Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Road Ahead

Screw Raffy. Screw Barry. There, I’m done with that.

Another trial awaits the Yankees in the coming weeks, as they head out to Cleveland for a trio this week, north of the border for a weekend series at Sky Dome, and then back home for a set with the White Sox and four against the Rangers.

Oh yeah, that’s all followed – sans a day off – by three with the Devil Rays. Under normal circumstances, it might be some slight consolation to have the Devil Rays at the end of a 16-game stretch, rather than having a team like, oh, the White Sox at the end of the beaten path. But the Yanks have dropped seven of 10 to those mighty D-Rays this season, which is a worse mark than they have against any of the other teams in this stretch.

Cleveland doesn’t worry me too much, especially as I glance at the pitching match ups, which seem to favor us. Leiter goes tonight against Scott Elarton, Moose is up against Cliff Lee Wednesday (the game I think the Injuns have the best chance of winning), and Chacon (hey, it’s only one start, but you gotta love that 0.00 ERA) against Kevin Millwood on Thursday.

So yes, as I may have implied in the above paragraph, I believe we should take at least two of three from Tribe, and a sweep should be in the hands of Mussina. Maybe I’m expecting too much of Chacon; maybe I’m underestimating Kevin Millwood. Maybe, just maybe I’m placing the bar a bit high for Leiter, who is notorious for his inability to eat up innings (which would mean I’m also overestimating our bullpen). I just think that with the match ups in the series and the Injuns current slide, we should be able to gain some ground during these three games.

Toronto may pose a threat, seeing as how they’ve been playing well since the All-Star break and are actually ahead of Baltimore at this point. And now that Vernon Wells has found his swing, the Blue Jays would be poised to make a run at the Wild Card…if not for Roy Halladay being sidelined for the foreseeable future.

Luckily for the Jays, they have some young talent that can help them next year in a serious playoff run. Luckily for the Yanks, they don’t seem to have the pieces together this year. But they have a lot of integral pieces to a playoff team: a solid ace in Roy Halladay, a crafty lefty in Ted Lilly (despite his disappointing season), a young arm in Gustavo Chacin, a big bat in Vernon Wells, a solid middle infield in O-Dawg Hudson and Rookie of the Year candidate Aaron Hill. Next year, Jays, next year.

The Rangers worry me just because of their bats. These guys can hit, but then again, I don’t remember the Yanks having problems scoring runs themselves. Pitching is always the difference against the Rangers, and surprisingly, we actually have a better staff than them. Without going into detailed analysis of the match ups we’re going to be facing when Texas comes into town for four, I think we certainly hold the upper hand on them and can out-slug them for three out of four, split at the very worst.

Then again, I think we hold the upper hand on most teams in the AL at this point, with our ability to score six runs a game and all. Well, “most teams” certainly does not include the White Sox, who come into Yankee Stadium next week for the first contest between the teams this season. I’ve written about the Other Sox before, but I just can’t get enough of this team. They just do everything right, from their starters giving them six to seven quality innings game in and game out, followed by their bullpen finishing the job. Their bats aren’t bad, either, combining Ozzie Guillen’s small ball philosophy with power from the bats of Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, Carl Everett and A.J. Pierzynski.

They split with Boston last month, which means the Yanks have to keep a similar pace. You never want to accept losing two of three, but with these White Sox, would that be acceptable? To drop games to Garland and Beuhrle? It’s rarely acceptable to lose a series, but these White Sox are steam rolling AL team after AL team.

Problem is, the Yanks need momentum at this point. They’ve been winning games since the All-Star break, but not at a pace great enough to overtake the Red Sox for the division or the hotter than hot A’s for the Wild Card (though we may be chasing those blasted Angels for the Wild Card in a few weeks). What better way to gather momentum than to take two of three from the best team in the AL?

And, as has been said in the past and certainly will be said just about every day from here until October, there is no way to stop either of the Sox without some quality arms. Thankfully, Brian Cashman has taken the path less traveled with the Yanks and assembled a group of low-priced alternative pitchers, rather than overpaying for over-hyped, mediocre arms.

I may be going out on a limb saying this, but the Yanks very well may be better off with Leiter, Chacon, and Small – all acquired for nothing or next to nothing – than shipping off prospects for Jason Schmidt or A.J. Burnett. As we all know from the recent past, importing high profile arms – especially from the National League – is risky business that comes with no guarantees.

By starting the three aforementioned guys, the Yanks are also sending a message to the league. “We’re not a retirement home for your overpaid vets.” Instead, we’re amassing lower-priced alternatives that very well may perform just as well as the high profile guys we import (see: Jeff Weaver, Kenny Rogers, Javier Vazquez).

So can a staff of a diminished Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Al Leiter, Shawn Chacon, Aaron Small, and if we’re really lucky Chien-Ming Wang combine forces, overcomes various injuries and pitch well enough to land the Yanks a playoff spot?

Surely, considering the way the team has pulverized the ball in the recent past. If we can get all of these guys healthy, our bullpen could be bolstered as well. With Carl Pavano expected back in the near future, either Leiter, Chacon or Small will be relegated to bullpen duty, and if Jaret Wright actually does make it back, he’ll join them. This obviously could be a significant upgrade over our current pen.

And if all of these guys do recover (and I’m not even going to count Wang at this point, even though the report on his rotator cuff is favorable at this point), we’ll actually have too many pitchers, an ailment we’ve had in the past. But with the revolving door that has been the pitching staff this year, I don’t think it will present much of a problem. When it comes down to having Scott Proctor or Jaret Wright in your bullpen, it seems an obvious choice – and this is coming from a guy who down right despises Jaret Wright.

Just remember: with the way the team is hitting this year, we just need a consistent pitching staff at this point, not a staff full of aces. True, we’ll drop games because the team can’t be expected to go balls out every night with the bats, but consistent pitching will allow us to keep taking two of three from teams. And if you keep taking two of three, you’re in some quality shape come the end of September.