Finding a role for Burnett in October

(AP Photo)

We’re just about a week away from the start of the ALDS, and now that the Yankees have officially clinched the AL East crown, we can talk seriously about the playoff roster. For the most part, the four starting pitchers are set in stone. We have no idea what the order of the rotation will be behind CC Sabathia in Game One, but that’s not important right now. The question I’m curious to know the answer to is: what happens with A.J. Burnett?

Barring something completely unforeseen, the Yankees will carry eleven pitchers in the playoffs and use the extra spot on a position player, likely a pinch-runner/defensive specialist type. Of those eleven pitching spots, nine are accounted for…

  1. Sabathia
  2. Ivan Nova
  3. Bartolo Colon
  4. Freddy Garcia
  5. Mariano Rivera
  6. David Robertson
  7. Rafael Soriano
  8. Boone Logan
  9. Cory Wade

Those last two spots are up in the air. Luis Ayala and Hector Noesi have been solid in mostly low-leverage roles all season, so you have to figure they’re at the front of the line. Aaron Laffey and Raul Valdes could conceivably pitch their way onto the roster as a second lefty, but there’s not exactly much time left for them to do that. Phil Hughes is a total question mark at this point because of his back, and at this point I have a hard time considering a realistic option for the playoff roster. That leaves Burnett as the last candidate, unless Joe Girardi really likes what he’s seen out of Scott Proctor this month. (kidding)

Joe wrote about the merits of using Burnett in relief last month, and the point still stands. He’s been far more effective the first time through the order than any time after that, and his velocity does tend to tail off as his pitch count increases. It’s certainly swing-and-miss stuff (11th best strikeout rate in the AL), so perhaps Burnett could be effective just by shutting his brain off and letting if fly for an one inning at a time. He could, potentially, give Girardi another power arm in relief, which is always what you want.

The problem is that A.J. has never pitched in relief before, at least not for any significant length of time. I don’t think going from the rotation to the pen is a huge adjustment, but it’s certainly an adjustment. You don’t have the same amount of time to warm up and there’s not much of a day-to-day routine, so you’d like to give him some time to get used to that. With only seven games left, they’d basically have to put him in the bullpen right now to have enough time to evaluate him. They’d have to find a spot starter for Saturday (no big deal during September), but they could conceivable get three one-inning looks at him that way (Saturday, Monday, Wednesday).

Right now, unless Laffey or Valdes really impress the rest of the way, I think Ayala’s a lock for one of those last two spots. That means it’s down to Noesi and Burnett for the final spot. If Noesi makes the roster, he’d be the longman, almost assuredly. If Burnett makes the roster, there’s a non-zero chance that he dominates enough to become fourth in line behind Mo, Robertson, and Soriano. It’s the story of his career though, there’s a chance of greatness but not enough of it. If the Yankees are thinking about using  A.J. in relief in the postseason, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to move him to the pen immediately, just to give him as much time as possible to get used to it. Either way, it’s tough to see Burnett having much of an impact next month.

Catching up to the Red Sox

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Yankees officially beat out the Red Sox for the AL East title last night, but the two teams have been chasing each other for more than a decade now. It’s been a vicious cycle of free agent signings and trades and front office innovation, and Boston was winning the war in the mid-aughts. The Yankees have turned the table in recent years, and Brian Cashman spoke to Ken Rosenthal about how they’ve done it. He didn’t reveal too much, which shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve listened to the GM talk to the media for the last 13 years or so.

“[The Red Sox] were having a great deal of success with players of lesser ability,” said Cashman. “I studied what they were doing to some degree, adjusted accordingly, brought the Yankees up to speed, brought us into the 21st century.”

The Yankees have done a better job in the so-called scrap heap department in recent years, namely with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia this season. Does luck play a role? Absolutely. Luck is the residue of design though, and the Yankees definitely did their homework with these two beforehand, particularly Colon. Luis Ayala has been the best seventh man in the bullpen in baseball this season, and in recent years we’ve seen guys like Marcus Thames, Edwar Ramirez, and even Brian Bruney contribute positively to the Yankees cause. Not everyone on the roster needs to have a long-term role with the organization, filling the gaps with players capable of exceeding expectations has helped get the Yankees ahead of the Red Sox the last few years. Perhaps role players are the new market inefficiency.

“How they approached their pitching program was of interest to me,” added Cashman, explaining why the team hired Joe Kerrigan to be bullpen coach after the 2005 season. Kerrigan had been Boston’s pitching coach from 1997-2001. “I was throwing out much more [pitching] talent than the Red Sox had and they were having more success. It goes to execution, game plans, stuff like that.”

The Yankees still have not had a great deal of success turning their prospects into legitimate big league starting pitchers, though injuries have played a part in that to a certain degree. It’s also not an easy thing to do in the first place, and the win-now mentality isn’t exactly conducive to letting a young kid take his lumps either. If you don’t have instant success like Ivan Nova, it’s tough to keep a job in this town. They’re trying though, and I think they’ve been getting better at it in recent years, but they still have a way to go.

