Thursday, August 14, 2008

Free fallin' out into nothin'

For months, I've found this Yankees team to be a perplexing bunch. Sure, there have been flashes of excellence, but for the most part this year's squad has been consistent only in its inconsistency.

Take their latest series for example. Coming off a roller coaster 9-6 win on Tuesday night, the Yanks showed little interest in losing a 4-2 snoozefest to the Twins that capped a brutal 3-7 road trip. The Yanks combined for eight singles, one double and two runs over 18 innings in the bookend games of an important series at the Metrodome. They are now nine games back in the American League East and six off the pace in the Wild Card chase. In the words of Don Vito Corleone, "How did things ever get so far?"

Well, here's a thought. Is it perhaps time to come to grips with the idea that this team isn't very good?

Sure, injuries have played a substantial part in the Yankees' decline. The loss of Posada and Matsui certainly hurt, and it's impossible to understate the absence of Chien-Ming Wang, who affects both the top and bottom of the rotation. Joba Chamberlain was shaping up as a savior until his shoulder acted up. Man-boy Hank Steinbrenner laid the Yankees' struggles completely at the feet of the disabled list, but feel free to place that under the growing file of a pampered rich boy's misinformed and undercooked rants to the press.

The truth of the matter is that the Bombers offense has been simply offensive ... and it may cost them their season.

The Yankees have been baseball's most prolific scoring team the past 10 seasons, a fact that allowed them to win 90+ games each year. The formula to earn a postseason spot was easy: Play .500 ball against the good teams and absolutely bludgeon the also-rans. And while that's the formula most quality teams play by, the Yankees seemed especially ruthless in how they went about it. The combination of length and patience in the lineup made matchups against the havenots almost unfair; the Yanks would pitch-count the starter out of the game and then feast upon the porous middle relief of weak squads. A parade of 12-5 and 10-4 wins were born.

But things have changed this season. Several of the lesser teams of the 2000s have improved greatly. The Rays are obviously the most notable example of this, but teams like the Orioles, Rangers and Royals also suddenly could stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Yankees.

All of which was made possible by an undeniable truth: the Yanks offense can't swing its way out of trouble anymore. Mustache or not, you can't hide the fact that Jason Giambi isn't near the player he once was. At 34 and with tons of mileage on the odometer, Derek Jeter's season-long mediocrity can (gasp) be reasoned as the first sign of a decline. A-Rod has continued his infuriating habit of having monster seasons every other year, the good news being you can expect 50 homers in 2009, the bad news being you get a .230 average with RISP in 2008.

A real savior here could have been Robinson Cano, who at 25 seemed so destined to reach superstar status in 2008 that the Yankees rewarded him with a rich contract prior to the season. Cano has responded with a dreadful campaign. He is hitting 52 points below his career average. He is on pace for 48 extra-base hits (he had 67 a year ago), while his on-base percentage has dropped to a pathetic .302 (he was at .353 in '07). Add to the fact that Cano has been careless on the basepaths at times and has regressed defensively (his decision not to dive in Sunday's heartbreaking walk-off in Anaheim was inexcusable) and it leads one to think we are dealing with a broken player. What the hell happened here? Did Larry Bowa make that big a difference?

And with the supposed stars in a funk, the Yankees' poor supporting cast has only been exposed further. In Wilson Betemit and Richie Sexson, you likely get seven strikeouts every 10 plate appearances. I never bought that Melky Cabrera was an everyday player, and he's proved it this year. Thankfully, Joe Girardi has finally seemed to pull the plug on his starting reign of terror. Jose Molina is all glove and no bat, while Brett Gardner had his chance to supplant Cabrera and fell right on his face.

Xavier Nady and Pudge Rodriguez were both sound acquisitions by Brian Cashman, but they haven't been able to pick up the slack hanging all over this lineup. Of the entire starting nine, only Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu have delivered representative seasons.

This lineup is like a beautiful sports car with a shot engine. Sure, it looks good. But the way it looks and how it performs are two completely different things. Does that mean it's time to write the Yankees off in 2008? I wouldn't, not when you're talking about a team that's made the playoffs 13 straight years. But you also have to remember this may not be the same Yankees team anymore. The star players haven't changed, but what they can give you has. Think of that shiny sports car.

It's a difference that may have the Yanks sitting at home in October ... and lead to a very different team showing up in March.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I couldn't have said it better myself....which is why I'm not a writer.

Thankfully, the beauty of the Mediterranian has numbed the pain of looking at my blackberry and seeing the Yankees lose almost every night.

It's been a great and historic 13 years...but all good things must come to an end.