Pregame Notes: Cano, Granderson, Tex, Nova

Nova threw live batting practice before the game. (click to embiggen)

Robinson Cano is in tonight’s lineup as the DH after testing his left hip both in the batting cage and during batting practice. The second baseman said his the joint still feels “tight” following last night’s awkward step on the game-winning eighth inning hit, and he still feels it when he bends over. Hence the DH thing. There are no tests planned at the moment, but Joe Girardi wouldn’t commit to the lineup until Robbie hit on the field and gave the thumbs up.

  • That lineup, by the way, can be found here. Curtis Granderson is back in not just center field, but also in the second spot of the batting order. The regular 2-3-4 hitters have just been bumped down a slot.
  • Ivan Nova (shoulder) threw live batting practice to Eduardo Nunez and Chris Dickerson before the game. He faced seven “hitters” and threw north of 20 pitches, including breaking balls and changeups. Nova said he feels fine and right now the plan is to see how he responds tomorrow before determining the next step.
  • Mark Teixeira (calf) has been jogging but has yet to really push it and run sprints. He’s still not ready for that, making a Thursday return to the lineup unlikely at the moment. Unsurprisingly, Teixeira hopes to be back no later than the weekend.
  • Casey McGehee is back with the club and will be active tonight. The Low-A Charleston season ended yesterday, so he was able to rejoin the team without waiting the full ten days.

Yankees turn to The Chief on Tuesday

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees used last Thursday’s off-day to juggle their rotation a bit, lining up their top four starters for the first four games of this all-important ten-game stretch. Things haven’t worked out as planned — they’re 1-3 in those four games — and today they hand the ball to Freddy Garcia, who they pushed back to accommodate everyone else in their rotation. It’s certainly not what the Yankees envisioned when they rearranged the pitching schedule, but that’s how things played out.

“They skipped me because they wanted to skip me … They made their decision, nothing I can do about it,” said Garcia yesterday, somewhat begrudgingly. Freddy was terrible earlier this season, earning him a demotion to the bullpen for the first time in his career. Injuries forced him back into the rotation in early-July and he’s since pitched well enough, a 4.16 ERA (4.17 FIP) in eleven starts. The last two starts have not gone so well though, as Garcia has failed to complete five innings both times while allowing seven total runs on 17 baserunners.

The Yankees desperately need their veteran junkballer to turn in a quality outing tonight, and that includes bulk innings since the middle relief is hide the children bad these days. The good news is that the Rays tend to struggle against soft-tossers as Rays blogger extraordinaire Jason Collette noted this morning, the guys who change speeds to the extreme and do most of their work off the plate. In his only start against Tampa this year (his first start following Andy Pettitte‘s injury), Garcia held the Rays to two runs (on two solo homers) in 5.1 innings while on a 70-pitch limit (he threw 74). In his only start against Tampa last season, he struck out seven in 6.2 scoreless innings.

“It’s another game. We know we have a one-game lead. I’ve just got to pitch good. I don’t have any pressure, nothing,” added Freddy yesterday, the typical kind of veteran-speak. There is pressure on the team though, pressure in the form of the surging Orioles and the club’s 24-25 record since the All-Star break. They need to start rattling off some wins (plural) in the worst way, and that could start tonight with a strong outing from Garcia, the guy the Yankees went out of their way to avoid these last few days.

Is it time to panic?

(J. Meric/Getty)

Not so long ago, I wrote an uncharacteristically pessimistic post that was admittedly a bit trollish in its conception: exploring the problems and challenges that could face a Yankee team that at the time enjoyed a comfortable six-game lead over its division rivals.  While the Yankees had several hurdles to overcome, I concluded that the division lead along with the talent gap between the Yankees and their pursuers should allow the Yankees to cruise to a division title and playoff berth.

