The New York Yankees have played 33 percent of the season and their record stands just about where it was in 2011 when the Yankees were 31-23. That team ended up winning 97 games to lead the American League. The question is in 2012 can the Yankees reach the same heights with the loss of Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, young right-handed starter Michael Pineda and an offense that seems to sputter with runners in scoring position. Let’s examine how the Yankees have fared.
Last season the Yankees wielded a powerful offense despite the fact only Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano had what could be called good seasons. Their hope in 2012 was that Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Brett Gardner would join them along with new designated hitter Raul Ibanez, who replaced the retired Jorge Posada.
Instead, the Yankees can actually only point to one hitter who has truly carried the offense throughout the season and that is Jeter. The 37-year-old shortstop has reached the one-third mark with the third-highest batting average in the American League at .336 with six home runs and 20 RBIs.
It is an extension of the way he has hit since he returned from the disabled list last July and it has finally silenced talk throughout Yankee Universe that his productive days were behind him.
The only disappointing part of Jeter’s season is his run scored total of 30. That number points to the problems the Yankees have had in scoring runs this season when they are not hitting home runs.
The team’s batting average with runners in scoring position is atrocious. Jeter leads the team in that category hitting a mere .262. Ibanez is hitting .256. The rest is abysmal: Swisher, .236; Granderson, .222; Teixeira, .218; Martin, .172; Rodriguez, .170; and Cano, .140.
What is manager Joe Girardi to do? Should he bench A-Rod and Cano in favor of Eric Chavez and Jayson Nix? Should he bat A-Rod leadoff because he is hitting .346 with the bases empty and make Jeter the cleanup hitter?
The problem is all Girardi can do is trust that these hitters will begin to hit more like they have in the past and the law of averages will mean the Yankees will start to begin to punish pitchers who dare to load the bases. The Yankees are 9-for-57 (.158) in those situations this season.
The Yankees have also suffered from a dramatic shift in their offense away from speed because Gardner has been on the disabled list since April 19 with a strained right elbow that has been slow to heal. In addition, Eduardo Nunez was sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after he continued to butcher balls so badly fielding he earned the nickname “Eduardo Scissorhands.” With it, Nunez took his 22 steals playing half the time in 2011.
Without Gardner and Nunez, the Yankees are less of a threat on the bases. Rodriguez has six steals and that ties him for the team lead with Nunez, who had six before his demotion on May 11.
The Yankees hope to have Gardner back within a week and it will be a welcome sight. Gardner was hitting .321 when he was injured and he has the ability to spark the offense with his speed. His exceptional Gold Glove-worthy defense in left-field has also been missed.
There are also hopeful signs that Teixeira is coming out his usual early-season struggles at the plate. In his last 10 games, Tex is hitting .351 with four home runs and 12 RBIs. He has abandoned his “put the ball in play” strategy to increase his batting average and gone back to his “swing for production” approach and it appears to be working.
Just don’t expect Teixeira to anywhere near the .308 average he hit in the season before he joined the Yankees. Those days seem to be behind him much like they were for his predecessor Jason Giambi after he left Oakland.
Cano and Rodroguez also are showing signs of life with the bat. Rodriguez has four home runs in his last four games and Cano was hitting .308 on May 26 until a recent 4-for-29 (.138) slide has dropped his average back to .284.
The truth is that the Yankees only will go as far as the productive bats of Cano, Rodriguez and Teixeira take them. If you triple their current numbers, Cano would have 24 home runs and 72 RBIs, Rodriguez would have 27 homers and 66 RBIs and Teixeira would have 27 home runs and 96 RBIs.
Would anyone like to bet the house that those numbers will actually be their final numbers? It would be a fool’s bet, for sure. But they have to start hitting and soon.
Granderson is having a season much like his breakout 2011 season. He has 17 home runs and 33 RBIs. His .261 average is only a point lower than he hit last season. No problem there. But there are some negatives, too.
Granderson has struck out 61 times in 207 at-bats and that translates to 183 strikeouts for a full season. He also has stolen three bases in six attempts. He also has only one triple.
It would be nice to see Granderson elevate his speed game and cut the strikeouts as the season progresses.
Swisher helped carry the offense in April by hitting .284 with six home runs and 23 RBIs. But in May, Swisher suffered a hamstring injury and he has slumped ever since. He hit just .207 in May with two home runs and nine RBIs. With this being his contract year, Swisher has all the motivation in the world to get busy hitting again. Let’s see if he can.
Ibanez, meanwhile, has been a revelation. Only signed to be a left-handed DH, Ibanez has been forced to play left-field in Gardner’s absence and he has done fine there. Ibanez has also contributed nine home runs and 29 RBIs while hitting.252. Gardner’s return should allow him to get some occasional rest at age 40 and it also might help him stay fresh the remainder of the season.
Andruw Jones, the right-handed half of the DH platoon, is off to a slow start similar to his 2011 season. He has five home runs and 11 RBIs and he hitting .233.
The biggest disappointment in the Yankees’ offense this season has been Martin.
