apologist, I completely buy the last line quoted above. It clearly does and has helped the mood around the team. That the players believe that this is a repeatable thing no doubt helps them repeat it — sometimes. We know, though, that it’s not repeatable all the time or even frequently. Come-from-behind wins in baseball are far more rare than is commonly thought. As such, while winning this way is exciting for everyone, participants and observers alike, it’s not the easiest way to win. Oh, and your saying, “i know u love to call out commenters for bad grammer and spelling and what not, but im so stoned on valium i dont care to spell check, so ridicule me if u want, but ill soon have a law degree so im kinda smart” is perhaps the single best thing that anyone has ever written to me in the ten years the Pinstriped Bible has existed.  

As long as we’re delving into the comments, there are a couple on F. Cervelli to take before we close for now. “Paulp15” asks, “So Steve, have to reconsidered Cervelli yet? Or maybe I should ask if you feel you have enough to base an evaluation on him yet? Personally, I think he’s better than Molina, and has shown the ability to lay down a sacrifice, which would be fine for the bottom of the order.” Paulp, I like him better than Jose Molina and Kevin Cash, that’s for sure. Still, it’s bad practice to get carried away by 27 at-bats and 10 singles. It’s certainly better that he’s hitting .370 than if he was hitting .270 or .170, but it’s .370 with no power and no walks, and I promise you he’s not a legitimate .370 hitter. Except for the occasional Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn, no one is. The question then becomes, when he stops hitting .370, what does he have left to give? This is also, to a lesser extent, the Robby Cano question. With Cervelli, his very limited minor league track record shows very limited power but some selectivity, so you hope that there will indeed be something useful in his bat, but you’d like to see him actually do it. It’s still too early to come to any conclusions, especially optimistic ones. O
n defense, I have no complaints — he’s thrown very well and has been an athletic, active, mobile presence.

Walk-offs: Transformative or transient?

damon_250.jpgJOHNNY DAMON ARMY VS. THE WINKIE GUARD
It’s very difficult to tell when an event you’re witnessing is a matter of luck or true talent. The Yankees are now 6-2 in one-run games, baseball’s best record in such games. This record, propelled by a series of last-minute, walk-off wins, has propelled a five-game winning streak. In the process, the Yankees have been transformed from a rather flat-looking 15-17 team into an electric 20-17 club that seems a good threat to surge to the top of the division. However, it is not certain if what we’ve seen was truly a transformative moment or just a transient moment.

As Bryan Hoch reported at MLB.com, the last time the Yankees made walk-off hits in three consecutive games was late August, 1972, and the last time they had three consecutive walk-off wins against the same club was way back in 1931. You won’t find those years listed on the Bathroom Wall of Champions in right field at Yankee Stadium II–the 1972 club was a mediocre outfit that went 79-76, brought down by weak pitching. The 1931 club boasted a spectacular offense (Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey–you know, those guys) and won 94 games but finished 13 games behind an Athletics club that had, relative to its league, one of the best pitching staffs of all time. In the long run, the big walk-offs did not prove to be steps on the way to a championship, but merely trivia for us to discover at moments such as this one. From our vantage point in the midst of the battle, we can’t know, won’t know until the end of the season, which we’re looking at now, harbinger or happenstance.

Some will be tempted to grab hold of these moments as evidence of superior character, fortitude, dedication, conviction on the part of the Yankees or the specific players attached to them. The presence of Alex Rodriguez on the last will probably suppress the urge on the part of some, but they’ll bend the rules this once while also handing out Medals of Courage to Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon and the Cowardly Lion. “What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk?” Damon asks hopefully.

Those that want to take the cosmic dice roll as a prism through which to view character are welcome to do so, and maybe once in awhile they’ll even see something that’s worth talking about. However, they would be wise not to place any bets on outcomes. The very rarity of these events–the vast majority of the time, the team that goes to the bottom of the ninth losing takes a loss–argues strongly that the last three days are not evidence that the Yankees have turned a corner. While it would be unfair to deprive Damon, Cabrera, and A-Rod credit for their timely hitting, especially Damon, who has been a monster in the clutch (and has also taken to YS II like he thought it was the House that Damon Built), but given similar chances if the next ten series the Yankees play, it’s unlikely that they’ll repeat the feat even once.

We see luck at work on a broader scale when looking at team records over the course of a full season. In a given season, a team’s record in one-run games does not carry over to the next year. Balls drop in on a one-time basis. The wind blows out when you need it only now and again. Now, it does seem to be true that sometimes the wind favors a particular team (fortune favoring the foolish, as Shakespeare wrote) for an unlikely span of time, even the length of a season. Maybe the Yankees have that kind of luck going for them this year, but judging by their lack of ability to deliver key hits before this recent surge, that seems to be asking a lot.