I still believe that to be the case, but the events of the last few weeks have increased the likelihood of an different outcome.  The combination of poor play by the Yankees and strong performances from the Rays and Orioles have whittled the Yankees’ division lead down to one game.  In Wild Card race, the Oakland A’s have gone on a tear, and currently hold the same record as the Bombers.  Suddenly the possibility of the Yankees losing the division or even missing the playoffs doesn’t seem so remote.  The specter of a monumental collapse a la Boston in 2011 looms over the collective psyche of nervous Yankee fans, who fear karmic payback for their schadenfreude of yesteryear.

Since the folks here are mostly rational, I thought it would make sense to analyze which contributors to the Yankees’ struggles seem likely to persist, and which ones may be resolved going forward.  I’ll take a look at some reasons for why Yankee fans should be concerned, as well as some reasons why things are still looking promising.  Feel free to add your own to the list if I leave anything out.

Reasons to panic

Death by bullpen:  Outside of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson (who have had their occasional slip-ups), the rest of the Yankee bullpen has been unreliable of late.  This has at times caused Joe Girardi to make multiple pitching changes in a single inning, delighting binder-joke aficionados worldwide.  It has also made keeping leads in the middle innings a difficult task.  Cody Eppley in particular seems less effective than he was earlier in the season, Joba Chamberlain has struggled mightily since returning from the DL, and Derek Lowe has been awful since the Yankees acquired him.  Boone Logan has continued to hold down the fort, but his heavy usage could take a toll on him.

Injuries: Although Alex Rodriguez just returned, the Yankees are still suffering injuries to several important contributors.  Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched a rehab outing yet, Curtis Granderson has been hampered by hamstring tendinitis, Mark Teixeira is still out, and Robinson Cano may have tweaked something in his hip while going after a ground ball in the 9th inning yesterday.  These injuries have forced the Yankees to rely heavily on their bench.  While some bench players (Eric Chavez in particular) have been up to the task, others (I’m looking at you Andruw Jones) have struggled mightily.  The Yankees have gotten by so far in 2012 with solid contributions from their bench, but their recent offensive woes (wRC+ of 74 the past 2 weeks) show the effect that losing several middle of the order contributors can have on overall offensive production.

Reasons to relax

Help is on the way: Alex Rodriguez’s return instantly lengthens the Yankee lineup, adding some desperately needed right-handed power to a team that has been punchless of late.  Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova are on the road to recovery, and could provide some much needed depth to an anemic lineup and struggling rotation respectively. 

Slumpbusters: Of late, the Yankee lineup has struggled offensively.  Only three members of the Yankee lineup have posted above league-average production over the last 2 weeks: Robinson Cano (146 wRC+), Derek Jeter (137 wRC+), and Nick Swisher (128 wRC+).  While this trio has been carrying the offense, the rest of the offense has been putrid.  This includes (skip this section if you have a weak stomach) Russell Martin (56 wRC+), Curtis Granderson (36 wRC+), Eric Chavez (40 wRC+), Ichiro (10 wRC+), Andruw Jones (-8 wRC+), and Raul Ibanez (-25 wRC+).

With only one third of the lineup performing anywhere above the league average or near their career norms, there is no wonder that the Yankee lineup has had trouble scoring runs of late.  It seems improbable that this horrific stretch can continue, and eventually some of these guys can turn things around.  While several of these guys have been horrible all season, there is enough talent there for a few of them to get things going again.

Look at the schedule: While the Yankees’ schedule for the beginning of September is tough (two more games against the Rays and four against the Orioles), things soften up for the Bombers after the big rivalry games.  There is one more three-game series against the Rays, but otherwise, the Yankees’ opponents include the Twins, Red Sox, and Blue Jays.  A few years ago this would have been a formidable slate, but at a collective 51 games under .500, the Yankees shouldn’t have too much to worry about.  This is especially true if the Yankees get some of their starters back and contributing by then.  Baltimore also has a light schedule (though a three-game series against the suddenly-good A’s could prove challenging), while the Rays have some tougher matchups remaining, including the White Sox and the Rangers.  If the Yankees can survive the games against Baltimore and Tampa with their lead intact, they should be able to hold their ground against some weaker opponents down the stretch.

