Monday, May 15, 2006

Week In Review: Hurtin'

Record for the Week: 3-3, 31 runs allowed, 20 runs scored
Overall Record: 21-14 (1st place tie, for real this time)

Player of the Week: Chien Ming Wang did a great job in his one start of the week, eight shutout innings without the benefit of a strikeout. He's the PotW, rare for a starter who only started once. Posada and A-Rod kept the offense running this week, although both had defensive lapses that aided Randy Johnson meltdowns: Rodriguez had two errors in Tuesday's loss against the Red Sox, and yesterday the A's ran at will against the Posada/Johnson battery.

Dregs of the Week: Things aren't perfect with the Yankee offense. Johnny Damon is banged up after yet another outfield wall collision, he only managed a .519 OPS for the week. Bernie Williams's OPS was better (.582) but his performance was worse (.182 OBP) at a time when the club needs him to step up. He did hit a big home run, however. As much as I complain about the Yanks not giving Andy Phillips a shot, Phillips is showing nothing in the scattered at bats he's able to scrounge up. Fans around the blogosphere have gone to the matt for Phillips, it'd be nice if he met us half way by getting a few hits in his half-dozen plate appearances per week.

But the dregs story isn't about the dead horse (Williams) or the banged-up mule (Damon). It's not even about the fishy injury to Tanyon Sturtze (20.25 ERA last week) or the sneaking suspicion that the faerie tale is over for Aaron Small (8.10 ERA last week). It's about the pitching staff's titular ace, Randy Johnson. Given two starts last week, Johnson rolled up two losses, surrendering a total of 11 runs (six earned) in nine and two-thirds innings of work on the week. Every indicator on Johnson is down--his strikeouts are down, his walks are up, he's hittable. For a guy who reigned for a decade with intimidation, batters have looked terribly comfortable at the plate during Johnson's Yankee tenure.

There are three options here. The one we discuss most often around here is that Johnson is injured. Since the Unit's got chronic back issues, and bone-on-bone in one knee, "hurt" might be an adjective that always applies to him, and will for the rest of his career. Johnson's had problems with his glove shoulder, and had a supposedly precautionary MRI on his $13 million left shoulder.

If Johnson's hurt, that might just be the best-case scenario. At least we'd have some idea what he's up against, face the possibility that rest and rehab, or perhaps some form of surgery can repair Johnson to his previous form. If there is no cure, at least the Yanks might get some insurance dough for the tens of millions of dollars still owed on his contract.

Option two is what I call the Contreras Situation, or "It's Not You, It's Me." In the Contreras situation, a player has special coaching needs to keep his mechanics in order, or his emotions in check, or both. Jay Jaffe mentions this possibility over at Futility Infielder. I say it's too soon to condemn Ron Guidry's tenure as pitching coach; but it's possible that Johnson and the Yanks simply are a bad match, like the Yanks and Jose Contreras were, or the Yanks and Javier Vazquez.

In that case, things are bad, but at least there's the possibility of mitigating the damage. It's unlikely that the Yanks will make the changes necessary to make an underperforming player great again, but if the Randy Johnson who dominated the game in 2003 is still in there, somewhere, some other club might approach the Yanks in trade, to try to get a future Hall of Famer on the cheap.

Option three, which is broached by Mike Celizik over on MSNBC (and which I mentioned in comments early last week) is that Johnson is simply old. According to Celizik, Johnson's velocity is consistently down 4 MPH, which looks about right. Now, that's plenty more velocity than many pitchers have, certainly more than most lefties. But it's probably not enough speed to be Randy Johnson. We've seen with Mike Mussina this season that a pitcher can re-invent himself to stay effective with age, but Johnson's a different animal than the analytical types, like Mussina, Maddux, or even Curt Schilling.

Johnson finally got his act together in the majors when he stopped trying to hit spots while simultaneously throwing the ball as hard as humanly possible. By easing off the gas pedal, he found better control and movement. Maybe what's the matter with Johnson now is that he's lost velocity, and the only way he can get back up to the mid 90's is by overthrowing the ball, like he did back in his 100 walk-per-season days.

Any way, the Yanks have to hope for Options One or Two, because to date, no one has found a cure for getting older.

The C/P Ratio: Stands at 5/7 on the week, overall 33/38. Only facing one lefty this week will do that, but it's also that the introduction of Melky Cabrera, as well as the renewed importance of Bernie Williams and Bubba Crosby, has changed the Cairo/Phillips dynamic. The team needs to find out which--if any--of the three outfielders can step into Matsui's shoes, immediately. The only way to find out is to give the outfield candidates plate appearances by the bushelful, and hope that one or more of them step up.

Story of the Week: Yeah, after reading all that, we still have a story of the week. Of course, it's the injury to Hideki Matsui.

Let's be brief. Despite 120 good plate appearances in Columbus this season, nobody's a Melky Cabrera believer; ditto for Bubba Crosby. Nothing that Bernie Williams has done this season suggests a resurgence. Even if one of those players was able to deliver the goods, the Yanks would still need help somewhere in the lineup.

Realizing this, folks are already complaining about the names that the Yanks are rumored to be interested in to replace Matsui, who can't be counted on to return (and be effective) this season. They're talking about Shannon Stewart (God, no...), Torii Hunter (woulda been nice before we got Damon), Bobby Abreu (even more of a pipe dream than the others).

This preemptive crying has got to stop. First of all, this is all just talk, and some of those names look to be more matters of reporters' imaginations than anything else (we were hearing these names within hours of Matsui hitting the turf on Tuesday. Second--since we're talking trades, here--it's only fair to point out that the Yanks still don't have much of anything the Twins or Phillies would want. Eric Duncan's got a .533 OPS at AAA. Philip Hughes should be untouchable, and might not be enough to land Abreu all on his own. Because just about everyone on the major league roster has such high price tags, you really don't have many tradeable chips--there's Cano, Wang, maybe Cabrera. Possibly Sheffield if you ate some salary. What else?

The point is, the Yanks couldn't make a trade this winter, when they were desperate for an outfielder and Coco Crisp and Jason Michaels were available. Now that things are much worse, do you think it's going to be any easier? Do you think the Sox won't do whatever's necessary to block the Yanks from making a move?

The fact is, the Yanks don't need to acquire a star outfielder. They, of all teams, would do pretty well picking up a complementary-type player. Think the Royals are having buyer's remorse about Reggie Sanders? Or Matt Stairs? Maybe if Craig Wilson's batting average dips another ten points, the Pirates might be willing to deal him at an affordable price? Maybe Raul Ibanez is available?

Are any of these great players? Heck no, all except Wilson are pretty old, and each is flawed. But they'd fit with this team, which doesn't need a great leftfielder to succeed. What this team, which is old and injury prone, needs is some versatility, the type you don't get from a star player. It needs folks who can play a role, and who aren't so expensive that you're forced to play them if they don't work out.

Hideki Matsui's games played streak never really resonated with me, for the reason that nobody cares how many consecutive games Cal Ripken or Lou Gehrig played in the minors before starting their major league streaks. But his reliability made it easy for Yankee fans to take him for granted--kind of like he was a left field public utility.

Now that he's gone, his absence will be felt. But the Yanks can certainly survive this, so long as they don't panic.

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