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May 26, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

Coming into the season, we were all so worried about Jon Lieber--and with good reason. He was a control pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery, and control is the last thing a pitcher regains after that procedure. Without control, wouldn't Lieber be either be walking guys all over the place, or pitching batting practice? And what was his upside? A right-handed David Wells? That's upside to be sure, but probably not enough to justify the risk.

A risk that was exacerbated by the lack of a net. Jorge DePaula was gone before Lieber had thrown a regular season pitch, and the other options--Donovan Osborne and Alex Graman--didn't inspire a shred of confidence. Orlando Hernandez would have to prove he could still pitch, and he was a few month from being ready for the majors, anyway. The struggles of Jose Contreras made it even worse. If Lieber wasn't going to be any good, then the Yanks would have to find two starters--and they didn't seem to even have the resources to come up with one.

It looked like the Yankees were going all in with a Royal Sampler. But it looks like the bluff paid off, because Jon Lieber's been great.

A part of me had looked back at something Will Carroll had been saying over the winter. Tommy John surgery ain't what it used to be, and Lieber was ready to pitch last September. Instead of having to spend the start of this season regaining his control, Lieber had recovered it over the offseason, and was close to being what he was in Chicago the first time he took the mound this year. Whatever you think of Carroll--he himself admits that sometimes he's just repeating information available from other sources--he was absolutely right on this one.

Lieber's second start, against Seattle, was terrible. But in his four other starts he hasn't just been good, he's been great, with a 2.43 ERA--and only two walks! So much for control worries...

Lieber's even getting out left-handed batters, something he's always struggled with in his career (they have a .305 batting average against him, compared to .239 for righties). This year lefties have a .226 batting average against him, righties .246 (.566/.627 L/R OPS split). That probably won't keep up, and it probably has a lot to do with facing lineups without great left-handed hitters, a .226 batting average and .566 OPS, even from weak hitters, can't be spun as anything but a good thing.

Lieber's been fun to watch and I think it's safe to say, after five starts, that the Yankees now have three or four starters they can rely on to pitch well, if not great. Mussina might still have some struggles, but a bad Mussina will probably still be a solid starter, just not the ace the Yankees expected. I guess we'll get a better idea of what he's got left tonight.

There was more good news yesterday as Steve Karsay threw 45 pitches in a three-inning simulated game down in Tampa (only giving up two hits), and is slated to pitch in a game on Saturday. A couple of weeks ago Karsay had suffered a setback, and Joe Torre himself said, "I don't think we're going to get anything out of him. If he shows up here, it will be a bonus."

Tampa's still a long way from the majors, but 45 pitches is still an enormously positive sign. If Karsay can come back and be anywhere near as good as he was in 2002, the Yankees' bullpen, while still very righty-heavy when it comes to quality pitchers, will be about as scary as any in the game.

Speaking of quality left-handers, Gabe White has actually pitched pretty well, despite his 5.17 ERA. Take out the terrible 13th inning against Seattle, and his ERA drops below two, and his DIPS (adjusted with last year's park factors) is 3.46 (ESPN reports it at 3.39 because they don't adjust for lefties or park factors--I've forwarded my spreadsheet to see if that'll help them). But Joe Torre has buried White, using him last night in a blowout for the first time in ten days, while using Felix Heredia two times over the weekend in Texas. Heredia did pitch better than White during their time as Yankees last season, and Heredia didn't give up a 2-run homer to Trot Nixon in Game 6 of the ALCS last year--the same Trot Nixon with 9 career regular season HRs against lefties, and a .641 OPS.

I can see why Torre might be more inclined to use Heredia as a LOOGY, though I don't agree with it. But he shouldn't be relegating White to a mop-up role, especially considering how important he's going to be against the Red Sox this year, to hopefully neutralize Nixon and Ortiz. He did the same thing to Hammond last year, who couldn't get lefties out, but would have been useful against Florida if he hadn't been shelved for a month.

Hopefully White will dominate when he gets a chance to pitch, and work his way back into Joe's good graces, because I don't think it's likely they'll find themselves a better lefty reliever.

Anyway, there was a game last night and everything, and the Yanks came out on top. I don't think Lee Mazzilli made a particularly good decision bringing in a 21-year old rookie from AA to pitch in a 2-0 game, or bringing in Mike DeJean to follow him when it was 6-0. It probably wouldn't have mattered, Lieber probably wouldn't have given up any runs if he hadn't thrown that ball into left-center, and they probably would have tacked on a couple more runs anyway.

Derek Jeter looks terrible. His batting average is below .190, and at this point the Yankees would be getting more production out of a Enrique Wilson-Miguel Cairo middle of the infield. His defense has definitely been better, he has the second-best SS Zone Rating in the league, third best in baseball. Why it's been better is as inexplicable as why his bat is missing, but it sure seems to be real. A couple more months of defense like this, and we could even reasonably justify a Go... no, let's not even go there yet.

But as for his bat, Joe really needs to get over his loyalty, and drop him down in the lineup. I don't see how you can have a policy of "playing the hot hand" at second, when one of the choices has established himself as a sub-replacement-level player, and then keep Derek Jeter at the top of the lineup when he's been sub-replacement-level for two months.