Overall, the Yankees do have some real concerns to address down the stretch.  Getting some injured players back could help, but the fact of the matter is that this team has looked lifeless over the past few weeks.  A combination of crappy hitting, sloppy fielding, and poorly-timed pitching meltdowns has resulted in some frustrating losses recently.  Two thirds of the lineup needs to either get healthy or remember how to hit, and the Yankees will need to get some big performances from their starters to prevent the bullpen from getting overexposed.  I still think this team has too much talent, especially when compared to Baltimore and Tampa, to lose this division.  The favorable schedule also helps in that regard.  But as they say, these games aren’t played on paper.  A number of players will have to start living up to the numbers on the back of their baseball card if the Yankees are going to make a run into October.

Yanks have 99 problems and Sabathia is just one

(J. Meric/Getty)

The Yankees lost Monday afternoon’s game to the Rays for a number of reasons, one of which was CC Sabathia pitching merely pretty well rather than exceptionally. Three runs in seven innings hardly qualifies as a disaster start, but with the offense struggling — three runs or less in eight of the last twelve games — and a shaky bullpen corps, the club could have used a little more from their ace. Simply matching Jamie Shields wasn’t enough.

I’ve already written about Sabathia’s bout with pitching mortality earlier this month. The 32-year-old’s 3.42 ERA (3.36 FIP) would be his highest since 2005, the last time he was a 4.00+ ERA pitcher. Coincidentally enough, his performance looks an awful lot like what he did during his first season in pinstripes, when he pitched to a 3.37 ERA (3.39 FIP). The issue with that is the overall drop in offense around the league — a 3.37 ERA in 2009 was 37% better than league average whereas 3.42 this year is only 23% better than average.

Sabathia has been on the DL twice this summer, the first time with a groin issue and the second with elbow stiffness. Obviously the latter is a much greater concern, but in his three starts back he’s pitched to a 2.53 ERA (3.39 FIP) with 21 strikeouts and three walks in 21.1 innings, so a touch more than seven frames per start. The three unearned runs allowed against the Blue Jays last week should certainly be note — I’ve never felt an error by the defense completely absolved the pitcher of all blame. Maybe it does in some instances, but not last week when Jayson Nix bobbled a no-out ground and Sabathia went on to allow three straight two-out, run-scoring hits in the inning.

Despite his strikeout total since the DL and excellent overall season strikeout rate (8.89 K/9 and 23.5 K%), Sabathia’s inability to get a swing-and-miss yesterday was very noticeable. He only got eight whiffs out of 116 total pitches (6.9%), well below his 11.6% season average and 10.8% career average. Only two of those swings and misses came on the slider (out of 27 thrown, so 7.4%), a pitch that has otherwise generated 18.6% swings and misses this year. Against the Jays a week ago, it was 18 whiffs overall (99 pitches, so 18.2%) and a dozen on the slider (out of 37, so 32.4%). That lack of swing-throughs really stood out to me yesterday.

Buster Olney said “there continue to be rumblings around the sport that the [elbow] discomfort that has nagged (Sabathia) most of this season still lingers” in today’s Insider-only blog post, going so far as to speculate that there may be loose bodies or a bone spur involved. He notes that Sabathia has thrown a fewer percentage of fastballs of late and tries to use that as evidence for a lingering problem, but that doesn’t make much sense. If his elbow is bothering him, he’d be throwing more fastballs and fewer breaking balls, not the other way around. A fastball is the most basic of pitches, there’s no wrist snap or turn-over, nothing that like.

Anyway, that said, I do think it’s fair to wonder if the elbow is still an issue somehow. That doesn’t necessarily mean Sabathia is still hurt, but perhaps he’s just a little tentative at the moment and hasn’t really cut it loose following the first arm injury of his life. The general rule of thumb is that elbow issues show in a pitcher’s command (or lack thereof), and Sabathia’s has been off all season is seems. When he does get hit, it’s because he misses up in the zone or catches too much of the plate. That’s true for every pitcher obviously, but great pitchers like CC just do it less frequently. Anecdotally, I feel like he’s gotten burned by more mistake pitches this season than at any other time of his Yankees tenure.

