Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wang deserves a better fate

Chien-Ming Wang will be laid out on an operating table today, his star-crossed career now in the hands of Dr. James Andrews.

His season is over. Next season is an unknown. Facing his second shoulder operation in eight years, nothing for Wang is guaranteed.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Wang was once a back-to-back 19-game winner, ace of the New York Yankees, conquering hero of his native Taiwan. He appeared certain to have a long and successful career ahead of him.

But that was before the step–that step–that turned his entire life upside down.

That step, of course, was onto the third-base bag at Minute Maid Park in Houston on June 15 of last year. The bag may have well been a land mine seeing as what it did to Wang's foot, a ligament and tendon torn from the impact.

In the aftermath of the season-ending injury, the what ifs were everywhere.

What if Wang could have gotten the sacrifice bunt down successfully, and what if Miguel Tejada didn't make that throwing error, and what if Derek Jeter didn't loop a single into center, and what if Wang wasn't waved home. It was almost as if the fates had conspired against him.

Nothing in Wang's life has been remotely the same since that moment.

The 2009 season was supposed to be one of redemption for the right-hander, but instead he authored arguably the worst three-start stretch of a generation in April, allowing 23 runs over six innings before mercifully being shifted to the DL with what was called weakness in his hips.

Wang's return from that injury was uneven and short-lasting before his right shoulder starting aching during a July 4 start. Did the foot injury lead to a change in mechanics that brought upon the shoulder injury? I'll leave it to a more qualified person than myself to say for sure, but it's likely a good bet.

The Yankees suddenly have a hole to fill in their rotation for this year, and quite possibly, next. And with his contract up at the end of 2010, there's a chance we may never again see Wang in pinstripes.

I'm not sure Yankees fans, or the organization itself, ever fully appreciated him. His game seemed to lack the requisite flash necessary to endear. There were no double-digit strikeout performances, no wild gesticulating on the mound, no broad smiles in the dugout between starts. He was just a hard-throwing groundball machine, his heavy sinker making him one of baseball's most consistent starters.

In the marathon that is the baseball season, consistency is one of most coveted traits a player can possess. The Yankees will certainly miss that, even if they haven't realized it yet.

Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tracking the Cash: Yankees at the Deadline

Brian Cashman was a lowly intern when he joined the Yankees organization in 1986, but he proved skillful at climbing the most slippery corporate ladder in professional sports.

Cashman was named general manager of the club in 1998, and under his watch the Yankees have captured five American League pennants and three World Series titles.

With the trade deadline upon us, we're going to take a look at the Yankees' July trading activity under Cash's watch.

Click here to read on ...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hughes emerges as newest Yankees star

Unless your name is Brian Bruney, it's a great time to be a New York Yankee.

Baseball's hottest team, the Yankees have won seven straight games since the All-Star break, rendering the bitter sweep by the Angels a distant memory. The streak has done beautiful things; the ice-cold Red Sox have lost 5.5 games in the standings to fall out of first while the Rays are suddenly 6.5 games off the pace. The amount of legwork New York has managed to do in one week has been stunning.

Perhaps even more impressive than the streak itself is how the Yankees have done it.

Thursday's rain-soaked win over the A's represented the largest margin of victory during the streak. Since last Friday, New York has wins of 5-3, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 6-4, 6-4 and 6-3. That's not supposed to happen. Not even the Dillon Panthers win every close game.

What this tells us is that the pitching has been remarkably good. The numbers bear that out over the seven games–the Yanks have six quality starts (six or more innings, three or less runs) and an overall team ERA of 2.29.

But while the starters have certainly excelled, it's New York's bullpen that has taken the team to another level.

Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera have been magnificent. Since June 23–the start of the series in Atlanta that turned around the Yankee season– the pair have combined to toss 28 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball. They have struck out 28 and walked four in that stretch. This utter dominance, and make no mistake, that's exactly what this is, has the Yankees playing six-inning games. Just like the old days.

It's a dynamic duo every bit the equal of Mo-Wetteland in '96 or Joba-Mo in '07. That Rivera is prominently involved in all three partnerships speaks volumes of the G.o.A.T.

Hughes, meanwhile, has been a revelation. The 23-year-old has been tabbed as a future Yankees star for five years, and now it's happening before our very eyes, albeit in a completely different way than anyone could have imagined.

Watching his poise and concentration on the mound last night as he picked up a spotless first career save, it reminded me of a similar situation earlier this season. It was May 18, Mo needed the night off and the Yankees took a two-run lead into the ninth inning against the Twins. Phil Coke got the call in Mo's place and just barely made it out alive, collecting his first save despite two walks and a run.

The left-hander admitted afterward that the difference between pitching in the eighth and ninth was palpable.

