Thursday, July 3, 2014

Another Night, Another Boring Yankees Game

Derek Jeter is hoping to end this season with a smile

While the current Yankees team doesn't remind anyone of the 1962 Mets, there are some reminders of the mid-1960s, broken-down Yankees squads, as well as the Bomberless Bombers of the late 1980's and early 1990's.

They're tough to watch. They're a team that's missing three starters in their rotation and a fourth, who in no way resembles the pitcher that was the Yankees' ace last season.

The starting lineup, which has been among the most potent in baseball since the championship dynasty that began in the late 1990's, struggles on a nightly basis to score runs. Joe Girardi is getting next to no production from the majority of the lineup. And there's no help on the way.

So how do you improve this squad so that Derek Jeter's final season isn't the first in his career where the Yankees didn't make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons?

 Right Field
This has been a natural disaster area. Actually, it might be man-made. Carlos Beltran was to be the regular right fielder until his elbow felt like it was going to explode from a bone spur. Medication, rest and rehab, and a three-week stay on the disabled list has Beltran slotted into the DH spot with a return to right field nowhere in site.

Meanwhile, Ichiro Suzuki and Alfonso Soriano are shells of their former selves. Ichiro started the season out with a hot bat. Through May 23, the 40-year old was hitting .373 with an .857 OPS. Since then, he's gone 21-91 (.230) and had a .584 OPS for June.

Soriano was on fire last season after being acquired from the Chicago Cubs. He smacked 17 home runs and drove in 50 runs in just 58 games. His combined totals added up to 34 HR and 101 RBI in 151 games. but the 38-year old has not looked sharp all season. Sure, there's a game here or there where he shows flashes of his prime years or even last season, but the 38-year old has the worst OPS (.632) of his career.

Soriano is in the final year of the eight-year deal he signed with the Cubs prior to the 2007 season. The Cubs are paying $13.2MM of the $18MM Soriano will earn this season. Ichiro is in the final year of a two year deal the Yankees gave him after the 2012 season.

With the reports that the Houston Astros' computers were hacked into, came news that the Yankees tried to deal Ichiro to Houston back in March. According to reports, the Yankees were willing to eat $4.5MM of the $6.5MMM owed to the Japanese native.

So money should not be an issue, but finding a taker for one or both broken bats will not be easy.

With Beltran only able to swing a bat, who could man the area that has seen Ruth, Maris, Reggie, and O'Neill excel? Good question.

 The Infield of My Discontent

We all knew that the infield this season was filled with older, injury prone/plagued players. It's an infield that hasplayed poor defense and hasn't produced much offensively.  Jeter and first baseman Mark Teixeira came back this season from major injuries that limited them to almost no playing time last season.

While Jeter enters Friday's game (vs. Minnesota) with a .271 batting average and a .325 on-base percentage, his slugging percentage is an anemic .329. He's lost more range in the field, which is natural when you're 40, but he's made mental mistakes that you would expect from a rookie rather than a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Brian Roberts has played in 73 games thus far. That's the most games he's played in the first half of the season since, 2009. The 77 games he played with Baltimore last year was the most playing time since then. Roberts has occasionally shown some flash with his bat - he had a game tying home run in the bottom of the 9th inning against Tampa Bay this past Monday - but has a .664 OPS. That's a mere 10 points higher than Jeter's.

Teixeira has been been banged up a number of times this year. In addition to soreness from last season's wrist surgery, Teixeira had a 15-day DL stint due to a strained hamstring. He's also had fluid removed from his knee and strained his back. When he's played, Tex has been fairly productive. An .810 OPS is highlighted by 15 home runs and a .342 OBP. He also has a team high 41 RBI, but his five errors in 62 games is a defensive anomaly. Teixeira hasn't committed five errors since he had five total in 153 games in 2008.

Kelly Johnson brought versatility and power to the Yankees, but he hasn't shown much of either. Due the construction of the roster, Johnson has served as a backup to Teixeira. With next to no experience at the position, Johnson has made a number of critical errors. His bat hasn't been much better; Johnson entered Friday's play with five home runs in 165 at-bats and a sub-.700 OPS.

Yangervis Solarte was the biggest surprise of the first half...up to a point. Solarte was a longshot to make the team out of Spring Training, but was chosen over veteran Eduardo Nunez. Through the team's first 16 games, the 26-year old rookie looked like a polished veteran. He put up a 1.007 OPS and drove in nine runs during the 16 game opening stretch. Then he went into a slump and most people, myself included, thought it was the beginning of the end for him.

His slash line read .284/.382/.420 after the Yankees beat the Rays 9-3 on May 3. But then Solarte went on a nine game tear that saw him go 15-31 to raise his line back to .336/.414./.521. His three home runs and 10 RBI during his hot streak gave him back his instant legend aura. After the Yankees fifth straight loss on July 2, Solarte's line read ..260/.343/.393 and he got a ticket to Triple-A Scranton. A .164 batting average in June and eight errors will do that to you. The Yankees brought up fellow rookie Zelous Wheeler to try to get some more punch in the lineup.

Like Solarte, Wheeler joined the Yankees organization this year and will be making his Major League debut. The 27-year old rookie was hitting .299 with 7 HR and 31 RBI in 66 games.