“He can win with what he’s got, and on most days, he’ll find a way to get the job done,” said a scout to Olney, a pretty apt description of Sabathia’s season. He hasn’t been terrible, not by any means, but he hasn’t had that prolonged stretch of dominance at any point. “[He’s] not going to dominate anybody right now … You can get some good swings against him,” added the scout, sure enough. The Yankees have a number of problems contributing to this second half downward spiral, and having Sabathia pitch at a level below his usual production is one of those problems.

Thoughts following Monday’s loss to the Rays

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

So are you panicked yet? I don’t really panic or worry since I have zero control over how the team plays, I just get frustrated and annoyed. At the end of the day is basically the same feeling happening in different ways anyway, worrying and getting frustrating.

Anywho, the Yankees are playing like complete trash and when you watch them these days, you wonder how the hell they’ll ever win another game. There is just so much going wrong between the dormant offense, the sketchy middle relief, the starters turning in underwhelming outings … a prolonged slump like this takes a total team effort. It’ll get better at some point though, it almost has too. Even the Astros won four of five a few weeks ago. It can happen!

1. I think the Yankees really need to start playing some of their younger guys regularly. Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and Ichiro Suzuki have been automatic outs for the last few weeks, so I think getting them out of the lineup for a bit might help. Obviously it’s tough to do with Curtis Granderson (hamstring) and Mark Teixeira (calf) injured, but when they come back hopefully later this week, Chris Dickerson (who actually isn’t all that young) and Eduardo Nunez should take some of those at-bats. By no means am I declaring Dickerson and Nunez stars or anything, but the other three guys haven’t done anything lately and the Yankees can’t afford to wait around for them to figure it out at this point. The call-up guys will add some much-needed speed to the offense, plus they’re surely eager to prove they belong as well. Might as well give them a chance to prove it, not like they could actually be a downgrade from the other guys anyway.

2. If the Yankees do end up continuing this slide through the end of the season and wind up missing the playoffs, I don’t see how in the world Joe Girardi survives the offseason. Blowing a ten-game lead with a $200M+ payroll usually results in someone being scapegoated — I assume it would anyway, it’s never actually happened in baseball history — and the manager is as good a bet as any to get the axe. I don’t think Girardi’s a bad manager nor do I think he’s a great one, he’s fine, and neither am I endorsing his firing should they miss the postseason. I’m just saying that I can’t imagine his job being safe if this continues even though Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner hand-picked him for the job.

3. When is the last time the Yankees made a trade that you can look at and say “alright, they made out well with that one?” I’m not talking about the random Chad Qualls-for-Casey McGehee or Steve Pearce-for-cash swaps, I mean when they gave up a player(s) of legitimate value. Here’s a list of the team’s recent trades courtesy of MLBTR for you to reference. The last one is the Nick Swisher trade, isn’t it? That was a long time ago, four years ago this November. That’s a mighty long time to go between “winning” trades*. All of the moves they made to improve the team this season — Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, McGehee, Pearce — have had zero impact, which is contributing to this downward spiral.

* Obvious disclaimer here is that the book has yet to be written on some recent trades, specifically the Jesus Montero-for-Michael Pineda swap. Right now though, that one looks like an unmitigated disaster.

4. We know that RBI don’t have much analytical value, but it’s going to be very weird when the Yankees finish the season with zero 100+ RBI guys. It’ll take a big final month from Teixeira (81 RBI), Granderson (79), Nick Swisher (77), or Cano (71) for someone to get over the century mark, otherwise the Yankees will have their first zero 100+ RBI team since 1992, not counting the work stoppages in 1994-1995. Obviously injuries and RISPFAIL play a part in that, but it’s still just weird.

