Friday, July 22, 2005

Barkeep, Another Vodka Tonic...

I just wish I could find this exact quote, but Google is doing me no favors in my search. Anyway, I remember reading earlier this week an article about Vladimir Guerrero, and people’s various favorite “Vlad Moments.” While they all seemed exciting enough, I sympathized more with Texas SS Michael Young, who said (paraphrased):

I play in the AL West; I don’t have any favorite Vlad moments. I have plenty of least favorite Vlad moments, though.

Everything seemed to be going fine for the Yanks last night. The homers were flying off the bats. Randy looked to be in good shape. But then the bottom of the 7th happened.

I was sitting at a local bar, chatting it up with a few people I hadn’t seen in a while when my buddy Horn tapped me on the shoulder and said, “uh, dude, bases loaded and none out.” I peered at the screen only to see Buddy Groom standing on the hill, much to my dismay. Making matters worse, I see that Torre wants to leave him in for a lefty-lefty matchup against Darin Erstad.

Thankfully, Buddy actually did something right and K’d Erstad. How he did it I’ll never understand. But here comes the big bat, and Joe decides to go with his big arm, Tom Gordon. And, I have to say, I was not displeased with that move. I don’t know about Sturtze’s availability, but it’s not beyond Gordon to come in and get five outs.

It’s just tough to get that first out when his name is Vladimir Guerrero. And I’m not even going to blame Gordon for serving that one up to him. That was a great swing by Guerrero, and I’m convinced that 99.9% of hitters would have whiffed on that pitch or fouled it off. But we all know what Vlad’s capable of, and he flashed it, not only by hitting an otherwise unhittable pitch, but by doing it in the clutch.

So at that point I laid my head down on the bar, and called for another drink, which was snatched from me when I was reminded that I was driving. But, not letting that deter me from my need to drink following such a moment, I immediately left the bar, headed to a friend’s house, and began putting them back. Because if there ever was a Yankees moment to start drinking, that was sure it.

I’ve said before that I’d settle for a split out in LA. That would send us home with a 7-4 road trip. Not stellar, but not really hurtful, either. Obviously, you’d like to take the next three and go home 8-3, and likely only a game or so out of first. But four against Boston, three in Texas, and four out in LA can be quite taxing for any team.

We get to see Leiter’s second offering today, and while I’m trying not to have any expectations regarding him, it’s tough to forget what a pleasant surprise he was on Sunday. I guess all we can do is hope for a quality start, at which point we should have a rested enough bullpen to hand the game to Sturtze-Gordon-Rivera.

Or maybe Vlad will drive me to drink again.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Some Afternoon Notes from Around the Media

From the Florida Sun Sentinel

Are you kidding me? Boston would be willing to give up Bronson Arroyo – a guy with a World Series ring under his belt and ostensibly a positive force in the clubhouse – for A.J. Burnett, an import from the obviously pitcher-friendly National League? Sure, Arroyo’s ERA may be hanging just above 4, but Burnett is sitting at 3.68.

Then again, maybe adding J.C. Romero would be worth the gamble on Burnett. But, if the Sawks have learned anything from their rivals, they should know that bringing in pitchers from the NL is risky business.

Bill Mueller would exit town, a move that wouldn’t be horrible considering he’ll be a free agent at year’s end. Not mentioned in the article is Kevin Millar, who could join Mueller in trade. But that would put the Sawks in a position where they go with the struggling Lowell at third, or recall the here again, in Pawtuckett again Kevin Youklis.

With the rest of the bats in their potent lineup, trading off the offense for some bullpen relief wouldn’t be a terrible idea. But then again, if you’re Minnesota, very much alive and well in the Wild Card race, why would you consider trading Romero at a time where bullpen help is anything but aplenty?

From the Bergen Record

Leo Mazzone in pinstripes? Too good to be true. I always love reading these reports at first, and my reaction is always, “Man, we’ll be unstoppable with him! Look what he did in Atlanta!” But then reality sets in, and I come to my senses. Why in the world would Atlanta let the guy out of a contract? Him and Bobby Cox have been leading that team to division championship after division championship every year since ’91. They’ve developed some of the best pitchers the game has seen, and watched as they failed outside of their system (Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood, Jaret Wright to name a few).

