Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mo' Cash, Less Problems

A sizable bit of the expected drama for this off-season went away today, with Yanks GM Brian Cashman re-signing with the team for three more years at the helm of the front office. Cashman, who'd had "complete authority" under his last agreement with George Steinbrenner, apparently was willing to live with Hank Steinbrenner's vision of an "advisory board"--either that, or the New Boss's vision was just a negotiating point. Still, it's good that the Yankees aren't out there looking for someone new to run the shop, since it's hard to imagine anyone stepping into Cash's role without missing a beat. Cashman's return is also good news for the Yankees' young players, who likely won't be freely available to anyone who has a superannuated marquee name.

In other soothing news, Will Carroll has the lowdown on Mariano Rivera's shoulder surgery over on Unfiltered. The procedure--called a Mumford procedure--isn't as scary as what we usually expect when we hear the words "Yankees' best pitcher to have shoulder surgery."

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sweet and Sour

The Yankees ended the 2008 season with a doubleheader at Fenway after Saturday's rainout. In the early game, Mike Mussina finally bagged his 20th win in a season, capping a campaign that would have been worthy of the Comeback Player of the Year award, in any season where Cliff Lee's body wasn't possessed by aliens. The late game was a little more like the Yankees' season as a whole: a desperate struggle to beat a Boston team that hardly seemed to be trying to win, marked by a tough time scoring runs and some bad pitching by Darrell Rasner. A win, and a season-ending sweep of a Red Sox team that was clearly in tune-up mode for the final series, would have allowed the Pinstripers to finish their season with 90 wins and given us a small psychological boost going into a long, hard winter. But this wasn't really a season for feel-good endings, so the Red Sox nabbed with a walk-off tenth inning victory, the immortal Jonathan Van Every knocking in Alex Cora for the win.

For the first time since 1993, the Yankees season ended with the Yanks on the outside looking in at the postseason. In 1993 I'd just graduated college, a cell phone you could barely fit in a coat pocket was a cutting-edge luxury, and next to nobody had heard of the Internet. It's been a long wild ride for the Bronx faithful, and I'm grateful that it lasted this long. Looking, ahead, 2009 promises big changes. Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Bobby Abreu are free agents, Jason Giambi and Carl Pavano will be free agents if their options aren't picked up. In different ways, the Italian connection of Mussina, Giambi and Pavano have each been emblematic of the 21st Century Yanks. Mussina (like the Yanks) has been good but not great over the past eight years. Giambi has been simultaneously frustrating and underrated; despite all the steroid drama, there were only two real bad years out of the Giambino's seven in the Bronx. Pavano--well, he's been the symbol of how far the Yankees have fallen from the late 90s peak, an overpriced player whose name itself became a punchline.

We'll have October to watch everyone else play for the World Series title (can I hear a "Lets go Rays"? OK, maybe not...) and some months after to see how this particular Humpty Dumpty tries to put itself back together again. Will the Yanks stick with their homegrown players, despite a season that presented significant setbacks for each and every one of them? Should veteran warhorses like Mussina and Pettitte and Abreu return next season? Will CC Sabathia get fitted for a set of XXL pinstripes, and if so, will it be a mistake of Pavanoriffic proportions? Time will reveal all things, and we'll have time to discuss it, starting with September in Review tomorrow, and season reviews to follow.

Some odds and ends:

Schadenfreude is such a lonely word: For all the Lupica talk about how New York is now the Mets' town again, they finished with the exact same record as the Yankees, and they're now just as likely to win the World Series. I wasn't exactly rooting against the Flushing warriors, but given the way that Mets fans stunk up the joint during this year's Subway Series, I'm not exactly sad that the Phillies overtook them for the division title, again, and that the Brewers snuck past them to grab that Wild Card.

Joe vs. Joe: First of all, congratulations to Joe Torre, as well as his pinstripe alumni coaches--Don Mattingly, Larry Bowa, and Mariano Duncan--for making it to the playoffs in his first year managing the Dodgers. This is the type of news that's bound to set off all sorts of recriminations about how the Yankees would have been so much better if Torre, not Joe Girardi, had been at the helm for Yankee Stadium's final season. There's no way to tell, but let's get some perspective here, in the current Yankee manager's defense. First of all, the Dodgers won the weakest division in baseball, with a record five wins worse than the Yankees. Second, both managers had to deal with injuries--each lost his staff ace about 100 innings into the season--but the Dodgers got a historic second-half push from an extremely motivated Manny Ramirez, who hit almost .400 over the last two months of the season. Xavier Nady was nice, but not that nice. Third, Torre gave Juan Pierre 400 plate appearances, which is kind of as bad as giving Melky Cabrera 450 PA, just without the excuses of youth and defense. I wish Torre the best, and missed him (and Donnie Baseball) during the Stadium's swan song, but it really doesn't pay to look backwards.

