On Thursday, the Detroit Tigers finished their invasive three-game sweep of the New York Yankees –- in the Yanks’ own confines nonetheless. The Bombers find themselves in a highly unfavorable and uncertain position. Swept at home by Detroit for the first time since 1966, New York was outpitched and outslugged, failing to right their own ship, while serving as a spring board for a turnaround by the previously struggling squad from Detroit.
The Yankees were outscored 20 to 8 in the three-game bludgeoning at the Stadium and were unable to take advantage of another ineffective start by laboring Tigers’ pitcher Nate Robertson in the third game of the series on Sunday, getting blasted for eight runs while struggling mightily to hit with men on base.
24-year-old pitcher Ian Kennedy was pummeled once again, giving up 4 runs in 4.2 innings, upping his ERA to a staggering 8.37 and, most alarmingly, his WHIP to an abysmal 2.03. When Kennedy isn’t walking people, he is displaying a total lack of command in other ways, serving up meatballs over the fat part of the plate, while failing to demonstrate even the slightest sign of ascertaining any semblance of the form that he was projected to embody.
Combined with the Yankees’ veteran hitters’ continued struggles with men in scoring position — managing a meager four runs on ten hits Sunday, three of which came on a Bobby Abreu three run shot — the Yankees displayed that they are breaking down on a fundamental level. Whether this is due to injuries, misevaluated talent, or a combination of both, the result is a team showing a concerning lack of the components necessary to achieve the levels of success traditionally demanded by the Steinbrenner enclave.
At 14-16 as of Thursday, the Bombers are battered and struggling. Even with their losing record, the Yanks find themselves only 3 games behind first place Tampa Bay, but the mounting problems with injuries and instability in their rotation are threatening to cripple every attempt at a positive turn around that the Yankees attempt to mount. While it is true that New York also struggled mightily early last season — also due to an excessive amount of injuries — the difference between then and now is that even when the Yanks do get a healthy rotation together, the growing pains of their young pitchers may be too much to overcome, even with their prolific offense that will inevitably return to form.
The most glaringly obvious catalyst of the team’s problems is the Yankees disabled list which seems to grow exponentially by the day. Alex Rodriguez is out at least 15 days, strangulating an offense in dire need of his 50 plus home run power. Without the presence of A-Rod’s bat, the lineup lacks the strength and production that only a true power hitter can provide — a classification that no longer truly fits Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, or Hideki Matsui.
Adding to the power outage in the Bronx, switch-hitting catcher Jorge Posada’s status is far more grave then Rodriguez’s. The catcher looks to be on the shelf for at least the month of May by most reports, removing another capable RBI threat from an already depleted lineup.
Equally damaging to their defense, Posada’s presence and stability behind the plate have been sorely missed, shown most predominately by the team’s young pitchers — Hughes and Kennedy — struggling mightily to achieve effectiveness at the Major League level. Without Posada’s intelligent support and guidance behind the plate, nursing the Yankees’ young guns along, the growth of these youthful pitchers may be further obstructed; a prospectus the Yankees can’t afford to allow to materialize.
The extensive list of injured players is rounded out by starters Phil Hughes, Sean Henn, and Jeff Karstens, reliever Brian Bruney, and power-hitting utility man Wilson Betemit. The loss of the trio of young arms has proven especially damaging to the team’s current situation as they scramble through the ranks of their farm system, desperate for a pitcher to competently round out the back end of their rotation.
Brian Cashman’s offseason decision to forgo the pursuit of Johan Santana was the definitive statement of the Yankees’ new philosophical youth movement. In an effort to shift the team’s reliance from high-priced free agents to homegrown farm system products, Cashman placed his figurative bets on two young arms; a wager that is always accompanied by long odds and inconsistent returns.
A month of baseball is obviously far too soon to pass final judgment on Hughes and Kennedy — two “kids” still in their early 20s — but the early returns are horrific. Both pitchers have experienced chronic deficiencies of control and command, constantly getting themselves into bad counts and bad situations. In Kennedy’s case, his lack of so called “electric stuff” makes pinpoint accuracy a vital necessity. Without it, he resembles a pitcher unable to compete on the major league level.
In Hughes’ case, the injury to his rib may have been affecting his performance (and curveball), but ill health is becoming a theme throughout his short career. Many have compared Hughes to Kerry Wood. This parallelism may prove to be more ironic than complimentary.
Now with Hughes’ injury, the Yankees turn to Darrel Rasner, once again up from the AAA ranks in Columbus. At best, the Yanks hope Rasner will keep them in games long enough to flex their dormant offensive muscle and hold a lead into the 8th when things become far more manageable as the game enters the realm known as Joba-time.
Even if Rasner does prove serviceable, New York finds itself with a lack of the necessary firepower in their rotation to overcome the most dangerous offenses in the AL.