What really jumps out about the last five games after all the drama is pushed aside is the performance of the pitching staff. Its performance was only superficially good. In the 48 innings spanning those give games, the Yankees have allowed just 14 runs, less than three a game. That’s seemingly spectacular, given both the league environment and the performance of the staff to that point in the season. However, there is, here’s that word again, a lot of luck in all of that run prevention. The Yankees walked 32 batters in those 48 innings, six per nine innings, the rate rising to 6.6 over the weekend against the Twins. This is nothing new–the Yankees lead the league in walks allowed and in walks per nine innings (4.3). Given that they are also allowing an average number of hits per nine innings and the second-highest rate of home runs allowed per nine innings, all of these baserunners are more often than not going to translate into big numbers for the opposition. If that didn’t happen against the Twins on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, well, the Twins are not much more than an average offensive team. After Justin Morneau, Jose Mauer, and Jason Kubel, there’s a lot of dross in the their lineup.

Similarly, over the last five games the offense has scored five runs a game. Yes, the hits have been well timed and have included a ton of extra bases, among them four triples and eight home runs, but this is exactly a league-average mark. Give the Yankees an extra bump for facing one of the league’s two best pitching staffs in Toronto in two of those games and you still don’t have cause to rate the lineup as any better than it is.

This entry is not meant to rain on anyone’s parade, especially since for Yankees fans the last three games were no doubt orgasmically exciting. Nothing can take away from that. Nor should the enthusiasm and optimism generated by the current five-game winning streak be taken for granted. It should merely be noted that that the Yankees have miles to go before we can view these events as evidence that the team is ready to pass the Red Sox and Blue Jays. While some will want to call it proof of talent and others character, it’s possible, as Cole Porter wrote, that it was one of those bells that now and then rings–just one of those things.

Three-baggers

gardner_250_051409.jpgIt’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.

WILD BOYS
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.  

Big series for Yanks in Toronto

damon250_051109.jpgTHE WEEK THAT WANTED TO BE EVERYTHING
Johnny Damon delivered what might have been a season-saving hit for the Yankees on Sunday. Now the Yankees have to capitalize. Beginning on Tuesday, the club will play three games against the division-leading Blue Jays at Toronto. A letdown against the Jays, say dropping two of three games, would leave the Yankees with a 16-18 record and a long five games in the loss column to make up on the leader, with a similar number to be made up against the Red Sox. The Yankees currently have a 5-11 record against divisional opponents, and at that rate they won’t make it to the postseason. Showing up against the Jays would be a good place to start making a change for the better.

The good news for the Yankees is that the Jays have played 34 games, but 20 of them have gone against the American League Central. They’re 2-1 against the White Sox, 3-2 against the Indians, 3-1 against the Tigers, and 3-1 against the Twins. Only the Royals, who have taken three of four against them, have put up any kind of fight. Their only exposure to the AL East has come in three games against the Orioles. They have not seen the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays, which is to say that they haven’t proved anything as of yet.

That will change beginning Tuesday with the series against the Yankees. The Jays will meet the Red Sox six times before the month is out. They’ll also face some tough NL East opponents in interleague play, meeting up with the Braves, Phillies and Marlins, as well as the Reds and Nats. They finish June against the Rays, and then it’s all AL East for them into the third week of July, including a 10-game road trip to the Yankees, Rays and Orioles, and three more games against the Red Sox. They also bookend the month of July with two series at home against the Rays.

That last series against the Rays concludes on July 26. At that point, 10 days after the All-Star break, we’ll have a better sense of whether the Jays will hang around for the rest of the year or not, as they’ll finally have had a real test. Expect it to expose a number of Jays as having played over their heads to date. Whether or not the Yankees will be able to take advantage of this or not is another matter. The matchups for the current series — A.J. Burnett vs. Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte vs. Scott Richmond, CC Sabathia vs. Brian Tallet — argue for a good showing for the Bombers. Halladay is difficult to impossible, but Richmond is a journeyman mystery ripe for solving, and Tallet is left-handed — the Yankees have done very well against southpaws, hitting .319/.395/.533 against them to date.

Post-Jays, the Yankees commence a 10-game homestand against the Twins, Orioles and Phillies. The Twins are 4-8 on the road and haven’t pitched well, and the Orioles are the Orioles, even if the Yankees have split with them so far. The Phillies are a tougher nut to crack given their best-of-NL offense, but their pitching isn’t what it was last year, and should give the Yankees a better than fair chance of winning a few — their starters’ ERA is 6.28. Sure, Yankees’ starters have a 5.68 ERA, so maybe they don’t want to brag about their dominant hurling compared to what the champs have done, but at least they’ll have a shot.