Last season, Martin hit 18 home runs and drove in 65 runs despite hitting .237. This season, Martin is hitting a mere .194 and has four home runs and 12 RBIs. With Martin’s defensive gifts behind the plate, it is inconceivable that Girardi would replace him.
But the Yankees have ben spoiled by the offense Posada provided and there are Yankee fans who are still angry that general manager Brian Cashman traded rookie catcher Jesus Montero to the Mariners. To make them even madder, Montero is on a pace to hit 21 home runs and drive in 81 runs with the Mariners this season.
Martin better pick it up and fast. Backup catcher Chris Stewart is hitting .227 with six RBIs catching just once a week.
The Yankees got tired of hearing that the quality of their starting pitching began and ended with CC Sabathia.
In 2011, they cobbled a starting staff together with retreads like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia and a promising rookie in Ivan Nova and somehow won 97 games and made the playoffs. But they were quickly eliminated to a staff of pitchers that were better in the Tigers.
This season, they ignored the extravagant fixes like C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish and decided instead to sign Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million contract and trade megastar Montero for Pineda. They also re-signed the 35-year-old Garcia after his 12-8 record with a 3.62 ERA.
They were counting on Nova’s continued development after a 16-4 mark and a 3.70 ERA and the return of 25-year-old Phil Hughes, who was throwing with velocity again much like he did in 2010 when he was 18-8 with a 4.16 ERA.
A funny thing happened on the way to the start of the regular season. None of this really worked out as Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild would have hoped.
Pineda showed up to camp this winter overweight by 20 pounds and the velocity on his fastball was down considerably. As spring training unfolded, Pineda never regained the velocity he had last season and after a late spring start he revealed he was pitching with a sore right shoulder.
He underwent surgery to repair a slight tear in his right shoulder and he hopes to return in the early stages of the 2013 season. Scratch Pineda.
The Yankees then hoped Garcia would be able to provide the same ability to keep them in games he showed last season. Unfortunately, Garcia was unable to regain even the modest velocity on his pitches he had last season and he was lit up like bottle rockets at the start of the Chinese New Year.
After four April starts in which he was 0-2 with a 12.71 ERA, Garcia was banished to long relief in the bullpen and there he sits. He has not pitched a game since May 21. Scratch Garcia.
The Yankees big surprise was when 39-year-old left-handed legend Andy Petitte decided to return to the Yankees after one year in retirement. After allowing Pettitte to build up his arm and legs in the minors early this season, Pettitte returned to the majors on May 13.
In his four starts, he is 2-2 with a 3.49 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. By all measures it does not appear that Pettitte has suffered any regression of his abilities when he was idle. After the loss of Pineda for the season and Garcia’s demise, Pettitte has provided some optimism to the Yankees’ rotation.
The rest of the staff has been down early and getting better lately.
Kuroda in six of his 11 starts is 4-1 with a 1.44 ERA. In his other five starts he is 0-5 with a 8.03 ERA. Inconsistency with his command and perhaps having to adjust to a new league has a lot to do with the bad numbers. But, Kuroda is showing signs of improvement since April 24. Since then he is 3-3 with a 3.40 ERA.
The Yankees have hope the 37-year-old right-hander will continue to improve as the season goes along as he adjusts to a much tougher division like the American League East.
Hughes has also shown signs of finding his rhythm after missing most all of 2011 with weakness in his right shoulder.
The 25-year-old right-hander was 1-3 with a 7.88 ERA in April. Since then he is 4-2 with a 3.94 ERA and he is coming off the first nine-inning complete game of his career as he held the Tigers to one run and struck out eight on Sunday. Hughes is beginning to show the form that he showed when he made the American League All-Star team in 2010.
The enigma of the group has been Nova.
When he is good, it seems he gets little support or he gives up a key home run that beats him. When he is shaky, the Yankees score a lot of runs and he wins anyway.
So Nova is 6-2 with a 5.60 ERA. That is a far cry from his 2011 rookie season when he won 13 straight games.
The home-run ball is killing Nova. Last season he gave up 13 in 165 1/3 innings. This season he has given up 13 in 62 2/3 innings.
The odd thing is Nova probably has more electric stuff than any starter apart from Sabathia. The problem is Nova has been unable to harness it. When you can’t command the strike zone you are reduced to throwing fastballs over the plate and fastballs over the plate can end up in the seats.
So the answer to Nova’s troubles might be easily fixed when he begins to harness that command. He struck out 12 Reds in six innings on May 19 but lost because of three-run home run hit by Joey Votto. That is pretty much defined Nova’s odd season so far.
But at age 25, Nova is capable of good things and the Yankees have to trust he will continue to improve as he gets older. As long as Pettitte, Kuroda and Hughes are pitching well, Nova will be given that chance to grow. The alternatives of Garcia or rookie David Phelps or minor leaguers like D.J. Mitchell do not have the same arsenal Nova possesses.
That is why the Yankees have to continue to use him.
Sabathia has been, well, like Sabathia always has been.
