This wasn’t how things were supposed to be for the New York Yankees. The All-Star cavalry was supposed to return to buoy what is an otherwise uninspiring roster of 30-something misfits. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira were supposed to return to spell the likes of Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in a spirited 2nd half sprint to the playoffs. But that’s not exactly how things have worked out in the Bronx. Teixeira’s now done for the year thanks to surgery, Granderson played in 8 whole games before hitting the DL again, and the entire left side of the infield has fewer at-bats than All-Star appearances.
From this day forward I think we can all agree to never, under any circumstance, question what Brian Cashman is doing again. The Yankees general manager took a verbal beating from almost every sports writer this winter over the moves, or lack thereof, that he was making. Signing Travis Hafner? Nah, he’s too old and brittle. Kevin Youkilis? No way jose, he’s a one of those Red Sox, plus he can’t hit anymore. How about swapping for Vernon Wells? Ha, don’t make me laugh.
These lackluster acquisitions, plus numerous injuries to the roster, were supposed to finally sink a Yankee ship that appeared to be too battered from years of battles to stay afloat. Yes, Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia were still aboard, but they weren’t going to be able to make up for the loss of Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson, among others. The hope was that the replacements would hold the fort until the cavalry made their way back. But that hasn’t been the case this season. Buoyed by an excellent pitching staff, a deep bullpen, and some surprise offensive breakouts from Cashman’s reserves, the Yankees have gotten off to a rousing 19-13 start that has defied even the biggest optimists expectations.
A little age can be a wonderful thing. Take a fine bottle of scotch for example, perhaps a bottle of Lagavulin, aged 16 years. The aging process allows the liquor to mature, thus giving it a mellow, oak-like flavor. It’s warm, delicious and all that tasty flavor is possible because of the oak-barreled aging process.
The New York Yankees are hoping this whole aging thing works just as well for them as it does for that bottle of Lagavulin. Their roster had an average age around 32 or 33 a year ago, which was the oldest in the American League although that didn’t stop them from winning 95 games. GM Brian Cashman has basically doubled down on age for the 2013 season, scooping up all the affordable mid-30’s veterans that he can get his hands on. 40-somethings Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are back for one more go-around. So are 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, two important vets from last year’s squad. 36-year-old Travis Hafner and 34-year-old Kevin Youkilis have been added to the fray to provide power.
All these maneuverings have everybody asking basically the same question: is this finally the year Father Time catches up with the Yankees? Or will they come together much more like a fine scotch on the way to another 90+ win season? Here’s some of the thoughts rattling around my brain:
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
Around the conclusion of today’s Brave-Red Sox and Brewers-White Sox games, word was beginning to get around that Kevin Youkilis, the former All-Star corner infielder had been traded to Chicago for Brett Lillibridge and Zach Stewart. Reports of the trade have become even more widespread, so with Youkilis apparently done in Boston and on his way to Chicago, let’s take a look at the 1st big trade of the 2012 season.
Bobby Valentine was ejected in the 9th inning of yesterday’s contest between the Nationals and Red Sox for arguing balls and strikes, and he had some very unflattering things to say about the umpiring crew. Valentine felt that his team had been treated unfairly during the series and post-game he had this to say. “Good umpires had a real bad series this series – a real bad series – and it went one way. There should be a review.” Does Bobby V have a good point? Did Boston lose out on the chance to win a ball game or two due to some poor work by the boys in blue? The umpires have been routinely and widely panned by most players, coaches, and even writers this season, so maybe he has a point. Or is Valentine trying to divert attention from his team’s poor play by incorrectly criticizing the officiating? Let’s take a look at the available data from Brooks-Baseball.net and break the entire series.
With the news that Pablo Sandoval is hitting the disabled list for the foreseeable future after fracturing his left hand for the 2nd straight year, the hot corner has been a war of attrition so far. Evan Longoria hit the DL for 4-8 weeks earlier in the week, as did Kevin Youkilis. The Giants, Rays, and Red Sox will all have to find some way to replace the production they are losing, and it won’t be easy because these are All-Star caliber players in their primes. Let’s break down the replacement strategy for each team. (Ryan Zimmermann of Washington is also out, but he should return in a week.)
San Francisco Giants
Pablo Sandoval had been mashing the ball this season, hitting .316/.375/.537 with 5 homers and a team-leading 15 RBI. The Giants have a relatively thin lineup even with Kung Fu Panda, ranking 9th in the NL in runs scored, so this will be a lot of production for the Giants to replace.
San Francisco already has a very light-hitting infield, starting Brandon Crawford (career .207 hitter in 300 at-bats) at short and Emmanuel Burriss at 2nd with the injury to Freddy Sanchez. Burriss is a 27-year-old career minor leaguer who has received some playing time in the majors, but doesn’t quite have the bat to cut it, with 15 extra-base hits in over 600 career at-bats, an abysmal number.
