Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thames Emerges As Unlikely Yankees Hero

I'll admit that I wasn't always the biggest Marcus Thames fan.

I hated his long swing. I hated how he played outfield like the foreign exchange student in gym class. I even hated his name—and no, not his oddly pronounced last name.

Has there ever been a likable Marcus? Really? No...no there hasn't.

But just when it looked like Thames had a chance to make my Mount Rushmore of most disliked Yankees—Rogers, Brown, Pavano, Mondesi—something strange happened.

Marcus Thames became...a fearsome slugger.

These things happen in baseball, but this is especially true for the Yankees, whose recent history is filled with one-hit wonders. It goes like this: Player X, unheralded and overlooked, emerges out of nowhere, has a run of elite and memorable play, and then quickly fades into the good night.

In my lifetime, Kevin Maas was on the ground floor of this phenomenon. But players like Mariano Duncan, Glenallen Hill, Aaron Small, Shawn Chacon, and Shelley Duncan all can lay claim to a time when, almost incredibly, they carried the New York Yankees.

And make no mistake, Thames is carrying the Yankees right now. The 33-year-old has homered in each of his last five starts, and is hitting .368 with seven homers and 14 RBIs in August. With A-Rod on the shelf and the Rays refusing to back down, where would the Yankees be without him?

I'd say credit is in order for Brian Cashman, and Lord knows Cash could use some positive reinforcement after some of his moves the past 10 months, but this is really all about Thames himself. He's a player who took a minor league camp invite and turned himself into an integral piece of the puzzle for the defending World Series champions.

It's a credit to the dude's perseverance more than anything else.

Lance Berkman is ready to come off the disabled list, but Joe Girardi would be crazy to force the underwhelming veteran into the lineup just because he can. Thames has earned the right to play, and until the magic runs out in his bat, he should be in the lineup every day.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pettitte Holds Key To Yankees' Title Hopes

Looking back, it's astounding to think that the Yankees ever let Andy Pettitte get away.

He's only been the guts of every championship rotation the franchise has assembled in the past 15 years, after all. Not to besmirch the dead, but Pettitte's regrettable sabbatical in Houston fell directly on The Boss, who never did fully appreciate what the lefty meant to the Yankees.

And he's meant a lot. His 240 wins (203 of which came in pinstripes) don't begin to explain how vital he has been to the franchise.

The conventional wisdom is that Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett is the best big-game pitcher of his generation, but the case could certainly be made for Pettitte. Look no further than last season, when Pettitte, then 37, won the clinching game in each of the three postseason series the Yankees played.

It was a remarkable, and unprecedented, feat by a player who was supposed to be in the twilight of his career.

So it should be with great concern that the Yankees wait for the results of Pettitte's latest bullpen session, scheduled for today in Chicago.

Pettitte hasn't pitched since July 18, the day he strained his groin during a start against the Rays. After a couple of setbacks, the Yankees are hoping that today's bullpen will officially kick start the countdown on his return to game action.

For what it's worth, manager Joe Girardi seemed a tad nervous when discussing the situation.

“I think we’re all curious to see how he’s going to do,” Girardi said, likely while perusing blueprints of the Wrigley Field manager's office. “I think there’s anxiety on Andy’s part and on everybody’s part. … I think it will be a good indicator. Every time that he’s tried to really push off, he’s felt a little tug. If he’s able to really push off on Friday, that would tell me that he’s healed.”

But what if Pettitte were to feel that tug again? What if Pettitte couldn't get back for another month? What if (gulp) Pettitte couldn't come back at all?

A postseason rotation of Sabathia, Hughes, and a lot of bad news, as former Yanks beat man PeteAbe would say.

There are no guarantees in baseball, just like there are no guarantees that the body of an athlete staring down the barrel of 40 will cooperate when it's counted on most.

This much I can be sure of, however: Without Pettitte, the Yankees aren't going back to the World Series.

That's why the 20 or so pitches thrown by Pettitte today in the U.S. Cellular Field bullpen are far more important than anything that happens later tonight on the field.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is Mark Teixeira Having A Good Season?

Here's your River & Sunset question of the day: Is Mark Teixeira having a good season?

Many of his statistics would say absolutely. He ranks top five in the American League in home runs (28), runs scored (94), RBIs (91) and walks (73). He's on pace for 36 homers, 117 RBIs, and a career-high 121 runs, all while playing a Gold Glove-level first base.