Brief Political Digression: Friday's presidential debate looked like a draw from here--each candidate seemed to do best in the areas they were expected to have trouble. McCain managed to dominate the conversation during the section of the debate that was on the economy, dragging the discussion to comfortable terrain where he could talk more about earmarks and spending than market regulation. Obama didn't back down during the foreign policy section of the debate, despite McCain's constant digs at his lack of experience and supposed naivete. The absolute worst line of the entire debate, from McCain: "I think the lessons of Iraq are very clear that you cannot have a failed strategy that will then cause you to nearly lose a conflict." So the key to victory is avoiding failure? Thanks for the tip...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

At BP: The Last of the Last

Here's a taste from my article up at Baseball Prospectus on the final game at Yankee Stadium (sadly, it's a pay article on BP's system):
Another neat gimmick that fell short in the execution was the Yankee Stadium countdown clock, which I mentioned in my piece on the Yankee Stadium home opener. The idea was that in the fifth inning of each home game, once the game became "official" a special guest would turn a crank, and the number of games left at Yankee Stadium would be reduced by one on a special scoreboard. Throughout the season, people registered disappointment with this because the "special guests" were often not terribly special or particularly associated with Yankee baseball. Often the person turning the crank would be an obscure executive from Met Life, the promotion's sponsor. In the middle of the fifth inning of Yankee Stadium's last game, Yankees announcer Michael Kay shows up on the big screen, spouts some doubletalk about how there can be no final game at Yankee Stadium, because Yankee Stadium is forever, then he turns the crank, making the special countdown scoreboard go from one to—I kid you not—"Forever." Two observations on this come to mind: first, thanks for the season-long voyage toward innumeracy, you've managed to make us all dumber; and second, with the Stadium packed with VIPs, at least a half-dozen of them Hall of Famers, Michael frickin' Kay was the person selected to turn that crank? Really?
Also at BP (but this time, free), Brother Joe got to share some of his feelings about the closing of the Cathedral:

Of course, you cannot praise 85 years of baseball players in one sitting. It’s too much to handle, there are too many greats to name at once, especially given the franchise we’re talking about here. Even the video clips seemed to miss a handful of significant players, and there was only so much time and space to have Yankee greats be announced and trot out to their positions. It was left to us to fill in the gaps.

So you let loose for Hideki Matsui, and hope that Rickey Henderson can hear you yell. A chant of "Paul O’Neill" fills the air, and in your heart you want Dave Winfield to feel the love as well. The crowd goes wild for Derek Jeter, and you just know that Scooter is hearing the echo, tucking into a cannoli and smiling. You can’t cheer them all, so you cheer the one out loud and the rest in your heart, the ones who are there, the ones who live in your memory, and the ones who set the stage for your memories, the heroes you know by stat lines and stories and grainy black-and-white footage. You cheer, and when you try to chant, your voice catches and you realize this is all hitting you a little harder than you thought. The video board shows Chris Chambliss hitting a huge home run, and you realize this is the only chance you’ve had to cheer your first favorite player in more than 20 years, and you do just that, standing out among a crowd of people with no understanding of why the short guy is so excited.

As promised, some more pics:

Brother Joe wasn't sitting with us for the Stadium's swan song, but he did come by to visit during the pregame. After the game, we stood outside the Stadium (by the manure-smelling Gate 2) talking about the day, the game, the monolith next door, soon to be our team's new home. Joe (a brother from another mother) and my actual brother Jeff are the two living people most responsible for me taking my love of the Yankees above the level of casual fan, and it meant a lot to me that the three of us were outside the Stadium together as they closed the shutters on the public entrance. "If I had a press pass, I'd see day break in there," Joe said. Amen.

Brother J and I (he's on the left and I'm on the right) at the end of the game. After one of our fellow Sunday plan holders took the pic, I noticed that we were out of focus, but the Stadium wasn't (he'd wanted to make sure we got the scoreboard in the background). My brother and I agreed that, on this night in particular, the focus should be on the Stadium, so we decided not to re-take the shot. I think it puts things in perspective.

