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Sticking A Fork In The 2008 Yankees
August 19, 2008 - John Whittaker
An old basketball coach of mine used to tell me I ran fine, I just ran too long in one place.
I can't think of a better description of the 2008 Yankees. On paper, it's a fine team. It just runs in one place too long. Make no mistake, this is a third-place team. To borrow a line from Brian McNamee (remember him?), it is what it is.
I've been trying to trick myself into thinking of ways they can still sneak into the playoffs. But, through Aug. 19, the Yanks are 10 games behind Tampa Bay in the American League East and 5.5 games behind Boston in the wild card race. When Tampa and Boston lose, so do the Yankees. When those teams win, the Yankees lose. It's done. I'll still watch games and root for the team and individuals to do well, but in my mind, this season is as good as over.
My eye told me that the team had serious issues. Day after day, the News Gal and I watched as the Yankees showed an inability to pick each other up. If a runner reached third base with less than two out, he might as well have ordered a hot dog and a beer. He wasn't scoring. And, if a pitcher got two outs with runners in scoring position, the chances were pretty good he was getting out of the inning unscathed. Meanwhile, if a Yankees pitcher gave up a run or two late in a game, stick a fork in 'em. They were done like Cosmo Kramer on an apartment building's roof.
As I feared, the numbers back me up.
According to www.baseball-reference.com, the Yankees have won only 28 games when they were trailing after five innings. They're 1-49 in games trailing in the ninth inning and 3-47 in games in which they trailed in the eighth. I would have been disappointed, but, using an old Bill James formula that estimates a team's won-loss record based on runs scored and runs allowed, the Yankees are only one game worse than they should be.
While this season is over, there have been some positives.
Joba Chamberlain is the real deal. Hopefully, the shoulder tendinitis isn't anything serious, because Chamberlain should anchor the rotation for years to come. He's got all the tools, Josh Beckett-type stuff, and the stomach for big games. And, let's not forget Chien-Ming Wang, who, despite a 4.07 ERA before his injury, was 8-2 and will make a perfect number two starter.
There is hope for the bullpen. Former no-names Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez have shown they can nail down, for the most part, key innings in the bullpen. While the Kyle Farnsworth trade didn't pan out as well as the Yankees had hoped, Veras is a potential closer if anything happens to Rivera, and there are enough kids on the farm that the Yankees should be alright. Also, the failed LaTroy Hawkins signing should have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that signing big-name middle relievers is not the way to go. Here's hoping the Yankees have learned their lesson.
Andy Pettitte should be good for one more year. It's hard to be objective because I've seen Pettitte throw hundreds of games and have grown quite attached to him, but he's generally been good this season despite three bad starts that blew up his earned-run average. At 36, he's throwing the ball as hard as he needs to, his cutter is still moving, and his pickoff move is still the best in the game. Pencil him in for 15 wins, an ERA right around 4.15, and at least three key starts that make you say, "Wow."
So, what needs to change for the Yankees to rebound in 2009? You came to the right place.
1. Don't tinker too much during the season. The worst stretch the team had was right after the trade deadline -- Ivan Rodriguez didn't mesh with the team, Joe Girardi struggled to fit Damaso Marte into the bullpen and Richie Sexson just never fit, and trading Kyle Farnsworth changed a lot of roles in the bullpen. When you're blowing teams away, it's a lot easier to make new pieces mesh. In the middle of a pennant race -- and 2009 is probably going to be a lot like 2008 -- you can't be adding significant new pieces.