At times shaky early in the season, Sabathia is 7-2 with a 3.12 ERA in his last nine starts. He has 74 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings and his WHIP is 1.24.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Sabathia is simply off to another season like his first three with the Yankees in which he 59-23 with a 3.05 ERA. The 31-year-old left-hander is the rock and foundation of this rotation.
He is pitching like it and as long as Pettitte, Kuroda and Hughes provide quality innings behind him, the Yankees should win enough as Nova develops. If they don’t this season is simply doomed to be a pretty bad one for the Yankees. It is just that simple.
For all intents and purposes the Yankees’ 2012 season should have ended on May 3 when All-Universe closer Mariano Rivera went down in a heap shagging a fly ball on the warning track at Kauffman Stadium.
No doubt about it, losing Rivera was a big blow to the Bronx Bombers.
But Girardi had faith that David Robertson and Rafael Soriano would pick up the slack and the Yankees would be able to carry on without their precious Mo.
However, not more than 12 days later Robertson ended up on the disabled list with a left oblique strain.
Suddenly, the team with the deepest and best bullpen in baseball was no longer as deep or perceived to be as good.
However, Soriano has been successful in all seven of his save opportunities and he is 2-0 with a 1.89 RRA. Those are not too far from Mo numbers so the Yankees still have faith in their bullpen.
Girardi is hoping Robertson is a few weeks away to returning to the team. It is unclear if Robertson will get another opportunity to close. It is more likely he will resume his eighth-inning setup role.
In the meantime, Girardi is getting yeoman work from a mix-and-match righty combination of Cory Wade (2.55 ERA) and Cody Eppley (4.22) and a lefty combination of Boone Logan (2.79) and Clay Rapada (3.86). Phelps is providing quality long relief (2.94 ERA).
So somehow the Yankees’ bullpen is getting the job done despite the injuries and that is a credit to Girardi and Rothschild.
The long-term prospects for the bullpen also appear bright because the Yankees have a number of possible replacements in the pipeline.
One is David Aardsma, a former Mariners closer who is hoping to return to the majors at around the All-Star break. The Yankees also have sinkerball specialist Mitchell a phone call away at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Mitchell is a starter but his long-term major-league career may translate to the bullpen.
The Yankees are also holding out some hope that Joba Chamberlain may recover from his Tommy John surgery and the horrific ankle injury he suffered this spring to pitch some this season. The jury is out but he insists he is ahead of schedule.
The Yankees are pretty much paddling water like most of the other teams in the American League East.
They stand 1 1/2 games out of first place and they are playing the first-place Rays at home beginning on Tuesday.
That will allow the Yankees to get into position to make a push over the next 54 games. After the Rays they will open their interleague schedule starting against the Mets at home this weekend.
The Yankees have the best interleague record in baseball and this period will give them a chance to press into the lead in the division while pretenders like the Orioles and Jays are poised for a slide downward. The Rays and Red Sox look to be ready to keep pace with the Yankees moving into the summer.
The biggest keys to the Yankees’ success lies in its offense being able to turn itself around and begin to hit with runners in scoring position. The team also must get more consistent pitching from Kuroda, Hughes and Nova behind Pettitte and Sabathia.
The bullpen has held together for now and Girardi must hope it continues to hold up in the absence of Rivera.
If I was a betting man, I would not bet against the Yankees standing atop this division at the the two-thirds mark of the season. There is just too much talent on this roster for it not to start asserting itself.
The Yankees have always been a second-half team. They seem to be able to turn it on in the summer months and steam ahead of the pack. I see this happening again soon. The question is who will be with them.
The Rays, boosted by their pitching, should be one. I am not sure how much steam the Red Sox have but I do know that the Orioles and Jays do not look capable of staying with the big boys.
The Orioles are in a slide already and it appears that the ball is over for this Cinderella. The Jays have struggled all season and their pitching is not capable of keeping them in it over the long haul.
So even with no Mo, the Yankees seem to have enough “mo” (as in momentum) to carry them into the summer.
YANKEES 5, RAYS 3
Just like the swallows who return to San Juan Capistrano every year and the upstream swim of the salmon, you can pretty much set your clock about this time every season when CC Sabathia gets on a roll.
Sabathia (5-0) gave up two runs (neither of them earned) on seven hits and one walk and he struck out a season-high 10 in eight strong innings on Thursday as he outdueled David Price and defeated Tampa Bay at Yankee Stadium for his fifth straight victory.
With the victory, the Yankees won the three-game series with the Rays.
Price (5-2), who was 3-0 in his five previous matchups against Sabathia, took the loss this time, giving up five runs on 11 hits and three walks and striking out four in seven innings.
The key blows for the Yankees were one-out RBI single by Chris Stewart in the second inning that tied the score at 2-2 and a two-run home run by Robinson Cano in the fifth inning that put the Yankees ahead of the Rays to stay.
Rafael Soriano, who was summoned to pitch the ninth inning because closer David Robertson was unavailable to pitch, gave up a run but still managed to get credit his first save of the season.
Curtis Granderson also homered for the Yankees. His solo shot to lead off the second inning was his 11th of the season.
