Sunday, August 12, 2007

Don't Look Now, But...

On May 30 of this year, Buster Olney posted this update on his blog [Insider required] regarding the playoff hopes of the New York Yankees at the time:

"The Yankees … have reached the point where they will almost require a historic comeback to make the playoffs:

The Yankees’ deficit in the division race is 14.5 games. Only one team has won a division or league with a deficit of greater than 14 games — the 1914 Boston Braves.

The Yankees’ deficit in the wildcard is 8.5 games. Only four wildcard winners have overcome greater deficits than that — the ‘95 Yankees (who were once nine games out), the 2001 Athletics (once 10.5 games out), the 2003 Marlins (11.5 games out), and the 2005 Astros (11.5 games out).

Only two other times have the Yankees had a larger deficit in May — 1984: In the year in which the Tigers started 35-5, the Yankees fell 17.5 games out in May. 1913: the Yankees were as much as 18.5 games out in May."

At that time the Ole Pinstripers were in, needless to say, extreme danger of breaking their streak of 12 consecutive trips to the postseason. The team had been through a variety of setbacks; between the trade of stars Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield in the offseason, the unexpected tragic death of starter Cory Lidle, and the extended DL-stints of notable players all across the diamond, this team looked uninspiring at best (in deep trouble).

The Yanks had a hodge-podge starting rotation that consisted of high-priced old guys (Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and, later, Roger Clemens), young studs with a high ceiling of potential but unproven (Chien-Ming Wang, Philip Hughes) and young guys with less than 5 career big league starts (Jeff Karstens, Chase Wright, Darrell Rasner, Tyler Clippard, Matt DeSalvo, and overpaid Japanese import Kei Igawa who has since been designated for assignment and placed on waivers). Throw in the Ghost of Carl Pavano and his 5 wins in 19 starts over the last three years, and you've got some obvious pitching concerns for mounting the comeback trail to the playoffs. Add to it...

Mussina missed close to a month with a bad hamstring. Wang started the season on the DL with a shaky hammy, and was out until the end of April. Karstens, who was only called up to replace other injured pitchers, missed two full months after took a line drive to the shin and suffered a broken leg. The aforementioned Pavano, who wasn't exactly known for staying healthy beforehand, got shut down for the rest of the season with an injury to his forearm (this was after sitting out the entire 2006 season with a myriad of impairments, yet was tabbed as the 2007 Opening Day starter...go figure.) Hughes went down in the 7th inning of a no-hitter performance against the Texas Rangers with a shaky hamstring and was shelved for the better part of two months. There seemed to be no luck at all in staying healthy for the staff. (After Hughes went down, the team subsequently gave Strength & Conditioning Coach Marty Miller his walking papers.)

Then, there were the issues with the lineup.

After starting the year on a historically ridiculous pace, Alex Rodriguez dipped into a .235 month of May and looked like he might be on his way back down to Earth. Outfielder Bobby Abreu was down around 70 points beneath his career batting average and 210 points below his career slugging percentage and at no point resembled the player who hit .330 with 42 RBI in 58 games for the Yankees in 2006 after being traded from Philadelpia at the trade deadline. Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi both had missed significant portions of time and were noticeably underperforming compared to their career numbers. Second baseman Robinson Cano, who hit .342 in '06 and finished 3rd for the AL Batting crown, was hovering near the .230 mark. Doug Mientkiewicz was literally knocked out of the lineup on June 2 after colliding with Red Sox 3rd Baseman Mike Lowell on a play at 1st base, and suffered a concussion and a broken wrist (He is yet to return to the team). Japanese slugger and fan favorite Hideki Matsui missed time with nagging hamstring and wrist injuries (notice the pattern yet?).

At the All-Star break, the Bombers were 42-43 and sitting on the outside looking in for the right to play in October.

...and then they turned it around. a hurry.

How'd they manage to do that?


1.The bats got scorching hot:

-New York leads the major leagues in Runs Scored, Batting Average, Slugging %, RBI, On-Base %, and OPS, while ranking in the Top 5 in Total Hits, Extra Base Hits, Home Runs, & Total Bases.
-Damon and Giambi (again, who've both missed chunks of time with various injuries) Abreu and Andy Phillips are the only Yankee regulars betting less than .290; a mind-blowing 7 Yankees are currently hitting a better than a .300 clip.
-7 players already have more than 100 hits with Derek Jeter and Cano on pace for 200+.
-A-Rod, right, picked right up where he left off in April and has already passed the 500 career home runs mark (the youngest player in baseball histoy to do so), and virtually locked up the Home Run Crown (39), RBI title (112), and AL MVP award.
-Jeter is again batting north of .320 for the year (good for 6th in the AL).
-Robinson Cano has raised his batting average over 30 points since the All Star Break to .313 (he's raking at a .414 mark since the break), not to mention rediscovering his power stroke to the tune of 10 HR since June 1 after hitting only 3 in the season's first 3 months.
-Bobby Abreu has regained his notable plate-discipline to raise his batting average 40 points since July 1st and also picked up his walks, slugging %, and RBI numbers.
-Hideki Matsui has raised his batting average 21 points since the All Star Break and has belted 11 homeruns during that time span to give him 23 on the year (good for 6th in the AL).
-Promising young outfielder Melky Cabrera has raised his batting average 33 points since July 1st while playing great enough defense to relegate Johnny Damon to spot-starting/DH duty.
-Jorge Posada has surged to reach the top 5 in the AL batting race (.338) in the midst of an overall career year both in the field and at the plate at 35 years of age.

