What if the unthinkable happens? What if…
…On the morning of June 17th, Brian Cashman stumbles through his master suite at the Four Seasons and goes old-school: He eschews his iPhone and its screaming in-box for the soothing, grammar school comfort of multicolored pie charts and bar graphs scattered across the complimentary USA Today sports section. The Yankees’ lame duck GM cracks the paper, hoping to confirm that he’s not, in fact, trapped inside a real-life Kafka-esque nightmare after all. But after glimpsing the current AL East standings, his worst fears are realized.
Actually, that’s not completely accurate.
Cash’s worst fears were realized in the clubhouse the previous night. Following a six-run, eighth-inning implosion against a depleted Rangers lineup, Rafael Soriano leapt onto the edge of a training table and screamed, “Look at me! Look! I am Rafael! I have only closer’s genes!” It took nearly twenty minutes and four Abba-Zabas for Mo to finally talk him down.
But Soriano’s performance thus far has the Yankees rethinking his role as preordained eighth-inning assassin as well. After a stellar three-week stretch in April, in which he pitched 12 consecutive hitless innings, the Yankees’ $35 million set-up man has seen his K/9 droop to 5.1 and his HR/9 spike to 2.2 (versus career rates of 9.6 and 0.9 respectively). Some trace Sori’s recent struggles back to his first official save attempt of the season, a June 1st ninth-inning, four-homer meltdown in front of a capacity Sunday afternoon Stadium crowd against Toronto.
Unsurprisingly, the rump of the following day’s Daily News depicted a close-up of a crestfallen Soriano beneath a screaming headline that read: “Sori-Performance.”
But while the Soriano situation is disconcerting, it’s hardly dire. More than anything, it reflects the inherent Jekyll-and-Hyde volatility of relievers. As inauspicious as his season has been, Soriano could strikeout the side today and remain virtually unhittable for the remainder of the season. Or, he could completely flame-out.
But back to the now and the reality wrought by the polychromatic wonderland of the USA Today’s MLB standings pages. The Yankees’ current record stands at 31-38, which puts them in fourth place, 15 games behind the surging Red Sox. Though not insurmountable, it’s the club’s worst start since 1992, when the team found itself at 31-34 on June 19th while stammering to a 76-86 overall record. But that was a rare Yankee team in upheaval and transition, one that was expected to make due with a combined 37 starts from Greg Cadaret, Shawn Hillegas, Sam Militello, and Jeff Johnson.
The premature grave dancing this time around has been frenetic. In a bloviating drive time rant, ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd has referred to the Yankees as “old, dead, and not cool anymore” and to Mariano Rivera as “cooked.” Peter Gammons has already called the Red Sox’s third World Series championship in eight years a fait accompli. “Yankees suck” has become the universal battle cry for baseball fans everywhere. Its chants have broken out during MLB games where the Yankees aren’t even participants and in minor league ballparks across the country in which neither team has a Yankee affiliation.
A seven-and-under T-ball team named the Yankees were even Yankees Suck’ed off the field in Lansing, Michigan.
As dark as things seem at the moment, Cash can’t help but crack an impish smile. June and July are always such heady times for Red Sox fans; it’s when their team inflicts its damage and sows its consternation among the Yankees’ fan base. Somewhere in New England, there must be an exhibit of all the bejeweled mid-season MLB championship trophies the Sox have captured throughout the years, alongside mid-season MVP and CY Young awards inscribed with the names of Benzinger, Gedman, Everett, Hurst, and Beckett. Hermetically secured and displayed behind four-inch-thick bulletproof glass cases, they comprise the Wailing Wall of Red Sox Nation, as fans travel from as far away as Newton and drive up to two-and-a-half hours to pay homage to their splendor and glory.
In other words, Boston will collapse. They always do.
But while a June 9th sweep at the hands of Boston unleashed both a rapacious local press and the new media jackals, a recent four-game sweep, meted out by the hapless Indians and culminated by a Justin Germano four-hit complete game shutout on getaway day, was what set the baseball world into an overdrive of roofie-like Yankee-hating ecstasy.
After losing 15 of 20, a verbal undressing would normally be in order. It seemed to have worked well enough back in ’09. But an epic tirade won’t bring C.C. back from the 15-day D.L. (shoulder fatigue), fix A.J.’s mechanics (5.22 ERA, 1,555 WHIP), or turn back the clock on Jeter’s bat speed (.254/.325/.370 and deposed from the leadoff spot).
Some of this was inevitable, the trickle-down effect of a porous starting rotation and a roster that expected key contributions from aging, brittle stars. Jeter has already spent time on the DL, as has Sabathia, A-Rod, and Andruw Jones. And the third and fourth rotation slots have been a revolving door of Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia, Hector Noesi, Bartolo Colon, and even Doug Davis. “Paging Donovan Osborne” jokes abound.
Unfortunately, Brett Gardner (.262/.354/.368), and Nick Swisher (.251/.351/.457) have regressed from their stellar 2010 seasons; and Phil Hughes has lost bite from his curve while adding points to his WHIP (1.421).
Not all has gone bad. Robbie Cano still thinks it’s 2010, as he continues to thrash AL pitching staffs. A-Rod’s been dutifully spitting on his Marcel projections, despite a series of nagging early season injuries. Tex has miraculously averted his typical early-season swoon (.288/.371/.588), and Posada has adapted nicely to the DH role (.270/.349/.543).
So what’s the solution? Should Brian Cashman hold steady, saving resources and prospects for an offseason in which he may not even play a role? Or should he go all-in at the deadline, dealing an A-prospect or two for an undisputed number two starter? Should they look to shed payroll, or would that be a panic move? It is, after all, only June 19th which means there’s still enough talent and time to surge through the remainder of the season en route to Wild Card contention – regardless of what the sports punditocracy says. Isn’t there?