Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Questions Are More Glaring Than the Answers

Question: Is Phil Hughes ready to pitch in pressure-packed situations the rest of the way?

Answer: Apparently, yes.  Last night, at the new Comisk... that is, at U.S. Cellular Field, Hughes pitched 7 innings, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks.  A good effort against a good-hitting Chicago White Sox team.  Whatever was wrong last night, Hughes was not part of it at all.  Nine times out of ten, that kind of starting pitching will get you a win.

Question: Is CC Sabathia coming back soon?

Answer: Definitely, yes.  He says he's ready, and he has been penciled in as the Yankees' starter in their next game, tomorrow night in Cleveland.  This is a good game in which to come back: Not only is he a former Indian who knows the park, and is unlikely to be fazed by Cleveland fans booing him and calling him a traitor (a la LeBron James), but the Indians'  lineup isn't exactly what it was in 2008, when he was traded to Milwaukee so that the Indians could get something for him before his contract ran out.

Question: Is Derek Jeter washed up like the smartasses said he was after the 2010 season?

Answer: That would be a big fat OH HELL NO.  He hit another home run last night, his 13th of the season.  He now has a .324 batting average, and is within 1,000 hits of Pete Rose's all-time record.  Okay, it's highly unlikely that he'll get to 4,256, but 4,000 is no longer out of the question, and 3,772, which would put him 3rd on the all-time list behind Rose and Ty Cobb, just ahead of Hank Aaron, now seems well within reach.

Question: Is Robinson Cano out of his slump?

Answer: Possibly.  He went 2-for-4 last night.  He's up to .304.

*

Question: Is the Yankees' hitting slump over?

Answer: Hardly.  Aside from Jeter's homer, and a single and a double from Cano, the only Yankee hit last night was a double by Mark Teixeira.  Chris Sale pitched brilliantly, even better than Hughes.

White Sox 2, Yankees 1.  WP: Sale (15-4... Cy Young Award, anyone?).  SV: Addison Reed (23).  LP: Hughes (a hard-luck 12-11).

Question: Presuming CC will be back to his usual self, and Hughes stays at this level, and so does Hiroki Kuroda, who's been lights-out lately, are the Yankees okay down the stretch, in terms of starting pitching?

Answer: At the moment, no.  Having 3 reliable starters will set you up pretty well for the Playoffs, but it's better to have 4.  And, right, now, the last 2 slots are question marks.

Ivan Nova won 15 straight decisions running from late 2010 to early 2011.  Since then (correcting an error I made in yesterday's blog entry), he's 2-5; in games he's started, starting from June 28, the Yankees are 3-8.

It was reported that he's got shoulder stiffness, and he's gone back to New York to be examined.  He could be headed for the Disabled List.  He will miss his next turn in the rotation.

Andy Pettitte remains on the DL.  David Phelps, while good in relief this season, hasn't been all that sharp as a starter in Pettitte's place.  Freddy Garcia is starting to look done -- as is Bartolo Colon, now with the Oakland Athletics, and suspended for 50 games due to testing positive for testosterone, as was another former Yankee, Melky Cabrera.  (More on them in a moment.)

Question: So it's Sabathia, Kuroda, Hughes, and... who for the 4th and 5th slots?

Answer: Phelps will have to remain in the rotation, at least for a while.  Because of days off, a five-man rotation is less necessary than it's been in the last month.  But moving former starters Derek Lowe (who may not have been a good pickup after all) or Joba Chamberlain (who came back way too soon, and did no one any favors by doing so) back into the rotation would be an awful idea.

Here's how the rotation looks the rest of the way:

