With 71 games left in the season, the Yankees are right in the thick of the hunt for October. They’re 6.5 games in back of the Rays in the AL East, and four and a half behind Boston in the Wild Card. Overall, just eight teams in baseball have better records than the Yankees.
But for all 49 of their wins, everyone thinks something is wrong with the Yankees. Hal Steinbrenner, while reluctant to make trades, is disappointed with the season. Hank Steinbrenner blamed the injuries. And over at Baseball Musings, David Pinto noticed a lineup with only two players sporting OBPs over .350 and blamed the lack of depth. That’s a whole lotta blame to spread.
What I want to know is what’s really going on with the Yankees. Hal fingers the kids; Hank fingers unlucky injuries; Pinto fingers depth. Where’s the truth in all of this?
As an astute observer might guess, the truth is in all three of them. We’ll start with Pinto’s observation. The Yankees these days have been sporting lineups with a bunch of guys sporting less-than-stellar OBPs. Melky Cabrera’s is hovering around the .310 mark; Robinson Cano’s is stuck around .290; Jose Molina and Wilson Betemit, both playing more frequently than either should be, are both at .269. With Johnny Damon out, Brett Gardner and his .194 are taking up a lineup spot too. Even Derek Jeter (.346) and Bobby Abreu (.345) are sporting on-base numbers well below their norm.
In that sense, David Pinto is right. If your every-day players aren’t getting on base, it’s that much harder to score runs. Fewer runs means fewer wins. It’s a baseball fact. In July, the Yankees are doing a great job of proving this fact; eight games into the month, the Yanks have a team OBP of around .340 and have plated 38 runners — but 18 of those were in one game. Somehow, they’ve gone 4-3 in seven games while scoring a whopping 20 runs.
The Yankees are stuck with a lineup this shallow not, as Pinto postulates, because of “a clear lack of depth.” For this, we turn to Hank Steinbrenner and his finger-pointing at the injuries. So far this season, the Yankees have seen Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon hit the DL. They’ve lost Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, Brian Bruney and Chien-Ming Wang. In this context, the fact that the Yankees are only 6.5 games with a record seven games over .500 is actually pretty remarkable.
It’s easy to fall into the “what if” trap, but had the Yankees not suffered these injuries, it’s easy to see them hanging in there two games behind the Rays or — dare I suggest? — ahead of them. But that’s baseball. Injuries happen, and well-constructed teams find ways to win. The Yankees were built to withstand a few injuries but not all of them. So in the end, it’s not really a lack of depth, as Pinto notes it, but the fact that players who shouldn’t be starting so often — Molina comes to mind — have been pressed into duty so frequently.
In the end, it’s Hal who seems to get it the most though. He expressed his disappointed over Ian Kennedy’s and Phil Hughes’ combined 0-7 record and their struggles. But Hal also speaks like a man who understands that building a better baseball team for a long run a year later can trump instant gratification. Talking of CC Sabathia and Rich Harden, Hal said, “We just felt it wasn’t best for the organization to do anything with those two at this point.”
But the real kicker was his promise of good times to come. As the Yankees hold on to their promising young pieces, they’re ready to augment those pieces as well. “Where we want to end up is a tremendous mix of young talent and veterans,” Hal said. “And the veterans, the free agents, they cost money. And we realize that. We are going to have a lot of money come off the payroll, and that’s going to give us some options. But believe me, we’re going to use a good portion of it to get this city the team it deserves.”
Injuries, disappointments, underperformances. It’s all part of the same mix.