The Rays scored a pair of unearned runs in each of the first two innings aided by errors by Eduardo Nunez.
With two out and runners on first and second, Nunez mishandled a bouncer off the bat of Brandon Guyer that loaded the bases and Carlos Pena followed with an RBI single but Nick Swisher was able to cut down Jeff Keppinger trying to score at home plate to end the inning.
In the second inning, Nunez fielded an easy grounder off the bat of Chris Gimenez but tossed the potential double-play relay to Robinson Cano into right-field that allowed Elliot Johnson to slide safely into second. Johnson later scored on a two-out single by Sean Rodriguez.
With the victory the Yankees improved to 17-14. The Rays fell to 20-12.
- Sabathia is on a full-fledged roll now. In his last five starts, he has pitched 39 1/3 innings and has given up just 11 runs on 29 hits and five walks and he has struck out 38 batters. That is an ERA of 2.52 and a WHIP of 0.86 in that span. Over the final six innings, Sabathia held the Rays to no runs on just three singles.
- Cano is back to his old self and it shows. He was 3-for-4 in the game with two singles and his two-run home run. Cano now has an eight-game hitting streak and during that span he is 12-for-32 (.375) with two home runs and seven RBIs. He has raised his season average to .286. Opposing pitchers, beware!
- Stewart will never be compared to Matt Wieters or Joe Mauer at the plate, but his RBI single tied the game and set the stage for the Yankees ability to take the lead in the fifth. Stewart is hitting just .240 and he plays largely because of his defense. But he has four big RBIs for the Yankees this season.
- I think even manager Joe Girardi has had enough of “Eduardo Scissorhands” Nunez and his careless errors. Nunez misplayed Guyer’s grounder because he was rushing to step on third before he even had the ball. The errant throw in the second inning was just carelessness. Nunez led the Yankees in errors last season with 20 despite the fact he played only half the time. He leads the team with six errors this season and Girardi actually put Jayson Nix in at third in the SIXTH inning as a defensive replacement for Nunez.
- Though he did draw a walk in the fifth, Mark Teixeira was 0-for-3 in the game and his season average dipped to .212. He was hitting .288 on April 23 but since then he is 8-for-59 (.136) with a home run and six RBIs. I think we have seen the final transformation of Teixiera into what Jason Giambi was in 2008 when he hit 32 home runs, drove in 96 runs and hit .247.
- Derek Jeter took a rare 0-for-4 and he did not get a ball out of the infield. Jeter’s batting average dipped to .376. But he can be forgiven the mini-slump because he has been carrying the team for most of the season with his bat.
Brett Gardner has suffered a setback in his attempt to come back from a right elbow strain. Girardi told reporters that another MRI exam indicated that Gardner has a further strain of a muscle in his elbow and he will miss two to four more weeks of action. Gardner has been sidelined since he injured the elbow making a diving catch on April 18. He was on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday when he reported a lingering pain in his elbow after the game. Girardi said Gardner will not swing a bat for 10 days and then will be re-evaluated. . . . Eric Chavez was not activated from the seven-day disabled list on Thursday as expected because he has not been cleared by Major League Baseball. League officials were concerned about one aspect of Chavez’s concussion test. But Chavez participated in a second test and he hopes to be cleared to play soon.
The Yankees will open a three-game home weekend series with the Seattle Mariners on Friday.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (2-4, 3.75 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda is coming off a disappointing start in which he gave up three runs (two earned) on six hits and three walks in 4 1/3 innings on Saturday to the Kansas City Royals. He is 0-1 with a 5.68 ERA in his career against the Mariners.
Right-hander Felix Hernandez (3-1, 1.89 ERA) will get the start for the Mariners. He is coming off a seven-inning, one-hit shutout victory over the Minnesota Twins. He is 6-4 with a 3.29 ERA in his career against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.
When the Grapefruit League season begins in earnest for the New York Yankees on Saturday afternoon I have 10 things I will be looking at very closely. If these things look good than I will feel very good about the Yankees’ chances of returning to the World Series and perhaps their 28th world championship. If I don’t see them than the Yankees’ 2012 season may be a repeat of 2011. What I am looking for includes:
- HITTING WITH RUNNERS IN SCORING POSITION. I understand that in spring training we will see a lot of young players and minor leaguers in the lineup. But I will be focused on the players who start and those who will make the team as reserves. I want to see those players hit with runners in scoring position consistently. This was a weakness of the offense in 2011 and who could forget the innings of futility as the Yankees trailed the Detroit Tigers by a run in that disappointing Game 5 of the playoffs? Good habits are built upon in spring training and I want to see the Yankee hitters driving in runs consistently this spring.
- MARK TEIXEIRA’S BATTING AVERAGE AGAINST RIGHT-HANDERS. Last season, Teixeira hit .223 off right-handers. 223! That is one reason he hit just .248 overall after hitting just .256 in 2010. Teixeira came to the Yankees as an hitter who could hit to the opposite field. Much like Jason Giambi before him, he has become pull happy and it has left him vulnerable to breaking pitches. Teixiera has been working with hitting coach Kevin Long to improve his left-handed approach and he also has talked about bunting to discourage the radical shift teams employ on him. But the bottom line is that he has to improve hitting left-handed for the Yankees’ offense to click.
