It is hard enough to win games with a full roster in the American League East. It is difficult when your team is riddled with crippling injuries. It becomes darn near impossible when the team loses its heart and soul.
That is pretty much what the New York Yankees lost last season without its future Hall of Fame shortstop and captain Derek Jeter.
The team has spiraled downward ever since Jeter broke his right ankle in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers in 2012.
The Yankees were swept in that series and they stumbled to a tie for third place in the division with the Baltimore Orioles and missed the playoffs for only the second time since 1994, the season before Jeter made his major-league debut.
Jeter, 39, tried to get back on the field for the 2013 season. But each step forward led to two steps back.
During spring training, the Yankees brought Jeter along slowly, not allowing him to play in the field until the third week of exhibition games. However, it was obvious in watching Jeter run out the batter’s box that he was just not right.
He favored the left ankle and had none of the usual spring in his step.
When X-rays indicated an additional break in the ankle, Jeter was placed on the 60-day disabled list and the usual critics and naysayers came out of the woodwork claiming Jeter was too old to play shortstop and that he would never be the same.
Jeter took that as a challenge and tried to come back on July 11. However, that comeback was short-circuited when he suffered a mild strain in his left quad running out a grounder in his first game back. He went on the 15-day disabled list with quite a bit of frustration after being so sure he was ready.
Activated on July 28, Jeter showed the Yankees just a hint of what they were missing when he went 2-for-4 with a home run against the Tampa Bay Rays.
That comeback was ended just three games later when an examination on Aug. 3 indicated Jeter sustained a Grade 1 strain of his right calf. He was placed on the disabled list for a third time. This was pretty much par for the course when it came to many of the Yankees returning from injuries in 2014 only to wind up back on the disabled list.
Just ask Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis and Alex Rodriguez. Jeter had a lot of company on the team’s sickbay.
Jeter returned to the lineup on Sept. 1 and that comeback lasted just a total of seven games. Jeter re-injured his surgically repaired left ankle and, after a few days to assess the injury, Jeter offiicially was shelved for the season on Sept. 11.
The 13-time All-Star ended up playing in just 17 games batting .190 with a home run and seven RBIs. One big wasted season filled with frustration for a player who has always prided himself on playing every day since he became the team’s starting shortstop in 1996.
He also had to abandon any hope of potentially being able to surpass baseball’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, who amassed 4,256 hits. Jeter was ahead of Rose’s pace at the same age entering the 2013 season. If Jeter had any intention of playing long enough to break that mark it is went up in smoke last season.
Yankee fans received a bit of a jolt when the Yankees signed shortstop Brendan Ryan to a two-year, $5 million contract on Dec. 2. It raised some eyebrows because some Yankee watchers thought it signaled that the team might be making the move to replace Jeter with the 31-year-old veteran.
But the Yankees quickly squelched any talk about that because Jeter. who was scheduled to play under a player-option contract in 2014 worth $9.5 million, was handed a one-year, $12 million deal by the Yankees. You do not replace a shortstop by offering him more money than his contract specified.
Jeter revealed to reporters on Nov. 14 that his ankle has healed and that he was “100 percent sure” that he would return to his role as the every day shortstop for the Yankees in 2014. Jeter said he was only working on strengthening his body for the coming season and was not worried about his ankle at all.
Of course, he did admit that although he wants to play every day, he is sure that he will get some at-bats as a designated hitter, which is fine with him.
The naysayers still do not believe that Jeter can come back at his age and play at the same level he did before the injury. That is fine if they think that, Jeter says.
Jeter will just have to prove them wrong as he did in 2012 when he led the majors with 216 hits after he hit a career low .270 in 2010 and spent the first half of the 2011 season hitting around .250. Many baseball experts thought Jeter was done then. But after adjusting his swing rehabbing a calf injury during the All-Star break, Jeter raised his average to .297 by season’s end.
The lesson: You may not want to give up on a guy who has five championship rings and career total of 3,316 hits.
The only real question about Jeter will be his ability to field such a demanding position at an advanced age. Players such as Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel have done it, but for some reason the ankle and leg injuries Jeter sustained last season give some people pause.
However, whatever range Jeter once had, he lost a long time before the ankle injury. Though Jeter has been awarded five Gold Gloves, including one in 2012, number-crunching gurus have been criticizing him since he won his third award in 2008.
Jeter’s defensive strength has never been totally about range. It is his sure-handed playmaking on the balls he does reach. In 2012, he handled 506 chances and committed only 10 errors. He also formed what has to be the franchise’s best double-play combination in history with second baseman Robinson Cano.
Yankee fans know the difference when Jeter is not in the lineup too. Eduardo Nunez has struggled most of his career playing the position and fans even dubbed him “Eduardo Scissorhands.”
With Jeter’s injury troubles, you would think that Nunez, 26, would have been able to take advantage of the opportunity and make his own mark at the position in 2014.