We know Mel is out at the end of the season. Hell, the guy wasn’t supposed to even be back this year, and after all the talks of his possible mid-season ouster, there’s not a chance he’ll be aboard next year. So going after the game’s best is the obvious choice for the championship hungry Steinbrenner. But, as previously stated, there just seems no logical way the Braves would let this guy walk while under contract.

From the Daily Herald (Chicago)

Yeah, we’d all like to get Billy Wagner, buddy. But with the Nats showing signs of weakness in the NL East, the Phils are in prime contention for the Wild Card. Ugueth Urbina hasn’t found hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park very accommodating, having given up five homers already in just 16.2 innings of work, over which time he has also walked 11.

Wagner has found great success despite the ballpark’s poor design, keeping his ERA in the low 2’s with a WHIP near 1. If the Nats lose a couple more over the next few days, look for those trade rumors involving Wagner to dissipate.

A Big Apology is Due

As a pseudo sportswriter – scratch that. As a guy who writes about the Yankees with an audience of his father and one, maybe two friends, I’m bound to make mistakes. Even the guys who get paid to write sports have their share of blunders. Dan Graziano of the Star Ledger said a month and a half to go that the Yanks were out of it. Skip Bayless of ESPN penned a column and argued on air that Rafael Palmiero shouldn’t be honored in the Hall of Fame.

My mistake was in doubting one of the boys in pinstripes. And while he gave plenty of reasons for said doubt, he still wears the pinstripes daily. He’s still part of the team, and who am I to question a guy who has Captain Jeter’s seal of approval?

It has taken me 135 words to even begin apologizing to Jason Giambi.

Not that I, in addition to the majority of pinstripe fanatics, were unjustified in some way regarding this doubt. We don’t my words here to recall his envelopment in RoidsGate, followed by the ambiguous apology press conference, followed by a .224 April, followed by a .241 May.

But through all of that, he was a Yankee. And I don’t want to hear anything about, “oh, he never earned his pinstripes.” If he hadn’t prior to the 2003 ALCS, he sure as hell did in Game 7. Aaron $@%! Boone wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to take Wakefield deep if not for Giambi. When the team was down 4-0 in an elimination game, he put them on his back and knocked two solo jacks. And they were only solos because the rest of the team couldn’t seem to string together any hits. So Giambi did it the old fashioned way and took the otherwise immortal looking Pedro Martinez over the fence, where he would score no matter what Enrique Wilson would do hitting behind him.

He also led the Yanks in OPS for 2002 and ’03 with a 1.033 (!!) and .939, respectively, which was actually a drop-off from his two previous seasons in Oakland, where he posted a 1.123 in ’00 and a 1.137 in ’01. And not to nit-pick the decline, but from his rise in strikeouts – 112 in ’02 and 140 in ’03 compared to 96 in ’00 and 83 in ’01 – more than likely came from over swinging, which can be attributed to the added pressure to perform in New York under his gargantuan deal.

So here’s a player that put up excellent numbers in his first two years with the club, carried us through a pivotal playoff game, and we’re turning our backs on him. Yes, 2004 was a complete disappointment from any standpoint, but the guy was sick. And I don’t care if the steroids caused his illness. You can’t get on a guy who went from a parasite to a benign tumor.

And then RoidsGate opened the flood gates. Mike and the MadDog, among the other lesser known radio shows, were inundated with callers calling for Giambi’s head. No one wanted this guy around anymore. The New York Post even went as far as to publish the most dismal looking photo ever taken of Giambi with the headline, “Ban the Bum.”

Why? Because deep down, we all thought he was done. We already had the evidence of his – although slight – decline in numbers, especially his batting average, which fell to .250 in ’03. And you know how New Yorkers love talking about their batting averages. But what no one remembers is that despite his mediocre-at-best average, the guy still had an OBP of .412 (which combined with the average is remarkable), and still belted 41 homers, which matched his total from ’02 and was once again two short of his career best.

This seems like an appropriate time to ask the question. What if Giambi hadn’t gotten sick in ’04? What if he put up a season like 2003, where he wasn’t particularly great, but he still got on base and still drove in runs? What if this production put the Yanks over the top, and we laid the Red Sox in defeat once again and overtook the Cardinals to win the ’04 Series? Who would be calling for his head then? Would the New York Post have cried, “Ban the Bum” if Giambi was wearing a ring?