“Cash does it the right way,” said Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, who spent last year as a special assistant with the Yankees. “The way he works the room in meetings, it works. If he wants the analytical view, he asks [the stat people] a question and they provide the information. They usually only speak when asked. With the Yankees, it’s not, ‘these guys and us.’ They’re all kind of one.”

That last line is pretty telling, because for the longest time, all we heard about was separation between the Tampa faction and the New York faction. Cashman basically dissolved the Tampa faction after (supposedly) getting autonomy before the 2006 season, merging everyone into one united front office. Of course he did some house cleaning as well, firing several of George Steinbrenner‘s long-time employees, including former scouting director Lin Garrett. Rosenthal explains that the Yankees are now “among the most aggressive teams on the statistical side, with more than 20 people working on analytics.”

Cashman’s contract is up after the season, and as I’ve said before, it wouldn’t surprise me if he left and it wouldn’t surprise me if he stayed. I’d like to see him back, but that’s another discussion for another time. Rosenthal’s article and Cash’s comments give us a little look at how the team has adapted in recent years, and how the Yankees are learning from their biggest rival. I’m sure this is a two-way street too, chances are the Sox have been doing the same as well.

Where do we go now?

It almost feels like there’s no game tonight. Sure, the broadcast will start at 7 p.m. and the Yanks and Rays will play an official game. But it just feels like an off-day. It feels like one of those days where you can take the night off, spending it with family or friends rather than in front of the TV. There might be some fun with all the kids in the lineup and perhaps on the mound. But really, if there was ever a night to take off, this is the one.

With the division well in hand, and with home field advantage throughout the playoffs on the horizon, there’s not much left to worry about until Friday the 30th, when CC Sabathia takes the hill for Game 1 of the ALDS. Even the final series of the year against the Red Sox, against whom the Yanks are just 4-11 this season, means nothing. So what in the world can we do for the next eight days?

Worry about home field

The Yankees currently hold the top spot for home field advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs, leading both Detroit and Texas by five games with just seven to play. That’s quite a deficit to cover in such a short span. Their magic number against Texas is just two, since they’re 7-2 against them this season. For Detroit the number is three, since the Yanks played like crap when they visited the Motor City earlier this year.

In any case, something tells me that we’ll see a combination of three Yanks wins and Tigers losses before year’s end. That’ll put the Yanks at home for the first two rounds, an advantage they’ll have had just twice in the last five years.

Watch the Sox

Sure, plenty of fans will still worry about the three upcoming games with the Red Sox. Some people just sweat them for no rational reason. But watching the Sox this year has little to do with the Yanks’ record against them in 2011. It’s largely irrelevant, since, you know, AL East Champs. But the Sox are currently ensconced in a Wild Card race, and it always brings a little pleasure to see Sox fans sweat.

Watch the Wild Card race

At 88-68 the Sox currently have a two-game advantage over both the Angels and the Rays in the Wild Card race (though they have three more wins than both teams). Ideally, all three teams end with 90 wins. That means the Sox would have to go 2-4 while the Rays and Angels go 5-2. It might be a stretch, but it sure would provide some additional entertainment.

If all three teams finish with the same record, they’d go to a three-way playoff. This would affect the playoff schedule as a whole, since there’s only one off-day between the regular season and Game 1 of the ALDS, and they’d need two days to play these games. Here’s how it would break down. On Thursday Boston would host Anaheim in a one-game playoff. The winner would then travel to Tampa to face the Rays to determine the AL Wild Card. That would have to happen on Friday the 30th, though, which is scheduled to be Game 1 of the ALDS.

Late Add: Commenter Tom O. asked why the three-way playoff would go like this, so I’ll answer up here. The inset part of this article lays out the rules. The schedule is based on head-to-head records. The Rays are the best here, having gone 16-10 against the Sox and Angels. The Sox have gone 12-14 against the other two, while the Angels are 6-10. Hence, Sox vs. Angels, winner vs. Rays.

Argue about awards

Talk about the Cy Young Award and MVP races started back in August, for some unknown reason. There was a point, back then, when Adrian Gonzalez got most of the AL MVP attention. Those days are long past us, though. The narrative has shifted, and it now appears that Justin Verlander has a stranglehold on the award.

Don’t let the narrative fool you, though. It’s constructed by certain media members, and they don’t necessarily have a vote in the matter. At the same time, plenty of writers who do have votes have remained quiet on the issue. There are a few deserving candidates in the AL. Here are the final four:

Jose Bautista
Justin Verlander
Jacoby Ellsbury
Curtis Granderson

Meanwhile, Verlander has a lock on the Cy Young Award, and rightfully so. There is a debate in the NL race, as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Clayton Kershaw have all garnered consideration recently.