Unfortunately for Nunez, he could stay healthy and he regressed with his bat. Nunez batted .260 with three homers and 28 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 90 games. In 75 starts at shortstop, he committed 12 errors, which pretty much played himself out of a job when the Yankees signed Ryan on Sept. 10.
Ryan started all 17 of the Yankees’ remaining games in 2014 and batted .220 with a home run and one RBI. He committed only one error in those games and he is generally accorded to be one of the better fielding shortstops in baseball though he has never been awarded a Gold Glove.
According to FanGraphs Ryan recorded 22 defensive runs saved in 2010, 18 in 2011 and 20 in 2012.
The big knock on Ryan is that he is a career .237 hitter with 19 home runs and 187 RBIs in seven major-league seasons. He is no threat to take Jeter’s job at shortstop but he gives the club some excellent insurance at the position.
However, Nunez’s days with the Yankees appear to be numbered. The team seems to have given on him completely. So Nunez enters 2014 in a position where he should not be looking to buy a home in the tri-state area around New York City.
The Yankees already trimmed the roster of versatile infielder Jayson Nix on Dec. 2 when he was not tendered a contract offer for the 2014 season along with rookie infielder David Adams and right-handed pitcher Matt Daley.
Nix, 31, spent two seasons with the Yankees as backup infielder. Like many of the Yankees, Nix suffered a broken left hand in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 21 in which he was struck by a pitch by knuckleball right-hander R.A. Dickey and missed the remainder of the season.
Nix batted .236 with three home runs and 24 RBIs in 87 games before succumbing to the injury.
The Yankees signed free-agent infielder Kelly Johnson to a one-year, $3 million contract, which means the 32-year-old veteran could figure in the mix to play second base.
Johnson has also played first and third base and the outfield. He also, unlike Ryan, Nunez and Nix, bats left-handed.
The Yankees are not exactly rich at the shortstop position in the minors at this point.
Addison Maruszak, 26, batted .254 with four home runs and 32 RBIs in 94 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He is not considered as a prospect for the big leagues.
Former first-round pick Cito Culver, 21, is not making much progress in the minors. Though Culver can flash some leather with the glove the offensive part of the game has eluded him up to this point.
Culver hit a combined a combined .248 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs in 120 games in two stops at the Class-A level in 2013.
The Yankees, it is safe to say do not have another Jeter waiting in the wings to take his place.
So it is a good thing that Jeter is saying he is healed and will be ready to go when camp opens in February. He is the one player the Yankees can’t afford to be without in 2014. They need his bat, they need his glove and they need his leadership by example.
Expecting him to be the fresh-faced kid that 20-plus homers and drove in 90 runs in his heyday would be expecting way too much, But the Yankees will take the numbers he put up in 2012 when he hit .316 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs.
Betting against Jeter has never been a safe bet before and may not be a wise one now.
YANKEES 4, BLUE JAYS 2
It seemed like it was a night just like every other night for the New York Yankees on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.
One of their future Hall of Fame players reached a rare milestone. Alfonso Soriano proved again why he is a godsend. The team lost another player for the rest of the season. And they continued to dominate the Toronto Blue Jays as they have all season.
On a night that Ichiro Suzuki collected his 4,000th hit as a professional, Soriano broke a 2-2 tie with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning with a two-run home run as New York ran its season record against Toronto to 11-1 with a victory in front of a paid crowd of 36,140.
Suzuki, who entered the game with 3,999 combined hits between Japan (1,278) and the majors (2,721), slapped a 1-1 offering from right-hander R.A. Dickey past third baseman Brett Lawrie into left-field in the first inning to join Pete Rose and Ty Cobb as the only three players who reached the 4,000-hit plateau in professional baseball.
The crowd immediately stood up to pay homage as the Yankee players and coaches streamed from the dugout to congratulate Suzuki on his achievement. The 39-year-old outfielder then tipped his batting helmet and bowed to the adoring crowd.
Once the game resumed, it became a battle of wills between the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner in Dickey and a pair of young pitchers who the Yankees used only to give 41-year-old left-hander Andy Pettitte an extra day of rest in Adam Warren and David Huff.
The game was locked up into a 2-2 tie until the bottom of the eighth when Robinson Cano laced a 1-1 pitch from the knuckleball-tossing Dickey into right-field for a single. Soriano followed by blasting a belt-high 0-1 knuckler about 12 rows deep into the left-field bleachers for his 26th homer of the season and his ninth for the Yankees since he was acquired from the Chicago Cubs on July 26.
Huff (1-0), who pitched five innings of one-hit, no-run baseball in relief of Warren was credited with the victory.
Mariano Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth to earn his 37th save of the season.
Dickey (9-12) was saddled with a tough-luck loss despite giving up two runs on four hits and two walks over the first seven innings. Dickey ended up yielding four runs on six hits while he struck out in eight innings. He is the first Cy Young Award pitcher the Yankees have defeated twice in a season since Barry Zito of the Oakland Athletics in 2003.
