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Yankees looking at a transition year

Steven Goldman compares the 2008 squad to 1984
05/27/2008 2:18 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com

After Ian Kennedy was placed on the disabled list, Joba Chamberlain made an early entry into the starting rotation.(AP)
STILL SKEPTICAL
As I opined in Tuesday morning's New York Sun, not much changed for the Yankees over the weekend. They showed they can beat a very bad team. This was a good thing in that if you can't beat the Mariners at this point, with their special combination of weak offense, poor pitching, and spectacularly inept defense (especially in the outfield), you might as well refund your advance ticket sale and go home. This year's Yankees may not be good, but they're not that kind of bad either. This team's outlook wasn't mis-estimated by that much.

That said, it was mis-estimated to some degree, in part because of injuries, in part because no one expected that if Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes failed that they would both fail, or that they would fall so far short of competence in the process of doing so — it's one thing to fail with an ERA of 5.50, another with an ERA of 9.00. It wasn't expected that the platoon players wouldn't help the team against lefties, or that Robinson Cano would be the worst player in baseball for the first six weeks of the season, or that Derek Jeter would play so poorly.

Actually, if I may digress for a moment, I had that expectation with Jeter based on his play last year, but I doubted my own judgment. Back in December, writing the Jeter comment for this year's Baseball Prospectus annual, I said, "For years, Jeter's offense has made him a net positive at shortstop despite his defense. The second half of 2007, taken together with his age, suggests that the day of reckoning may finally have arrived." Emphasis on "may" added-if you have the book, you will note that the qualifier isn't there. Cliff Corcoran, who reviewed the text in his sagacious way, and an experienced follower of the Yankees in his own right, argued that we should strike it, making the statement more definitive: "The day of reckoning has finally arrived."

"Argue" is probably too strong a word for what Cliff did, as I didn't argue with him. I noted the change and mentally shrugged, saying, "He's right. By all available evidence, the time has come." Yet, in the back of my mind, I was still hedging. "This is Derek Jeter! He's got an edge, baby!" (Of course he does; he's the only one who can afford the gas.) As time has gone by, I've become more convinced that that change was the right one, and become grateful for it, as Jeter's performance has borne out the more emphatic prediction. End of digression.

In the end, this Yankees team will disappoint without being miserable. Think back almost 25 years ago to the 1984 Yankees. That team had a miserable 36-46 first half, then made some changes. Don Mattingly replaced Ken Griffey at first base, Griffey ultimately displaced Steve Kemp in left field, Mike Pagliarulo took over for Toby Harrah and others at third, Bobby Meacham became the regular shortstop and the offense kicked up a bit. The pitching remained on the sketchy side, but the moves were enough for the Yankees to have the best second-half record in baseball at 51-29. By then the pennant race was long over. The Tigers had gone 35-5 to start the season and ended the race by May, but the Yankees did finish a "respectable" third at 87-75. That's what we're looking at with this club, particularly if Joba Chamberlain succeeds in the rotation.

As for more than that, it seems likely to wait until next year. After the 1984 season, the Yankees acquired Rickey Henderson, a franchise-changing move, at least as far the offense was concerned. The Yankees could never completely lick their pitching problems back in that day. Rickey isn't available now, and I'm not quite sure what changes the Yankees will be able to make B.J. (Beyond Joba), so the future remains a dark and uncertain place. The rest of this year looks pretty certain.

JOE GIRARDI'S BUNT
In the bottom of the fifth inning of Sunday's game, Robinson Cano led off the inning with a rare walk, and Jose Molina followed with an even rarer single, moving Cano to second. Girardi then called for Melky Cabrera to bunt the runners over, which he successfully did. Now, Cabrera has been in a spectacular slump. Since his last home run back on May 4, he's gone 12-for-66 (.182) with exactly one extra-base hit, a double, and that came two weeks ago. Still, just as issuing an intentional walk to a hitter with a .400 on-base percentage ignores his 60 percent chance of making an out, giving away an out on offense speeds the opposition one-third of the way to the end of the inning, one-twenty-seventh of the way to the end of the game, and reduces a batter's chance of reaching base, however meager, to zero.

More to the point, it doesn't work. A team with runners on first and second and none out has a slightly greater chance of scoring multiple runs than does a team with runners on second and third and one out. You could look it up. And whaddya know, the Yankees, now down to two shots at scoring instead of three, didn't plate even one.

THE SPEED OF GAMES
Much, well, a little, controversy over MLB's decision to try to shave off a few minutes of each game, something that would be a mercy. Some of the players don't seem to get it, but you can love baseball as a spectator and respect it as a sport but still understand that it must deliver value as an entertainment in this hectic 21st century world we live in. Human Rain Delays play no part in that.

Part of speeding up games will fall to the umpires, who need to keep batters in the box and ready to swing. The umps are not supposed to call time once the pitcher is in his wind-up, even if the batter screams, "Agggh! I'm having a hemorrhage! Hillary Clinton!", something that has been in the rulebook forever, but is never enforced. If it is being enforced now, I didn't see it in this weekend's Yankee games. I tend to agree with Goose Gossage, who once told me that having a better step out that late was a legitimate reason to make the batter think about doing it twice with a purpose pitch. "Step out on me, [expletive?]" he said, and mimed throwing a 98 mph fastball at me.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
• The Phillies reached double figures in runs scored for the third time in their last half-dozen games yesterday, and for the second time in two games, giving them a total of 35 runs over two days. Part of the impetus behind Sunday's 20-5 victory over the Rockies — at Philadelphia, by the way — was that Colorado has so many injuries right now that they're not starting their "A" lineup, nor their "B" or their "C," with Ryan Spilborghs batting cleanup, and Seth Smith in right. The latter is a decent prospect, but with a name like that he seems like a refugee from one of Randy Newman's more esoteric fantasies. Randy's got a new album coming out in August. He doesn't put out as many albums as Rush... What's kind of amazing about Chase Utley's.309/.388/.627 season (six RBIs on Monday) is that if the season ended today he'd http://yesnetwork.stats.com/mlb/playerstats.asp?id=6279">Lance Berkman, Chipper Jones, and maybe Albert Pujols and Dan Uggla.

• Note that Hanley Ramirez is back in the leadoff spot for the Marlins after batting .268/.386/.357 at number three. They had to try, but it's not clear why. Meanwhile, the Mets Pelfey-ed themselves to another loss, this one in head-to-head battle with the Fish. It's probably not too early to write the Metsies off, and for all the back-and-forth about Willie Randolph's job security, he might as well resign, because unless the team has a comeback to equal last year's collapse, he's not making it to next season. He'll be canned to protect the general manager, on whom the onus really must fall. He built this collection of old men and spare parts while letting the farm system dry up.

• The Angels have obviously done a fine job of succeeding despite injuries to key personnel and some very disappointing seasons, but you have to wonder why Gary Matthews (.218/.311/.358) has spent the whole year batting second while Casey Kotchman (.311/.364/.478) is going to waste at number six. Consider Monday's lineup. Kotchman was followed by Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez and (wrapping back around) Maicer Izturis. If Kotchman hits anything less than a home run, the Angels have very little chance of scoring in his innings.

Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Bible appears weekly on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel is available at Amazon.com and a bookstore near you, as is "Mind Game," about the intellectual conflict between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Steve's Pinstriped Blog is available weekdays on YESNetwork.com, and more Steve can be found at Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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