- BRETT GARDNER’S AVERAGE AGAINST LEFT-HANDERS. Gardner hit .233 against left-handers in 2011 and it became quite a liability for the offense in 2011. Andruw Jones could force his way into a platoon in left-field if Gardner does not improve his hitting against lefties this season. For all of Gardner’s speed, it is still surprising that he has not developed into an adept bunter. I want to see marked improvement there also. Gardner can be a real weapon if he is able to showcase his speed. He can’t do that if he is habitually walking back to the dugout with his bat in his hand.
- THE VELOCITY ON PHIL HUGHES’ FASTBALL. When Phil Hughes was healthy he was a productive pitcher for the Yankees. In 2009, his shift to the bullpen to set up Mariano Rivera was a key to the Yankees’ world championship season. In 2011, he won a spot in the rotation, made the American League All-Star team and finished the season 18-8 with 4.19 ERA. Last season, weakness in his right shoulder put him on the disabled list and a late season back injury cut short a pretty impressive comeback. He enters this spring as a candidate for the No. 5 spot, as he was in 2010. He is still only 25 and he has plenty of time to establish himself as the quality pitcher he was thought to be when he was a No. 1 draft choice in 2004. Initial reports indicate Hughes is throwing well and without any pain. If he is back anywhere close to his 2010 form the Yankees will have a No. 5 starter who won 18 games. How many teams can say that?
- THE HEALTH OF RUSSELL MARTIN. The Jorge Posada era ended in 2010 and the Russell Martin era begin in 2011. Martin came into camp last season rehabbing his left knee after surgery. Though he was able to hit the ground running in April (hitting .292 with six home runs and 19 RBIs) he did not hit over .213 in any month until August. That is because a toe injury followed by back injury slowed him down considerably. With Posada retired and Jesus Montero traded to the Mariners, Martin is the team’s best offensive weapon at the position. He has to stay healthy for the Yankees to be able to make a run at a championship. His excellent defense is just a bonus.
- THE REAL DEREK JETER NEEDS TO SHOW UP. In 2010, Jeter hit a miserable – for him – .270. He worked with Long on a new approach that featured no stride. But Jeter wasn’t comfortable with the change and he was hitting .242 on May 1. But after a calf injury shelved him in July, Jeter reworked his swing and he hit .334 the rest of the way. The Jeter who hit .334 must be the one that shows up this season. Jeter is the table-setter at the top of the lineup and when he is getting on base, the team scores a lot of runs. When he doesn’t, the team struggles.
- CC SABATHIA NEEDS TO MAINTAIN HIS WEIGHT. CC might love Cap’n Crunch cereal but he is going to have to lay off the stuff as the season progresses. Though Sabathia disagrees, it is a fact that as he gained weight down the stretch his ERA went up. Sabathia was on track to win 20 games easily but he had to settle for 19 again. He also was ineffective the playoffs against the Tigers. If you see CC’s girth expanding, you can bet the Yankees’ postseason chances are shrinking. He has vowed to maintain his training regimen until the end of the season and let’s hope he does it. Sabathia is still the ace and the pitcher teams fear most.
- THE RETURN OF JOBA CHAMBERLAIN. Because of the strength of the Yankees’ bullpen and the presence of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, Joba is almost a forgotten man this spring. Chamberlain is rehabbing after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in July and he is not expected to be able to return to the team until this July. The Yankees can afford to bring him back slowly and they will. If he comes back strong the Yankees might have easily the best bullpen in baseball. Chamberlain is only 26 and he still can be a productive pitcher with the Yankees. His return might be a real shot in the arm during a potential pennant chase.
- THE FIELDING OF EDUARDO NUNEZ. Nunez won the backup infielder job last spring with good reason He is an excellent hitter, with line-drive power and he can run like the wind. When he received regular playing time when Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were injured he shined at the plate. However, the increased playing time also exposed his weakness in the field. Nunez committed a team-high 21 errors and most of them were due to his poor footwork. Nunez needs to show the Yankees he has turned the corner is learning how to play in the field. At age 24 he could be Jeter’s eventual replacement at short. He just has to prove he can do it.
- THE MOST IMPORTANT THING – ALEX RODRIGUEZ MUST REMAIN HEALTHY ALL SEASON. Injuries have dogged Rodriguez for the past four seasons. Last spring, he reported to camp lighter, looked quick in the field and he was hammering the ball all through the exhibition season. A lot of good it did. Rodriguez hurt his knee in June, tried to play through it, admitted he couldn’t and then had to undergo knee surgery. After missing six weeks, A-Rod returned and he promptly sprained his left thumb in the first game he played. That injury pretty much knocked out his ability to hit the rest of the season. Rodriguez must avoid all those serious aches and pains in 2012 for the Yankees to have even a prayer of advancing to the World Series. A-Rod is the hitter pitchers fear most when he is locked in. The Yankees need him desperately this season. He is they key to it all.
