Open Thread: Rooting for the Rays

(AP)

The Yankees are off, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything on the line tonight. The Rays and Red Sox are starting a huge four-game series in Fenway Park this evening (Hellickson vs. Weiland), a series that will determine the AL wildcard, for all intents and purposes. If Tampa sweeps, they’ll tie Boston and then we’ll really have ourselves a race. If they don’t, then they’re still going to have to make up some serious ground during the final week and a half of the season. It can happen, but it probably won’t.

Regardless of who wins tonight, the Yankees will gain a half-game on one team and lose a half-game to the other. I’d much prefer to see them gain ground on the Red Sox and increase their lead in the division than put even more distance between then and the Rays. They’re eight games up on the wildcard with 14 left to play, so that race is really close to being over. I feel confident in saying that the Yankees will make the postseason, even if the Rays manage to sweep. That’s why I want Tampa to take this series, to help put some distance between the Yanks and Sox. For the next four days, I’m pro-Tampa.

Anyway, the game will be shown on MLB Network at 7pm ET tonight, and you can talk about it (and more!) here in the open thread. You all know what to do by now, so have at it.

How Mariano became the Sandman

The game of baseball has countless sounds associated with it, like the crack of the bat, the pop of the mitt, Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and if you’re in the Bronx, “Enter Sandman” as well. Mariano Rivera has been storming out of the bullpen to the song for more than a decade now, but how did a quiet guy from Panama end up with Metallica as his entrance music? As Bryan Hoch explains, is was largely due to Trevor Hoffman.

Some Yankees higher-ups saw Hoffman’s theatrical entrance with “Hell’s Bells” during the 1998 World Series (and, more importantly, they saw how the fans reacted), and decided they needed something like that for Mo. I don’t remember this at all, but apparently Rivera came out to “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” by Guns n’ Roses in 1999, but neither stuck while “Enter Sandman” did. Something about Mo warming up to Axl Rose makes me want to stick a pen in my ear. Anyway, make sure you check out the article, it’s a pretty neat story.

The Eric Chavez Appreciation Thread

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

It wasn’t supposed to work. When the Yankees agreed to bring Eric Chavez to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, it was supposed to be nothing more than a sidebar story for a weeks before the two sides parted ways before the end of camp. Chavez hadn’t been healthy in years and even when he was healthy, he didn’t produce. There was no risk involved, but it didn’t exactly qualify as a high-upside signing either.

Chavez came to camp and got his fair share of playing time (45 plate appearances), and he hit. Boy did he hit. A .395/.422/.558 batting line with just six strikeouts, but most importantly, he stayed healthy. There wasn’t even a day-to-day situation, no lingering soreness, a tight something, nothing at all. Chavez did his work and stayed healthy, and he performed well enough that the Yankees took him north out of Spring Training as their backup corner infielder.

After a pinch-hitting appearance in the second game of the season, Chavez sat on the bench for more than a week and didn’t start a game until the team’s eighth of the season. Filling in at DH in Fenway Park, the former Oakland Athletic went 3-for-5 with a pair of opposite field doubles off the Green Monster. He started at third base the next day and picked up another hit. Chavez’s playing time gradually started to increase, and by the team’s 25th game of the season, he was hitting .290/.405/.355 with twice as many walks (six) as strikeouts (three) in 37 plate appearances.

The power production wasn’t there, but that wasn’t all that surprising given his history of back and shoulder issues. The important thing is that the Yankees had a rock solid left-handed bat available off the bench, a veteran player that would put together a quality at-bat. Chavez’s season came to halt on May 5th, when the inevitable happened and he got hurt. He suffered a deep bone bruise in his right foot rounding the bases on a triple in Detroit, an injury that kept him on the shelf for more than two months, a total of 72 team games.

When he finally did return, Chavez got regular starts at third base because Alex Rodriguez was on the shelf with his knee injury. He went 11-for-32 in his first eight games back, then started to see some more time at DH. A month later, his season batting line sits at .274/.331/.363 in 148 plate appearances, or about 148 more than I expected him to get before the season. He also has three hits and a walk in ten pitch-hitting appearances, and his defense at the hot corner has been surprisingly awesome. I figured he’d lost a step in the field after all the injuries, but he’s been legitimately fantastic with the glove, living up to the Gold Glove reputation.