You can find more of my photos from in this Picasa album, which I'll be updating with more pics soon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Zero Games Left: The End of Yankee Stadium

My brother J and I saw off the Cathedral in style yesterday, spending about eleven hours there en route to the Yanks' 7-3 win over the Orioles, the last Yankee win on the plot of land they've called home since 1923.

It was a bittersweet day, more celebration than wake for the defunct arena. I'll have more thoughts on it later on today at Baseball Prospectus, and there will be more pictures and discussion here on the blog once I've gotten some rest. Until then, just know I feel very lucky to have spent a very special day at the Stadium.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

18 and Over?

The Yankees, having no real shot at the postseason themselves, tried to help out the Twins by taking three out of four from the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, but the Twinkies spit the bit by getting swept in Cleveland. Tonight's game featured good performances by two Yankees whose contracts are up when the season's over--Mike Mussina, who registered his 18th win of the season with a strong six-inning effort, and Bobby Abreu, who clouted a pair of big homers against former Yankee Javy Vazquez. Abreu wound up with six RBI, and Mussina cruised after escaping a big jam in the first inning, and allowing only one run on two hits and two walks. Moose's win keeps the possibility of his first 20-win season alive. It'll be a tough road to get here--he'd have to beat the Blue Jays and Red Sox, on the road--but at least it's a chance.

Meanwhile, the weather's been nice for Yankee Stadium's last week. Yesterday, I was in Riverside Park, where the local tweens were showing off their sk8er boi skillz. Hopefully, the good weather will hold up for the Yanks and Orioles to send out the Stadium in style this weekend. One way or another, I'll see you in the Bronx Sunday night.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Eight Games Left: Record-Setter

I didn't get to Sunday's matchup with the Rays; my Brother J and his wife did, however, and they got to witness some history:

(Hat tip to J for the camera work. Click on the image for a larger view.)

Congrats to the Captain on his torrid 9-hit weekend, and for matching Lou Gehrig's all-time Yankee Stadium hits record. Jeter now has all week to better the mark, one that will be a permanent part of the record books with the Cathedral closing its doors. The record-matching hit was a majestic homer off the Rays phenom, lefty David Price. The game also featured a first-inning grand slam by A-Rod, additional fireworks by Jason Giambi, and some slick defense by Brett Gardner in center. Can't Pitch Carl pitched well enough for his third win of the season, although his high-eighties cheese doesn't really tempt anyone to pick up the option on his contract. After some shoddy work by Jose Veras with a four-run lead, Mariano Rivera got a one-out save in the ninth to step into a tie for second place on the all-time saves list.

On the other side of things, Robinson Cano got benched mid-game by Joe Girardi, for failing to hustle on a hit deflected off Giambi's glove. Some would say that the benching is a long time coming, in a season where Cano will be lucky to finish with a .300 OBP, and where the adjective most often applied to him has been "lackadaisical." That's not one of the good English words, Robbie.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Dead Team Walking

No sooner do the Yanks show signs of life against one of the best teams in the majors, the Tampa Bay Rays, than they give those gains back against the worst team in the AL. You could excuse the Yanks poor performance against Brandon Morrow on Friday--the youngster, making his first major league start after spending a season and a half in the pen, was throwing bullets. But Sunday, the starter had a much lesser pedigree--Ryan Feierabend is no one's idea of a world beater, but he kept the Yanks to just two solo homers. Mike Mussina, going for win number 18, spit the bit with some longball action of his own, allowing Adrian Beltre and Jose Lopez to go deep against him. A second homer, against Jose Veras, gave Lopez a career day, and the Yanks are kicked into fourth place in the AL East.

Things aren't going to get easier, with the Yanks in Anaheim to play the team with the best record in baseball. Ugh.