The Blue Jays opened the scoring after there were two out in the second against Warren when Anthony Gose snuck a bouncing ball just under the glove of Cano into right-field. Gose stole second and scored on a single by Munenori Kawasaki.
The Yankees tied it in the bottom of the frame when Eduardo Nunez led off with a lined single to left. He stole second and reached third on a wild pitch charged to Dickey.
One out later, Dickey struck Jayson Nix in the left hand with a pitch and Nix removed himself from the game to have tests to determine the severity of the injury. The tests indicated that Nix sustained a fractured hand and he likely will miss the remainder of the regular season.
Mark Reynolds was inserted into the game to pinch-run for Nix.
Austin Romine then tied the game with a long sacrifice fly to the wall in left that scored Nunez easily.
The Yankees staked Warren to a 2-1 lead in the third inning when Cano laced a one-out double off the right-field wall and with two out Curtis Granderson slapped a 1-1 Dickey offering into right to score Cano.
Unfortunately, Warren could not hold the lead for long because the Blue Jays tied it back up in the fourth inning when light-hitting catcher Josh Thole smacked a 2-0 fastball off the back wall of the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center for his first home run of the season.
Warren left one batter later after giving up two runs on four hits and two walks while he fanned four batters over three-plus innings.
But Huff became the story by coming in and shutting the Blue Jays out over the next five innings. He only gave up a high-hop infield single to Lawrie as he led off the eighth inning. He walked four and struck out two before giving way to Rivera in the ninth.
The Yankees have now won four straight games and nine of their 10 of their past 13 games.
The team’s season record now stands at 67-59 and they are 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. They are just four games back in the wild-card standings. The Blue Jays have now dropped all nine road games to the Yankees and are 57-70 on the season.
- Soriano was the hottest player in baseball through a five-game stretch from Aug. 13 through Aug. 17 when he was 15-for-22 (.682) with five home runs and 18 RBIs. But he then went into a 0-for-17 tailspin that he broke with his two-run homer in the eighth. Soriano is hitting .260 with 26 home runs and 76 RBIs on the season. But he is hitting .284 with nine homers and 28 RBIs in just 24 games with the Yankees.
- Cano looks to be on one of his patented late-season hitting tears. Cano was 2-for-4 with a double, a single and two runs scored on Wednesday. Since Aug. 5, Cano is 28-for-61 (.459) with two home runs and 11 RBIs. In that 16-game span he has failed to get a hit in only one game and he has raised his season average from .288 to a team-leading .310.
- Huff, who turns 29 on Thursday, was picked up off waivers from the Cleveland Indians in May and he was 1-6 with a 3.84 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) at Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre when the Yankees selected his contract on Aug. 15 and placed him on the 25-man roster. He gives the Yankees a left-handed option out of the bullpen and he looked impressive on Wednesday.
It is hard to criticize Brett Gardner and Lyle Overbay for going a combined 0-for-7 in the game because Dickey’s knuckleball was dancing pretty good. The fact the Yankees have turned things around by winning four straight series is encouraging to a team that looked destined for fourth place in the division. Things are starting to look up.
Though it would seem with Nix going on the disabled list on Thursday, it is unlikely the Yankees will recall shortstop Derek Jeter just yet. Jeter is scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment on Thursday with the Scranton RailRiders. Jeter, who is recovering from a mild strain in his right calf, will likely play two games and return to the team in St. Petersburg on Saturday for a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. . . . Suzuki’s 4,000th hit also gave him 2,722 in the United States, which ironically allowed him to pass Yankee legend Lou Gehrig on the all-time hits list. Suzuki said that although 4,000 hits means a lot to him he still would like to reach 3,000 hits in the major leagues.
The Yankees can sweep the four-game series and go 10-0 at home against the Blue Jays this season with a victory on Thursday.
Pettitte (8-9, 4.39 ERA) will get the start for the Yankees. Pettitte won his first game in more than month on Friday against the Red Sox allowing three unearned runs in 6 1/3 innings. He is 14-10 with a 4.66 ERA in the past 10 seasons against the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays will start left-hander J.A. Happ (3-2, 4.93 ERA). Happ gave up two runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings in a victory against the Rays on Sunday. He is 2-0 with a 5.16 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.
YANKEES 8, BLUE JAYS 4
Two weeks ago, if the Yankees fell behind 4-0 it was a good bet they would end up losing the game. But on Tuesday, bolstered by a new lineup that features a lot more power, they were able to come from behind in the first game of a day-night doubleheader.
Robinson Cano rapped out four hits, including a three-run home run – the 200th of his career – and drove in four runs and Chris Stewart hit a three-run shot of his own that put the Yankees ahead to stay as New York again frustrated Toronto at Yankee Stadium.
Despite not having his best stuff, right-hander Ivan Nova (7-4) pitched 6 1/3 innings to win his third straight decision in front of a paid crowd of 40,248 for a makeup game resulting from a May 19 rainout..
