In baseball, optimism can become a memory in an instant — one twisted knee, one blown out shoulder, one or two bad breaks, and a slump that never seems to snap. It’s been a long, long time since the New York Yankees had a lost season, going all the way back to the early 1990s teams, and there is no guarantee that they’re on their way toward one right now, but the problems keep increasing and the memory of that once vibrant optimism keeps decreasing.
The Yankees are 13-12 right now, four and a half back of the Rays while sitting in 4th place in an impossibly talented division. These numbers mean something and they mean nothing. It’s May 4th and there is plenty of baseball left, but not for some of the players the Yankees had thought they would be counting on. There will be no breakout sophomore season from the newly acquired beast of a righty, Michael Pineda, no storybook end to Mariano Rivera’s career — not this season, maybe not ever.
The team, long weary (in their words, but not necessarily their actions) of wagering treasure on over priced free agent arms due to a decidedly disappointing string of, well, disapointments, chose instead to wager potential and talent for more potential and talent. This puts a premium on the value of a young controllable starting pitcher over the value of a young controllable hitter with little consideration for the durability concerns that must always be tied to those that use their arm to unnaturally throw a ball 98 MPH 200 or so times a week, particularly those who struggle at the end of the previous season. The end result, as you well know, has been a complete disaster for the Yankees, with Pineda tearing up his shoulder long before he ever got a chance to throw his first regular season pitch for his new team, though there is still hope for next season and beyond that.
For Mariano Rivera though, there may well be no tomorrow as the surefire Hall of Fame closer and the all-time saves leader who had previously hinted that this could be his last season, seems to have likely torn his ACL while shagging fly balls during batting practice, an injury that will take 6-8 months to heal.
Sadly, or not, depending on your perspective, these are just the most recent problems that promise to plague the Yankees this season. For one thing, a pitching staff that was supposed to be among baseball’s best has been little more than a disappointment so far with Phil Hughes still refusing to let his potential prove true and Freddy Garcia proving to be little more than a batting practice pitcher in his brief and now concluded time in the Yankees 2012 starting rotation. Right now reinforcements like David Phelps and the soon-to-be en route Andy Pettitte buoy the spirits, but Phelps’ small sampling of success out of the pen (and in the minors) are no guarantee of sustained success in the rotation and Pettitte is 39 and more than a year removed from the last time he threw a pitch on a Major League mound.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has to fill the gap left by Phelps and also, now, account for the loss of Rivera, the unsinkable, always reliable closer. Do the Yankees go with experience and cast Rafael Soriano in the role of closer or do they go with the better pitcher and let David Robertson have a shot at it? Either way, the team is still diminished greatly, not just because neither man will likely compare to Rivera, but because this leaves the team vulnerable in the middle innings, forcing them to rely on Boone Logan, Cory Wade, Clay Rapada, and Cody Eppley. In a perfect world the Yankees would be a couple of weeks away from getting Joba Chamberlain back from last years Tommy John surgery, but the big righty badly injured his ankle on a trampoline in the spring, thus putting his 2012 in question.
If you look at all of the problems the Yankees have on the mound you start to almost feel bad for the evil empire, but then there is the lineup, which is right now dealing with their own, albeit smaller health problems, with both Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher on the shelf and Eric Chavez now put down for a whiplash injury that had him nearly losing his balance while standing in against Baltimore Wednesday night. Add to those injuries the fact that the Yankees have gotten slow starts from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, and extremely slow starts from Russel Martin (.172 BA) and Robinson Cano (4 RBIs in 102 ABs) and Yankee fans need to wonder what exactly Brian Cashman is going to do about this mess, and the answer to that may be the worst part of all of this.
Brian Cashman is going to do nearly nothing, because what can he do? Oh sure, maybe the Yankees pick up a middle reliever to help account for the loss of Rivera and the elevation of Soriano and Robertson, but what can they do about the rotation beyond hoping for the best at this point? What are they going to do about immovable contracts like Rodriguez’ and Teixeira’s and under-performing stars like Cano? The payroll is already north of $200 million and while the farm system is in good shape, the Yankees would still be hampering their 2014 austerity plans and seriously robbing their system of useful players like Eduardo Nunez, Manny Banuelos, Mason Williams, and Gary Sanchez if they went out to get any marquee talent — and at this point isn’t that something they already have enough of?
There have been times in the past where the Yankees have found bargains and useful pieces in the scrap heap. Before Cashman, Gene Michael got to build a winning team and keep his prospects because he was able to find a backup catcher from Texas and see him become a 20 home run offensive force in the form of Mike Stanley. Michael was also able to sign a washed up icon in the form of Wade Boggs and see him go from a .259 hitter in his last year with the Red Sox to a .302 hitter with the Yankees. Add to them Paul O’Neill, Jimmy Key, Tim Raines, Steve Howe, and others, and you see some of the key building blocks for the Yankees’ resurrection around the middle part of the 90s.
Cashman has also had some luck with those kinds of acquisitions. Look at Shawn Chacon, Aaron Small, and Aaron Boone, hell, look at Nick Swisher or last years rotation that was saved by Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, not to mention under the radar bullpen pieces like Luis Ayala and Cory Wade.
No, if the Yankees are going to find their way this season they’ll have to be a little smart, a lot patient, and a whole lot lucky. The Yankees may be able to avoid a lost season, and they may not if the baseball Gods that have already been so cruel to the Yankees continue their ways. But then again, that’s baseball, and the Yankees have been side-stepping this kind of bad karma for a long, long time.
What are your thoughts on the Yankees this season? Are they done? Let us know in the comments!