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August 25, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

There's a reason I wasn't ready to declare the pennant race over last week--because it isn't over. The Red Sox fell 7½ back because they had played so miserably against the Orioles going into a tough stretch, and while 5 games back isn't quite close enough to say they're right back in the thick of things, they were able to keep from falling out of playoff contention by playing fantastic ball against excellent teams. In fact, Boston ended the stretch from hell with exactly the record projected, 8-6, and the Yankees have to beat Baltimore tonight to meet their projection, and gain the two games in the standings that they should have been expected to.

Boston's sweep of Seattle this weekend places an enormous amount of importance on the next two weekend matchup between them and the Yanks. The Red Sox probably have to win both of those series, and maybe sweep one of them, but it is quite possible for them to do that. By not declaring the race over, I was able to prevent myself, for once, from looking like an idiot.

However, with Mark Mulder out for the remainder of the regular season, at the very least, Oakland's playoff chances have decreased. The A's aren't falling out of the race any time soon, of course, but it should give the Yankees another safety net if disaster strikes and they start losing games left and right, or as is more likely, Boston goes on a hot streak and takes over first place on merit. I'll go out on a bit of a limb and say this: the Yankees are going to make the playoffs.

Going into the playoffs, they have their first three starters set, Mussina, Clemens and Pettitte. Considering how well Pettitte has pitched in the past month and a half, that's a 1-3 I'm comfortable taking into any series, even one against Oakland with a healthy big three. The fourth starter will likely be Wells, but his sciatica has been bothering him for over a month now, and if it doesn't improve by October (or at least cease to be a problem), the Yankees should probably strongly consider starting someone else. Of course, until yesterday, there wasn't anyone to consider, because you'd rather have a sore-backed Wells out there than Jeff Weaver, but Jose Contreras's start yesterday afternoon against the Orioles made him a viable option.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not putting El Titan de Bronze on a pedastal, but I will say that he was unfairly maligned to some degree earlier this season (I don't know if I did it, feel free to check the archives). He had an awful spring, and his first two relief appearances (and one in Boston) were horrendous, but I don't think that's enough to throw him on the garbage heap. His two starts before getting injured, and his start yesterday, while against mediocre teams, were still impressive. He's given up only 2 runs in 21 innings, and only 3 hits yesterday. Which one is the real one? Well, there isn't really enough data to make a firm judgement about that, but I think what we saw yesterday is closer to the genuine article than what we saw in March and April.

And if what we saw yesterday is the genuine article, that's absolutely huge for the Yankees. It means that they've added an excellent pitcher to their rotation, one who you can throw out in the postseason and feel confident of victory with, and most importantly, one who they have under contract next season. With Mussina, Weaver and Lieber the only other pitchers locked up for next season, the Yankees' rotation is looking pretty shallow. It seems likely that Pettitte will be back, which will fill out the slots, and if they pick up Boomer's option, they might look to ship out Jeff Weaver.

That, I think, would be a mistake. On one hand, if Contreras pitches well the rest of the way, Weaver shouldn't see the rotation again this season, but I think he should get one last shot next season. He's not that bad, and can be very good. Unless the Yankees go out and sign Kevin Millwood or Bartolo Colon, I think they'd be fools to dump Weaver--particularly because his trade value is about as low as it's going to get right now.