Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Yankees need to act quickly on Wang mess

The baseball gods can be a cruel lot sometimes.

How else to explain the stunning predicament of one Chien-Ming Wang? You remember the Wanger, right? He was the best homegrown starting pitching product since some guy named Pettitte. He won 19 games in back-to-back seasons, even finished second in the AL Cy Young ballot one year.

But then came that fateful trip around the basepaths in Houston last June 15, and Wang's life hasn't been the same since. There was faint hope at the time that Wang could return in September to help save that broken Yankee team, wishful thinking by a franchise stunned to lose its ace under such odd circumstances. The public hope-against-hope philosophy hardly did either party any favors.

It was assumed that an entire offseason of rest and rehabilitation would allow the return of a completely healthy Wang in 2009, but sadly that too was wishful thinking. It was Eric Bogosian in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory who once said, "Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups" and the Yankees had certainly assumed too much. An inconspicuous spring training was followed by three of the worst starts you'll ever see. Something was clearly wrong with the Wanger, physically or otherwise. He was quickly ticketed to the disabled list with ... weak hips? Um, sure, that works.

Wang disappeared into rehab work, but fate was soon once again conspiring against the one-time ace. Joba Chamberlain was drilled with a line drive in the May 21 season finale against the Orioles, forcing 8 1/3 innings on the suspect Bomber bullpen. With the Phillies and their fearsome offense coming to town, the Yankees made the decision to activate Wang and stick him in the bullpen as insurance. A clearly uncomfortable Wang threw three wholly unimpressive innings last Friday and hasn't been seen since.

Sending Wang to the bullpen was a knee-jerk reaction that has led to a extremely difficult situation for the Yankees. He is out of options and technically has no physical malady that would merit another stint on the DL. So, the best starter on the roster not named CC rots away in the bullpen. Wang is, incredibly, a man without a country. How could this happen?

The possible solutions are all tricky. Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte aren't going anywhere. You can send Hughes back down or to the bullpen, but that would be suspect considering he may finally be hitting a groove in his frustrating young career.

As for Joba, another ugly chapter was written in his perplexing existence as a starter last night, and the bullpen desperately needs him to re-claim his eighth-inning role, especially with Bruney quite possibly done for the year. But the Yankees seem highly reticent to admit the obvious that Joba should be in the 'pen, stubbornly refusing to view Chamberlain as anything else than the next Roger Clemens. As a result, Wang will continue to rot, his confidence going from the basement ... to the house's foundation ... to somewhere in the core of the earth. They're doing wrong by the Wanger, no doubt about it.

Like the new Stadium, the Yankees are botching this situation. And the longer they wait, the worse it will get. This team cannot win a World Series without Wang helping to anchor the rotation. You have to wonder how long it will take them to figure that out.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I love my Mom ... and Johnny Damon

The Yankees needed to figure out a way to get out of Baltimore with a series win on Mother's Day. They just had to.

The vibes emanating from the club had taken on Final Destination-like proportions of late. A five-game losing streak will do that to a team of course, but it was Saturday's loss that was particularly grim. Sloppy defense made you wonder if some players hit the Inner Harbor too hard the previous night, while Phil Hughes put Johan Santana in Yankee fans' nightmares once again. It was an effort pathetic enough to effectively erase any positivity gleaned from Friday night's A-Rod/CC gem.

Things started off well enough on Sunday. Mark Teixeira provided a clue that he may actually be alive in the first inning with a solo homer in the first, but the Yankee lineup proceeded to go into hibernation against the (apparently) masterful Koji Uehara for the next five innings. Particularly sleepy was Nick Swisher, who fanned three times (twice vs. Uehara) and suddenly looks very much like the .219 hitter he was last season in Chicago.

O's manager Dave Trembley did the Yankees a favor by pulling Uehara after just 92 pitches, and New York quickly took advantage of the tactical error. Robinson Cano, mired in a mighty slump of his own, started the game-winning rally with a solo homer off slop baller Jamie Walker. After Melky flied out, the unheralded play of the game went down.

Francisco Cervelli, who could teach some of his older teammates a thing about hustle, beat out a grounder to second played poorly by Brian Roberts. I don't know if Cervelli can hit, but there's something about the way he approaches the game that is refreshing. Jeter followed with a swinging bunt single. Two infield hits, and you could almost feel it coming. "It" came in the form of Damon, who cranked a 3-2 fastball by Jim Johnson deep into the seats in right-center to put the Yanks ahead, 5-3.

Unfortunately, with the sad state of the Yankee bullpen these days, the game was hardly over. In fact, me and my buddy Howie agreed that the game was nothing less than a toss-up at that point. Joba had managed to hold the O's to one Aubrey Huff three-run homer (and subsequent dick-y fist pumps) over six innings, but now we needed nine outs from the 'pen.

Joe Girardi understood the importance of the game. We knew that because he was determined to use the only two relievers he trusts to get those final outs. Phil Coke responded to his manager's faith with two shutout innings. Mariano then quieted some fears with a scoreless ninth. Jose Veras finished the game exactly where he should be ... off the field of play.