“It just seemed like everything was way more amplified,” said the man they call Cokie.

You saw none of those nerves with Hughes. And while the A's of 2009 and 1989 will never be confused, it was another sign that the right-hander is the real deal. After having every aspect of his sometimes frustrating development put under the microscope, Hughes has turned into the type of pitcher that helps win championships.

The homegrown boy has made good and the Yankees are reaping the benefits. Still think Cash was an idiot for holding onto him?

Monday, July 13, 2009

New York Yankees' Midseason Report Card

River & Sunset's second annual Midseason Report Card has arrived!

To check out Part One of the Report Card, click here.

To check out Part Two of the Report Card, click here.

We have joined the Bleacher Report team, and all entries are now posted there as well.

We'll be following the Bronx Bombers all season long, so stay tuned. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Yankees still can't take a punch

On balance, the Yankees had a successful first half.

They hit a bunch of home runs, had some nice comeback wins, received extended stretches of quality pitching and managed to overcome injuries to key players. Because of that, they are comfortably above .500 heading into the All-Star break.

But things aren't exactly as they seem.

The Yankees went to Anaheim this weekend and did what the Yankees usually do in Anaheim, which is lose. This particular weekend was especially ghastly, however, as the Yankees managed to put all of their worst qualities on display over three consecutive losses.

Poor starting pitching, inept relief, shoddy defense and failure in clutch situations. We'll call it the Big Four of Fail.

When the final out was recorded in Sunday's fun-as-a-root-canal 5-4 loss, the Yankees had dropped their fourth straight to the Angels, falling to 2-4 overall against their AL West foils.

They are now a combined 2-12 against the Angels and Red Sox, an especially disconcerting mark seeing as New York will likely have to go through one (or God forbid, both) of these teams to reach the World Series.

These Yankees have a guts problem. They go through stretches where they appear to be as complete a team as they've been all decade. But then comes a right hook, usually supplied by the Red Sox but here by the Halos, and the Yankees don't get up. They just lay there, not unlike Ralphie's kid brother in A Christmas Story.

It's one of the worst traits a team can have. Sure, the Yankees have had 25 come-from-behind wins this season, a noble, if misleading statistic. But when they've been really popped in the jaw, like Jason Bay's two-run shot off Rivera in April or Kendry Morales' three-run blast off Joba on Friday, the Yankees seem only concerned with finding a rock to hide under.

"Just two more nights before we can start playing teams that are afraid of us again."

It's difficult to say how this team developed such an unsavory characteristic, and even tougher to try to figure out a way to expunge it. It may ultimately fall on the manager.

Question Joe Torre The Tactician all you want, but he was a master of the subtle gesture to loosen up a player or team. He was an expert communicator. This will be perhaps Joe Girardi's greatest challenge yet as Yankees manager. A black-and-white "numbers guy" by nature, he'll need to read and relate to this team in a way that has nothing to do with video or statistics.

The Yankees face two challenges as the second half beckons. The first is to win the 45 or so games to qualify for the postseason. But perhaps just as important, the team must make a statement against their two arch-rivals.

Both Anaheim and Boston think they're better than the Yankees right now. Whether or not that's actually true doesn't really matter. Perception becomes reality.

They have three more games left with the Angels in Anaheim from Sept. 21-23. They need to win that series, and not just because of the series' late placement on the schedule. A similar challenge awaits with the Red Sox.

Are the Yankees Glass Joe or Mike Tyson? We'll find out soon enough.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Would you trade Joba for Halladay?

There are nights when it all must become too much for J.P. Ricciardi to bare.

Restless evenings where the Blue Jays general manager stares at the ceiling of his plush Toronto condominium and instead of counting sheep only sees Jacoby Ellsbury triples, CC Sabathia shutouts and Carlos Pena walk-offs.

It's these visions that can drive a man to insanity...or to trade Roy Halladay.

The Blue Jays' fast start and subsequent "Hey, these guys are dangerous because they believe in themselves!" stories are long gone, replaced by the bitter reality that Toronto plays in a division that arguably houses the three best teams in baseball.

And while mid-budget teams like the Blue Jays can succeed–the Rays being the most obvious example–Toronto's roster and farm system simply doesn't stack up as presently constituted. A facelift is necessary to compete in the treacherous AL East.

Halladay–10-2 this season and perhaps the most respected starter in baseball–has become the hottest midseason trade candidate of the decade. If Ricciardi plays this right, he can retool the franchise for years to come. The team that lands Halladay, meanwhile, becomes an instant postseason favorite.

The popular thinking around baseball is that the Phillies are the frontrunners for Halladay, and that the Yankees will be nothing more than mischief-makers in the process.