 Not Catching On

I was skeptical when the Yankees signed Brian McCann to a five-year deal that guaranteed $85MM. I thought that the length of the contract and the amount of money (McCann can vest into a sixth year at $15MM) was too much. But I still thought the former Atlanta Braves' backstop would be productive. He's done a good job behind the dish, but not so much when he's in the batter's box.

His two hits and a home run yesterday (7/2) still left him with a .658 OPS. Though he has 10 home runs, he's knocked in just 37 runs and hit .248 with runners in scoring position (RISP). McCann, of course, is not alone in not performing with RISP.

Backup John Ryan Murphy did a decent job, but was sent to Scranton to get more playing time once Francisco Cervelli came off the DL. He's only played in five games since his return, but Cervelli is just 2-10 and 5-26 on the season.

 Pitching a Fit

His name is Masahiro Tanaka; without him the Yankees would likely be in last place in the American League East. The Japanese native has been nothing short of outstanding and yet he still enters his start Friday night (against former Yankee Phil Hughes) with a two game losing streak. Tanaka has been more than anyone could imagine and he needs to stop the Yankees skid to start the current road trip. Overall, he is tied for the AL in wins (11) and complete games (3), leads the league in ERA (2.10), and is among the best in the AL in strikeouts (127).

Everything after Tanaka has been a crap shoot.  Hiroki Kuroda, Tanaka's fellow countryman and the star of last year's staff, has been unable to produce any consistent results this season. His 4.08 ERA and 1.244 are career worsts, as is his hits per nine innings (9.4). Before wearing down in the final month of the season, Kuroda was a legitimate Cy Young candidate in 2013. At age 39, he suddenly looks a lot older.

Kuroda has allowed four or more earned runs in four of his 17 starts. In addition, he's allowed three earned runs five times. While that doesn't sound bad, keep in mind that Kuroda has pitched past the 6th inning just once in those five starts.

With Ivan Nova out for the season after Tommy John surgery and CC Sabathia (threw for Double-A Trenton Thursday night, but woke up with knee pain and went for an MRI) and Michael Pineda likely not back until August, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have had to work with a patchwork crew. Left-hander Vidal Nuno (2-5, 5.42, 9.9 hits her nine innings) looked very good in his short stint with the Yankees last season, but has struggled all year. The Yankees could be very close to removing him from the rotation.

David Phelps has struggled with location and it has shown in his numbers. He'll look dynamite some nights and awful on others. He's also been a victim of the Yankees sloppy defensive play. Phelps has decent strikeout numbers, but his propensity to walk or hit batters has to stop.

Chase Whitley was the "new Aaron Small", a player who seemingly came out of nowhere to contribute. Whitley was 3-0, 2.56 after his first seven starts, six of which turned into Yankees wins. But perhaps the league is starting to catch up with the 25-year old. One week after he limited the Blue Jays to two runs and five hits in five innings, Whitley got pounded by Toronto to the tune of eight runs and 11 hits in 3-plus innings. That was followed by a five-run, eight-hit start that lasted just four innings against the Boston Red Sox, who have struggled to start runs all year.

 The Bullpen is Mightier Than the Sword
For the most part, the Yankees bullpen has been a Godsend. David Robertson has made a nice transition from late inning set up man to closer. He's converted 18 of 20 save opportunities and has averaged a notable 15.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

The big development in the pen has been the emergence of Dellin Betances. Once a top starting prospect, Betances struggled and was moved to the pen. He's been excellent and earned Girardi's trust to be brought into high leverage situations. The tall right-hander has 76 strikeouts in 48 innings.

Adam Warren has been solid all year, though it's not great that he's appeared in almost half of the Yankees games. He's averaged 8.5 K's/nine innings. Matt Thornton has done very well against left-handers, while Shawn Kelley has struggled since he returned from the DL.

The pen hasn't been as good of late, but that's because the starting pitchers have not given them enough rest.

 What to Do?

That's another good question. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have been the only two Yankees to put up consistently good offensive numbers. So where's the minor leaguers we keep hearing will help?

Outfielder Zoilo Almonte did a nice job during a call up last year, until an injury cut his season short. He was brought up earlier this season, but was never given much of a chance to get at-bats. At Scranton, Almonte is hitting .273/.318/.461 with 12 HR and 43 RBI in 61 games. But Almonte can't be called up until the Yankees can clear out Soriano and/or Ichiro.

Utility player Jose Pirela could eventually see some time if Johnson or Brendan Ryan are jettisoned. The 24-yr old has an .809 OPS with 7 HR, 13 doubles, 4 triples, and 10 stolen bases in 14 attempts.

The Yankees won't get any help from the starting staff at Scranton (not that he was going to call recalled, but starter/reliever Al Aceves was suspended 50 games for failing a "drug of abuse" test.)

The Yankees have reportedly been looking long and hard at the Padres' Chase Headley...again. Headley had a bust out season two years ago when he hit 31 home runs and drove in 115 runs, but has been pretty much a bust since. Last year Headley's OPS dropped nearly 130 points from the year before and he produced just 13 HR and 50 RBI. The now 30-year old has produced a .605 OPS through 64 games. Look elsewhere.

The Yankees can scout plenty of players right now, but every team will command a king's ransom. It's still too early in the season with so many teams in contention for wild card spots. In another two to three weeks, when it gets closer to the trade deadline, Cashman will need to do some heavy shopping.

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