Joaquin Arias figures to gain some playing time with the injury to Sandoval, but much like Burriss, he has been a journeyman minor leaguer with very little pop in his bat. In 273 at-bats scattered over the last 5 seasons he has no homers and only 20 extra-base hits. Ryan Theriot also will receive more playing time, but he’s also a punch hitter with very little power. The Giants struggled to score runs a year ago, ranking last in baseball, and with Sandoval out for the next 30-50 games; San Francisco could be relegated to the same fate again. If one or two of the infielders start hitting with some authority, the Giants could stay competitive, but that scenario isn’t likely.
The Giants have also called up Conor Gillaspie, a 25-year-old 3rd baseman in the minors, and he could see quite a bit of playing time as well. His bat doesn’t have near the power Sandoval’s has, but he may be able to hit for a solid .270-.280 average while playing solid defense. Ideally for San Francisco, Gillaspie is able to lock down the 3rd base role and provide some good at-bats for an offense that sorely needs it.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox may have a bigger problem with Youkilis, than they do in filling 3rd base for the next couple of weeks. Boston called up slugging 23-year-old Will Middlebrooks, who was Baseball America’s 51st ranked prospect coming into the season. Middlebrooks is a pull hitter with big power and a solid batting eye. His early production at the plate in Triple-A has been staggering this season, with a .333 batting average and 9 homers in fewer than 100 at-bats. Scouting reports don’t care much for his defense, with the consensus being that he doesn’t have much range and is a little bulky in the field. If Middlebrooks comes up to the bigs and can hit for some power, I think the Red Sox will be fine with a few flubs in the infield.
The bigger concern at this point is the 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis. This season’s injury is a bulky back, which may explain his complete lack of production at the plate. He’s hitting a measly .219/.292/.344 with almost no power. He has completely lost the ability to drive the ball the other way, and is grounding out to the left side of the infield more than ever. This will probably be the 4th straight season that Youkilis fails to play in at least 140 games. Dating back to the All-Star break last season, Youkilis is now hitting .205 in his last 200 at-bats. Is this just an extended slump, or the beginning of the end for the 3rd baseman?
Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays have one of the deepest rosters in baseball, so overflowing with talent that many potential major leaguers are left in Triple-A or sent to the bullpen. Longoria was in the midst of the finest season of his young career, positively mashing the ball for a .329/.433/.561 slash with 4 homers and 19 RBI. This kind of production is impossible to replace, especially when you factor in Longoria’s plus defense and leadership, but the Rays will try.
Tampa Bay already plays the mix-and-match game in their middle infield, starting 5 different players at 2nd base this season, and 3 different players at short. This rotation of players includes, Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, Reid Brignac, and Will Rhymes, and will probably be asked to cover the 3rd base position as well. Zobrist has been playing about 2/3 of his innings in the right and will probably remain in the outfield, so the other 5 players will be asked to cover the 3 remaining infield positions.
The only problem is that none of these players hit much, meaning the offense will probably suffer. Keppinger is off to the best start, hitting .273 but he isn’t much of a power or speed threat, Rhymes has 4 total at-bats, and the other 3 players, Brignac, Rodriguez and Johnson, are all hitting under .200. Tampa ranks 5th in the AL in runs scored so far, and that number is sure to suffer without Longoria. Luckily Tampa is off to a fantastic start, playing .680 baseball, and has a deep, talented rotation to fall back on. Expect the Rays to remain competitive for the next 2 months, despite Longoria’s absence.
Around the League:
-I’m currently watching the Mariners take on the Rays in the 5th innings, and this may be the least I have seen Tampa use the defensive shift this season. The only hitter they are using a definite shift on is Justin Smoak, who’s naturally 1-1 with a walk and a hard line-drive single. The lack of shifts may also have something to do with Seattle’s lineup, which is entirely left-handed. The reason: Tampa pitcher Jeff Niemann has extreme lefty/righty splits, with opposing lefties hitting .306 and righties only hitting .098 so far. Its worked so far, Seattle has scored a little more than usual with 3 runs already.
-Jered Weaver threw the best game of his career last night, no-hitting the anemic Minnesota Twins in a 9-0 victory. Weaver absolutely dominated, allowing only 2 base runners to reach while striking out 9. Its the 2nd no-no of the season, and there is a good chance 3 or 4 more will happen this season. Congrats to Weaver on his performance.
-Two players over 40 hit walk-off homers yesterday. Jason Giambi hit a 3-run, pinch hit shot to win the game for the Rockies. Not to be outdone, Chipper Jones hit a mammoth 2-run blast to give the Braves a win in a wild 15-13 affair over the Phillies. Jones only has 55 at-bats this year but has really made them count, hitting 4 homers and driving in 14 already. Its great seeing him continue to deliver big hits for the Braves, despite injury and age, at the end of his illustrious career.