Yankees

Step One

The Yankees reached .500 last night, the first step for any team that wants to be considered a playoff contender. They are 31-31 with 100 games to go and actually 1 game ahead of the pace set by the 2005 Yankees.

This isn’t the time to focus on divisions or wild cards, it is the time to try and mend some cracks and get to five games above .500. The biggest crack at the start of the year was the pitching and the starters have now rounded into shape. I don’t know if Clemens is going to do much better than he did on Saturday, but the Yankees may not need him to. The offense is back on fire, thanks to Abreu, Cano and Cabrera having huge June’s.

Abreu looks like a changed man and when he takes pitches like that, he just wears out the opposition. Cabrera has found the same fire he had last year and while it bothers me that he couldn’t do that as a bench player, it is a welcome sight now. Cano is back as well and he is becoming more selective which is nice to see. In 2005 he saw 3.05 pitches per plate appearance. In 2006 that went to 3.22 and in 2007 it is 3.38. If he ever learns to draw a walk, look out.

My biggest worries right now are the bullpen and first base. Torre seems committed to using Cairo at first as part of a platoon that makes no sense (how do you platoon two righties?) I can see the argument that when Wang is pitching, you want a defensive firstbaseman, but on other nights it is a mistake. While many are calling for the Yankees to trade for Mark Teixeira, I would set my sights a little lower. The Giants aren’t going anywhere, so how about Ryan Klesko? He’s about average to below-average with the glove, but he has a nice bat and can also play the corner in the outfield. Would the Giants take Farnsworth and something else in exchange if the Yankees picked up most of his money?

For the bullpen, I would definitely get Chris Britton back and send Ron Villone packing. I think with Britton, Bruney and Proctor the Yankees would have three good choices for the 7th and 8th. Vizcaino has been better this month, though his command is still shaky. Myers is what he is and Henn gives you a long guy. That would also get you back down to 12 pitchers which is something the Yankees should do ASAP no matter what.

Two more with Arizona before the suddenly-slumping Mets come in for Subway Series Part Two.

Things I Will Never Get

Sorry for not posting the last few days, but I have just been trying to enjoy the baseball and not gripe about the Yankee things that are bothering me. Well, I can’t hold back on some complaints.
1- I know Rivera is Torre’s security blanket, but what is he doing pitching the ninth on Thursday? Joe brought him in to pitch the eighth which was great because the game was on the line, but are you telling me that you don’t trust any of the other relievers with a seven-run lead in the ninth? Yes, the Yankees need wins, but if they can’t "squeak" that one out they are finished.
2- Do Brian Cashman and Joe Torre talk about the roster ever? Josh Phelps is not going to get us to forget about Don Mattingly, but his bat has some promise. Yes, he is bad with the glove, but until recently the Yankees haven’t been scoring runs in bunches. There was obviously an agreement to platoon Phelps and Mientkiewicz at the start of the season, so when 1/2 the platoon goes down the plan becomes keep the platoon but insert Miguel Cairo? Cairo makes Mientkiewicz look like Mattingly with the bat when you consider his career .267/.315/.360 line. If Torre is that uncomfortable with Phelps why is he on the roster? And, do you really expect me to believe that there isn’t anyone the Yankees could dig up to play first better than Cairo? Aaron Guiel is in Japan, I bet he would come back in a second. Seriously, I don’t know how much better Cairo’s glove really is at first (he’s played a total of 38 games there in his career) but his bat will kill you on a regular basis. The Yankees have to resolve this and either get a new guy for the job or trust Phelps.
3- Does anyone pay attention to what has happened with the Yankees’ bullpen this year? The reason I ask, is how does Chris Britton get sent down today? Britton has shown an ability to pitch in the majors (3.35ERA in 53IP with Baltimore last year) and has done nothing but shine at AAA. Do you really need three lefties in the bullpen? Is Luis Vizcaino worth keeping? I would say no to both of those questions and ask Britton to come back in 10 days.
Wow, can you imagine what this post would have been if the Yankees had lost five-straight?

