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May 10, 2004

Take your lead and shove it
by Larry Mahnken

The great thing about the way the Yankees have been playing lately is that the game is always worth watching--even if they fall behind early. Even if they fall behind by a lot. As long as there are outs left, there's a chance.

Even the games they've lost in the past two weeks (all two of them), they had a chance to tie or get within a run with one swing very late in the game. It would be really nice if they could get a lead early and hold on, but it would probably be less fun. And that they're coming back from these types of deficits more often than I remember any Yankees team since 2001 coming back, that's an encouraging sign for the long haul.

There was another bad start yesterday, this time by Donovan Osborne. I knew that Osborne wasn't very good, but I still held out some hope that he could be effective in a start. Maybe he will, but I doubt it. Lieber was terrible Friday, Contreras is in Columbus, Mussina has struggled far more often than he's been solid. Moose looked good Saturday, but not great.

So while the Yankees are hot, the optimism needs to be tempered. At least some of the success lately has to be due to facing and Oakland team in free-fall, and a Kansas City and Seattle team stuck on the bottom of the standings. If the Yankees are gonna keep this up (well, not THIS--they'd win almost 130 games if they kept this up), they're going to need to get some better pitching.

What's to be done. They could hope that Mussina gets better, Lieber has more starts like the one against Kansas City and less like the one against Seattle, and that Contreras comes back strong. That's a risk at best, foolish at worst. Some team might be looking to move an expensive starter in exchange for little more than payroll relief. While the Yankees are highly unlikely to get a starter of any especial quality out of such a deal, they could get consistent, solid innings from someone--just for way too much money.

They could also go to a four-man rotation. Yeah, that means going with Lieber every four days instead of every five days--but that's probably better than going with Lieber and Osborne two out of every five days.

There are two reasons that I don't think the Yankees should consider this, let alone do this. The first is the health of the starters. Lieber's coming back from Tommy John Surgery, Brown has a very poor history, Vazquez has a ton of innings the past few years, and Mussina is getting up there in years. The last thing they need is more stress on their arms, so the Yankees should aim to keep them in a fairly constant rotation.

The other reason is lack of depth. If one of the starters goes down, then you're back with Osborne in the rotation, and for a quarter of the games instead of less than a fifth. If another goes down, they you've got Alex Graman, and after that you're getting to the back end of Columbus' rotation. And Columbus isn't a very good team.

I'd say the Yankees should explore trade possibilities, but prepare to stick it out with what they've got. If they can make to October with this team--and I'm pretty sure they will--the really just need Mussina to turn it around to have about as good a rotation as possible. That should be enough.

Anyway, the Yankees face a test tomorrow when they go up against the equally hot Angels. How they do will tell us a lot more about how far they've come since The Sweep than the last 12 games did.