Down to one: Lead shrinks further as Yanks fall to Rays

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Yankees were outplayed by a team chasing them in the standings and it led to another loss on Monday afternoon. It was their ninth loss in the last 14 games.

(J. Meric/Getty)

Shaky Sabathia

It certainly wasn’t pretty, but CC Sabathia gave the Yankees seven innings of three-run ball with only one of the runs coming on a real hard-hit ball — B.J. Upton’s solo homer in the third. That was crushed. CC got dinked to death in the second, as two broken-bat bloops and a ground ball pastadiving Derek Jeter resulted in a run. The third run scored following a leadoff walk (very bad), a single, a double steal, and a ground out. Sabathia retired nine of the last ten Rays he faced and threw 116 really hard-fought pitches.

Once again, it was his command that was the problem. Sabathia threw first pitch strikes to just 14 of 31 batters and generated only eight swings and misses out of those 116 pitches. Those rates are way, way too low for any pitcher, nevermind someone of CC’s caliber. The Yankees needed a little more out of their ace than what they got, but it wasn’t exactly a disaster start by any means. Three runs in seven innings used to be an insta-win for a starter on this club.

(J. Meric/Getty)

One Good Inning

The Yankees have scored more than three runs just four times in their last dozen games, which is unfathomably bad. Injuries or not, a replacement level AL lineup probably scores 4+ runs four or five times during that stretch. All three runs on Monday came in the fourth inning, which started with a Robinson Cano double and ended with a Russell Martin infield hit. In between, Alex Rodriguez singled on a ten-hopper with eyes, Eric Chavez lined a sacrifice fly to left, and Raul Ibanez tripled (!) past a diving Ben Francisco. Ichiro Suzuki (swinging) and Chris Dickerson (looking) struck out to end the inning with Martin on first.

I thought Ibanez’s base-running on the infield single was excellent and deserves to be highlighted. Martin’s infield hit ricocheted off starter Jamie Shields and right to first baseman Jeff Keppinger who was probably 20-feet away from the bag. He looked Ibanez back to third before breaking for the first base bag. That’s when Ibanez took off for home and Martin slide in safely just before Keppinger got there. Most guys — especially old and slow guys — just stay at third on that play with one out. Real heads up job by Raul to score that run.

(J. Meric/Getty)

Lost

Middle relief has been a real big problem lately, but you have to feel pretty good when the starter is able to hand the ball right off to David Robertson. The setup man started the eighth inning with an unconventional out — single then the runner was thrown out trying to steal second on a pitch-out — before retiring the next batter on a fly ball to right-center (more on that in a second). With two outs, Ryan Roberts singled through the 5.5 hole before stealing second uncontested. In a 3-1 count, third catcher Chris Gimenez grounded a single through the hole on the right side to score Roberts for the winning run.

The ball was just beyond the reach of Robinson Cano and I thought he absolutely had to dive for it in that situation. Man on second, two outs … gotta knock that sucker down and keep the man at third. After the game we found out that Cano suffered a hip injury on the play, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt I guess. Instead, I’ll wonder why Robertson threw just one curveball out of 17 pitches, a curve that Francisco took for a ball before flying out. David’s curve has been missing for a while and I have no idea why, but I do know that his strikeouts are way down — just 12 strikeouts in his last 17 appearances (6.48 K/9 and 18.5 K%) — and it’s reducing his effectiveness. Unless his elbow is barking (please no), Robertson really needs to get back on the curveball horse and start missing some bats again. That’s why he was so great a year ago, Gimenez wouldn’t even have put the ball in play in that situation last summer.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Outside of that three-run fourth inning, the Yankees went a combined 1-for-26 with three walks and five strikeouts. They got four hits in the span of five batters that inning — Chavez’s sac fly could have easily been a hit as well, he smoked that thing — and just one in the other eight innings. Brutal. The Yankees haven’t picked up more than six hits in any of their last four games and in five of their last six. Their last double-digit hits game was the series finale in Cleveland, when they had eleven. They haven’t had more than a dozen hits in a game (a completely arbitrary criteria on my part) since the third game in Detroit a few weeks ago.