The regular season has come to a close and any postseason that does not include the Boston Red Flops is a positive. The Yankees enter the playoffs with the best record in the American League (97-65) and with home-field advantage through the American League Championship Series. It is time for the final season report cards on the players that brought them to this point.
FIRST BASE – MARK TEIXEIRA (39 HRs, 111 RBIs, .248 BA)
Mark Teixeira has followed in the footsteps of Jason Giambi. Like Giambi before him, Teixeira was noted as an excellent hitter to all fields who also provided a consistent 30 home runs and 100 RBIs a season. But with the lure of the short dimensions in right field of Yankee Stadium, Teixeira is strictly a pull hitter now and his average has sunk as a result. In the first half, Teixeira did not get off to his traditional slow start and he put up 25 home runs, 65 RBIs in the first half. But the cost of the production was his mediocre .244 average. It did not get better in the second half. He hit 14 home runs, drove in 46 runs and his average came up only four points. For a career .281 hitter, Teixeira has posted averages of .256 and .248 the past two seasons. That is why the Yankees may have to move him out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order soon. Of course, Teixeira still brings Gold Glove quality defense to his position. He is simply the best fielding first baseman in baseball with his superior range and his ability to scoop bad throws out of the dirt. Teixeira had a .997 fielding percentage, committing only four errors. He has not committed more than five errors in any season he has played first base. He was durable too because he started 144 games at first this season.
The Yankees began the season hoping to have Eric Chavez as Teixeira’s primary backup at first. However, Chavez – no stranger to injury – broke a foot in early May and missed 2 1/2 months. So the Yankees turned Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher as the primary backups. Posada started 11 games and Swisher started three. Neither can match Teixeira’s stellar glove but Swisher, at least, provided a bat close to Teixeira’s. Posada surprisingly did not embarrass himself here as some would have thought. Posada came up through the Yankee system as a second baseman and his glove at first was not awful. But both Swisher and Posada lack true range here. The Yankees started Chavez and September call-up Brandon Laird twice. They were adequate.
SECOND HALF GRADES
OTHERS (Posada, Swisher, Chavez, Laird) I (Incomplete)
Teixeira received a B- for his first half. At the time, I praised his good production but believed he could raise his average. His production dipped instead and he did not really raise his average much in the second half. That makes it hard to give Tex anything above a C. Teixeira fell prey to too many change-ups in the dirt. He still swings over them and he needs to really work on trying to recognize the pitch better and lay off it. But Teixeira really shines as a fielder and he makes so many plays that saves hits headed to right-field and errors on infield throws. You notice how good he is only when he is not playing there.
The fact that Teixeira is the only active major-league player with an active streak of hitting 30 or more home runs and driving in more than 100 runs is a testament to his durability and his ability to produce. Teixeira has failed to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs only in his rookie season in 2003. Teammate Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals had their longer streaks ended this season. So Teixeira is productive despite his sagging batting average. His defense also rates him a B grade that was close to a C because he is one of the few defenders that can win games with his glove.
We have reached the midpoint of the 2011 season for the New York Yankees. Despite the pundits dire predictions about their so-called “suspect” starting rotation, they have the second-best record in baseball and the best record in the American League. They finished the first half on a seven-game winning streak and they were 30-12 (.714) from May 17 to July 2, the best record in baseball. Now it is time to hand out our annual report cards for the players who built that record.
FIRST BASE – MARK TEIXEIRA (.244 BA, 25 HRs, 65 RBIs)
Before spring training began, Mark Teixeira had a mantra rolling through his head: Do not get off to a bad start.
Teixeira had already built a reputation before he even signed with the Yankees in 2009 of being a slow starter with poor April starts. For the past two seasons with the Yankees, the pattern held and 2010 was one of his worst starts ever. On top of that, Teixeira never really got rolling with the bat until after the All-Star break.
But the slow start really hurt in 2010. Teixieira, indeed, got hurt in August and finished with good but not sensational statistics: 33 home runs, 108 RBIs and a .256 average. Winning his fourth Gold Glove was great but Teixeira had not hit below .281 in any season since after his rookie season in 2003.
So the 31-year-old first baseman elected to change his routine this spring to hit more in the batting cage and lift weights less. It was a gamble that getting off to a better start could lead to a dropoff in strength in the second half. But Teixeira was willing to give it a try.
The results were encouraging. Teixeira hit home runs in the first three games and finished April with five home runs and 13 RBIs. However, he batted .256.
That has pretty much been what he has done this season. He is second in the major leagues with 25 home runs and he is fourth in the major leagues with 65 RBIs. But he is hitting .244 and it has had its effect on his potential selection to the 2011 American League All-Star team.
Though Teixeira finished second in the fan voting to Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez at first base, the players selected Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers as the backup. And, in the vote for the final spot, Paul Konerko of the White Sox was placed on the ballot and Teixeira was left out entirely. This is not as much a oversight as what it says about what has happened to Teixeira.
