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May 23, 2005

by Larry Mahnken

If the Yankees had continued at the pace at which they started, they would have lost over 100 games and finished with about the worst record in baseball, dead-last in the AL East, one season after coming within an inning of winning the pennant in a sweep.

Of course there was almost no chance of them continuing at that pace, because while many of their problems were due to inherent weaknesses with the team, bad luck had played an enormous hand in their playing that poorly for a month and a half. But having won only 11 of their first 29, they would need to play exceptionally well the rest of the season to make the playoffs, or at least get extremely hot for an extended period to get themselves back in position for a pennant run. And so they did.

A ten game winning streak is nothing but a good thing, there's no negative spin to put on it. However, it's too easy to put too positive a spin on a ten game winning streak. It got the Yankees back into contention -- they're only 4½ games out of first, and 2½ games behind the Red Sox, who are more likely to be there in the end than the Orioles (it's impossible to say that without disrespecting the Orioles, but it'll take more than two months to convince me that they're for real). But while they're back in contention, the first 29 games still happened, and the problems that plagued them then still exist. They're no longer magnified by bad luck, and they're largely overshadowed by some outstanding performances lately, but they're still there. This team can and will contend for the playoffs, division, pennant, and World Series championship, but those first 29 games cannot be ignored, they're a warning in big, neon letters: YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY.

In promoting Cano and Wang from within, the Yankees have added solid players to the back of their rotation and their lineup without spending any money, a marked difference from their offseason strategy of adding players whose quality was little better, if even as good as, Cano and Wang for millions of dollars. When Jaret Wright comes back, will the Yankees demote Wang and put Lefty back out there to get knocked around again? Of course they will, because Wang has options and Wright makes millions. But it's a bad move from a baseball perspective, and not a very good move from a business perspective, either. Better to demote a middle reliever and keep Wright in the pen for mopup and emergency starts than to start him.

And better still to have never signed him in the first place. How predictable was Wright's performance so far this season? The guy had a 3.28 ERA last season, but he preceded that with a 7.35 ERA, 15.71 ERA, and a 6.52 ERA. Only two times in his career has his ERA been below 4.50, is giving up 20 ER in 20 innings really much of a shock?

Of course it isn't, nor is the fact that Tony Womack's OPS is lower than every qualifying second baseman in baseball except Kazou Matsui -- fortunately the Yankees have stuck him in left field, where his offense is even more of a detriment (but at least having him in left and Matsui in center improves the defense out there). These two players were among the worst free agent signings the Yankees have ever made, and yet the Yankees and the media that covers them (and many, many fans) think Womack is helping the Yankees, because he's stolen 14 bases. That helps in some ways, it helped them win yesterday, but it's not that important, especially at the top of the lineup.

The team probaby wouldn't have learned from the mistakes they made, in adding these poor players and failing to bring in a real centerfielder, even if they had continued to lose two-thirds of their games. They certainly won't learn from them now, and unless intelligent people can regain the ear of George Steinbrenner in the next offseason, they will continue to go down the wrong path, and eventually they fall that should never, ever come will, in fact, come.

As it stands, the Yanks are right back in the thick of things. Their rotation is going well, Kevin Brown has become effective again, as has Mike Mussina, as has Carl Pavano. Randy Johnson is clearly fighting through minor injury problems right now and probably needs some time off to get back to 100%. Hideki Matsui is coming out of his slump, Tino Martinez has been a stunning addtion to the lineup, and Alex Rodriguez is contending for the AL MVP -- and he's even hitting with runners in scoring position. It's going really well right now, and there's good reason to be optimistic about the rest of the season, but we can't forget that 11-18 really did happen -- and it wasn't just a fluke.