Set in a season where the pitcher is slowly wrestling back control of the game, those numbers would suggest Teixeira is having another MVP-caliber campaign. But a closer look at his statistics reveal some abnormalities.

While his run production figures remain at or better than his career standards, his .262 batting average—even after Tuesday's 4-for-5 performance—represents a 25-point drop off his career mark. Similarly, his .867 OPS (on-base + slugging percentage) is 81 points below his mark of a year ago and 50 points below his career average.

Teixeira's downtick in batting average can be explained by some especially nasty slumps. He began the season 0-for-16, then after a three-hit day on April 10, went 0-f0r-16 again. His .136 average in April was horrific even by Teixeira's notorious standards.

Predictably, Teixeira got hot in May, but periodic disappearances in production continued to haunt him. He finally seemed to put it all together in July, when he batted .344 with eight homers and 26 RBIs. He's found a more consistent groove in August, batting .277 with seven homers and 17 RBIs.

For man largely believed to be a robot incapable of emotion and designed for optimum performance, it has been an unusually human season.

Alex Rodriguez is on the shelf, and when he returns, it's hard to expect what he'll give you. He had been on pace for the strangest 140-RBI season in Major League history, after all. A-Rod's new-found unpredictability makes Teixeira an even bigger piece of the Yankee puzzle down the stretch.

He's the glue of the middle of the lineup, so his propensity to slump this season makes for a scary thought with October baseball rapidly approaching. Teixeira's numbers the past two months suggests the worst is behind him, but his day-to-day performance continues to bear watching as the pennant race heads toward the finish line.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

New York Yankees: Faith in Javier Vazquez in Short Supply

It's starting to look increasingly clear that—now some three quarters into the season—the Yankees have lost their gamble on Javier Vazquez.

The team wagered this offseason that it had acquired the 2009 version of Vazquez, the ace pitcher in Atlanta who was second in the NL in strikeouts and nearly won a Cy Young award, and not the wounded puppy 2004 version of Vazquez, who staggered to the finish line for the Yankees before surrendering perhaps the most infamous home run in franchise history.

It'd be easy to say the Yankees are witnessing the '04 Vazquez at work...but that may not be fair to even that much-maligned model.

That version of Vazquez gave up a very notable home run that landed in the upper deck of old Yankee Stadium. The terrace of the former Stadium hung over the right-field grandstand, making it a place where hitters with even mediocre pop—read: Damon, Johnny—could reach with relative ease.

This new version of Vazquez is still giving up home runs in the Yankee Stadium upper deck, but now we're talking about a new ballpark with a reset upper tank over 430-feet from home plate. No one had ever went up there before Vazquez started throwing his meatballs specials on Saturday afternoon.

They might as well bury Russell Branyan on top of Vazquez one day, because the Mariners slugger now owns the right-hander forever.

Vazquez is in a miserable extended rut for the Yankees, his second such slide of the season. Sunday's three-plus inning outing represented the shortest start of his season and he's now winless in his last four starts with a 6.75 ERA. He hasn't completed seven innings in a start since July 26.

As bad as Vazquez was on Saturday, it could have been worse. The notoriously weak-hitting Mariners were teeing off on a fastball that was barely touching 85 MPH, and Vazquez was fortunate a number of hard hit balls found Yankee defenders.

The right-hander will enter September with the same reputation for being soft that he had when he came to camp in February. But now, the even more disturbing subplot of an apparent erosion of stuff is coming into sharp focus.

This makes for a very tricky situation for a Yankee team without Andy Pettitte and already dealing with the perpetual start-to-start schizophrenia of A.J. Burnett.

Are we witnessing the beginning of a decline for a once-productive pitcher? Or will we see Vazquez take the Pavano route, wilting in New York then succeeding in a market where the lights don't shine so bright?

Either scenario is feasible. Unfortunately, both options are more likely than Vazquez ever becoming the type of pitcher the Yankees believed he should have been.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Genius Joe Girardi At It Again

Back in the day, there was a pro wrestler who went by the moniker of The Genius. You may remember him.

As you could guess, The Genius' entire shtick was centered around his (supposed) immense level of intelligence. He wore a academic cap and graduation gown to the ring and mocked the audience with derogatory poems about the area in which their civic arena was located.

Unfortunately for The Genius, he was regularly defeated by other wrestlers, since, you know, the brain has little defense against the running power slam.