Think back to 2001. That was the year Jason Giambi won the A.L. Most Valuable Player award after hitting .342 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs with Oakland.
The Yankees signed Giambi to a long-term free-agent contract to replace Tino Martinez. And what did Yankee Stadium do to Giambi, who was noted for his ability to hit to all fields? It turned him into a strict pull hitter. Though Giambi hit .314 with 42 home runs and 122 RBIs in 2002, his batting averages dipped considerably after that season.
He hit .250 in 2003, .208 in an injury-plagued 2004, .253 in 2006, .236 in an injury-marred 2007 and .247 in 2008. Giambi was let go after his contract expired because he became a pull-happy low average power hitter. It appears the same thing is happening to Teixeira.
Fortunately for Teixeira, his pull-happy style is not hurting his run production. He is hitting .187 with the bases empty this season and .268 with runners in scoring position. But his .256 average from 2010 and his current .244 average in 2011 do indicate that his inability to go to the opposite field is hurting him as it did Giambi.
One thing, the Yankees can count on from Teixeira is his excellent glove at first. Unlike Giambi, Teixeira has exceptional range, agility and footwork. Teixeira gloves anything he can get to and he also is exceptional in digging balls out the dirt. He has saved the Yankees a lot of throwing errors this season.
There are not many in baseball than can compare to him in the field.
The fact that he is almost assured of having his eighth straight season of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs is an exceptional achievement. Only teammate Alex Rodriguez (13) and the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols (10) have longer streaks. So Teixeira is doing what he what brought to the Yankees to do. The fact he is n a pace to hit a career-high 50 home runs and drive his second-bast number of runs at 130 indicates Teixeira is a valuable commodity on a team with designs of winning its 27th championship.
But that batting average sticks out like a sore thumb. As long as it is not an issue with the Yankees and Teixeira, maybe the fans won’t really care either. But I can’t help but think that not making the All-Star team with all his infield teammates chafes a little. Maybe Teixeira will see that hitting a few balls to the opposite field could help him in the long run.
But until we see it, the Teixeira we are seeing is pretty much what we are going to get.
Taking into account his fielding and his production you have to give Teixeira an A for that. But his batting average is a major concern. So I am marking him at B- for the first half. If his average does not pickup in the second half I may mark him down to a C+. He simply has to do better at being more consistent.
Early in the season Eric Chavez was on the roster to back up Rodriguez at third and Teixeira at first. He proved to be a valuable backup off the bench, hitting .303 in 53 at-bats. However, he injured his left foot running the bases in Detroit on May 5 and has been on the disabled list ever since. He is eligible to come of the 60-day list on July 5, but Chavez is being held back by a back strain. So he likely will not return until sometime after the All-Star break. This has been the story of Chavez’s career. The last season Chavez played more than 90 games was 2006.
With Chavez out the Yankees have used Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher in short stints at first. They will remain the primary backups until Chavez is ready to play.
But, make no mistake. Teixeira will play most of the rest of the games at first. He started 77 of the first 81 games.
At the minor-league level, Jorge Vazquez, 29, who wowed fans in spring training with his hot bat, is doing what he does best at Triple-A Scranton. Vazquez has 20 home runs and 52 RBIs in 65 games. But he also has struck out 93 times and he is hitting only .257. So the Yankees have a nice carbon copy of Teixeira in Vazquez minus the fielding prowess.
We are not likely to see Vazquez unless Teixeira is injured. So let’s hope we don’t see Vazquez.
FIRST HALF GRADES
Chavez I (Incomplete)
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B-
If Texeira can pull his batting average up in the second half to a respectable number and he maintains his production, Teixeira will go a long way towards raising his own brand name at the position as well as helping the Yankees in their pennant chase. Teixeira is a far cry from terrible. His fielding, his power, his production and his intensity are all top notch. If he can pull that average up he would be a complete player. The Yankees also need Chavez back because he was providing solid defense at first and exceptional fielding at third. He also was a much-needed left-hand power threat off the bench. But the storyline of his career is: If only he can stay healthy. And so it is in 2011.
NEXT: SECOND BASE
YANKEES 8, ROCKIES 3
When Jason Giambi swung and missed at a slider from CC Sabathia to strike out on three pitches in the second inning he knew that it was going to be a long day for Colorado.
Sabathia was simply in command for all of his eight innings and the Yankees’ offense, led by Alex Rodriguez’s three RBIs, did the rest as New York bested the Rockies at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.
Sabathia only gave up a two-out pinch-hit single to Seth Smith in his final inning of work. He scattered seven hits and walked one while fanning a season-high nine batters to become the major-league leader in wins with 10. Sabathia also tied Chien-Ming Wang for the fastest pitcher to win 50 games for the Yankees in 30 years. Both did it in their 85th starts.
Sabathia has also won three straight starts and has also recorded wins in seven of his last eight starts. Giambi put it best when he said, “He was lights out today.”
But while CC was in charge, there was a buzz in the clubhouse about the condition of Rodriguez, despite the fact he was 2-for-3 with a single, a double, a walk, scored a run and drove in three. The Yankees finally admitted last week that Rodriguez was being treated over a period of days for a sore left shoulder.
