Wednesday, July 20, 2005

And the Trade Deadline Draws Nearer

What a way to come back from vacation. Not that I had missed much of the action; ESPN (and the Deuce) were kind enough to run games one and four of the series in Boston, which coincidentally were the most enjoyable to view. But after last night’s performance, all I can find myself saying is, “damn, that first place stint didn’t last too long. Hopefully we can stay up there for a game next time…”

If there is a next time. And I’m not one of those doomsday prophesizing Yanks fans (like my buddy Dan Graziano at the Star Ledger). But let’s keep the season in perspective here. The Yanks have realistically offered no evidence that they can right this rollercoaster. And excuse the echo you’re about to hear, but it all boils down to pitching.

A-Rod was close, but not quite dead on, when he observed that the Yanks are capable of scoring six runs a night. Top to bottom, this team has a more dangerous lineup – barring injuries and inexplicable slumps, of course – than any team in the majors. Some people may call this hyperbole, but some people just flat out hate the Yankees.

Jeter, A-Rod, Sheff, Matsui, and Posada have all been performing just about to par with their careers, give or take a bit here and there (of course, that was directed at Posada mainly). Robinson Cano has been a gem, and the only reason Giambi isn’t with the above group is because he makes $20 mil a year. And even with Bernie in the twilight of his career and Tino all but invisible, the Yanks still march out more dangerous hitters than their opponents, night in and night out.

So it’s only logical that pitching would be the problem. And once glance at the stat sheet makes me blurt out one of the oldest sports cliches in the book:

Defense wins championships.

And the best defense in baseball is to not let your opponent make solid contact, if any. It also doesn’t help that our defense – i.e. those eight guys behind the pitcher – are in the bottom half of the league in that category.

It looks like pitching will be the focal point of the second half of the season for the Yanks. But rather than dig into that dismal staff right now, I’d rather take a quick gander at the guys that have come up in trade rumors recently.

First off, I’d like to commend Brian Cashman for acquiring Al Leiter for a player to be named later, which usually translates as someone we wouldn’t have use for anyway. I don’t believe that Leiter will look like his former self for the rest of the season, but I surely think he’s a significant upgrade over Darrel May and Tim Redding. If Leiter comes out with four or five more quality outings, he’ll have lived up to expectations. And if he gets rocked somewhere down the line, it’s forgivable. It’s not like we expected Leiter circa ’97; the ’05 Leiter’s ERA was 6.64, and his WHIP was sitting pretty at 1.85.

There has been analysis after analysis pointing out that the Red Sox, with Schilling returning, and the Braves, with Chipper Jones, Mike Hampton, and Tim Hudson coming off the DL, are in a better position than most teams around the trade deadline because they’re good teams to begin with, and they’re getting these guys back for free. The Yanks got that last night with the return of Felix Rodriguez. He may have gotten off to a slow start, but the guy has been reliable out of the bullpen in the past, which is exactly what the Yanks need at this point, with the starting pitching in shambles. Maybe, just maybe Felix will earn Joe Torre’s trust, and he can confidently use four guys in the bullpen instead of three.

And now for the externals. Let’s start with the most realistic acquisition: a centerfielder. Word on the street is that we’re looking intently at recently traded Eric Byrnes from the Rockies, Randy Winn from the Mariners, and Juan Pierre from the Marlins.

Eric Byrnes wouldn’t be a terrible acquisition. He’s a solid outfielder, and can cover ground in centerfield. Plus, he’s a significant upgrade over our two current guys in center. At .268/.335/.460 combined in the AL and NL, he offers superior offensive numbers to Bubba friggin’ Crosby (.263/.333/.263 in limited action), and even Bernie (.246/.340/.367). Plus, as I said, he fills the need of a defensive centerfielder. And since hitting isn’t a problem at this point, I wouldn’t mind pulling the trigger on this guy…if the price is right, of course.

Randy Winn is another guy who can cover the field, and his .273/.342/.388 line is comparable to Byrnes’s. Then again, his slugging is in the dumpster, almost as bad as Bernie’s. He and Byrnes would provide similar relief defensively, and I’d surely take Byrnes’s superior power averages.

Juan Pierre is certainly a stretch at this point, though his .271/.318/.357 isn’t looking too hot. In fact, if you use my Randy Winn argument, Byrnes would seem like the better acquisition. But Pierre has been heating up lately, and his career numbers (.307/.356/.378) are much more redeeming. The problem with Pierra, beyond his potential unavailability, is his spot in the order. Yes, we want a defensive centerfielder, and Pierre certainly provides that. But the guy is a leadoff hitter, and last time I checked, we already had our #1 and #2 hitters entrenched in the lineup.

Of course, Pierre would be a good fit in the #9 slot with his speed, but we know Joe Torre. This is the same guy that batted Soriano leadoff, even though the guy’s OBP was horrid. Bringing in Pierre would shift Cano to the bottom of the lineup, and I just can’t approve of such a lineup change at the time. Not that it should deter the Yanks from pursuing Pierre – once again, at the right price.

A final note about guys patrolling center: what about Griffey? George said he’d add payroll, and I’m sure Cincinnati wouldn’t mind dumping Griff’s $10 mil salary. He can still play the field, and his .287/.365/.540 is vastly superior to any other option. Of course, the looming problem is that he hasn’t been injured this year. So in acquiring him, you’re taking the risk of getting nothing out of him. Then again, that might drive down his asking price, which would be the sticking point in any deal for Griff. At 35 years of age, the Yanks aren’t going to want to give up young, budding prospects like Melky Cabrera, Eric Duncan, or Philip Hughes. But, and here’s the magic phrase again, at the right price, Griffey would be the ideal candidate to fill the void in the outfield.

But we all know how difficult it is to work out a trade at a reasonable price for such talent. And we all know that there are no starting pitchers available that can help us at this point. So let’s all learn to be content with Eric Byrnes and pray the pitching staff gets it together.

Because, realistically, what else can we do?