Three words: Oh Hell No. We would have reacted much like the San Fran fans did when Bonds became entangled in the controversy. The fans of New York would have welcomed back Jason with open arms and blasted the media for dragging him in the middle of this thing. But, since the New York mindset is, “what have you done for me lately,” we cast him aside, let him hang for the rest of the world to ridicule.

I even went as far as to comment that the team should just continue to put him out there daily and let the fans have their way with him. Surely a few months of ridicule would push him past the breaking point and force his hand into a buyout. Little did I realize that I was only half right.

Torre stuck with him like any father would stick with the prodigal son. And even as Torre sat him more, and even as the talks began to swirl about his proposed demotion to the minors, Jason insisted that he just needed time to get back into the groove. “Shyeah, right,” was the reaction of the majority of fans, but Jason continued to persist.

And he continued to grow. With his average, on base, and slugging in arrears, Jason fought through June, and showed flashes of change. Suddenly, he wasn’t striking out every other at bat. On lower pitches, he was no longer dropping his back shoulder and leaving a gaping hole in his swing. He was going down, getting that pitch, and driving it to the outfield for a base hit. And, finally, he had a month where he walked more than struck out.

But still, Giambi needed that one boost to his confidence, something that could take the place of steroids in his psyche. That opportunity came on Sunday, June 26, 2005. With the Yankees down 4-3 entering the bottom of the ninth against the Mets, they faced being swept at home by their crosstown mini rivals. And for the Yankees and their fans, nothing is more embarrassing than a loss to the Stinkin’ Mutts. Replace the word “loss” with “sweep,” and you’re in store for some downright humiliation.

Following a Tino walk and an A-Rod double, the Mets issued Giambi the ultimate insult – they intentionally walked the guy in front of him. Now, given the situation – second and third, none out – and the guy they decided to walk – Hideki Matsui – you can’t really blame the Mets for making this move. But the fact remains that the Mets would rather see Giambi with the bases loaded than Matsui with guys on second and third with Giambi on deck.

I can just imagine the pep talk by Jete in the dugout. “Nobody intentionally walks a guy to get to Giambi! NOBODY!”

And when the ducks were on the pond and pride was on the line in the Bronx, Giambi came through, hitting the game-winning single.

That was the third to last game in June. And now we’re nearing the end of July, and sweet sassy molassey, what a turnaround. This month, Giambi is hitting – and I’m getting giddy just getting ready to type out this line -- .391/.541/1.000, with 8 homers, 14 RBI, and only 11 strikeouts. In other words, he’s gone from washed up to a shoe-in for AL Player of the Month in just three months. Outstanding.

Whether this will hold up for the rest of the season remains to be seen. Sure, he won’t hit .391 the rest of the season, but my pre-season wishes for Giambi were .280/.400/.490. As of today, he’s .284/.437/.502. As long as he keeps that up, I’ll be a satisfied fan.

Jason, once again, I’m sorry.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Are the Yanks Smoking Crack?

From the New York Daily News:

Eric Byrnes has been a popular name to link with the Yanks, but they have not had much success in discussions with the Rockies. Colorado offered to send Byrnes and pitcher Shawn Chacon to the Bronx for Scott Proctor and Sean Henn, but the Yankees had no interest. Now that the Yanks have Al Leiter, Chacon isn't even on their radar.

So let me get this straight. Colorado offered us a starting pitcher, which we need, and a centerfielder (which we need) for Proctor (who kinda sorta sucks) and Henn (who has proven that he can't pitch at the major league level at age 24).

Unless the Yanks know something about Henn that the rest of us don't, he's not going to be able to make that leap. His 0-3, 11.12 ERA, 2.56 WHIP, .360 BAA, and 11-3 walks to strikeout ratio should be able to tell us that. But hey, I'm not a major league scout, so what do I know?

Well, I do know that Shawn Chacon has a 4.11 ERA for the Rockies, which could drop a few points in Yankee Stadium, despite the DH. I also know that we need a starting pitcher, Leiter or not. With Wang more than likely out for the season, and Kevin Brown being Kevin Brown, the Yanks are going to need a guy on top of Johnson, Mussina, Pavano and Leiter.

And I've discussed Eric Byrnes earlier today.

So what's to lose, especially with Proctor's role becoming diminished with the return of Felix Rodriguez? Something tells me the Daily News was misinformed. There's just no way that Cashman would refuse such a deal at this time. No, something is afoot here.

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?