It’s never wise to overhype a short stretch of the season, but it truly seems as if the Yankees are to make a statement, it’s going to be now. They have the opportunity and the means and the spotlight role of poking a hole in the Jays’ gonfalon bubble. If they can hold now, in a few weeks they’ll have Jorge Posada back and the team will be (theoretically) fully staffed for the first time all year and can really make some progress. 

MORE OF ME
On Tuesday, May 12, at 1 p.m., I’ll be chatting live at Baseball Prospectus. The chat is open to all comers, subscribers and non, and if you can’t make it because you’re working or something (an unlikely excuse in this economy), you can enter your questions ahead of time at the foregoing link. I hope to see you there.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Braves 4, Phillies 2: Over his last seven games, Casey Kotchman is hitting .385 (10-for-26), and .347 over his last 20 contests … You think your team has closer problems. The defending champs’ closer Brad Lidge has an ERA of 8.53 and has allowed at least a run in his last three appearances.

Tigers 5, Indians 3: And the Motor City Kitties sweep. It feels like it’s in bad taste to refer to Detroit as the Motor City … Something has to happen to galvanize the Indians, a team that has more talent than it has shown thus far. That’s an understatement given that they have the worst record in baseball. Arizona had less cause to remove its manager than Cleveland does … This was a team that was expected to contend … Pitching coach Carl Willis. Seventh season, since 2003. Obviously the guy has seen his ups and downs and you have to respect the organization’s loyalty to a coach. Derek Shelton, hitting coach for five seasons. Has been there since replacing Eddie Murray in 2005. Toward the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency; the decision not to rearrange the infield around the acquisition of Mark DeRosa is open to second-guessing, though many first-guessed it … Justin Verlander’s last three starts, including April 27 against the Yankees: 3-0, 23 innings, 11 hits, five walks, 31 strikeouts, one, count’em, one run. Catcher Gerald Laird is 1-for-32 over his last 10 games.

Mets 8, Pirates 4: And it wasn’t as close as it looked — it’s just that the Mets used Sean Green. In Green’s first seven games, he allowed two runs in 7.1 innings. In seven games since then, he’s allowed 12 runs in 6.2 innings. Nonetheless, the Mets swept the series at home against the Pirates, won their seventh straight game, and went into first place; you can’t argue with that. The Pirates have lost eight straight and are in the basement of the NL Central. All is right with the world. A loss against the Cardinals on Tuesday would put them on a 100-loss pace … Note that the Mets have hit 13 triples — 11 at home, two on the road. Ironic that the team built an homage to Ebbets Field, and it’s playing just like it did the original for the Dodgers — the 1914 Dodgers.

Cardinals 8, Reds 7: Ryan Franklin, impromptu closer for this season after Jason Motte scared the pants off of ol’ Tony LaRussa on Opening Day, finally blew a save, giving up Adam Rosales’s first Major League homer, then a pinch-hit shot to Micah Owings. LaRussa used eight pitchers in 10 innings. It must have been hell.

Cubs 4, Brewers 2: What a contrast it is to listen to Bobby Fuller’s 1966 hit rendition of “I Fought the Law” back to back with the Clash’s anti-fascist insurrection version from 1979. Fuller sounds like a suburban kid picked up for trying to score some drugs on a Saturday afternoon trip to the inner city having told mom he’d be at the movies. That Fuller was found dead in a parked car adds another shade to the hapless tourist undone by the street scene. Has Sonny Curtis been put into any songwriting hall o’ fames as of yet? He wrote “I Fought the Law,” the Buddy Holly ravers “Rock Around with Ollie Vee,” the English lyrics to “Let it Be Me,” and, incongruously, “Love is All Around,” the theme to the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I’ll take the middle one, a minor classic that somehow never found a place in the Holly cannon.  

Astros 12, Padres 5: Don’t let the Astros’ victories in this series of semi-exhibitions against the Padres fool you; they still stink on ice … How is it that LaTroy Hawkins allowed 26 runs in 33 games for the Yankees, b
ut in 38 games since then he’s allowed only seven runs? … Say you go to the Astros game this weekend and Lance Berkman isn’t in the lineup (he has strained cartilage in his left wrist). How do you not ask for your money back? It’s like going to see the Rolling Stone, but the part of Mick Jagger is being played by David Lee Roth … Pudge Rodriguez, of no apparent interest to the Yankees this offseason, went 4-for-4 to raise his rates to .273/.318/.495. His next home run is career No. 300 … Carlos Lee hit his sixth home run to reach .333/.377/.573, but his contract makes him untradeable. Even if not, most of the production is home cooking.