The Blue Jays batted around against Nova as part of four-run second inning to take early command of the game. Maicer Izturis and rookie Kevin Pillar drove in a run apiece and Rajai Davis closed out the scoring by ripping a two-out, two-run double in the gap in right-center.
But the Yankees, who entered the day having won seven of their past nine games, started their comeback in the third inning off right-hander Esmil Rogers.
Brett Gardner stroked a one-out single and Ichiro Suzuki followed by slapping a double down the left-field line to advance Gardner to third.
Cano then lined a 1-0 fastball into Monument Park in center-field for his 23rd home run of the season and became the 16th player in Yankee history to reach the 200-homer plateau.
The score remained 4-3 until the bottom of the sixth inning when Rogers opened the frame by yielding a lined single to left by Alex Rodriguez.
Rogers was removed in favor of left-hander Brett Cecil, who struck out Curtis Granderson, and right-hander Neil Wagner (2-4) came in to strike out pinch-hitter Mark Reynolds.
However, Wagner ended up hitting Jayson Nix with on a 3-1 pitch and Stewart followed by launching a high-arcing blast into the left-field bleachers for only his fourth home run of the season and his first home run since May 15, a span of 173 at-bats.
The Yankees added a pair of solo runs in the seventh and eighth innings on an RBI single in the seventh by Cano and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Gardner that scored Nix in the eighth to close out the scoring.
Nova gave up four runs on nine hits and two walks while he struck out two in 6 1/3 innings. Relievers Boone Logan, Shawn Kelley, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera held the Blue Jays hitless and scoreless over the final 2 2/3 innings.
Nova’s counterpart, Rogers, surrendered four runs on seven hits and two walks and fanned four batters in five-plus innings.
With the victory the Yankees have now won all seven home games they have played against the Blue Jays this season. They also have won 10 straight games against them at the stadium and they have won 19 of the past 21 games there dating back to May 2011.
- Cano is getting red hot at just the right time for the Yankees. Cano was 4-for-4 with a homer, a double, two singles, a run scored and four RBIs. After having his 11-game hitting streak snapped on Saturday at Fenway Park, Cano is 7-for-9 (.777) in his past two games. He has raised his season average to .307, the highest it has been since he was hitting .310 on May 10.
- Suzuki was 2-for-5 with a double, a single and two runs scored. The two hits gave him 3,999 in his professional career, including his 1,278 hits he recorded in Japan. Pete Rose and Ty Cobb are the only players to have reached 4,000 hits in baseball history.
- Stewart has pretty much been an automatic out for most of the season. He came into the game hitting .230 with three home runs and 20 RBIs as the team’s No. 9 hitter. Though Stewart contributes a lot with his work behind the plate and his ability to throw out base-runners, it is nice to see him get a big hit that won a game for the Yankees.
- Nova did not have good command of his pitches early in the ballgame. He came into the game 4-2 with a 1.89 ERA in his past seven starts. But after giving up four runs in the second inning, Nova was able to hold the Blue Jays scoreless on five hits over the next 4 1/3 innings.
- After going 15-for-22 (.6820 with five home runs and 18 RBIs in five games through Saturday, Alfonso Soriano was 0-for-4 in the first game and now is 0-for-10 in his past two games.
The features Bomber Banter and On Deck will appear in the post reporting on the second game of the doubleheader.
YANKEES 5, BLUE JAYS 2
When Ivan Nova struck out 10 Red Sox batters on July 8, he headed into the All-Star break with a 10-3 record and a 3.92 ERA. The New York Yankees had not seen that Nova since – until Saturday.
After going 0-3 with a 8.36 ERA in his last five starts, Nova was looking to turn a page on an ugly chapter of his sophomore major-league season and he did just that.
Nova struck out 10 batters and held the Blue Jays to just two runs on five hits in 7 1/3 innings as New York got a big three-run home run from newly acquired corner infielder Casey McGehee and defeated Toronto in front of a sellout crowd of 45,582 at Rogers Centre.
The Yankees have now won four straight games.
Nova (11-6) rediscovered the form on his swing-and-miss slider and used it along with his 12-to-6 curveball to keep the Blue Jays swinging mostly at air throughout the day. In his previous starts, his slider spun up to the plate and the 25-year-old paid the price – especially in his last two starts, giving up 16 runs on 21 hits in 10 1/3 innings.
But that Nova was a distant memory and the reliable old Nova re-emerged on this day.
Meanwhile, the Yankees did most of their damage against Blue Jays starter Aaron Laffey (3-3) in the fourth inning and it all happened with two out.
Mark Teixeira led off the frame with a single up the middle and, one out later, Andruw Jones drew a walk. But they remained there with two out until Jayson Nix slapped a lined single to left to score Teixeira and advance Jones to third.