Thompson And DeSalvo Down

The Yankees optioned Matt DeSalvo back to Columbus which wasn’t a surprise, but sending Kevin Thompson there as well was.
Now, the good news is that Chris Britton survived the cut and it appears the Yankees are actually going to allow him to pitch for the big league club. Britton has certainly earned a chance, dominating at Scranton with a 0.78ERA in 23 innings while looking pretty good last night as well.
The question will be what happens later this week when Roger Clemens will have to be activated to start on Saturday? My guess is that Sean Henn, who just got recalled today, will go back down, unless the Yankees send Ron Villone away. Henn has been starting in AAA which may be a sign that the Yankees are going to use him as a long man from now on and could increase his chances of sticking.
Sending Thompson down is interesting because if the Yankees are really going to DH Damon regularly, they wouldn’t be able to move him to outfield without losing the DH if Abreu, Matsui or Melky were injured in a game. That means that either Damon is going to move to first fairly soon or the Yankees are taking a stupid risk.
I say stupid because the Yankees recalled Chris Basak. Now I have nothing against Basak, he was my choice to replace Miguel Cairo as the utility guy, but Basak hasn’t played outfield to my knowledge. The Yankees may think they have the second coming of Clay Bellinger, but what evidence do they have he can play all those positions? For this team, I would rather see Basak and Thompson than Basak and Cairo, but I would have settled for Cairo and Thompson. Promoting Basak now is taking a strange risk, but I will approve if it means chucking Cairo later on.
Now, Cairo is going to start tonight over Phelps which is a mistake. I know Phelps is a butcher with the glove, but is Cairo that much better of a firstbaseman defensively? I will go into this more tomorrow, but the Yankees haven’t been the run-scoring machine we thought they would be and Phelps would definitely outhit Cairo.
So, we have a team that has 13 pitchers and a bench of Nieves, Cairo and Basak. That is not a good combination and hopefully the Yankees get down to 12 pitchers quickly and rebuild the bench.

Disrupted Scar Tissue

It doesn’t sound good and that’s what Roger Clemens has in his groin, but he says he will be making his start on Saturday. I say we wait until he throws a bullpen on Wednesday before believing that.
Since Clemens used to pitch for the Red Sox, maybe he can get some advice on a cure from another Boston "legend".

We’ll Take It

Hey, 2 out of 3 in Boston is nothing to sniff at and while the Yankees leave 12.5 back, they at least gained some ground this weekend. They showed they can go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox, now the question is can they overcome an almost impossible deficit?
I don’t know, but the Yankees have almost half a season to figure things out. The Red Sox and Yankees won’t play again for 70+ games. And if the Yankees can play .100 percentage points better than Boston over that stretch, they will still be at least five games back of the Red Sox.
So, don’t expect a division crown coming in 2007 and I still think that means Clemens is a bad idea right now, but tonight should be a happy night, so we will leave that until later today (it’s already Monday.)

Crystal Ball III

Last year I managed to predict three of the "final four" playoff teams and that probably means I will get all four wrong this year. But, without further ado, here is how I see the 2007 season ending up.
AL East
1-Yankees Yes, there are reasons to pick against them again, but the offense is deadly and the bullpen is very deep. Clippard and Hughes are waiting in the wings and I think they won’t have to wait long, but that is the difference, unlike years past, the pitching has a plan B in the minors.
2- Red Sox I almost went with Toronto, but I don’t like their health concerns. Boston made some big moves in the offseason, but inexplicably didn’t get a closer. That sent Papelbon back to the pen and Tavarez into the rotation. Lester may save them from that, but he won’t replace a rapidly-aging bottom of the lineup. Will Lowell and Varitek hit this year? Can Drew withstand Boston? Too many questions for me to pick them any higher
3- Toronto As I said, I flirted with picking them 2nd, but I have questions here too. Can Frank Thomas repeat his performance from last season? Can Halliday pitch the entire season? Overall, they should be good, but I wonder if they are due for a step back.
4- Tampa Bay What, the Devil Rays not in last? Yup, Delmon Young, BJ Upton, plus a great farm system and ownership finally willing to use it brings the Rays out of the depths.
5- Baltimore Peter Angelos is hard to understand. Erik Bedard should have a very good year. Markakis is a star on the rise, but there are way too many holes.