I was thinking of The Genius when Joe Girardi decided to show us how smart he was in the ninth inning against the Royals on Thursday. CC Sabathia was on the mound, in a minor jam thanks to a pair of bloop singles sandwiched around two outs. He was at 110 pitches, or about 10 pitches less than his standard workload this season. Mariano Rivera was not available, having pitched the two previous evenings. He had a three-run lead.

Surely, this was Sabathia's game to finish. Right? Right!?!?!?

That's when Girardi emerged from the dugout. He might as well have been wearing a cap and gown, spewing a stanza into his microphone about how the people of Kansas City had no idea how much fat content was in a standard Midwestern barbecue dinner.

He removed Sabathia from the game, the agitation clear in the big left-hander's face. When new pitcher Dave Robertson promptly served up a two-run double, I thought Sabathia was going to take a steel chair to Girardi's back.

The second-tier YES announcing team of Ken Singleton and John Flaherty made you long for Michael Kay—which is pretty incredible in and of itself—playing the company man card to the hilt by not even so much as mentioning that removing the team ace without Rivera available might be the wrong decision.

Luckily, Robertson stranded the tying run on third by striking out Jason Kendall. Sabathia's win was preserved. The papers wouldn't get their chance to roast Girardi after all.

If you watch the Yankees regularly, you understand that this type of stuff isn't new. Girardi has always been the type of manager who changes pitchers enough to make you wonder if there's some type of escalator built into his contract.

The frustration is that sometimes his love of percentages gets in the way of baseball common sense. Regardless of how it turned out, it was a foolish move to take out your best pitcher—one of baseball's best pitchers, not to mention a known workhorse—to bring in any pitcher not named Rivera there.

Call me old-fashioned, but if your starter takes you 26 outs into a game and you have the lead, he deserves his shot to finish it off.

My ultimate concern is that one of these days Girardi won't get covered by his players, and one of these, "Look how smart I am" moves will blow up in the team's face in a big spot.

The Genius, no matter how smart he was, almost always lost. Somebody may want to send Girardi some Wrestlemania DVDs before it's too late.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Berkman Getting Noticed for Wrong Reasons

Had old George still been around, it was an incident that would obviously led to a public flogging. Maybe even an old-fashioned water boarding, military aficionado that The Boss was.

Instead, the BP liner Lance Berkman scorched off Alex Rodriguez's shin was nothing more than a cringe-worthy incident that succinctly summed up Berkman's first week with the Yankees.

Serves A-Rod right, you may think to yourself. Taking his eyes of the field to banter with Joe Buck, a noted douche, warrants some kind of penalty. But the timing couldn't have been worse for Berkman, who just wants to blend into the background these days.

It didn't help matters that Berkman had another hitless day, getting booed off the field twice. He's 2-for-22 since joining the Yankees, numbers that make fans long for the salad days of Juan Miranda.

To Berkman's credit, he's saying all the right things. He told reporters after Saturday's win over the Red Sox that he's "booing himself", which would actually be kind of funny if true. He has a fine resume, and the sample is still way too small to call him a washout in New York just yet.

But I can't seem to shake the nagging feeling that Berkman will eventually be viewed on the wrong end of the Yankee Thirty-Something Veteran Trade Scale that has David Justice on one side and Pudge Rodriguez on the other.

I still believe Johnny Damon would be an attractive option for the Yankees, and with the Tigers all but out of contention in the AL Central, it's possible he'd be available via the waiver-and-trade route.

But it's more likely that Brian Cashman will stay put with the team he's assembled, and give Berkman every chance to succeed in his current role against right-handed pitchers.

Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter were cracking up as Rodriguez writhed in pain on the Yankee Stadium turf after Saturday's mishap. Let's hope this doesn't become the most noteworthy aspect of Big Puma's tenure in pinstripes.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Making Sense of Alex Rodriguez and No. 600

Alex Rodriguez hit a home run yesterday.

You may have heard about it.

He's now done this 600 times since entering the Major Leagues. Only six other players have hit that many home runs, which makes it a nearly unparalleled individual achievement in a 141-year-old game defined by individual achievement.

This should be a really big deal, but it's not.

