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August 28, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Now don't get me wrong, I'm just as pissed off about the last two games as any of you, but lets not blow this out of proportion again. They got smacked around in two straight by the Red Sox at home on Fourth of July Weekend (with Rocket and Boomer going in those two, as well), and they did just fine after that. They got crushed by the White Sox at home in 2000, and won the World Series. Two blowout losses in front of your home crowd in late August is certainly a frustrating experience, but it doesn't mean that the Yankees are doomed. (*Smashes chair*) There. I got that out of my system...

Going into the postseason, the Yankees will have to overcome several weaknesses. The one that's not going away is their defense--Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano and Bernie Williams are not getting to balls that they should, and Bernie's play in center the last two nights led directly to two triples. One solution to Williams' defense is to move Hideki Matsui over to center while shifting Bernie to left. Godzilla's not going to win any Gold Gloves in center, but he doesn't embarrass himself. As for the middle infield, there's nothing that can be done about that, which adds a second advantage to Matsui in center, his arm is stronger than Bernie's. Not a cannon by any stretch, mind you, but much better than the limp noodle hanging off of Williams's right shoulder. A better arm in center will mitigate some of the damage from singles grounded up the middle.

David Wells's back is also a concern. Back injuries, particularly problems with the sciatica, don't go away easily, if at all, and the pain is likely having a significant effect on Boomer's pitching. Wells won't start until Game 4 of the playoffs, and probably won't pitch more than three games in a title run, but you'd feel much more confident with a starter who won't leave you without a shot to win if his spine isn't up to it. Jose Contreras is a possible solution, he's had three good starts against weak teams, but his pitching was impressive in all three, regardless of the opponent. If he pitches well in Boston on Friday, and continues to do well in September, that might be enough to convince Torre to start him in the postseason. It's tough to earn Joe's loyalty after a poor first impression, and even tougher to lose it after a good one, but if Boomer is hurt and pitches poorly in September, I really doubt Joe's enough of a fool to stick with him in October.

We were all prepared to hate Aaron Boone right from the start for taking Brandon Claussen away from us, but the depths of his suckiness have astounded even the most pessimistic of us. We thought he'd be an average hitter, instead he's been the Monica Lewinsky of MLB. But despite our hatred of Aaron, he's not really a bad player, and what we should expect in the postseason is a decent hitter with a great glove. His OPS since August 15th, when he hit the HR, has been .770, which isn't great from a 3B, but acceptable. His OPS since that game is only .695, but his OBP is .342. The point is, while Ventura's stats in Los Angeles are far more inspiring, Boone probably won't drag the Yankees under in the playoffs. Of course, he still sucks.

Other problems include the performance of the bullpen, which sjohnny tonight compared to Ishtar--"A lot of names, terrible results."

But the bullpen isn't just names. I'll admit right now that I was wrong about Chris Hammond, he's a valuable reliever, though overpaid. Jeff Nelson has had precisely one bad outing with the Yankees, and while it was a VERY bad outing, he's had quite a few excellent outings, as well. Gabe White is coming of of an injury, made a poor first impression on Tuesday, but I think it's not unreasonable to expect late-90's Stanton quality out of him in October. For whatever reason, Antonio Osuna has struggled in the second half, and it's not unlikely to cost him his job in the second half. Felix Heredia is the LOOGY, but unless he pitches well in September, I'm not confident that he'll make the postseason roster. Jeff Weaver might make it onto the roster if he pitches well out of the bullpen next month, and to top it all off, you've got Mariano Rivera. I made my defense of Rivera last week, they're fine there.

The bench is pretty bad. Right Field is a three-way, and not the fun kind. Juan Rivera and Karim Garcia will spend most of the time out there, while David Dellucci will get a bit of time too. He can also spell a defensive replacement for Bernie in the late innings. Garcia can go on a very good hot streak, and Rivera's probably getting his last shot to earn a regular job in the majors before being exiled to outfielder limbo. Really, this is the area where the Yankees should have spent their Claussen Card, but instead they used him to make a lateral step at third, which is always worthwhile. Ruben Sierra shouldn't get any time in the outfield, but his hitting when he first came over to the Bronx this year has Torre convinced that he can get a big hit instead of say, popping it up. Of course, he's far more likely to do the latter.