AL Central
1- Twins I think everyone is overlooking Minnesota. The M+M boys are great and Santana is the best in the bigs. Nathan can close with anyone and Tori Hunter will be plenty motivated.
2- Indians I was going to put the Tigers in this spot, but I worry about their young pitching and losing Rogers for the year. Cleveland has developed a nice team and should be pretty dangerous when Lee comes back
3- Detroit The Tigers will be good and it is an indication of this division’s strength that they are my pick for third
4- Chicago Not that I hate what Kenny Williams has done, but I just think the other teams have moved faster than him (for now)
5- Kansas City At least the fans will get to see 162 games of Alex Gordon.

AL West
1- Angels They are the class of the division with a ton of talent in the minors and a great owner. They will be tough all year long
2- Oakland I don’t think Zito will hurt them as much as people think and Piazza will be a nice addition. They will be in it, just won’t win it.
3- Texas Some interesting things going on in Arlington, including a new ballpark name. More importantly, the team is improving.
4- Seattle Hard to figure out what the Mariners are doing. Maybe Hernandez develops this year and gives them a boost, but it won’t be enough.

NL East
1-Philadelphia I like the team and their offseason moves. Freddy Garcia will boost the rotation when healthy and Ryan Howard is quickly becoming better than Pujols.
2-Mets Hard to understand how they didn’t add a starter in the offseason. Pelfy may come along, but when Glavine and El Duque are your 1-2, you have trouble. They still have a great lineup and I think Alou gives a big boost.
3-Braves Atlanta has greatly improved their bullpen and I wouldn’t count them out of making a run, but I think they lack behind the Phillies and Mets talent-wise.
4- Marlins I don’t think this team will win 70 games, but they have a worse team bringing up the rear of this division
5- Washington The Nationals may be the worst team in the NL. Losing Soriano in free agency after trading for him was a huge blunder.

NL Central
1- Cubs Call it crazy, but I think all the spending and Lou Pinella add up to a nice run in Chicago this year.
2- St. Louis I think the champs take a step back, but I predict a great pennant race down to the wire.
3- Millwaukee If Ben Sheets could ever be healthy, this team would be able to go somewhere, I am guessing he is not again.
4- Houston No Clemens, no Pettitte and Cliff Lee will be the biggest bust of free agency.
5-Reds I like the first two starters and Bailey should be up soon, but I don’t see much beyond that.
6- PIttsburgh Are there any reasons to even watch baseball in Pittsburgh anymore?

NL West
1- Dodgers I hate the Pierre signing, but I think they have the most talent of a very balanced division.
2- Arizona Young players and some good pitching bring them back from the dead.
3- San Diego The thought of David Wells finally working out and taking care of himself saddens me. He could have been a wonderful pitcher if he had done it earlier.
4- Colorado The Rockies win more than last year, that’s progress.
5- Giants Old team with Barry Zito, I guess the rebuilding commences when Bonds breaks the record.
Playoffs 
Twins over Angels- Santana twice beats anything the Angels can do


Yankees over Indians-Too much offense and Hughes in the fourth game seals it.

Yankees over Twins- This will be an epic series, but I think the Yankees win Game 7 at home.

Phillies over Dodgers- Ryan Howard hits 4 HR’s


Cubs over Mets- Pedro’s back, but Zambrano is better
Phillies over Cubs- Ryan Howard in Wrigley backed up by a better pitching staff

And finally….
Phillies over Yankees- the quest for 27 will begin again in 2008.

One Third Done

On the eve of interleague play, the Yankees have reached the conclusion of the first third of the season, a point where it is still too early to sweat the standings, but long enough to see some individual trends and patterns. Clearly, it has been a successful first third of the season for the Yankees; they end it with a 35-20 record, which is the best mark in baseball. This is even more impressive when you consider they were 8-11 after getting swept at home by the Red Sox.

The 2004 edition of the Yankees is currently made up of mediocre starting pitching, an excellent bullpen and a scary lineup. Let’s take a look at each area of the team.