The Yankees came into the season with their best bench in a long time, opting to shore up the reserves in the offseason rather than in-season like they had in the past. Chavez was a total flier, it was impossible to expect anything from him given his lengthy injury history (just 154 games played from 2007-2010), but he’s been a very value reserve player for a team that has dealt with injuries, especially on the infield. He embraced his role, the first time in his life he wasn’t playing everyday, and the Yankees have reaped the rewards.

What’s important in the final two weeks

The end is nigh. Today marks the final day off in the Yankees’ 2011 regular season schedule. They’ll play 14 games in 13 days starting Friday, running through a gauntlet of AL East foes (and the Twins once). That might sound like a daunting task, but the Yankees have mitigated it by placing themselves in a favorable position.

At the start of September they trailed the Red Sox by a game and a half, though they had a comfortable 7.5 game lead in the Wild Card race. Since then the Red Sox have collapsed, going 3-10 and yielding the AL East lead. The Yankees now sit four games ahead of their foes and have a magic number of 11. Even more importantly, their magic number for a playoff spot is down to seven. This is important, since it takes a little emphasis off the grueling schedule ahead.

Because they haven’t yet clinched the Yankees can’t quite start planning ahead. They’ve taken their foot off the accelerator to a degree, but they can’t trot out a lineup composed almost exclusively of September call-ups just yet. But with the Sox and the Rays locking horns this weekend, the Yankees stand to gain some ground. They could be in a position to clinch the Wild Card early next week, and the division not long after.

The expediency with which they clinch holds a certain importance this year, since the team faces a few challenges as they prepare for the playoffs. Here are some things to consider in the final two weeks.

Get Alex Rodriguez Reps

Joe Girardi said that Rodriguez will appear on Friday’s lineup card, and barring any last-minute setbacks he’ll play third base and bat fourth in that game. There’s a chance that he could hold those spots for each of the 14 remaining games. He has appeared in just 90 this year, and is guaranteed to play in his fewest number of games since 1995. Resting him at this point would be counterproductive.

Getting Alex going is of great importance right now. As we’ve seen throughout the year, even the best bats on the team can go cold for stretches. Even Curtis Granderson, the team MVP, has slowed down lately. The more quality bats the Yankees have in the lineup, the better chances they get a few who are hot and will produce runs in the postseason. Despite his power outage Rodriguez has still been one of the most productive Yankees, on a rate basis, this season. Getting him sharp in time for the postseason will surely add some runs to the ledger.

Rest The Walking Wounded

Playing through injuries is the reality of a 162-game schedule. Every player does it at some time or another, but that doesn’t mean he could use a breather when convenient. These guys will likely keep playing straight through the game when they clinch, but will be due a few games off in the days following.

Russell Martin could use a couple of days off. He’s battled through nagging injuries all year, most recently a foul ball off the thumb. Nick Swisher has that elbow issue, and while it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem now he could still probably use a few days without high-stress throws. And that doesn’t even mention the guys who could use a breather after going at breakneck speed all season, such as Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson.

In essence, clinching early allows Girardi to give these guys a few days to back off, recover, and get ready for the playoffs. The earlier they clinch the earlier they can take these breaks, and the earlier they can get back in the swing of things.

Lining up the pitching staff

The Yankees are already shifting around the pitching staff, but as Mike mentioned earlier this week, they have to do some serious rotation juggling to get CC in line for a Game 1 start in the ALDS. They also have to line up the guys they want going in Games 2 and 3 as well. The sooner they clinch, the sooner they can tinker with things and give guys extra (or perhaps short) rest leading into the series.

While there is no way to line up the bullpen, the same principle applies to them as the position players. There’s a certain balance the Yankees need to strike between giving them rest and giving them work to keep them sharp. A week of meaningless games will afford them that exact opportunity. Heading into the playoffs they should have Soriano, Robertson, and Rivera rested and sharp enough to pitch any game needed.

2011 Minor League Awards

(David Schofield/MiLB.com)

The 2011 season was almost guaranteed to be a disappointment after the near-flawless year the farm system put together in 2010. The breakout-heavy and injury-free season spoiled us rotted, but everything returned to normal this summer. There were some more injuries, some more players not making as much progress as we’d like, and a few less players breaking out. It’s disappointing after the success of 2010, but this was a pretty normal season for the farm system.

