Monday, August 20, 2007

Week In Review: The Joba Rules, Part II

Continuing with our look at week 20 of the 2007 season...

Player of the Week: The player of the week is the Sweet Tooth, Bobby Abreu (.375/.464/.750 3 HR) bracketed on offense by a bunch of guys trying to justify their playing time for the new regime--Jason Giambi (.294/.333/.706 in 18 PA), Johnny Damon (.357/.438/.643 in 16 PA), Andy Phillips (.375/.412/.438 in 17 PA) and Shelly Duncan (homer, single and a walk in 8 PA) all trying to make arguments for time rotating through the DH/1B/corner outfield spots. Unlike last year, when the return of Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield made for an uncomfortable roster crunch, this time the surplus is made more comfortable by the fact that most of the guys involved aren't stars. I didn't believe it would happen, but Joe Torre has seemed to embrace his roster's flexibility. On the pitching side, Andy Pettitte's Friday start against the Tigers was sterling, and Edwar Ramirez (no runs and only 1 hit in 4 1/3, and 6 strikeouts) and Joba Chamberlain (3 IP, 5 K , 1 H) have staked claims to bullpen roles...and in Joba's case, more than that.

Dregs of the Week: Derek Jeter got a day off on Sunday, and with good reason--he was having a week to forget (.167/.231/.167). A lot of Yankee bats (Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Jorge Posada) were pretty cold for the week, too. The week's worst pitching performance was by Jeff Karstens (3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 BB, 1 K 1 HR)--who somehow, is starting to physically resemble Kei Igawa. Who knew that Igawa was contagious? Dishonorable mention goes out to the Sandman, with one blown save and one out-and-out loss for the week. As always, when Mariano falters, there are questions about his elbow, old age, all sorts of stuff. Those questions have been met with blanket denials--but it was around this time last year, that the Yanks started resting Rivera in anticipation of shutting him down the first three weeks of September.

Of course, the Pinstripers had the luxury of resting their closer, since this time last year the Yankees were leading the division by five and a half games. This year, there's no such cushion, and accordingly, we've got to be a little skeptical when told that everything's A-OK in Never-Never Land. Looked back to being himself on Saturday, though.

Story of the Week: As per the title, I was going to talk about the special rules for using Joba Chamberlain in this space, but I think I'll leave that for a little bit later, and talk a little bit about what this past week, and the stretch of contenders that the Yanks are facing this month, means for this ballclub.

This has been the most uncomfortable Yankee season in years. "Uncomfortable" sounds negative, but in a strange way, I have to say I don't mind. I'm not with the folks that trot out the "entitled" cliche as a description of Yankee fans--I don't think the description quite fits, and it's a bit lazy. The adjective I'd go for is complacent.

"Complacent" is a strange word to use for a crowd to whom anything less than a World Series victory is considered inadequate, but complacency implies more than a lack of ambition--it also implies self-satisfaction and an unconcerned manner, two trends I've found myself associating with Yankee fandom over the past few years (including, sometimes, my own). The easy first place finishes this team has collected in recent seasons, have often found us in a zone of complete comfort, an easy attitude of "they'll come around" when the team plays badly. Sure, you always have the yahoos screaming on WFAN about how the Yankees need to pick up Johan Santana (as if Johan Santana is the kind of player you just...pick up), need to get Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida (neither would do, individually, it's gotta be both). But more common than that is the attitude that the Yanks obviously have had great teams with superstar players, and if they just live up to expectations, winning will be easy.

Well, the 2007 edition isn't a great Yankee team, and this hasn't been an easy season. And in large part, because of's been really exciting. There's always been the risk that this team will be swept by the Orioles (as they very nearly were last week) or the Devil Rays, or that the teams ahead of the Yankees won't open the door to give the Bombers a shot at the playoffs. Somehow, the Yanks became the first underdogs ever with a $200 million payroll.

That's part of the reason that Yankee fans' reaction to Joba Chamberlain has been so irrationally overwhelming (as Brother Joe notes in his column today). Sure, the arrival of any highly-touted Yankee prospect is a big deal, but this isn't the usual situation where the new arrival can be hidden in the #5 rotation spot, or the #9 lineup slot. With Scott Proctor gone, Rivera suddenly mortal, and Kyle Farnsworth about as reliable as Britney Spears, this bullpen needed front-line help. The promise of front-line help where it's needed is what drives fans to start chanting your name before you have ten major league innings pitched. I can't even imagine such a thing happening in any of the previous seven or eight years.

The Yanks have played themselves into the playoff picture, but there is no comfort, no easy feeling that they're destined to win. They managed to beat down on the AL Central contenders over the past ten or so days (wrapped around yet another series loss to the Birds), and are now on the most challenging stretch remaining in the season--off for three games at Rodent Park in Los Angeles of Anaheim, then off to Motown for four more against Detroit, then back to Yankee Stadium to meet the AL East leaders, all without an off-day. This team could just as easily win six of the next games as lose six of eight, and the difference could have huge implications on that three game set against Boston to end the month.

Not comfortable at all, but pretty darn thrilling anyway.

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