McGehee, who was making only his fourth start for the Yankees since being acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 31, hit his first home run with the Yankees into the second deck in the left-field bleachers to expand the lead to 4-0.
Nova retired the the first nine batters he faced, striking out four. However, he gave up a leadoff single to Rajai Davis in the fourth inning, balked him to second and David then scored on a line-dive single to right by Edwin Encarnacion.
The Yankees tacked on a run in the sixth off Laffey when McGehee slapped a one-out double down the left-field line and he scored on a two-out ground-rule double from Derek Jeter, who with that double reached the 150-hit mark for the 17th straight season and he and Henry Aaron are the only two major-league players to have accomplished the feat.
The Blue Jays rallied in the eighth for another run off Nova and it again was Davis and Encarnacion right in the middle of it.
Davis opened the inning with a double into center and he stole third. One out later, Encarnacion plated Davis with an infield single and Nova was removed from the game by manager Joe Girardi.
David Robertson ended the inning by inducing a double-play grounder off the bat of Omar Vizquel on Robertson’s first and only delivery of the game.
Rafael Soriano pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning to earn his 28th save in 30 opportunities this season.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 67-46, the best mark in the American League. They lead the second-place Tampa Bay Rays by six games in the American League East. The Blue Jays have now lost five straight and they are last in the division and 14 games out.
- Nova’s rediscovery of his slider was the big key in order for him to get back on track. Girardi was very clear in saying that Nova needed to return to form and he did. In his last two seasons, Nova is 27-10 with a 4.17 ERA. His importance to the Yankees going forward is immense. The Yankees simply need him to pitch this way the rest of the season.
- McGehee’s home run was his first with the Yankees and his ninth of the season. If he hits another homer, the Yankees would have 10 players on the roster who have double-digit home runs. McGehee gives the Yankees an additional power bat from the right side in the absence of Alex Rodriguez. With his 2-for-4 game, a double, a home run, three RBIs and two runs scored he is showing indications he will be a key contributor against left-handed pitching.
- Jeter’s double put him in elite territory by recording 150 or more hits in 17 straight seasons. Aaron is the only player to have done it. Pete Rose had a run of 16 consecutive seasons going in 1981 but the strike-shortened season left him short with 140 hits. He then recorded a 172-hit season in 1982. So it is safe to say that Rose would have easily put together 18 consecutive 150-hit seasons if not for the strike.
- Curtis Granderson was 0-for-3 and had a pair of chances to get a key hit with two runners on base in the fourth and fifth innings and he did not get the ball out of the infield in either at-bat. He popped out to third in the fourth and rolled out to first in the fifth. But the good news was that Granderson did not strike out in the game.
- Robinson Cano was 0-for-4 with a walk and he did not exhibit much patience in his at-bats other than the walk. He hit two weak grounders and was called out on strikes in three of his at-bats. Cano entered the contest 15-for-37 (.405) in his last nine games with a home run and eight RBIs. He and Jeter are each hitting .315 on the season.
- Nick Swisher had a rough day in his old No. 2 spot in the batting order. He was 0-for-4 with a walk and he struck out twice. He also failed to get a ball out of the infield. Despite the bad day, Swisher does appear to more comfortable in the No. 2 spot and Girardi looks like he intends to keep him there.
What started out as a ripple of a rumor turned into a big wave when Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News reported Saturday that CC Sabathia was suffering with left elbow stiffness. The Yankees then confirmed it and placed the ace left-hander on the 15-day disabled list. Sabathia first felt some discomfort after an Aug. 3 start against the Seattle Mariners. But the discomfort subsided and Sabathia started on Wednesday against the Detroit Tigers. The stiffness returned and it did not subside. Originally the Yankees were planning to skip Sabathia for just his next start on Monday against the Texas Rangers. However, they later decided to place him on the disabled list and he will be eligible to return on Aug. 23. In the interim, the Yankees are planning to use David Phelps, who is 2-3 with a 2.42 ERA and has made three starts this season, in Sabathia’s place on Monday. The Yankees also agreed to a contract with veteran right-hander Derek Lowe and he will pitch out of the bullpen. . . . In keeping with his plan to rest his veterans, Girardi did not start Ichiro Suzuki following his five-RBI night on Friday and he used Jeter as the team’s DH. Suzuki entered the game in the ninth inning as defensive replacement for Jones in left-field.
The Yankees will have a chance for a road sweep of the three-game series against the Blue Jays on Saturday.
Right-hander Phil Hughes (11-9, 4.10 ERA) will get the starting nod for the Yankees. Hughes allowed four runs and eight hits in 4 1/3 innings in a loss to the Tigers on Tuesday. He is 3-4 with 4.38 ERA in his career against the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays will use their third consecutive left-hander in J.A. Happ (0-1, 6.35 ERA). Happ allowed four runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings in his first start for the Blue Jays against the Rays on Tuesday. Happ has no record and 3.00 ERA in his one start against the Yankees when he was a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010.