Infield depth is a real concern, as was made clear when Aaron Boone slipped on a banana peel in the dugout Monday and had to leave the game. If you don't count DH Giambi, the Yankees' only backup infielder is Enrique Wilson. It's assumed that Erick Almont-E is going to get the call up for the postseason, but Joe Torre has been toying with the idea of bringing Luis Sojo back, just to erase any doubt that his "genius" reputation isn't entirely deserved.

But really, the bench shouldn't be a major issue in the postseason, unless the Yankees get to the World Series and need some pinch-hitters for the pitchers. Jorge Posada is going to play every night, so having John Flaherty on the bench is more or less irrelevant, barring an injury.

This is all assuming, of course, that Joe Torre doesn't try to be cute. His tactical decisions this year leave one worrying about that, as he constantly pinch-runs for his top hitters in late innings, writes irrational lineups, pinch-hits for Nick Johnson with Ruben F. Sierra with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning down by one run. Grrrr. He's incapable of seeing, or at least acknowledging, Bernie's decline in center and moving Matsui over to mask that weakness. It's likely that Torre will make a forehead-smacking decision at least once in the postseason, but hopefully, it won't cost the Yankees a game or a series.

The Yankees lost to the Angels in the first round last year for several reasons. The first, and most important, is that the Angels played unbelievably well last season, and seemed to always explode at just the right time. Torre leaving El Duque in to give up the lead in Game 2 may have cost them that game and perhaps the series, and the Yankees' defense was undoubtably exposed as well, as the Angels refused to walk or strike out, and put the ball in play with predictably positive results. Poor performances by the Yankees' entire pitching staff is largely to blame, too.

But in many ways the 2002 postseason was flukey, and while you don't want to ignore what happened, it doesn't seem likely to me that it will happen that way again this year. If the Yankees are going to lose this season, I think it'll be on the strength of their starting pitching.

And that's something I feel very confident in. With better run and bullpen support, Roger Clemens would be a Cy Young Candidate, and probably a favorite in his last season. Andy Pettitte has been spectacular the last two months, and Mike Mussina has been just as good in August. As I said before, the fourth spot will be filled by Wells or Contreras, and while my preference is Contreras, if Boomer's back isn't ailing him in a month and a half, he's not a bad choice for Game 4.

Last season, Mike Mussina had an off year, and was dropped down to Game 3 in the first round, and he couldn't get the job done, partially because of an injury. This year, he's a legitimate Cy Young Candidate, and the probable Game 1 starter in the ALDS, unless Joe gets cute again and gives it to Rocket out of some stupid lifetime achievment standard. With Moose and Rocket in the first two games, I feel the Yankees are capable of matching up evenly against any 1-2 punch, and with Mark Mulder out for Oakland, they probably have an edge with Pettitte in Game 3 over any team, too. Of course, you don't know how these guys will pitch, but on balance you can usually expect a solid performance from any of them.

The offense is a more curious matter, though. The Yankees have one of the top hitting teams in baseball, but curiously, they haven't played like that at home. Their .836 road OPS is tops in the majors, but their .776 home OPS is decidely average. While they can still win at home with good pitching, they don't seem likely to pull out victories in a Stadium slugfest. Bernie Williams' .612 at home is the most disturbing number, but most of the Yankees' big hitters--Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano--have seen some dropoff in their numbers that Park Factors don't quite explain, as Yankee pitchers have held opponents to a .723 OPS both at home and on the road.

Perhaps this is just a fluke, slumps just happening to occur at home, rather than on the road. It's something the Yankees should hope for, because it's more likely than not that they'll have home field advantage in all three rounds on the playoffs.

So there's serious concerns about the Yankees in the postseason, and they got humiliated by the White Sox in two games at home. But don't let what happened the last two days cause you to distort the Yankees' defects into fatal flaws that prevent them from moving forward in October. It's just two games in late August against a possible postseason opponent, and they don't really mean much more than any other game. You can get off the ledge, now.