For at least the 29th consecutive year, the Yankees’ six domestic affiliates combined to an above-.500 record (352-342). Although none of the four full season affiliates qualified for the postseason (the first time that’s happened as a foursome in basically forever), both the Short Season Staten Island Yankees and the Rookie Level GCL Yankees won their league titles. Staten Island’s title was the franchise’s sixth in 13 years of existence, while the GCL Yanks took home their fourth title since 2004.

This post is not intended to be any sort of prospect ranking, it’s just a recognition of those who had great years regardless of their future potential. Sometimes we just have to step back and say damn, that guy was awesome without obsessing over the underlying data and wondering whether or not it’s sustainable. Here are my 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 awards posts. Just as a reminder, I disqualify the Player of the Year from the other major awards just to mix things up.

Minor League Player of the Year: Mason Williams, CF, SS
I’ve never given the PoY to a guy that didn’t play in a full season league and I don’t intend to make a habit of it, but Williams gets the nod in a year lacking an obvious candidate. The now-20-year-old center fielder demolished older competition in the New York-Penn League, hitting .349/.395/.468 with 28 steals in 68 regular season games. Williams let the league with 94 hits (by ten), and placed second in the circuit in batting average, triples (six), total bases (126), and steals. Only three players topped his .863 OPS, and all three are two years older than him. Williams, the Yankees fourth round pick in 2010, received the largest signing bonus they handed out that year, and now you know why. He excelled against college kids and helped his team to the best record in the league as well as a championship.

[Read more…]

Repeating Mistakes: The Pedro Feliciano Story

Fail. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Word came down yesterday that Pedro Feliciano had surgery to repair the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder earlier this month, and although no timetable for his return has been established, it’s a safe bet that he’ll miss most, if not all of next season. That’s usually how these rotator cuff surgeries go. Barring a miraculous rehab, the Yankees will have paid Feliciano $8M over the course of two seasons for exactly one inning of work. Best of all, that’s not even a big league inning, it was a rookie ball inning as he tried to rehab the shoulder.

Unfortunately, Feliciano’s flop isn’t an isolated incident. Teams have been getting burned by multi-year contracts for relievers since the dawn of free agency, and the Yankees are no different. There’s Kyle Farnsworth, Steve Karsay, Damaso Marte, and a quite a few more that failed to live up to their contracts not because they couldn’t handle New York or whatever, but because of the nature of the job. Trying to predict reliever performance is like trying to predict the lottery. You might get lucky and hit it big, but history says you won’t.

To make this Feliciano thing even more … perplexing (I guess that’s the best way to describe it) is that Brian Cashman came out and acknowledged that the lefty was abused during his time with the Mets. Anyone with a computer could have gone to Baseball-Reference.com and told you that three straight years of 86+ appearances (not to mention all the times he warmed up and didn’t come into the game) is bound to take its toll on a 35-year-old shoulder. I get that the Yankees a) had Cliff Lee money burning a hole in their pocket at the time of the signing, and b) can absorb the $8M payroll hit and not miss a beat, but that doesn’t forgive the mistake. Bad process, bad result.

I don’t want to harp on this Feliciano stuff too much because I’ve already tackled this whole mess. It’s one thing to make a good decision and have it not work out, but it’s another thing to make a bad decision in the first place. Cashman essentially blamed the injury on Feliciano’s prior workload, which is pretty weak in my book. It’s a lame excuse at best, and indicative of poor decision making. The overvaluation of lefty relievers has been a Yankees trademark for a few years now, and you’d be hard pressed to find a position on the team where more money was spend on zero (literally zero) return over the last half-decade or so. Feliciano is just the latest example of the team repeating a past mistake and giving a less than elite reliever a contract spanning more than one year.

Yanks lose to Mariners as bats rest comfortably in Toronto

Given the tough late-season schedule and the west coast night game, the Yankees went ahead and sent the offense to Toronto prior to Wednesday night’s game. It was the smart thing to do. The 12th inning walk-off loss to Mariners dropped the Yankees to 4-10 in extra inning games this season, the worst mark in the AL.

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Cy Vargas

The Yankees had no trouble with Jason Vargas the first two times they faced him this year (combined 14 runs in 7 IP), and early on it looked like the third time would be more of the same. Derek Jeter opened the game with a ten-pitch at-bat, and although the Yankees went down 1-2-3 in the first, they managed to see 23 pitches. After a 1-2-3 second inning, Vargas was at 38 pitches. By the end of the third, he was at 60. And that’s when the offensive nodded off.