Unless you've been in a Hard To Kill-style coma—and if that's the case, let me be the first to warn you that you're in a terrible amount of danger—you know this is because of Rodriguez's admission of taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Last spring, he owned up to using steroids during a three-year period with the Texas Rangers. He gave an unflattering one-on-one interview to Peter Gammons (in which he was glowing red from a recent trip to the Bamamas), then held an awkward press conference at the Yankees' spring training headquarters in Tampa in which his teammates attended in "support", each of them bearing the look of a patient in a proctology exam gone horribly wrong.

(Have you already forgotten the 38-second pause that separated A-Rod saying "And to my teammates -- " and "Thank you"? I don't think Daniel-Day Lewis could have given a better performance.)

In retrospect, admitting anything was the worst thing Rodriguez could have done.

If you're Andy Pettitte, you come clean and the public forgives you. If you're David Ortiz, you deny, deny, deny, and an adoring media eventually sweeps it under the rug. If you're Alex Rodriguez, the admission serves to confirm everything that you were perceived to be from the start. A fraud, a phony, a fake.

Coming clean earned A-Rod no respect from his peers or the media. If anything, it was the ammunition—the atomic bomb, really— that his legion of detractors had always waited for. In a lot of ways—and in almost all the ways that matter to a vain man like Rodriguez—it destroyed him.

So many dinosaur columnists have used today to get on their soapbox to deride A-Rod. To downplay his achievement. To say that it means nothing. The irony is that many of these reporters are the same people who knew all about baseball's growing steroid problem in the 1990s and 2000s and kept quiet.

They're bigger frauds than the man they're chopping down.

Is Rodriguez innocent in all of this? Of course not. He cheated, and if you have a workable BS detector, you probably don't buy his story that the PED use was limited to three years in Texas.

But whatever your opinions of the man, hitting 600 homers is a huge achievement. Does the unfortunate history that accompanies his road to the milestone deserve a place in the conversation? Obviously. But to completely denigrate what he's done is simply piling one wrong on top of another.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Buckled Up For Turbulence in the Boogie Down

If you want a tidy little starting point for this current Yankee slide, let us travel back to the salad days of pre-trade deadline baseball.

Crude oil was shooting uncontrollably into a major body of water, Lindsay Lohan was incarcerated by the state of California, and everyone thought that Bill Cosby was a corpse.

It was a more innocent time.

Meanwhile, Brian Cashman sat in his office—which I imagine looks much like George Costanza's—staring at a roster that included some dude named Juan Miranda on his bench and a bullpen that was regularly asking to get three clean outs (in addition to the three clean buffet plates) from Joba Chamberlain.

Clearly, work needed to be done. Cash got on the phone and when the clock struck 4 p.m. on July 31, the Yankees' GM had acquired three known entities in Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, and Kerry Wood.

It made sense at the time, and perhaps eventually each of the trades will work out in the team's favor. But it's not looking so hot as things currently stand.

Berkman and Kearns are a combined 2-for-17 with one RBI while Wood was shaky in each of his first two outings.

Just call them The Expendables.

The rest of the Yankees aren't looking too hot, either. They dropped their third straight game last night at the Stadium, and have lost four of five overall. Coupled with another Rays victory, and the Yankees are in second place for the first time since June 13.

There's no way to know if the A-Rod 600 599 circus is taking a toll on the team, though his offensive slide (0 for his last 17 and 3 for his last 33) clearly isn't helping matters.

Girardi may be leaning on his new players too much during a time when the team needs its core to right the ship. He immediately inserted Berkman into the two-hole upon his arrival in Tampa last weekend, unceremoniously dropping Nick Swisher and his career-best production down to sixth in the lineup.

On Monday, Curtis Granderson suffered the indignity of being pinch-hit for by Kearns, even if it meant having to shift Swisher to center field the following inning. I wouldn't use a Thames-Swish-Kearns outfield for my Sunday morning softball league. Yikes.

Wood has been used more judiciously, but sadly already seems to have the "I'm-Going-To-Be-Such-A-Huge-Failure-In-Pinstripes-That-I-Won't-Even-Let-My-Kids-Visit-New-York-When-They-Grow-Up" look on his face.

There are so many places to point the finger right now—not even God himself, Derek Sanderson Jeter, is an innocent.

If you're really freaking out about this slump right now and you're desperate to feel better, I have some advice: Just blame A-Rod.

Repeat after me: It's all A-Rod's fault. A-Rod is the one to blame. A-Rod is the problem. Blame A-Rod.

See? Don't you feel better? A fresh dose of Yankee fan morphine.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.