2.The defense & pitching is MUCH improved, and, more importantly, finally healthy:

-Mariano Rivera is Mariano Rivera.
-Chien-Ming Wang is 7-1 in his last ten starts.
-Super Rookie Hughes and fresh new fireballer Joba Chamberlain have been as advertised, racking up the K's while not surrenduring many runs.
-Pettitte has been a workhouse all season providing a solid consistent presence in the rotation (and even a couple times out of the bullpen).
-Mussina and Clemens have probably been the streakiest starters (other than the young kids), but that's a great luxury to have: two guys with 250+ wins and big-time postseason experience are your "shakiest" rotation spots. They'll be primed and ready by late August.
-Clippard, Rasner, DeSalvo, and Wright have used their short time in the majors to learn and can now provide extra depth both in the starting rotation in case of an injury or in the bullpen as long/middle relief.
-They solved the "short bench" problem at the trade deadline by trading over-worked reliever Scott Proctor to the Dodgers for super-utility player Wilson Betemit (a shortstop who can play any infield position) who has shown flashes of great things at the dish, as well as adding veteran catcher Jose Molina to afford Posada a day off here and there to rest for the stretch run.

3.The Youth Movement has provided extra much-needed depth:

-The Yankees offseason trades of Sheffield and Johnson yielded enough high level talent that they could begin the harvest their homegrown studs without depleting the whole farm system.
-Most importantly, New York, maybe for the first time in the Steinbrenner Era, stood pat at the trade deadline and refused to let go of top prospects in any trade scenarios. Hughes (21, right) and Chamberlain (21), along with right-handed starting prospects Ian Kennedy (22), Humberto Sanchez (24), and Dellin Betances(19) could join Wang for one of the most dynamite young rotations in all of baseball in only a year or two.
-Mid-summer call up Shelley Duncan, 27, has been slugging his way into a full-time role with the team after racking up 5 HR and 10 RBI in only 35 AB to potentially make high-priced veterans like Giambi and Damon valuable trade pieces this winter.
-Melky Cabrera, who turned 23 yesterday, looks like an All-Star in the making with a tremendous combination of speed, defense, and timely hitting; He's currently riding a 16-game hitting streak, and already has 16 hits in 9 games this month.
-All the early-season injuries have become blessings in disguise for young players like Brian Bruney, Sean Henn, Edwar Ramirez, and Andy Phillips to have had a chance to showcase their talent to prove they can be valuable pieces to a playoff run.
-Thanks to their patience in developing the youngsters, the Yanks' minor league system now ranks in the Top 10. [#11 according to Hardball Times]

The Bottom line:
Today, the Yanks have used a stretch of winnable [easy] games to claw their way back into relevancy. They currently sit at 14 games above .500 (easily their highest mark of the year) into a virtual tie with Seattle and hold a 1 game lead over Detroit in the Wild Card race, but have slashed Boston's divisional cushion to a mere 5 games (The two rivals still have 6 more games against each other).

The baseball world should be very afraid of this current team. They've been through the depths of a god-awful slump and managed to streak back into contention with a stong mix of youthful energy and veteran know-how. This IS NOT a team that anyone wants to see lingering around in October. If the Yankees can stay healthy, and hold on to their current pace, they will be a very, very dangerous club down the stretch.

This team wants to show what it means to suit up in the pinstripes: Win. When it counts. These guys want to silence the critics who said they were cooked back in June. You can feel the rush of confidence beaming from every player in the clubhouse. They now know they can win.

That is why we'll all still be watching this team's remarkable and improbable turnaround into the brisk air of November; as The Postseason Streak stays still very much in tact.

...And as they hoist their 40th American League pennant.

And when they step onto the field at the World Series amidst all the doubting and naysaying...

I bet it'll be fun to be the underdogs for once.

Now playing: Beck - Think I'm In Love


Jordan M. said...

A fine article Newman, done with the prowess of an expert scout. But only one thing is seem to be under the impression that the Yankees are going to "come back" (that's just a little something I picked up from your article).

Eh. They probably will...bastards.

Jordan M. said...

ps. you can thank Jon Daniels later for shipping Gagne to the Red Sox.

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