After throwing 60 pitches to ten batters across the first three innings, the Seattle lefty needed just 26 pitches to face ten batters across the next three innings. Vargas sat down nine in a row at one point, and the Yankees’ only real rally wasn’t even much of a rally. Andruw Jones drew a one-out walk in the third, then got thrown out at home trying to score on Eduardo Nunez‘s double down the left field line. It was a terrible, horrible, no good send by third base coach Robbie Thomson; Andruw had slowed down at third, then had to rev the engine back up before getting thrown out by ten feet. Third inning, only one out, dude running has a tear in his knee, top of the order due up … pretty good time to throw up the stop sign, if you ask me.

Vargas continued his mastery of the Yankees lineup into the seventh, but Nick Swisher got a hold of an 0-1 pitch for a game-tying solo homer to left. Just like that, Vargas’ day was over. Eric Wedge came out of the dugout immediately to remove his starter from the game, after he’d allowed just the one run on three hits and a walk in 6.2 IP. Tough crowd.

Nova Battles

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The story of this series was good enough starting pitching, but not great starting pitching. Phil Hughes was okay on Monday and A.J. Burnett was okay on Tuesday, so Ivan Nova was nice enough to stick with the theme on Wednesday. He put nine men on base in 7.1 IP of work (one of his four walks was intentional), again having trouble getting his fastball down in the zone in the early innings. The one run he allowed came on a wild pitch of all things, a fastball that got away with Mike Carp on third following a walk, fly out, caught stealing, walk (to Carp), single (Carp to third), wild pitch.

Nova was better than Hughes and Burnett, no doubt, but I didn’t think he was stellar by any means. One run in 7.1 IP against the Mariners is like, three runs in 5.2 IP against a real offense. Give the kid credit for battling though, he gave the team a chance to win just like he has all year.

The Bullpen

Overall, the Yankees relief corps did an okay job. David Robertson cleaned up Nova’s mess in the eighth, Rafael Soriano tossed a scoreless ninth, Boone Logan wiggled in and out of trouble in the tenth, then handed the ball off to Cory Wade for the escape job in the 11th. The game ended with Cory grooving a pitch to Luis Rodriguez, who hit the walk-off solo homer. That’s the same Luis Rodriguez that came into the game hitting .176/.286/.286. The same Luis Rodriguez that went 3-for-5 with two doubles and the walk-off homer. Go figure.

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Leftovers

Do I really have to write about another dumb sacrifice bunt? What’s the point of pinch-running Brett Gardner for Jones after he gets hit by a pitch (in the eighth) if you’re not going to let him steal? And why wouldn’t you pinch-hit Eric Chavez for the uber-slumping Nunez (3-for-37 coming into the game)? To make things even better, Chavez pinch-hit for Nunez with two outs and no one on base in the tenth inning. Common sense is a lost art these days, I swear. Anyway, the Yankees did not score in the seventh inning (unsurprisingly), but at least they did it THE RIGHT WAY.

Aside from Swisher’s homer, the offense did absolutely nothing. Four hits, two walks, and two hit batsmen in a dozen offensive innings. It doesn’t help when you’re throwing away leadoff baserunners in the name of small ball, but I’m not sure the Yankees would have scored again if they played another 12 innings. Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Jesus Montero went a combined 0-for-15, and the top three hitters in the lineup went a combined 1-for-15. Just one of the final eleven hitters they sent to the plate reached base, and that was Robinson Cano taking a fastball to the foot (x-rays were negative). The offense just wasn’t there, bad at-bats and weak hacks, especially after the third inning.

Both the Red Sox and Rays lost on Wednesday, so the Yankees still lead the division by four games with an eight game cushion on the wildcard. They only have 14 games left to play, and any combination of seven wins and Rays losses will put New York in the postseason.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs some other stats, and ESPN the updated standings.

Up Next

It’s time for the final scheduled off day of the season, but it’s not much of an off day because the Yankees won’t get to Toronto until like, 10-11am ET on Thursday. Sleep all day, then start a three-game series with the Blue Jays on Friday. CC Sabathia gets the ball against Brett Cecil.