Game-time will be 1:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.
The New York Yankees have reached the halfway mark of the season and they are comfortably in first place in the American League East. This is despite some injuries to some keep players such as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlain. As we do every year, let’s look at the individual components of the team and issue grades for the first half.
SHORTSTOP – DEREK JETER (7 HR, 25 RBIs, .303 BA, 43 R, 6 SB)
Who knew that suffering a calf injury that would land you on the 15-day disabled list would be a good thing? For Derek Jeter it was in 2011.
Jeter was forced to miss the 2011 All-Star Game so he could rehab his injured calf at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa, FL. While there, Jeter also worked with one of his first hitting coaches in Gary Denbo to find his old swing. It was that work that likely turned Jeter’s season and his fading career around.
Jeter came off the disabled list lacing hits all over the yard and he picked up his 3000th hit by going 5-for-5 and hitting a home run for No. 3,000 off David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays. From the point he returned to the Yankees until the end of the regular season Jeter hit .344. He ended the season hitting .297 with six home runs and 61 RBIs.
The question heading into 2012 was could he keep it up? Or was it just a fluke and he would continue his decline at age 38 this summer?
The returns are in for the first half of the 2012 season and it appears it was not a fluke. Derek Jeter is simply Derek Jeter again.
His 103 hits after 81 games was the third-bast total in the majors and Jeter was passing legends like Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs on the all-time hit list seemingly on a daily basis. There are thoughts that he might even have a shot at 4,000 hits, should Jeter choose to continue his career into his 40s.
Jeter simply may be among a handful of players that are the best singles hitters in baseball history. Along with Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, the current generation of players gives us Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Jeter of the Yankees. These four have to be considered baseball’s elite at what they do best: Rack up hits in bunches.
Jeter’s career batting average is .313 and the fact he is hovering over the .300 mark at the halfway mark proves he has not lost the touch at age 38.
The only thing Jeter may have lost is a bit of his power, though the most he ever hit in one season was a pedestrian 24 in 1999. He also is not able to steal bases as he once did. In 2006, he stole a career-high 34 bags. But he has only stolen more than 18 bases once in his five full seasons after that.
But everything else is still there for Jeter.
The only disappointment this season is his rather low runs scored total of 43 at the halfway point. Jeter has failed to score 100 runs in only three seasons out of his 16 full years in the majors. Some of it can be attributed to the fact that the middle of the Yankees’ lineup – Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira – hit around .200 with runners in scoring position.
Some of it may have to do with age. But Jeter remains one of the smartest base-runners in baseball and he rarely commits a huge blunder to get himself thrown out on the bases.
When you bring up Jeter’s fielding, the sabermatricians go ballistic because Jeter’s range at age 38 is not anything like it was when he was 28. OK, I will give them that one. Jeter does not have the range of an Elvis Andrus or Alexsei Ramirez, who both are considerably younger shortstops.
But Jeter committed only six errors in the first half. The Yankees can live with that and they will. The fact is Jeter has won five Gold Glove awards, including in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and he is not going to give them back just because Bill James says he should.
IHe also is not going to give back his 13 selections in 16 seasons for the All-Star Game. Jeter will be starting in his eighth All-Star Game in Kansas City on Tuesday.
With Jeter, what you see is what you get. He is just a consummate professional who works hard at his craft and gives 100 percent each and every game. He is not only respected highly by manager Joe Girardi and his teammates but he also is admired by the players and managers on other teams.
Yep, “The Captain” who is affectionately nicknamed in the Bronx is just something very, very special. Cooperstown awaits when his career ends but who knows when that will be the way he is going now.
MIDSEASON GRADE: A-
BACKUP – JAYSON NIX (2 HRs, 6 RBIs, .228 BA)
Nix, 29, became Jeter’s backup when the Yankees decided that Eduardo Nunez needed work on his defense in the minor leagues.
With Jeter requiring a bit more rest, Nix has made seven starts at short in the first 81 games. He has acquitted himself well. He is not going to hit like Jeter and he does not have the dazzling range Nunez has at the position. But, then again, Nix is not going botch half of the balls hit to him like Nunez did.
Because Nix can also play second, third and the corner outfield spots he is very valuable in kind of Jerry Hairston Jr. sort of way.
Nix played his way on the Yankees’ 25-man roster by hitting .323 as a free-agent signee this spring. When Nunez was sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Nix was recalled and it looks like he is going to keep his role for the rest of the season.
MIDSEASON GRADE: C
After playing only four games for the Scranton Yankees, Nunez suffered a severely jammed right thumb and he has missed more than a month. He should be able to return soon but the injury apparently is worse than the Yankees thought originally.
Nunez, 25, is still considered the heir apparent to Jeter when he can’t play the position anymore or retires. After all, Nunez was hitting .294 after 51 at-bats when he was shipped out after committing four errors in the first 19 games he played.