By the way, I'm holding a chat over on the Baseball Prospectus web site at 1:00 PM, Eastern. Everyone's invited to join in and ask some questions. The link to the chat session is here. Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Catching Up: The Fall of Melky Cabrera

After a season in which Melky Cabrera brought numbers (.242/.296/.337) more appropriate to a 1970s shortstop than a 21st Century outfielder to the mix, the Melk-man was finally sent down to the minors, just four days after his 24th birthday. From June 8 to August 13, Melky had hit only .202/.256/.269, with just 8 extra base hits in 209 PA. Many have taken the opportunity to rewrite history, claiming that Cabrera never belonged in the majors, and saying they wouldn't be surprised if he never makes it back. Others have pointed to the celebrated friendship between Melky and another disappointing youngster, Robinson Cano, as an unhealthy situation that's made both players complacent and altogether too party-minded. Any which way, it's hard to tell if this demotion will just be an obstacle, or if it's the beginning of the end for a popular player.

Melky's demotion left a hole in the Yankee defense. For all his struggles with the bat, Cabrera's been an above-average fielder in center. Shifting Johnny Damon to center, and inserting Xavier Nady in left, is a huge net loss for the Yankee defense. Only days before he became a full-time center fielder again, Damon was bragging about how much he loved DHing--not a great sign, for a player the Yanks acquired for his flycatching ability. Nady, who I'd remembered as a decent defender from his time with the Mets, looks utterly unnatural in left field--his routes to balls make late-era Bernie Williams look efficient and instinctive, his arm is awful. Even though the Yankees could likely use him as a late-inning defensive replacement, if nothing else, the Yanks didn't recall Cabrera with the expanded rosters on September 1--a sign that the demotion may be punitive, as well as performance-related.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Month in Review: August 2008

Record for the Month: 13-15, 135 RS, 148 RA
Overall: 72-64, 651 RS, 619 RA

Game of the Month: August 3, 2008--Yankees 14, Angels 9 Probably the wildest game of the year, with the Yanks digging a 5-0 hole for themselves early, clawing their way back against John Lackey and taking an 8-5 lead in the bottom of the seventh, thanks to some shabby defense by the Halos, then losing the lead on a Mark Texeira grand slam against Edwar Ramirez, then taking the lead again with a six-run, three error eighth inning. The whole game was just a tradeoff of haymakers between what looked like two of the best teams in the league. As the month wore on, the Yanks showed that they're not really in the Angels' class this year. Other candidates: the Yanks' comeback against the Red Sox to avert a sweep on Thursday was pretty big, but it was canceled out by the comeback loss to the Jays on Saturday. In some ways, both of those games were emblematic of the month as a whole.

Player of the Month: It's hard to give this to Mariano Rivera in a month where he had two losses and a blown save--although, otherwise, he was his normal, stellar self (6 Sv, 1.88 ERA in 14 1/3 innings). But who are the other candidates? Jason Giambi led the team in HR (8) and RBI (22) and had some clutch hits, but didn't hit or get on base too well overall (.232/.327/.524 for the month). Derek Jeter hit well for average last month but showed no power (.345/.382/.402), Bobby Abreu was better (.342/.405/.421) but not by too much. By default, the best offensive performance for August goes to Xavier Nady, who impressed with the bat (.308/.351/.523, 6 HR, 19 RBI), even if his glove has been suspect. With that in mind, the month's honors go Mike Mussina, (3-0, 2.93 in 6 starts). He's on pace for his most starts since 2001, and would be only 3 games away from the magic 20 game plateau if the bullpen hadn't blown the game in his start against the Twins. Pretty neat, considering that at this point last year he'd been booted from the rotation for Ian Kennedy, and most everyone (including me) thought there was a fork sticking out of him.

Dregs of the Month: In his first month in Pinstripes, Ivan Rodriguez (.196/.250/.321 in 56 AB) was almost outhit by the man he was putatively replacing as the Yankees' backstop, Jose Molina (.222/.239/.400 in 45 AB). That's some kind of awful. Speaking of awful, Melky Cabrera (.115/.148/.115) finally played his way off the Yankees' roster, losing his spot intermittently to Brett Gardner and Justin Christian prior to the Xavier Nady trade. I'll talk about this more in a Catching Up, but it speaks volumes that when the September 1 callups were announced, Melky was left in AAA to help Scranton in the International League playoffs. Even though Melky was hitting .333 in AAA, he showed absolutely no power, and between the two levels, in 83 at bats, Melky only had two extra base hits (both doubles) all month.

Speaking of the Nady trade, Damaso Marte has been almost as big a disappointment in August as Pudge has been, allowing a 7.71 ERA in the month (and perhaps being injured, per Pete Abe). Dave Robertson (8.81 ERA) also had a month to forget in the bullpen, and Edwar Ramirez returned to his Three True Outcomes ways (3 HR, 4 BB, 13 K in 11 2/3 innings, good for a 6.73 ERA). Girardi leaned pretty hard on the bullpen all month long.

