Friday, June 23, 2006

Writing Off the Yanks?

It's mid-June, and in my opinion, talks of the postseason are at least a little ridiculous at this point. Teams play 162 games for a reason: because anything can happen given a small sample size. If they reduced the seasons to the 82 games employed by basketball and hockey you'd see a lot of teams get lucky, make the playoffs, and completely flop because their teams just aren't that good. Why, then, are many fans writing off the Yankees playoff chances – not only their chances of making them, but chances of going deep in them – when we've got more games to go than we've played?

This isn't to say that the Yankees are flawless; from from it, actually. The pitching staff is as shaky as it's been the past two years, and while the bullpen is reformed, there are plenty of issues yet to be addressed (i.e. will Scott Proctor's arm remain attached to his body?). The offense, even without their corner outfielders, have proven serviceable over a rather long stretch. Then again, most teams would kill to have Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada at the front of their lineups. And then there's Melky Cabrera – a work in progress – Bernie Willaims – recently resurgent – and Robinson Cano – well above league average and replacement level.

Working in favor of the doomsday-sayers is that the pitching staff likely won't get much better. Mussina will likely finish the season with the ERA on which he's currently sitting (3.42) and an extrapolated won-lost record from this point (8-3 over 16 starts, 18-6 over 35). That's quality for the top of the rotation, and if Wang can continue his current ways, they'll make for quite the 1-2 punch. Randy Johnson won't be as bad as he was over those six atrocious starts in April and May, but he likely won't be as good as he demonstrated a few weeks ago against the Tigers. Gene Michael thinks that Randy will look more like Randy once we're into the summer months, and I have to buy into that at least a little. After all, he did go 10-3 with a 3.73 ERA from July 1st on last season, with a more Randy-esque 8.71 K/9 and 1.95 BB/9 than his overall season stats would suggest.

That leaves the matter of the back of the rotation. I've ceased holding out hope for Carl Pavano, though there are indications that he could be ready by mid-August. Even so, believing that his stamina will hold up and that he'll be effective is wishful thinking. The best case scenario is that he comes back in a long reliever role, which could be integral, considering our fifth starter can't last more than five innings. Maybe, just maybe, Wright and Pavano can combine for a few effective games come September.

However, finding a fourth starter is going to be the key here. While I have a hard time writing him off, I'm fairly certain Shawn Chacon isn't the answer. He's always had a low Batting Average On Balls In Play, a statistic over which pitchers don't have much control. This year, he's sitting at .314, while his career average is around .260, which is impressively low. It could be that his luck is finally catching up, exposing him for the walk-happy pitcher that he is. Regardless of the reason, it appears that he won't be serviceable enough for the fourth slot, possibly prompting Cashman to eat his arbitration-driven contract and dish him, along with a few prospects, to acquire a fourth arm. That, my friends, may be the key to the Yankees eventual success or failure in 2006.

But who knows. Maybe, given a legitimate shot, Darrell Rasner can step into the starting rotation and give the team six or seven innings every fifth day. Maybe Steve White can translate his minor-league success into useful Major League frames. There are so many unknowns at this point, and to write off a pitching staff that has to this point pitched rather well is, in my opinion, silly.

Give Cashman some time. He's currently dealing with problems that normal GMs normally wouldn't see. I mean, whose contending team loses their two corner outfielders little more than a month into the season? And, to his credit, Cashman has done a fine job so far of using his available resources. Problem is, those fossil fuels are running dry, and he has to make a decision in the coming weeks: stick with what we've got and hope it's enough, or go out and wade in the trade market, leaving the team open for the fleecing.

Personally, I'd focus on acquiring a quality fourth outfielder and arranging the pitching staff. The Yankees have quite a few arms available, and it would be wise to assess their effectiveness before looking elsewhere for help. Hopefully, Cashman will implore Torre to use T.J. Beam and Matt Smith more often, so that he can determine if they're ready for the big time. If even one is successful, it would take a huge weight off the GM's shoulders.

My friends, we have played 70 games, are 10 games over .500, and have plenty of baseball still to go. This team has plenty of room for improvement, and time in which to do so. To write off the team's chances at this point makes no sense. Randy may not be getting younger and Wright may not be pitching more than five innings in the near future, but that's no reason to say the Yankees don't have a shot. Not only are they in contention, but they look to be the favorites once a few players return from the DL.

This summer could be very bright...