Girardi said the Yankees should have not asked Nunez to play so many positions like the outfield. So the thought is that he will concentrate on shortstop mostly at Scranton. But the injury has retarded that development and so Nunez looks like he will stay in the minors until the September 1 call-ups.
Unfortunately the Yankees not only miss his bat but his speed.
With Brett Gardner of the 60-day disabled list and Nunez shipped out the Yankees lost 71 steals from their 2011 roster. Nunez still is tied for second with four Yankees with six steals behind the team leader Rodriguez, who has seven after 81 games.
With Nunez shelved, the Yankees’ old standby Ramiro Pena is playing short at Scranton. He is hitting .241 with one home run and 18 RBIs.
The Yankees pretty much know what they are getting in Pena, 26. He can play the infield near flawlessly, he is an adept bunter and is an aggressive switch-hitter with absolutely no power. He has decent speed but he is not an athlete or a speedster like Nunez.
It appears Pena’s time has past.
The Yankees have an intriguing prospect at Double-A Trenton in 22-year-old Jose Toussen, who is hitting over .300 there. But all eyes are on Cito Culver at Single-A Charelston (SC) in the Carolina League. He is rated as the ninth-best prospect in the organization. But that might take a hit.
Culver, 19, is hitting just .206 in 74 games there. Scouts are questioning why the Yankees made him their No. 1 in 2010.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-
Barring injury, Jeter should maintain his climb up the all-time hits list while getting on base for the Yankees’ power hitters that follow him. The hope is those power hitters will actually drive him in more often. If Jeter hits over .300 with 100 runs scored and he hits about 15 home runs it will be a very good season for the future Hall-of-Famer.
Girardi has been smart in starting him in only 70 games at shortstop after 81 games. At the same time Jeter has played in 79 games by being used as a designated hitter or a late-game replacement. Girardi will continue to do this to keep Jeter healthy and fresh for the late season push for the division title and the playoffs.
With Nix, Pena and eventually Nunez is the wings, Jeter has three either current or former major-league players behind him. That is not bad depth.
But the Yankees really could not go very far without Jeter leading off and playing shortstop for them. He is much more valuable than you might think and he still remains the face of the franchise.
As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.
PART 3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS
Last season was supposed to be the time that the Tampa Bay Rays dropped from contention in the American League East. After all, they lost their star outfielder in Carl Crawford, their slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, their league-leading closer in Rafael Soriano and almost all the elements of what was a very good bullpen in 2010.
Yet, the Rays made the playoffs with a miracle finish that overtook a Boston Red Sox team that choked its way to the finish line. The Rays qualified with a 91-71 record but they lost in the first round of the A.L. Division Series against the Texas Rangers.
What is in store for the Rays in 2012? Do they have another miracle or two left in them?
It is real easy to see what the Rays strategy is for 2012. Run out the best five starters you have and keep them in the game as long as you can to cover up a weak middle of the bullpen and hope the offense can muster enough stolen bases and home runs to eke out a victory.
Right-hander James Shields was the poster boy for this team. In 2010, he was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. Last season, he was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games. The question is will Shields pitch like he did in 2010 or 2011? As the dean of the staff at age 30, his fortunes will set the tone for the rest of the staff.
The ace of this staff was supposed to have been David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010. Price, 26, fell from his perch with a 12-13 mark and a 3.49 ERA. The problem is that Price is basically a one-pitch pitcher: his fastball. His breaking stuff was inconsistent and as a result he was a .500 pitcher. Price needs to harness control of his slider and develop even a decent change-up in order to be successful.
Many people were stunned the Rays dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. But the Rays knew they had rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson ready to jump into the rotation. Heliickson, 24, pitched as the Rays hoped with a 13-10 record and a 2.95 ERA. While Price is still searching for a change-up, Hellickson uses his as a weapon and the Rays hope he gets even better.
The Rays used right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots last season. But both pitchers struggled with command and injuries in 2011.
Davis, 26, was 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts and Niemann was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 23 starts.
One of these two pitchers is likely to lose their starting spot this spring. The Rays believe 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore may be ready for prime time in 2012. Moore made one start during the regular season, a five-inning shutout of the Yankees. Then he threw a gem to defeat the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Moore is a consensus pick to follow Hellickson as A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Though this is the best rotation in the division, there are still concerns. If Shields and Price do not pitch well and Hellickson and Moore do not follow up on their success, the Rays are in big trouble. This is a team that does not have much of Plan B behind its five starters.
The Rays luck in 2011 even extended to their bullpen in 2011.
They replaced Soriano with former Yankee scapegoat Kyle Farnsworth as their closer and Farnsworth ended up pitching well. (Yankee fans may let out a primal scream now). Yep, Farnsworth, was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA and he saved 25 games out of 31 chances.
Journeyman right-hander Joel Peralta also did a nice job replacing Joaquin Benoit, who left to sign with Detroit. Peralta, 35, was 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA and he added six saves. Veteran right-hander Juan Cruz also helped tighten up the bullpen in the late innings but he was allowed to leave as a free agent.