Rangers 7, White Sox 1: Jose Contreras is 0-5, 8.19 ERA and has been banished to the bullpen. Just thought it was worth mentioning for those who track ex-Yankees like so much orbital detritus. When Matt Harrison is pitching complete game shutouts against the White Sox, it’s (A) a great sign for the Rangers; (B) a portent of doom for the White Sox; (C) just one game; (D) all of the above.

Mariners 5, Twins 3:
It was one of those wonderful moments. The Twins were leading, 2-0, in the top of the eighth. Ron Gardenhire yanked starter Nick Blackburn so that the rookie lefty Jose Mijares could pitch to the top of the M’s order. With one out, Mijares walked Jose Lopez to bring the faded Ken Griffey Jr. to the plate. Mijares, the young gun, threw the old gun a flat fastball with nothing on it, and Griffey hit it to the moon, or as close to the moon as you can get a ball in a domed stadium. That tied the game, and the bullpen gave the rest away later on …  Good move by the Twins getting Matt Tolbert up to play second base for Alexi Casilla. Not that Tolbert is Roger Hornsby, but Casilla was miserable. Brendan Harris can probably out-hit both of them, but his glove gives defensive-minded managers fits … Where’s Adrian Beltre’s walk-year surge? (.234/.265/.328, one home run.)

Rockies 3, Marlins 2:
Hanley Ramirez has an eight-game hitting streak going, during which he has hit .548 with four home runs and six walks … Bonifacio Watch: .250/.298/.311, hitting .205/.279/.231 in May. We’ll know the Marlins are serious when they make a change. Tough-luck loss for Chris Volstad, but one-run losses can be chalked up to an unfair universe or self-defeating lineup construction — your pick on Mondays.

Angels 4, Royals 3: As the resurgent Royals are swept by the fallen Angels, and lose ace closer Joakim Soria to the disabled list in the process. Egregious defense cost the Royals in this series (that and Joe Saunders out-pitching Zack Greinke by a hair). The defense will probably never be a calling card. It’s still hard to be more than agnostic about their chances given how much they have to depend on pitching, and within that guys like Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar … And Kyle Farnsworth. Still, S. Ponson is going to the bullpen, so we know that they’re not sleeping. On still another hand: Trying Luis Hernandez as your solution to a season-long slump by Mike Aviles is not a sign of seriousness. Inspirational line of the day: Bobby Abreu, 0-for-0 with four walks. Mickey Hatcher must stay awake nights wondering why he can’t get through that guy (and still no home runs).

Blue Jays 5, Athletic 0: In what would be a distinct novelty for Yankees fans, a team’s top pitching prospect actually, well, pitches. Eight innings, no runs, a ton of groundouts (12) and six strikeouts, the jubilation tempered only by the knowledge that the A’s are hitting like a team out of the deadball era (former Athletic Carlos Pena leads the AL with 13 home runs; the entire A’s club has 18). It’s another rabbit out o’ the hat for the Jays, and as we said here when they called Cecil up, a vote in favor of the bold: why lose with the dregs when you can bet on the upside? Smokey the Jay say, “No reason not to (and only you can prevent forest fires).” … Despite the league-leading six runs of offense a game, the Jays may need to add a bat before they’re done… But, who knows if they will?

Giants 7, Dodgers 5: The Torremen bow in 13. Don’t worry: Jeff Weaver started, he didn’t relieve. That honor, and the loss, went to another faded New York pitching meteor, Guillermo Mota … Since Manny Ramirez was banned, Juan Pierre has been on fire, going 9-for-16 with three doubles (.563/.632/.750) over four games. If he keeps that up, the Dodgers won’t miss Manny too much. Otherwise …

Diamondbacks 10, Nationals 8:
In Howard Bryant’s very fine book, “Juicing the Game,” A.J. Hinch is set up as one of the last good men in Sodom. “One night in 2001, Hinch, frustrated, sat with his wife, Erin, and told her that if he decided to use anabolic steroids, there was no doubt in his mind that his modest power numbers would improve enough to make him a more attractive backup catcher, maybe even give him a chance at being a starter. Hinch was against steroids, to some degree because he believed their use to be cheating, but mostly because they scared him. “Hinch didn’t use, and is portrayed as being resentful of those who take the easy way out and do use. One wonders how he’ll react on the day that one of his players is outed — perhaps with all the good cheer of Tommy Lasorda after Darryl Strawberry was suspended for failing a drug test? … Adam Dunn in the three games at Arizona: 6-for-13, four home runs … What do teammates call Esmerling Vasquez for short?  … I keep wondering if the ‘Backs will trade Conor Jackson when he’s down (very, very down), and how the acquiring team will react when they discover they’ve dealt a prospect for a Matt Murton clone (.269/.360/.402 career on the road).