2. The outfield is really, really old. The News Gal and I saw Melky Cabrera's last home run of the 2008 season on April 28 in Cleveland -- it was all downhill from there for Melky. Girardi and Brian Cashman need to hope he figures it out in Scranton, though, because Cabrera will be a big piece of next year. Nobody who has come up plays defense as well as him, and he has the potential to be a real pest on the basepaths. Speaking of pests, if Brett Gardner proves this year that he can make consistent contact, he needs to have a significant role on next year's team, too. He drives pitchers nuts when he's on base, he has long at-bats and works counts, and he's at least better than Johnny Damon defensively. I like Damon and Hideki Matsui, but Damon's defensive deficiency and Matsui's injury history tell me it's time to say goodbye. And, Bobby Abreu should only come back for the right price -- he's not a power hitter, but he's not a great average and RBI guy either. Your right fielder needs to be one or the other. Overall, this year's outfield is a step too slow and just doesn't make enough happen.
3. Upgrade the back end of the rotation and middle relief. Joba Chamberlain is locked in as the number one starter, Wang will be fine as the number two starter and Pettitte should be alright as the number three starter. Do you think Mike Mussina has one more year in the juvenation machine? Can Phil Hughes stay healthy? Depending on the answers to those questions, the Yankees need to be on the prowl for a good fourth or fifth starter -- someone who can throw 180 innings, go 15-10 and have an ERA around 4.00. If Mussina is one of those pieces, fine - he's earned the benefit of the doubt this year. If the team isn't absolutely sold on Hughes/Ian Kennedy, then trade them for someone you know will help this year. And, if Joe Girardi isn't sold on David Robertson/Dan Geise in long relief, then that needs to be a priority. That's where games tend to get away from the Yankees.
4. Get off to a good start. The last few years, the Yankees have gotten off to a slow start, picked it up in late May, and then played about .500 baseball the rest of the way. This team needs to be five games or so over .500 by the end of April and then tack on the rest of the year. If there's any one thing that has hurt the Yankees the last few years, it's consistency. They need to get back to the machine-like Yankees of 1998-2000 rather than the roller-coaster Yankees of 2006-08. A better start will keep the heat off of young guys who might be struggling a bit (Hughes and Kennedy this year) or off of hitters who aren't producing yet (Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano this year). The team gets a different vibe, starts thinking positively about itself, and starts building a nice momentum. A few key hits early in the season, and you build that never-say-die attitude that sparks late-inning rallies.
Since the season is over, what do you watch for the rest of the season? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Can Mike Mussina make a push for the Cy Young Award? The 39-year-old is having an unbelievable season and helped salvage a series against Kansas City on Sunday by coming back from a three-run first to keep the Royals in check. He's 16-7 right now, has a 3.55 ERA and is featuring a tailing fastball that has added a whole new dimension to his game. He probably needs to win 20 games (which would be a career-best) to win the Cy Young, and, with a little help from his friends, he should get there.
2. Is Brett Gardner a part of the future? The 24-year-old rookie is hitting .192 right now, but he has been installed as the every-day centerfielder. If he hits and can play defense, chances are an every day job will be his in 2009. If he gets his average above .250 this year, look for him to get a long look for the left field job in 2009.
3. How do Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras finish out? These two need to be the eighth-inning combination in 2009. Veras has been more consistent this year -- he's 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 43 innings. Ramirez has 53 strikeouts in 45 innings, but has a 3.60 ERA and has a tendency to fall in love with his changeup. How they finish the year will tell you a lot about how the 2009 bullpen will look.
4. What's up with Melky Cabrera? Once he comes back up in September, how Cabrera hits will likely help decide if the Yankees look for a centerfielder in the offseason. Cabrera needs to start working the count, and the Yankees will be looking for line drives off his bat instead of weak grounders and pop-flys.
5. Can Derek Jeter get his batting average over .300? Most of Jeter's statistics this year will be career-lows (when was the last time Jeter didn't score 100 runs in a season?). Still, if he can make a push to get his batting average over .300, it will be a nice sign that the Captain has enough left in the tank to be a key part of the lineup next year. Don’t' expect much power, but look for line drives and ground balls up the middle -- that's where he hits when he's going well. His strikeouts are down this year, which is good, but, at 34 years of age, the pop in his bat is going away too. He needs to get back to spraying line drives for doubles.
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