Chien-Ming Wang is easily one of the top five pitchers in baseball and will continue to frustrate lineups with his devastating 90-plus mph sinker, but beyond that the proverbial cupboard is looking more barren with each passing game.
Andy Pettitte has shown erosion in his effectiveness while facing top teams this season. In two games against the Royals and Orioles, Andy pitched reasonably well, looking exceptionally sharp while hurling seven scoreless innings against Baltimore. Conversely, he was blasted by the Tigers and Indians in his last two starts and gave up three runs in each of his performances against the hot hitting Tampa Bay Rays.
While Pettitte maintains a respectable 3.93 ERA with a 3-3 record, his 1.42 WHIP shows an increase in walks and hits per nine innings, indicating a depletion in command and dynamics that overshadows the superficiality of his base numbers. Pettitte has surrender 41 hits in 36.2 innings, walking 11 in that span. Take away his seven shutout innings against Baltimore in which he walked no one, and that’s an uncharacteristically high walk total per game — especially considering the number of hits accompanying those walks.
For veteran Mike Mussina, inconsistency has also plagued his season. Mussina was pounded in two games by the hated Red Sox, left staring bewildered into the stands as Boston sprayed his 85 mph fastballs all over Fenway Park. His 1.27 WHIP reflects his low walk totals, but it is the ease at which opposing batsmen hit the pitches he threw within the strike zone that is troubling. Mussina has surrendered 36 hits in 32.1 innings, contributing to his 4.73 ERA — a problem that he must remedy to be successful, especially with the Yanks current offensive woes.
On the positive side, in his last two starts — following a public lashing at the hands of the Boss Jr. — Mussina has allowed only two earned runs in each game. He bested two solid teams in the Indians and the White Sox, and displayed an altered approach that utilized his arsenal of breaking pitches, keeping hitters off balance enough to make his sluggish fast ball once again effective. These quality starts are a step in the right direction for Mussina, but his poor outings against division rivals raise questions about his ability to manage the lineups of the top tier teams in the league.
Perhaps the most telling stat concerning these veteran pitchers: Mussina has reached the 7th inning only once in his six starts this season. Pettitte’s standing is not much better, venturing into the 7th inning only twice in his six starts. With Hughes and Kennedy regularly getting knocked out of ball games early, the work load on the bullpen is far too much to bear over the course of the season. This lack of longevity by the Yankees staff threatens to neutralize the one current positive for the team — their above average bullpen.
With each dominating start that Santana reels off in Queens, the anticipation of a reactionary Steinbrenner-esque move lingers over old Yankees Stadium, as it churns towards its eminent demise. How long will Hank remain dormant before he emulates his dad and sells off the farm system for a big name hurler? Is this possibly the only way to save the Yankees season? These are questions that will be answered soon, especially if the numbers in the loss column continue to rise.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the hotly debated and Steinbrenner supported idea of moving phenom pitcher Joba Chamberlain from the setup role in which he has established his dominance, to the starting rotation. While this may seem like a logical move, given the Yankees rotational issues and Joba’s proven effectiveness, the switch could prove costly for a team with little room to digress.
While Joba theoretically has the stuff to be a dominate starting pitcher, making this move would limit his appearances therefore limiting the impact he can have for the team on a daily basis. Even if Joba does enter the starting rotation and dominates for seven innings every five days, who will then bridge the gap to Mariano Rivera? Kyle Farnsworth? LaTroy Hawkins? The options are not comparable.
With Joba in the pen, the Yanks have recreated the formula that brought them their initial success in the previous era of Yankee dominance during the 90s. Like Rivera-to-Wetteland in 1996, the combination of Chamberlain-to-Rivera literally destroys the opposing team’s chance of winning after the seventh inning. This ability to “cut a game short” gives the Bombers a massive advantage over their opposition; if only they can find a starter besides Wang that can last over 5 innings.
One can never count out the New York Yankees this early in the marathon that is the baseball season. Their prolific lineup of professional hitters along with their dominate bullpen should allow the Yankees to be competitive in, at the very least, the race for the AL wild card. This is obviously predicated on Alex Rodriguez returning as scheduled, but the inherent offensive production provided by the undoubtedly slumping but quality lineup along with the continued success of Wang, Chamberlain and Rivera should keep the Yankees within striking distance in the AL East.
Nevertheless the questions will linger. How long will the Yankees maintain this self-imposed “rebuilding mode?” With Hank Steinbrenner staring at the dismal stat lines of Hughes and Kennedy, when will he succumb to his own inclinations and regrets over digressing in opinion on the Santana issue, and abandon the Cashman manifesto of rebuilding from within? Although both the Yanks bats and arms have most definitely been ice cold, it looks unavoidable that things are beginning to heat up at the Bronx Zoo.