Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Yankees season came to a crashing halt over the weekend in Detroit. The lineup, which may have been the best ever put together, was held in check by the starting pitching of the Detroit Tigers. Kenny Rogers threw eight innings of scoreless baseball in game three (Kenny Rogers???? What the f#$K?), and Jeremy Bonderman shut them down in game four. So what is to be done with this team? How can they get back to the World Series? Will George Steinbrenner lose his mind? Stay tuned for answers to these and more questions in the upcoming paragraphs.

Our good friend Mike Lupica calls this the single worst post season era in Yankees history. I actually think the 14 years between post season appearances was the worst era in Yankees post season history, but what do I know. I'm sure Mike was in Boston laughing it up with his Red Sox buddies during that time. Lupica, of course, thinks that Joe Torre should be fired. That is just silly. Is Lou Pinella the answer to the Yankees post season problems? I don't think so. Lou Pinella won a World Series with the Reds when he wasn't supposed to, but the also couldn't lead a team that won 116 games in the regular season to the Series. Lou doesn't really fit with the Yankees as currently constructed. A team full of all-stars doesn't need somebody to yell and scream and tell them what to do. They know what to do and yelling and throwing things isn't going to give them any extra motivation. Over seven years with Seattle, he led the team to three first place finishes in the division. That was a team with Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr, Arod, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and ulitmately Ichiro. They were a star filled team and they never reached the World Series under Pinella. Do you think that 3 first place finishes and no World Series appearances over seven years would fly here in New York? I'm fairly confident in the fact that Joe Torre will be back. George is first and foremost a business man and throwing seven million dollars out of the window is not high on his list of priorities. Joe Torre is a good manager, but he doesn't go out and pitch or hit. He got too much credit when the Yankees won and will take too much blame for the Yankees loss. There are times when a team can lose a game by being out managed, but the Yankees were out played by the Tigers, not out managed. Joe will be back.

So if Joe's not the problem, what is? Well, in one word, Pitching. The Yankees pitchers gave up no fewer than four runs in every game to the Tigers. You cannot win in the post season with an ERA over 5. The Yankee lineup was supposed to score runs but they were shut down by superior pitching efforts, which I said could happen. The pitching simply didn't show up. Wang was ok in game one, but the Yankees scored eight runs, so all was forgiven. Mussina was handed a 3-1 lead, but couldn't hold it. Randy Johnson and Jaret Wright were awful. That was the story of the Yankees post season. Not Arod's continued struggles at the plate, not the lack of offense, not sloppy defense. The problem was pitching. Pitching wins in the playoffs. Pitching and timely hitting. The Yankees had neither. The Yankees are stuck with Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano. Mussina has an option that will not be picked up. He could be back for less money. Wright has a $3 million buyout clause for next year, so it's possible that he may be back as well. There aren't that many options for next year. Barry Zito is adding millions to his asking price as the A's advance in the playoffs. There is also a Japanese pitcher who is available as well. Phillip Hughes will be given a shot to make the rotation out of spring training, but there is no guarantee with rookies, especially rookie pitchers. If I were a gambling man, I would say that based on the way things stand now, the rotation will be Johnson, Pavano, Mussina, Wang and Hughes. Of course George could do something stupid in the offseason and open the bank for Zito. We will have to see. The bullpen also needs some work. Ron Villone showed his true colors in the second half of the season. Scott Proctor needs some help out there or else his arm is going to fall off. Brian Bruney was a good late season addition, but he has a history of being wild. Farnsworth was a major disappointment. I don't know how the Yankees could have signed without realizing that he couldn't pitch two days in a row. Someone screwed the pooch on that one. Anyway, a hard throwing lefty would be a nice addition.

There isn't anything wrong with the Yankees lineup. As currently constituted, it is among the greatest lineups of all time. That team would easily score 1,000 runs. I don't think that Sheffield is coming back. I don't see the Yankees investing $13 million dollars in another 1B/DH. They already have Giambi and I'm sure they'll be looking for a better fielding option. However, outside of Sheffield, the Yankees are financially committed to everyone else. There is the talk of moving Arod for some pitching, but I don't think that Arod is going anywhere and at the end of day, it would be impossible to get equal value and to replace his offense at 3rd base. Fans may be clamoring for his head and as soon as they figure out who can play 3rd base and produce 35 home runs and 120 rbi's, I'll be right there with them. The starting team is set for next year. It's just a matter of who the supporting players are going to be. Bernie wants to come back, but I'm sure he'll want more than the $1.5 million the Yankees gave him this year. I don't think they'll want to pay him any more than that, so Bernie is going to have to decide whether the $103 million he's made in his career is going to allow him to live in the manner he's become accustomed to. Melky Cabrera doesn't have a starting role on this team. The Yankees can keep him around for insurance, but if there are no injuries in the outfield, then he gets to play the role of 4th outfielder. The one thing I can never understand is why on earth the Yankees can't find a back up catcher who can hit? They have trotted out a gaggle of backups for Jorge, but all of them end up hitting under .200. Also Jorge isn't going to be around forever. In fact next year is the last year of his contract. They need to start looking for a replacement. I suggest they just get someone from the minor leagues or trade for a catching prospect and start grooming him as Jorge's replacement.

So can the Yankees get back to World Series with only minor adjustments? Of course they can. They are built to win in the regular season. They will overwhelm teams with their power. They will absolutely destroy mediocre pitching. The question is whether the pitching staff will be enough to carry them in the post season. That is a question that really can't be answered until they get there. Most people, including me, would have put money on the fact that the Yankees were going to light up Kenny Rogers. He ends up shutting them out for eight innings. Who could have seen that? Not me. Getting to the post season is like buying a lottery ticket. You've got to be in it, to win it. The Yankees have bought that ticket for the last 12 years. They've been to the Series six times and won four of them. It really is an embarrassment of riches.

The best that Yankee fans can hope for is that they keep punching that ticket. The playoffs are a crap shoot. The best team doesn't always win. The Yankees were good enough and lucky enough to win three in a row from 98-2000. The fans here are spoiled. They take the Yankees for granted. They view the World Series as a birth right. It isn't. As a fan who remembers the 13 year drought from 82-94, these years a gift. The payroll doesn't guarantee victory, having the best players doesn't guarantee victory. Nothing can guarantee victory in the post season. The Yankees will probably have the best team on paper again next year and they will probably make the playoffs (baring an injury to Mariano Rivera), but once they get there, all bets are off.

I'm most disappointed in the fact that the season is over (for me). Every October, whether the Yankees win or not, I realize that I have 5 months before baseball returns. The winter is long and cold here in the northeast. And it's longer and colder without baseball. However,I really enjoyed this season. The Yankees fought hard and overcame some adversity to prevail in the AL East once again. Let's not forget how this team got to the playoffs. Many had written them off at the mid way point of the season. Many predicted the Red Sox would win the division or even the Blue Jays. They Yankees fought back and even claimed the best record in baseball. It was a great year. Just because it ended before the ultimate goal, we shouldn't just disregard all that came before it. That is short sighted and does not give credit where it is due.

The season is over, but thankfully tomorrow is new day and as God is my witness, I shall never go hungry again (sorry about that. I lost my mind for just a second). I know it's months away, but I'm already looking forward to hearing those two most magical words in the chilly depths of winter, "Spring Training".



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