Unlike years past, the Yankees do not roll out a starter who can dominate every day. Mike Mussina got off to a horrible start, but seems to be getting back on track. Kevin Brown was great at the start of the season, but has been roughed up as of late. Javier Vazquez has been dominating, but tends to give up a long ball at the most inopportune times. Jon Lieber has been up and down; his last two starts the down part of his season. Jose Contreras, I don’t want to talk anymore about Jose Contreras. On talent alone, this squad should improve and the Yankees will definitely need better in October.

The reason why the Yankees have not been hurt by their so-so starting pitching is that their bullpen has been lights out. Mariano has converted 23 out of 24 saves and Tom Gordon has given Joe Torre a second closer out of the bullpen. Paul Quantrill has been solid, with a few bumps along the way. The only real problem in the bullpen has been the lefties, White and Heredia have been terrible, but Joe Torre hasn’t needed to use them in crucial situations.

Offensively, the Yankees are a team you can never count out of a game, regardless of the score. A Rod, Sheffield, Matsui, Posada and Giambi are all having monster years. Ruben Sierra has been great when used. Enrique Wilson and Miguel Cairo have hit enough to cover second. The only real problems in the lineup are Bernie and Jeter. Bernie’s OPS has gone from .601 in April to .789 in May to .868 in June. An OPS over .800 for the season would make the Yankees happy. Jeter seems to have turned things around since the end of May, but he has a lot of hitting to do to get up to his normal career levels.

So, the Yankees head into the next part of the season with a solid foundation and apart from some minor tweaking here and there, no need for a bigger move- though that doesn’t mean one won’t be made in Yankeeland.

Peter’s columns appear Monday, Wednesday and Friday and he can be reached at peter@yankeesredsox.com

The Bridge, Part 2

At the conclusion of a successful road trip, the Yankees returned home to almost blow a five run lead in the ninth. They avoided a devastating loss, but again they needed to use Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera in a game they should have put away easily.

Now, the decision to use Quantrill was interesting, he came into the game with a four run lead. Yes, he has traditionally pitched the seventh inning this year, shouldn’t this be the spot to use someone else? After all, the “Big 3” are first, second and third in appearances in the American League this year. Gabe White, Felix Heredia and Tanyon Sturtze have been terrible and the fact that Joe won’t use them with a four run lead speaks volumes.

The problem is, you can’t send the same three guys out night after night and expect them to always click. Part of the reason the Yankees signed Quantrill and Gordon was to reduce Rivera’s workload. While he hasn’t appeared in the eighth inning much this year, he is still being used a ton. Quantrill’s ERA was twice as high in May as it was in April. Clearly, the Yankees need to have a fourth option in the bullpen to give these guys a night off.

The good news this weekend was that Steve Karsay has hit 94mph in a rehab start and his miraculous recovery may put him back in the Bronx by mid-June. However, Karsay cannot be counted on as a fulltime contributor just yet. The Yankees need to look at three different options to provide that fourth arm: Brett Prinz, Scott Proctor and Colter Bean.

Prinz is back in the majors after Kenny Lofton’s latest hamstring problem has landed him on the DL. While this stay is supposedly only temporary, until Giambi comes back Sunday, the Yankees should pitch him as much as possible and try him out in some tough situations, it’s time to find out what he is really worth.

The same can be said of Scott Proctor. Proctor has a powerful fastball and seems the perfect candidate to deliver the big strikeout. His control can be off at times, but I am willing to bet that Mel can help him trust his stuff more and cut down on his walks.

The last candidate is Colter Bean. Bean was actually selected by the Red Sox last winter in the Rule 5 draft, but returned to the Yankees when the Sox didn’t put him on their opening day roster. Bean has been awesome in Columbus striking out 36 in 29 innings while only giving up 17 hits and 3 runs. Those numbers are certainly worthy of a major league tryout.

All of this is a polite way of saying that Tanyon Sturtze stinks. This is not surprising as he has bounced from place to place in his career and has a career ERA of 5.20 in over 600 innings. Trading for Sturtze was a desperate play to get another candidate to start in place of Donovan Osborne. Osborne is gone and Contreras is pitching somewhat effectively, it is time for Sturtze to go. Get one of the other three in there and let’s see what they can do.