Not that this is all that surprising, but Cano didn’t bust it out of the box on his hard-hit eighth inning ground out. Elliot Johnson booted the ball at third and Robbie didn’t take off until the ball hopped away, otherwise he likely would have been safe. He almost beat it out anyway. Cano said he didn’t hurt his hip until that play in the bottom of the eighth, so that’s no excuse. I suppose he may have thought Johnson caught the ball on a fly, but still man, your team is playing like crap. Show some urgency.

A-Rod‘s return to the lineup featured a 1-for-4 with a strikeout. The hit was that funny looking ten-hopper with eyes, but the other two balls in play where a soft line drive to short and ground ball to third. He was crushing the ball in batting practice — hit two balls on top of the restaurant in center field — so there’s still some strength in that left hand after missing six weeks with a broken bone. Of course doing that in game situations is another matter entirely, but I took it as a good sign. Certainly better than the alternative.

Dickerson and Ichiro collided in right-center field for the second out of that eighth inning, but Dickerson managed to hold onto the ball for the out. Unfortunately for him, Dickerson is the hardest thing Ichiro’s hit in two weeks. Zing! (h/t Andy Hamilton)

This was my seventh credentialed game at Tropicana Field, and they Yankees have won just one of those games. If I believed in jinxes and other stuff like that, maybe I’d stop coming. But I won’t. I’ll try to bring you some neat stuff these next few days.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights while ESPN has the updated standings. The Orioles won again as you know by now, so they’re just one game back in the division. One game. One. The Rays are three back in the loss column and the magic number remains 28.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

Same two teams on Tuesday night, when Freddy Garcia squares off against Alex Cobb. That’s not exactly a pitching matchup you pay to see, but it’s a monumentally important game for the Yankees.

Two wins and two losses on the final day of the season

LHP Vidal Nuno was promoted to Triple-A while RHP Ryan Flannery was bumped down to High-A, clearing two Double-A roster spots for all the recent promotions. Click here and here for all the recent movement.

Triple-A Scranton (6-4 loss to Pawtucket in 12 innings, walk-off style) this was their final game of the season, they finished at 84-60 and won the North Division … their first round best-of-five series with Pawtucket starts Wednesday
3B Kevin Russo: 0-4, 1 R, 1 BB, 2 K
LF Darnell McDonald: 1-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
2B Corban Joseph: 1-5, 1 R
DH Austin Romine: 0-2, 1 BB, 1 K — left the game for an unknown reason in the eighth, though I’m almost certain it was just a “rest on the last day of the season” thing
PH-DH R.J. Baker: 1-2, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 K
RF Cole Garner & C Gus Molina: both 0-5 — Garner struck out
CF Melky Mesa: 2-5, 1 R, 1 CS
1B Jose Gil: 1-5
SS Doug Bernier: 0-3, 1 BB
LHP Mike O’Connor: 3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3/5 GB/FB — 26 of 37 pitches were strikes (70%) … wonder if he’ll be back in the bullpen for the postseason, this certainly seems like “just get work in” appearance
RHP Jon Meloan: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2/0 GB/FB — 19 of 29 pitches were strikes (66%)
LHP Francisco Rondon: 2.1 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0/3 GB/FB — 28 of 43 pitches were strikes (65%) … it all came apart once he went back out for the third inning of work
RHP Preston Claiborne: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1/0 GB/FB — 20 of 26 pitches were strikes (77%)
LHP Juan Cedeno: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1/1 GB/FB — 11 of 17 pitches were strikes
RHP R.J. Baker: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1 HB, 0/2 GB/FB — 11 of 21 pitches were the strikes (52%) … and the final pitch of the season was delivered by the third catcher who spend most of the year on the phantom DL

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