But Rodriguez showed a noticeable limp running out his two-run double in the third inning. Rodriguez told reporters that he injured his right knee as a baserunner on Sunday night against the Cubs. Rodriguez pivoted on the knee on a wild pitch and ran back third. In the process the knee became sore. Rodriguez has 10 hits and is hitting .556 in the five games since the report about the shoulder surfaced so it does not appear the Yankees are too concerned about it.
However, manager Joe Girardi did take Rodriguez out of Saturday’s game at the end of the seventh inning.
The Yankees rocked Colorado right-hander Aaron Cook (0-3) for six runs (five earned) on 12 hits and one walk in 5 2/3 innings. Mark Teixeira added a two-run home run off reliever Rafael Betancourt in the eighth inning, his 22nd of the season and that leaves him one home run behind the major-league leader, Jose Bautista, of the Blue Jays.
With the victory, the Yankees ended a two-game losing streak and improved their season mark to 44-31. But the best news of the day actually came in the evening. The lowly Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Boston Red Sox for the second straight night and the Yankees have now pulled into a tie with their rivals in the American League East. The Rockies fell to 38-38.
- The Yankees are very lucky to have Sabathia. He is the one pitcher they can count on to put in a good effort every five days as Bartolo Colon and Phil Hughes rehab their injuries on the disabled list. Sabathia did not get a decision in his first four starts and yet he is first major-league pitcher to reach 10 wins. Sabathia is 10-4 with 3.25 ERA. He also seems headed to a another selection for the All-Star Game in July.
- Concern about Rodriguez aside, the third baseman is making it hard to bench him when he is so hot. In the month of June, he is 25-for-75 (.333) with four home runs and 20 RBIs. He has also driven in eight runs in his last five games. Perhaps Rodriguez may be rested on Sunday with the Yankees due for a day off Monday and Girardi could use him as a DH on Tuesday.
- Name the two players who were the biggest disappointments entering June. Answer: Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada. Well, the pair combined to go 5-for-7 on Saturday with an RBI apiece. For the month of June, Swisher is hitting .319 with five home runs and 16 RBIs. Posada is hitting a sizzling .389 but, because he could not start in the recent road interleague contests, he only has a home run and eight RBIs.
- Teixeira’s home run was his sixth in the month of June and has 19 RBIs during that span. However, Teixeira is batting a meager .221 in June. He is on a home-run pace in which he could hit more than 40 homers for the first time in his career since he hit 43 for the Rangers in 2005.
- Robinson Cano had his second consecutive 0-for-4 game after an 11-game hitting streak. Among his last eight at-bats, Cano has struck once and has hit into three double plays. He has hit only two balls into the outfield.
- Whoever got the idea to recall journeyman right-handed reliever Buddy Carlyle from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday in exchange for Jeff Marquez, made a real big mistake. Carlyle was sent down on May 13 after posting a 0-1 record and 5.40 ERA in May. On Saturday, he entered in the ninth inning with an 8-1 lead and promptly walked the leadoff batter Jaosn Giambi, surrendered a two-run home run to Ty Wigginton and then walked a .230 hitter in Ryan Spilborghs. Girardi was forced to warm up Mariano Rivera before Carlyle finally decided to throw strikes and end the nonsense.
- The Yankees hit into three double plays in the game. Two by Cano and one by Brett Gardner. The Yankees as a team have into 73 double plays in 75 games. They are among the league leaders in that dubious distinction. They are shooting themselves in the foot and ending promising innings when they do it. Russell Martin leads the team with 11. Cano has 10. Rodriguez has nine.
The team was cautious in its assessment of Phil Hughes’ rehab start on Friday for Double-A Trenton at New Britain. Hughes gave up one run on three hits in 3 1/3 innings. He threw 72 pitches, 42 for strikes. He topped out at 94 mph but averaged around 91-92. It was not as good as his first start but Hughes called it progress. The Yankees said Hughes will need a few more rehab starts before being activated. . . . Derek Jeter began taking swings off a tee at the team’s minor-league complex in Tampa, FL, but he has not been cleared to begin running. Jeter has been on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right calf and could have been activated on Wednesday. But that will not happen. Jeter’s status is unclear until he begins running.
The Yankees will conduct their 65th annual Old-Timers’ Day Game beginning at 11:30 a.m. EDT. The Yankees will welcome back Lou Piniella, Joe Torre and Bernie Williams among many others. Then the Yankees will try to win the rubber game of their series against the Rockies.
The Yankees will start 24-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova (7-4, 4.14 ERA), who is coming off his best start of the season. Against the Reds on Monday, Nova gave up one run on three hits over eight innings. He also fanned seven batters. Nova has never faced the Rockies.
The Rockies are pitching a 24-year-old rookie right-hander of their own, Juan Nicasio (2-1, 4.71 ERA), who gave up six runs on seven hits in his last start against the Indians. Nicasio is facing the Yankees for the first time.
Game-time will be 2:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be televised nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.