So the Rays will be building their bullpen around Farnsworth and Peralta in 2012.
The Rays did pick up former closer Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels. Rodney, 34, has good stuff but has been bothered with back problems. He was 3-4 with 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011.
The Rays are hoping left-hander J.P. Howell will get over his arm problems and pitch like he did in 2009 when he was 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, Howell struggled and was 2-3 with 6.16 ERA in 46 games.
The Rays bullpen likely will be rounded out by disappointing left-hander Jake McGee, right-hander Brandon Gomes and the loser of the battle between Davis and Niemann for the final spot in the rotation.
There is no guarantee Farnsworth and Peralta will pitch like they did in 2011. There also is some real soft spots in middle relief and the lack of an effective left-hander may really hurt in a division filled with lefty hitters like Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira.
That means manager Joe Maddon might be forced to leave his starters in the game longer than he might like to cover up the deficiencies and that takes its toll on those starters late in the season. The bullpen is an area of some concern.
The Rays have always been a running team who like to bunt, take extra bases and force opponents into making errors. The loss of Crawford did not change that in 2011. However, the Rays newest emphasis is on the home run.
The Rays had five players hit 16 or more home runs in 2011 and they re-signed first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent and he hit 28 for the Cubs last season.
The team still revolves around third baseman Evan Longoria, who shook off another season of injuries to hit .244 with 31 home runs and 99 RBIs. The batting average has to be worrisome but Longoria is the team’s only real all-around threat as a hitter and power source.
The Rays also was boosted by a comeback season from Ben Zobrist, who hit .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs. He will likely play a lot at second base and some in right-field as he did last season.
The Rays also rely on the power and speed of centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.
Rookie Desmond Jennings arrived and he played well in 63 games. He hit .259 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs as the team’s leadoff hitter. The Rays have high hopes he will surpass Crawford as an athlete and player.
The Rays also caught a bit of luck when Matt Joyce finally began to live up to the promise he showed with the Detroit Tigers. Joyce started off hot but collapsed badly after the All-Star break. He finished with a .277 batting average with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs as a platoon right-fielder and DH.
Sean Rodriguez figures to be the primary shortstop in 2012 though he hit just .223 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. That is because incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac was worse, hitting .193 with one home run and 15 RBIs.
The Rays also reshuffled their catchers for 2012 and they are looking to start former Yankee backup Jose Molina as a starter after he hit .281 with the Blue Jays. Molina, 36, was signed because the Rays were getting beat at their own game. Teams like the Yankees and Rangers were stealing on them at will.
Molina figures to end that with his defensive abilities and arm. However, an offense that relies on the stolen base will be slowed considerably with Molina on base. That is the big tradeoff.
To show how much more the Rays are valuing power, look no further than the signing of left-hander Luke Scott as the team’s primary DH. Scott averaged 28 home runs from 2008 through 2010 with the Orioles before injuries short-circuited his 2011 season. Scott and Joyce will certainly slow down any running game. But the Rays will hit their share of home runs in 2012.
Maddon uses his bench a lot and he will again in 2012.
Brignac will battle career backup Eliot Johnson for the backup middle infield job. Johnson is the better hitter but Brignac is a bit better on defense.
For a while it looked Sam Fuld was going to be the next Pete Rose. Instead, reality set in and he ended up being the next Reggie Willits. But Fuld does provide speed and effort off the bench as an occasional outfield starter and pinch-runner.
Rookie Jose Lobaton will likely back up Molina. Lobaton hit .118 in 34 at-bats last season. The Rays do have a hitting catcher in Robinson Chirinos, however, his inability to throw base-stealers make him a project behind the plate for right now.
This bench is merely adequate. Maddon will use it a lot but there is not much of substance to it.
The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers may be most interesting world championship team in history. They beat the Yankees in four straight games to win the World Series despite having one power hitter in Frank Howard, who led the team with 28 home runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the team with 88 RBIs.
How did they win? Well, they had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres combine to win 58 games and they had Maury Wills and Davis’ brother, Willie, combine to steal 65 bases.
So they relied on pitching, defense, line-drive hitters and speed and athleticism to win. This is similar to what the Rays would like to build in 2012.
They will go as far as their rotation will allow them to go. Maddon will have to rely on them a lot.
As far as offense goes, Maddon is actually counting more on the home run than the stolen base because only Jennings, Upton and Zobrist are consistent base stealers. Maddon will use his other players like Longoria and Rodriguez to steal in certain situations.
But this team did need the Red Sox to go through a monumental collapse to make it 2011. I do not think their luck extends to 2012. They will not fall precipitously as they should have last season. But I do not see them winning the division. They look to be a contender for second place with the Red Sox. Nothing more and nothing less.
ON THURSDAY – PART 4 BOSTON RED SOX