Story of the Month: Since 1996, when the Yankees almost blew their division lead with a 13-17 month, August has been very good to the New York Yankees. They've had a winning record every year since, and with the exception of 2001--where the Yanks squeaked by with a 15-14 mark--the month has tended to be a difference maker--while their opponents hit the doldroms in the dog days, the Yanks surge ahead on the depth of talent a ginormous payroll can buy. The month's 13-15 finish in August 2008 is the result of the Yanks taking beatdowns from some of the best teams in the league (2-4 against the Angels, 1-2 against the Red Sox and Twins) while not making up the difference against some teams that weren't quite of that quality (2-2 against the Rangers, 2-4 against the Blue Jays). As I mentioned this morning, this isn't going to get any easier--the Yanks have 13 games against division-leading opponents in September, plus three games against the Red Sox.

Around Yankeeland, an eerie level of acceptance has set in: this just isn't our year. Much of this season has been a wait for the Pinstriped surge that never arrived--that 18-9 month that declares that your team's a contender, or at least a real threat if it came down to a short series. Indeed, every Yankee team since 1996 has had at least one month where they had single-digit losses. Even if the Yanks were to keep up that streak with a 17-9 September, the Red Sox would have to go 10-16 (and the Twins would have to go 12-13) for the Yankee Stadium's swan song to continue into October. People aren't even dreaming about that possibility. Some, like Hank Steinbrenner, have already started to look ahead to this winter's free agent market.

Looking Ahead: Derek Jeter comes into September needing 45 hits in 28 games to reach 200 for the season. The most hits Jeter has ever had in a month is 50, which took him 32 games in August 1998. The next most was 44 hits, which Jeter has managed twice in his career. The ten hits that he stands away from Lou Gerhig's all-time Yankee Stadium mark is much more manageable, given that there are 10 home games left. If the Yanks stay in rotation, Mike Mussina's remaining starts this season would fall against the Rays, Mariners, Rays, White Sox, Jays, and Red Sox, a pretty tough schedule. He needs wins in four of those starts to become a 20-game winner for the first time in his career.

Ten Games Left: Sun Baked

The afternoon sun beat down mercilessly on the left field stands on Sunday, just as the unrelenting Roy Halladay beat down on the Yankees' batters. The rubber game of the series snapped the wrong way for the Yankees, leaving the team cooked as it goes on a ten-game road stand, seven games behind the Red Sox and two and a half games behind the Minnesota Twins, and leaving me with a nasty sunburn.

The day had a nostalgic tinge to it. Sunday afternoons have been my main experience of Yankee Stadium, ever since I got my first weekend ticket plan as a teenager. Rather than taking the train straight to the Stadium, I got off in Manhattan and walked across the Macombs Dam Bridge--one of my typical routes to and from the Stadium when I lived uptown and had all the time in the world.

As you can tell by the sign, the MDB is a draw bridge, which was a big curiosity for me when I was younger. I remember a number of times waiting to pass across, but I don't think I was ever actually on the span when the draw bridge bell started to ring.

Anyway, the walk to the park wasn't the only thing that brought back memories of the old days--the game itself did, as well. The Yanks needed Good Andy Pettitte to show up and counter Halladay pitch-for-pitch. But Bad Andy walked the first batter of the game, Marco Frickin' Scutaro. Scutaro came around to score, and before Halladay took the mound, the Yanks were down 3-0, thanks in part for Xavier Nady butchering a fly ball in left field. In the second inning, Scott Rolen--batting 8th against a lefty--roped a solo homer to make the score 4-0. Solo homers in the fourth and the sixth provided the tease, bringing it just close enough to make things frustrating, but again, the 7th inning brought things to a boil. Just like Saturday's game, Girardi tried to sneak one more inning out of his starter. Just like in Saturday's game, Pettitte stuck around too long, allowing three straight hits and another run. Finally, the score got to 6-2, Jays, where it would remain.

There are 26 games left in the season. Only 10 of those are home games, and their opponents' weighted winning percentage is .545. With no games left against the Twins and only three against the Red Sox, they don't just have to play out of their minds in September to make the playoffs, they need help from the opposition. It's a damn tall order.