August 24 vs. Cleveland: Sabathia
August 25: Kuroda
August 26: Garcia
August 27 vs. Toronto: Phelps
August 28: (Nova's place in the rotation)
August 29: Sabathia
August 31 vs. Baltimore: Kuroda
September 1: Garcia
September 2: Phelps
September 3 vs. Tampa Bay: (Nova's place)
September 4: Sabathia
September 5: Kuroda
September 6 vs. Baltimore: Garcia
September 7: Phelps
September 8: (Nova's place)
September 9: Sabathia
September 11 vs. Boston: Kuroda
September 12: Garcia
September 13: Phelps
September 14 vs. Tampa Bay: (Nova's place)
September 15: Sabathia
September 16: Kuroda
September 18 vs. Toronto: Garcia
September 19: Phelps
September 20: Sabathia (4 days' rest)
September 21 vs. Oakland: Kuroda (4 days' rest)
September 22: Garcia (4 days' rest)
September 23: (Nova's place)
September 24 vs. Minnesota: Phelps (4 days' rest)
September 25: Sabathia
September 26: Kuroda
September 27 vs. Toronto: Garcia
September 28: (Nova's place)
September 29: Phelps
September 30: Sabathia
October 1 vs. Boston: Kuroda
October 2 vs. Boston: Garcia
October 3 vs. Boston: (Nova's place) (not Phelps)

So, as you can see, against AL East chasers Tampa Bay and Baltimore, there are 3 games that would, if he were healthy and reliable, be started by Nova, 2 each that would be started by Garcia and Phelps.

The last of these games is September 14.  I doubt that Pettitte will come back before that date.

You also have to keep in mind that September 1 is the day that the rosters can be expanded from 25 to 40 players, so their may be a minor-league call-up or two that could help in this regard.  And that's only 9 days away.

Question: Who would be this hypothetical prospect called up?

Answer: Not either of the "Killer Bs." Dellin Betances has been awful at Triple-A Scranton, and he's hurt anyway.  So is Manny Banuelos.  Perhaps Ramon Ortiz, the former Angels star who went 15-9 with a 3.77 ERA and a 1.178 WHIP for the 2002 World Champions.  Granted, that was 10 years ago, he's 39, and he's pitched a grand total of 38 games in the majors since 2007.  But at the moment, pitching for Scranton, he's 12-5, with a 3.13 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP.  Is he really a less appetizing option than continuing to count on 2 out of the 3 questionables, Nova, Garcia and Phelps?

Question: What about the bullpen?

Answer: Rafael Soriano is fine.  The rest of the pen is not.  In football, they say a quarterback should never lose his job due to injury.  (Tell that to Drew Bledsoe.) When Mariano Rivera went down, David Robertson was promoted from 8th inning man to 9th inning man.  When he went down, Soriano was so promoted.  When Robertson returned, Joe Girardi kept Soriano for the 9th and Robertson was put back in the 8th slot. This was a mistake, as D-Rob hasn't been the same since.

Joba, as I said, came back too soon.  Lowe is probably not an answer.  Phelps was all right in the bullpen, but he probably won't be a reliever the rest of the way. Clay Rapada, for the most part, has been good.  Cody Eppley has not.  Boone Logan was brushing aside my anger toward him, but lately he's been back to being Mr. Atrocious.  Dear God, do not let Girardi bring Cory Wade back out.

I suspect that, if we can replace one of the 3 rotation question marks -- that is, either find someone to replace Nova, Garcia or Phelps, or get one of those 3 back on track -- that will make the bullpen less necessary, thus reducing the likelihood of Eppley or Logan futzing it up; and also reducing the pressure on Robertson, thus making him more effective.

Question: What the hell, Melky and Bartolo?

Answer: No one can yet prove that they were using performance-enhancing drugs while with the Yankees, so if your question is...

Question: Does this mean the Yankees' 2009 title is now as invalid as the 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 titles?

Answer: Yes, exactly as invalid.  As in, completely valid.

A, If the Yankees were "cheating" in those years, and their titles have to be vacated, then you'd better vacate the Red Sox' titles first.  The evidence against them is far worse, and the evidence against many of the other teams that were chasing the Yankees in those years (Baltimore 1996-97, Texas 1996-99, Arizona 2001, Ivan Rodriguez's Florida 2003 and Detroit 2006) is also more glaring than that against the Yankees.

B, Melky didn't get this good until he went to the San Francisco Giants.

C, Colon wasn't even with the Yankees in 2009.

D, You'll notice neither of them got caught until they went to the San Francisco Bay Area -- the home of BALCO, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Jason and Jeremy Giambi, and Barry Bonds.

So let's move on... Sort of...

Question: Is Skip Bayless really that much of an asshole?

Answer: He is one of the most hated sports pundits in America.  He may have been trying to boost his reputation among Yankee-haters yesterday, when he went on ESPN and openly suggested that Jeter's return to his prime-years stats may be due to PEDs.