Peter’s columns appear Monday, Wednesday and Friday and he can be reached at peter@yankeesredsox.com

What’s Wrong With Jeter

As requested, today’s column will take on the much written about subject of Derek Jeter’s missing bat. The multitude of theories as to the reasons he is hitting below .200 can be broken down to these:

1- He has suddenly gotten old
2- His approach is hurting him
3- He is hurt
4- He has a psychological problem with sharing the same infield with A Rod

Let’s take a look at each one.

Jeter is 29 years old; about to turn 30, he has been in the majors for the past nine years and played over 1200 games. These are substantial amounts, but nothing that should have him worn out already. The fact is players of Jeter’s caliber do not suddenly flame out at thirty. A couple of years past thirty and they certainly do, but the clock has not struck midnight for Derek yet.

As to his approach, it is hard to think that something that got him 1500 hits and a career average of .317 before this season has suddenly turned against him. However, he is on pace to strike out 135 times and walk only 45. This may be more a factor of his pressing at the plate and not a sign of a flaw in his swing that pitcher’s have suddenly found and started to exploit. Jeter has always been a free swinger and it is hard to put too much emphasis on projections only one-quarter of the way through the season.

Injury is the most common reason given for his struggles. He must be hurt and not saying anything is the way the story goes. This is the hardest argument to believe as in watching Jeter it is hard to see any difference in his game. Last year, after he came back from his shoulder injury, you could see he wasn’t as aggressive on the basepaths or in the field. This year, your eye tells you something different. Furthermore, the statistical evidence doesn’t backup the injury hypothesis. Jeter is on pace to have one of his best defensive seasons ever. His current range factor is 4.8, an improvement of a point from last season. Yes, the Yankees are turning more double plays, and this helps increase his range factor, but the rate of increase in double plays is not as high as the rate of increase in his assists and putouts. For those of you who don’t like Range Factor as a measure of defense, his current Zone Rating (a percentage of balls fielded by a player in his defensive area) is .895, almost .40 points higher than the best mark of his career. I find it very hard to believe that he would be able to play that level of defense with an injury.

And that brings us to the last argument and the hardest one to prove, that A Rod’s presence is somehow affecting Derek’s offensive performance. It is hard to believe that someone who has consistently performed at such a high level and in high-pressure situations would have a problem with any new teammate, but I suspect that Derek may be pressing a little because of A Rod. Let’s face it, almost everyone (me included) said that A Rod should be the shortstop and Derek should change his position, not the other way around. I don’t care how accomplished a person you are, any type of criticism like that would cause you to want to prove people wrong. I suspect Derek has been trying to prove to the world that he is a great shortstop. As we have seen with almost all the new players coming to the Yankees in recent years, pressing like that doesn’t work well. (See Giambi in 2002, A Rod at the start of 2004 and Sheffield to date) Hitting in the majors is hard enough without having to lug any extra pressures to the plate.

Am I right? Only time will tell, if Derek starts hitting again and no other explanation is given, then I would say I am. If he continues to perform poorly in 2004 then perhaps he is suffering from a mysterious injury or something that I haven’t thought of in this column.

Peter’s columns appear Monday, Wednesday and Friday and he can be reached at peter@yankeesredsox.com

Rocket Return

It is official, Roger Clemens has signed a deal with the Houston Astros. Hopefully, this will end the ridiculous notion that Clemens is one of the great Yankees and should go into the Hall of Fame in Pinstripes.

Clemens is a great pitcher, one of the best ever, and he was an important part of the Yankees who went to four of the last five World Series. Yet, Clemens should not be remembered as a Yankee, but as a Red Sox. He pitched for them the longest and won more games for them than he did for any other team. Yes, he won his 300th and struck out his 4000th with the Yankees, but those moments do not erase all his time with Boston.

There were bad feelings on both sides when he left Boston and I imagine those will be repaired in the next few years. Remember, Carlton Fisk wasn’t exactly a fan of Boston when he left, yet he is in the Hall of Fame as a Red Sox.

Clemens won 77 games for the Yankees, or 14 less than Tommy John did. He deserves to be remembered as a big contributor for the Yankees, but he doesn’t deserve a monument.

Peter can be reached at peter@yankeesredsox.com