Red Sox 4, Rays 3: The Sox finally call up Daniel Bard (29 strikeouts in 16 innings at Triple A) but didn’t use him, so we have to wait to see what the tyro can do to even out the team’s pitching problems. If you can’t get the starting pitching right, maybe more bullpen will do the trick … Carl Crawford has hit in 11 of his last 12, going 22-for-51 with four doubles, a triple, a home run, six walks, 15 steals, and hasn’t been thrown out (.431/.500/.608). Don’t know where his home runs have gone, but it doesn’t matter if he’s going to be doing a Ty Cobb imitation … Jason Varitek has thrown out just eight of 42 attempted base stealers (19 percent). That probably doesn’t help Boston’s record, but as you can see from the standings, it hasn’t hurt all that much either. 

More on the center field merry-go-round

damon_250_010809.jpgJon Heyman of SI.com had an interesting tidbit in a recent posting about the Yankees shopping Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady:

Johnny Damon isn’t in the trade mix, as the Yankees need him to be their leadoff hitter and part of a center field rotation. The other in-house candidates for center field are Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.

That’s interesting, though not in the basic meaning of it — even though Damon is in the last year of his contract and is coming off something like a career season, it seemed unlikely the Yankees would try to move him, given the two roles he plays on the team, leadoff hitter, as Heyman mentions, as well as defensively overqualified left fielder. Many observers tend to focus on Damon’s poor arm, but his speed makes for a corner outfielder who can cover an unusual amount of ground.

Now, if you think about it, the most potent offensive outfield the Yankees could field next year would be Nady in left, Damon in center, and Swisher in right, rather than the presumed alternative, Damon in left, some combination of Gardner and Cabrera in center, and Xavier Nady in right — and Swisher playing the Ghost of Christmas Past, or Hamlet’s Father, or something. The problem with doing that, beyond the misuse of Swisher, is that at Damon’s current stage of the lifecycle, he’s better off not being overtaxed. Further, while his speed still does wonders in left, it’s not quite as spectacular in center — Damon had already slid off his peak the position before the Yankees moved him.

That said, being part of a center field rotation, as per Heyman above, makes all kinds of sense in that it gives the Yankees a great deal more flexibility in being able to waltz other players in and out of the corners. The more positions a star can play without compromising the defense, the better off the team is, because the club begins to close off openings for the replacement-level players that are so damaging to the winning effort. Similarly, Joe Girardi needn’t be married to any one center fielder.

There is yet another hand, which is that the Yankees might want to get married to a center fielder. Damon is in the last year of his contract, and as good as he was at 34 and may be at 35, asking him to keep it up at 36 and 37 will likely be pushing it. Given that the class of free agent center fielders next winter is going to be no fun, the Yankees will be in much better shape going into 2010 if they have the next center fielder lined up now. That could mean getting Gardner established, finding some way to electrify Melky, or even giving Austin Jackson a shot in the second half of the season, should his work at Scranton demand such an audition. Obviously the needs of 2010 have to be balanced against the goal of winning in 2009, with any luck the two goals will be mutually compatible.

One supposes the Yankees will need another leadoff man after 2009 as well. Traditional images would suggest that Gardner is the man, but Gardner may never have enough sock to justify taking up so many plate appearances, regardless of how many bases he steals. The Yankees will need to remember that your leadoff hitter need not match the picture of the singles-hitting speedster. That way lies madness. That way lies Juan Pierre. Remember, Wade Boggs was a great leadoff hitter, and he almost never stole a base. It’s about how often you’re on, not about how fast you can run. In an era of home run hitting, the rest takes care of itself.

SO LET’S TAKE THIS TOPIC ON THE AIR
Later today (6:30 EST) I’ll be appearing from the Bunker on the Yes Network’s Hot Stove show. As usual, I’ll be asked to summarize what we’ve been discussing this week. Let’s try a simple vote, which I’ll relay to the fellers on the air: who should be the starting center fielder in 2009? Damon? Gardner? Cabrera? A rotation split roughly in equal thirds? Or a write-in candidate of your choice? Jim Edmonds is still out there, and he murdered the ball for the Cubs last year. He’d be a heck of a platoon player in center. Argue it out in the comments section below, and I’ll tally up your responses while waiting for smilin’ Bob Lorenz to cast his dancing spell my way.