On the same segment, Stephen A. Smith, not exactly beloved himself, took the moral high ground and smacked Skip with it.  Way to go, Stephen A.: Standing up for responsible journalism, because such journalism has never found evidence that Jeter has been using -- something that cannot be said of Bonds, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez or Mike Piazza.

So let's move on... For real...

Question: When is Pettitte coming back?

Answer: According to Erik Boland in today's edition of the Long Island paper Newsday, he should be throwing off a mound by next week.  According to Chad Jennings in the Journal News, the main paper in New York's Westchester County, Andy thinks he can pitch again this season, and would like to pitch again next season, too.

Granted, his return this season is by no means guaranteed, and the timing of it remains vague.  The Yankees cannot yet presume that he will take the mound again in September -- or even October.


Question: When is Alex Rodriguez coming back -- and what can we expect from A-Rod when he does?

Answer: According to the New York Daily News baseball staff on Monday, both A-Rod and Pettitte had encouraging X-rays.  I wouldn't count on A-Rod returning before Labor Day (September 3), but, having had rest, both physical and mental (and you always have to consider the mental with Alex), he'll probably be better off than if he'd played all the way through the season.  Which could be big trouble for American League pitchers the rest of the way.

Question: When is Brett Gardner coming back?

Answer: September 1, roster call-up day, is a possibility.  But it's much more likely that he'll miss the rest of the season, and be ready for spring training next year.

Question: What about the offense? Jeter, Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez and Ichiro Suzuki have been good, and Cano may be back.  But Russell Martin is still hitting under .200, Raul Ibanez has tailed off, Andruw Jones is suddenly looking very old after a good first half, and Curtis Granderson is in a nasty, strikeout-prone slump.  What can be done about that?

Answer: The return of A-Rod, as he was in 2009 when he forced pitchers to give good stuff to Teix, may be the key.  It would stabilize things.  Granted, it would reduce the hot-hitting Chavez to DH status, especially if Andruw continues to return to his 2008 Dodger levels.  But a lineup of Jeter-Granderson-Cano-Rodriguez-Teixeira-Ibanez/Chavez-Swisher-Ichiro-Martin would be hard to shut down in full.

It would help if Gardner could return down the stretch, thus adding contact hitting, speed and good defense, but I wouldn't count on it happening this season.

And finally...

Question: The Yankees' AL East lead was as high as 10 games.  Now it's down to 3 over the Tampa Bay Rays, and 5 over the Baltimore Orioles.  How worried should we be?

Answer: We are the New York Yankees.  We do not panic.  But we do get concerned.

But ask yourself this:

Question: Where would you rather be on August 23, with 38 games to go: Three games ahead, or three games behind?

Answer: In first place, of course.

NCIS Rule Number 8: Never take anything for granted.  We've seen too many first-place teams take nosedives and miss the Playoffs completely: The 1914 Giants, the 1934 Giants, the 1935 Cardinals, the 1951 Dodgers, the 1956 Reds, the 1964 Phillies, the 1969 Cubs, the 1974 Red Sox, the 1978 Red Sox, the 1987 Blue Jays, the 1995 Angels, the 2007 and 2008 Mets, and, just last year, the 2011 Red Sox and Braves.  We've even seen teams collapse, blow leads, and still win Pennants: The 1949 Yankees (up by 12, down by 1, but won last 2 to take Pennant) and the 2006 Tigers (up by 10, blew AL Central, but made Playoffs as Wild Card and won Pennant).

Remember 1996? The Yankees were up by 12 on Baltimore, and the lead was cut to 2.  We won the Division anyway, and won the whole thing.  Remember 2000? We led the whole way, then lost 16 out of our last 19 (counting Game 1 of the AL Division Series), but still won the whole thing.

I'm not saying, "Relax." Or even "Keep calm and carry on." I'm saying, "I know it looks bad at the moment, but we still have the advantage, we still have the more talented roster, we still have the more experienced players, and things are not as bad as they seem.

Our Magic Number to clinch the AL East is still just 35.  According to CoolStandings.com, our chances of winning the Division are 74.9 percent (3 out of 4), and our chances of at least making the Playoffs are 96.5 percent.

Today is a much-needed day off.  Tomorrow, against a weak Cleveland team, we can get it going again.

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