But just for fun, let's imagine if the Yankees managed to acquire Halladay. A rotation led by CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett heading into the postseason? That's downright scary.

Halladay's price tag would obviously be huge, and there's no way you'd be able to acquire him without it hurting ... a lot. Like, Joba Chamberlain a lot.

The Yankees famously passed on Johan Santana two years ago, unwilling to deal their best prospects for the ace left-hander. Even with Phil Hughes' emergence as a bullpen weapon this season, you have to wonder if it's a decision that still eats at Brian Cashman.

Halladay, in that sense, could be a chance at a mulligan for the Yankees GM. And Chamberlain is the blue chip name that could get a deal done.

Joba has certainly given the Yankees (and their fans) fits this season, but he remains a tremendously promising talent. The organization still regards Chamberlain as a future ace in his own right. Just how strongly they believe that would dictate whether a deal could ever happen.

Let me close by throwing a scenario at you. Ricciardi–having not slept in four weeks–calls you at 4 a.m. tomorrow and defeatedly mutters, "Halladay for Chamberlain, Frankie Cervelli, and David Robertson. Take it or leave it."

I don't know about you, but I've got Halladay starting Game 1 of the ALCS at Fenway Park. What's your move?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pettitte, Joba must shake Yankee Stadium blues

Last month in Miami, Andy Pettitte stood in front of his locker at Land Shark Stadium and answered questions about his start against the Marlins. He had thrown one of his best games of the season that night, seven innings of one-run ball in a 5-1 Yankees win.

Something he told reporters, however, surprised me.

"I've given up a lot more home runs at home," Pettitte said. "They hit a couple of balls tonight that would have been home runs probably at Yankee Stadium. Instead of giving up one run, I might have given up three or four at home."

Odd, I thought, that Pettitte would use this platform to get in a dig on his besieged home park.

It was a notable statement from a senior member of the roster. We didn't need to hear Andy Pettitte tell us how the new Yankee Stadium was a launching pad–you could have Heidi and Spencer sit in for a four-game set and deduce that truth at this point.

But Pettitte's claim implied that the jet stream is very much on his mind ... and, as an extension, likely on the minds of his teammates.

Staff ace CC Sabathia made it clear that he doesn't lose any sleep over the issue; he feels if he makes his pitches it shouldn't matter how the ball travels. A.J. Burnett has made similar comments. But you have to wonder if Pettitte and fellow Yankee Stadium Section 8 case Joba Chamberlain feel the same way.

The numbers paint a pretty ghoulish picture.

Pettitte has gone a respectable 4-3 in seven starts in the Bronx, but his ERA is 5.72 and he's allowed a whole bunch of hits, 78 in just 62.1 innings. By comparison, the left-hander is 4-1 with a 2.79 ERA over seven starts on the road, allowing 36 hits over 42 innings.

Pettitte's biggest problem, however, has been the long ball. He has surrendered 12 of his 14 homers this season at Yankee Stadium, a pretty staggering number for half a season of work. Two of those homers came in yesterday's loss to the Blue Jays, including a bomb by...John McDonald? Brutal.

Chamberlain, meanwhile, has been nothing short of a disaster at home. He has yet to win a game at Yankee Stadium, which is pretty hard to believe considering he's made nine starts and is playing for a team on pace to win 96 games.

The numbers across the board show a preference for pitching away from home, but clearly the biggest issue for Chamberlain is his command. The right-hander has shown an unwillingness to challenge hitters with his fastball, instead chucking countless sliders, a pitch he has trouble throwing for strikes.

As a result, Chamberlain has walked 25 batters over 42 innings at Yankee Stadium, compared to just 16 free passes over 42.2 innings away from the Bronx. Inevitably, this runs his pitch counts up early and he ends up leaving too much off the work to the middle relief. Chamberlain has reached the seventh inning just once at Yankee Stadium. Once.

In Pettitte's case, the answer to his problem appears fairly clear cut. Stop giving up so many damn home runs. He has always given up a fair number of hits, and he'll continue to do that. But Pettitte going forward will have to figure out a better way to keep the ball down or he's going to continue to have starts ruined by one or two bad pitches.

Chamberlain's situation is a bit more tricky.

The idea that he's not completely healthy continues to rattle around in my head. How else can you explain why he's not challenging hitters with a fastball as special as his can be?

If he doesn't trust his fastball, and it doesn't seem like he has since he walked off that mound in Texas last August, it makes a certain amount of sense why he's flicking all those sliders in big spots at Yankee Stadium.

In any event, with the Wanger in seemingly perpetual limbo at this state of his career and Burnett not known for 33-start seasons, the Yankees will need the back end of their rotation to pitch better as we inch closer to the second half.

Overcoming the Yankee Stadium blues will go a long way toward that.