It was an important win for the team, one that should certainly help them as they head to Toronto to take on the first-place Blue Jays. With the Jays in first and Cito Gasten on the bench, there's going to be a very '92 vibe at Sky Dome Rogers Centre on Tuesday. I'll be wearing my Paul Tsongas T-shirt.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How to fix the Yankees

These are trying times, my friends. Another soggy night in the Bronx, another brutal defeat that magnified every shortcoming this $200 million Goliath. Failures with runners in scoring position, a gasoline-spewing bullpen, a bottom of the lineup that doubles as the black hole of death. Someone in Long Island should probably check on Francesa's well-being after Teixeira's pop-out in the 10th. Seriously.

But that's just the start of it. From the A-Rod Goofball Variety Hour, to the corporate greed and subsequent karmic fallout of the "moat seats", to Boston 5, N.Y. 0, 2009 has been about as pleasurable as a colonoscopy for Yankees fans. That they're only one game under .500 at this point is something of a Virgin-Mary-in-a-dish-towel miracle.

Luckily, River & Sunset is here to help. This Yankees team as constructed by Teflon Cashman certainly has its holes, but it also retains enough talent to evolve into a winner. As for the modern day Titanic known as the new Yankee Stadium, we have suggestions on that front as well.

So what can the 2009 Yankees do to keep from being remembered as an overpaid, weak-bellied, 162-game long AARP meeting? Read on.

Shake up the bullpen

I have no idea if Brian Cashman is on the hot seat, I can only assume he isn't since he never seems to be ... sadly it may be his greatest skill as a general manager. But shame on Teflon Cash for assembling a bullpen thinner than Lindsay Lohan. Cashman entered '09 assuming that the likes of Jose Veras, Damaso Marte, Brian Bruney and Edwar Ramirez would successfully build the bridge to Mo. Bruney appeared to be a breakout contributor until his elbow said otherwise, meanwhile, the other three amigos have become the Yankees' Generation Slay. They are killing us. The Yanks have the second-worst bullpen ERA in all of baseball. With their resources, it is an absolute disgrace.

This firestarting 'pen is dying for a shakeup, and it should happen sooner rather than later. Veras and Ramirez are completely expendable, and while I'm not exactly on board with the public outcry for the immortal highly mortal Brett Tomko, his numbers at Scranton certainly warrant a flyer. Middle relievers are like playing black jack in the sense that it's all about riding the hot streak and knowing when to get out. Not to get all Bill Simmons here, but right now Girardi is kind of like the dude that's getting absolutely destroyed by the middle-aged Asian dealer that won't smile, but he refuses to walk away out of sad mix of defiance and desperation. "My luck has to turn soon." Hey Joe, you just blew threw the kids' college fund. Come back to us.

Get healthy

One of the biggest concerns heading into the season was how many key players on this roster were on the wrong side of 30. Understanding the correlation between age and injuries, Cashman made a concerted effort to build a strong core of bench players. Actually, that's completely untrue. He bought a bunch of hugely expensive free agents, and left the bench essentially barren. Now some dude named Ramiro Pena is your starting third baseman while Brett Gardner is getting the call in key pinch-hitting situations. Sweet.

A-Rod (hip), Nady (elbow), Wang (entire lower body), Bruney (elbow), Marte (shoulder) and now Posada (hamstring) are all huge pieces of this team, and how they return from their respective injuries will likely determine the Yankees' fate. It's important to note that it's too early to write off the Yanks until these players have a chance to return. A-Rod, for instance, will provide an instant bump to the lineup in skill and length. Posada's eventual return will only reinforce that. Wang could be a huge X-factor if he can shake his doldrums.

Send an old-fashioned Steinbrenner Missive

One of my favorite parts of being a Yankees fan has always been the random and insane press releases sent to the local media by George Steinbrenner. They typically read like military marching orders, and nearly always included not-so-subtle digs at Joe Torre. Joe is gone now, and in a sense so too is poor old George. I have to admit I really could use one right about now. You know Hank hammers out these things from his play office every day, with his receptionist on strict orders by club officials to destroy them as soon as he orders their release. Here's to hoping that Hal can channel some of his old man's bluster in the near future.

Fix the Stadium, ASAP

Wow, did they ever botch this one. A brand new $1.5 billion ballpark and the Yankees somehow managed to make the best seats in the house also the least desirable. It's truly amazing. Whether the Yankees are playing the Red Sox or the Royals, there are entire sections of box seats completely deserted to the point it's the first thing that catches your eye when you turn the game on your TV.

This is what happens when overt greed and stunning arrogance combine to cloud proper judgement. It's the only way it could've seemed like a good idea to construct a moat -- literally, a freaking moat -- to seperate the wealthy corporate spectators from actual fans. Now, with the rich folk either unwilling to pay thousands of dollars for a baseball game or unwilling to be seen paying thousands of dollars for a baseball game, you get the complete oddity of an entire stadium filled except for the seats closest to the action. The organization deserves every bit of ridicule it gets.

The solutions are simple, though likely unpleasant for the "braintrust". The Yankees already slashed the price of these box seats in half, down to a steal at $1,200. They have to slash it in half again to fill those seats. That's how badly they misread both the market. Then in the offseason, break out the jackhammers and get rid of the moat. Idiots.

Get rid of Cotton Eye Joey

This won't help the team in any way, but it would make my life much, much better.

Take the shackles off Mo

Mariano Rivera was in the zone Wednesday. After allowing a leadoff single, he struck out the next three Rays batters, even showing uncharacteristic emotion after finishing off AL RBI-leader Evan Longoria for the final out. When Mo returned to the dugout, he was on the top step imploring the offense to finish it. He wanted that game, bad. But the Yanks failed in the clutch (of course) and so it was that Rivera's night was over after one inning and 18 pitches. Phil Coke entered and the rest, as they say, was history.

My question is this: at what point does Rivera become elgible for two innings again? It was a cold, wet night in the Bronx, understood, but it's now almost mid-May and his exit signalled doom in a game the Yankees needed. I'm of the impression it's time to cut Mo loose a bit. With the bullpen in tatters, they need the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) more than ever.

Fire Girardi, hire Mattingly

They should have done it two years ago, they'll be better for it now. My blind devotion to the Hitman is clearly exposed here, but it just feels right. You bring in Donnie, you get your precious title.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The curious case of David Ortiz

The Yankees will look to get on the board against the Red Sox tonight in the Bronx, the stench of an ugly three-game sweep at Fenway still lingering. Phil Hughes is attempting to follow up on his fine debut last week, squaring off against Jon Lester. The unbalanced schedule has sapped a little of the juice from these matchups during the regular season, but the vitriol between the fanbases still makes this thing special ... even if Jeter and Pedroia are now (ugh) best friends forever. Where's Chad Curtis when you need him?

Unfortunately, like the last series, the showdown this week will be missing two of the rivalry's marquee names of the past decade. Alex Rodriguez is obviously one, parked on the DL and a week away from reclaiming his job at third base. The other? Well, David Ortiz.

You remember David Ortiz, right? They called him Big Papi, and with good reason. Listed at 6-foot-4 and an insanely generous 230 pounds, he was the most feared left-handed slugger of the 2000s not named Bonds. He was famously cast away by the Twins in 2002, an overweight DH-type who never hit quite enough to warrant anything more than platoon duties. Enter the Red Sox, who, with their then-newfound love of all things OPS, seized on a player they believed had not been given the opportunity to reach his his full potential.

Boston, of course, was absolutely correct. Ortiz broke out with 31 homers and 101 RBIs in just 448 at-bats in '03 and then put together a four-year run that rivaled any slugger in the modern era. From 2004 to 2007 -- a period that included two Boston World Series titles -- Papi averaged 44 homers, 135 RBIs, 111 runs, a .305 batting average, and a 1.025 OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage). It was nothing less than remarkable -- a guy goes from being benched against lefties to having one of the greatest offensive stretches in baseball history. It seemed almost too good to be true.

And now, as the same David Ortiz enters play on May 4 with exactly zero home runs and a .208 batting average, you have to wonder, was it too good to be true?

Ortiz's career follows the perfect arc of a performance-enhancing drug user: Middling player during formative playing years, followed by a sudden and dramatic spike in production, followed by rash of injuries that begins premature demise.

Ortiz battled wrist and knee issues as a 32-year-old in 2008, posting his worst statistical numbers since joining Boston. And while stories in spring training spoke glowingly of a healthy Papi returning to prominence in 2009, Ortiz has been nothing less than a disaster through 25 games, posting more strikeouts (23) than hits (20). Scouts have spoken of bat speed that is suddenly non-existent as whispers have begun that the Red Sox could soon drop him from his customary No. 3 spot in the lineup.

After the A-Rod steroid bombshell dropped in February, Ortiz went on record saying that any player caught using should be banned for a year. Days later, it was confirmed that Ortiz worked out with controversial trainer Angel Presinal in the Dominican Republic, a man who had been close with A-Rod and is banned from Major League clubhouses for his suspected steroid ties. In an era of suspicion, you couldn't help but raise an eyebrow.

The Mitchell Report was released in December 2007, helmed by Senator George Mitchell, who was also happened to be a director with the Boston Red Sox. Coincidentally or not, no notable Red Sox were named in the findings. So while the Roger Clemens and Andy Pettittes of the world drowned in a flood of their own doing, life went on for the seemingly clean Red Sox Nation.

That's not to say that Ortiz is or was a PED user. It's all purely conjecture at this point. However, if there was ever a player who fit the bill, it's Ortiz. He may very well bounce back and post respectable numbers for the Sox this season, but there's also the chance that it's all over for the man they once called Big Papi. The fall will be as sudden as the rise.

Consider this a warning to all the Red Sox fans who will holding up their clever signs and waving their toy syringes the next time A-Rod steps into the box at Fenway. When you're living in a glass house, maybe it's time to put down those stones.