Watch the kids

Finally, we get back to the Yankees. Chances are you’ll see the A lineup going once the Yanks head down to Tampa next week, since they’ll need the tune-up heading into the playoffs. But you’ll certainly see some of them removed before playing the full nine. You’ll also see all of them get breather days between now and Wednesday. That means young kids, which is always fun to watch.

We’ve seen most of the kids on the position side, so now it’s time for the pitchers to shine. Last night both Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances warmed in the bullpen, but did not get into the game. We could see them this weekend against the Sox. George Kontos has pitched already, but we could see a little more of him. We might even get to see Phil Hughes pitch a little in relief, which might prove a little refreshing.

Yes, the final eight days of the regular season will bring little excitement for the Yankees. They’ve clinched what needs clinching, and are nearing the final goal: homefield advantage. Along the way, though, there should be plenty of items to hold our interests. The Wild Card race in particular will be great fun. Go Angels. Go Rays.

Musings about another division title

Still the straw that stirs the drink. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

I didn’t think the Yankees would win the AL East this year. I thought they could have won it, there’s always a chance, but back in March and April and even as late as August, I figured they were going to have to settle for the wildcard spot. There’s no shame in that, but like many others I figured the Red Sox were simply too good. I think I said this in a podcast or in a chat at some point before the season, Boston was better than New York, but not ten or 15 games better. Three or five games better over the course of the season, and that’s a pretty close race.

It’s better to be lucky than good, and obviously the Yankees had some luck during their run to the division title. Every division champ needs some luck, they need that unexpected breakout and surprise veteran addition, especially in a division with two other 90+ win teams. Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon so far exceeded expectations that I can’t even put it into words. There was a legit chance that neither guy would make it through May, but here they are in the final week of the season with ~3.80 ERA’s in ~150 IP each. Ivan Nova exceeded expectations as well. For all the doubt about New York’s pitching staff, it was the pitching that doomed the Red Sox down the stretch.

Are we a spoiled fan base? Of course we are. Eleven division titles in a 14-year span and 16 playoff appearances in the last 17 years will do that to you. We’ve seen a 600th homerun and a 3,000th hit and an all-time saves record fall within the last 18 months, so another division title hardly seems noteworthy. However, I feel like this division title is sweeter than any of the other recent ones, I guess because I didn’t expected them to win it for the first time in a long time. I’m not going to call a $200M team an underdog, but this year is about as close as they can get to being one.

The last seven games of the season are almost an afterthought at this point. The only thing left on the agenda is clinching homefield advantage, and  that should be wrapped up by the weekend. The focus can now officially shift to getting guys rest, lining up the rotation, sorting out the last two or three playoff roster spots, and simply preparing for baseball’s biggest crapshoot. A division title doesn’t guarantee anything, and once the playoffs start next Friday, the Yankees will have the same one-in-eight chance as every other club that made it. Enjoy the stress-free baseball for the next week, now’s the time to just sit back and enjoy baseball for nothing more than the love of the game.

AL East Champs: Yanks top Rays to win division

Wednesday was a busy day in Yankeeland, eh? Everything broke the right way for the Yankees, allowing them to first clinch a playoff spot before clinching the division title. Best day of the season? Oh yeah, totally the best day of the season.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Hip Hip!

It has been a long and difficult season for Jorge Posada. The Yankee stalwart started the year as the regular DH, then got demoted in the lineup, then became a platoon DH, and by the end the of the season he had lost the job entirely. With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, Jorge delivered his biggest hit of the season and was all smiles.

The inning started ominously enough, with Eduardo Nunez striking out against Jake McGee after Jeremy Hellickson held the Yankees to just two runs and two hits through seven innings. Nick Swisher pinch-hit for Chris Dickerson, and started the game-winning rally with a double into left-center. Greg Golson flew out of the dugout to pinch-run, but the chances of scoring went down when Curtis Granderson flew out to right. Joe Maddon started  mixing and matching, bringing in Juan Cruz only to watch him walk Mark Teixeira on four pitches. None were particularly close, either.

Maddon went to the bullpen again, this time to bring the lefty Cesar Ramos to face Robinson Cano, who already beat him in the first game of the doubleheader. Ramos fell behind in the count 3-1, and the fourth ball to load the bases was intentional. With the righty swinging Jesus Montero due up, Maddon again went to the bullpen, this time for the right-hander Brandon Gomes. Joe Girardi countered with Posada, who took a  first pitch splitter for strike one before jumping all over a fastball. The line drive dropped into right, a legit base hit, scoring Golson and Teixeira to turn a 2-2 tie into a 4-2 lead. At .289 WPA, Jorge’s hit was easily the biggest play of the game. Sentimentally, it was arguably the biggest of the season.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Honestly, Who Really Cares About 20 Wins?

In what is likely his last normal start of the season, CC Sabathia gave the Yankees 127 pitches (second most of the season), but they couldn’t give him a win. He allowed just two solo homers (to Kelly Shoppach and Sean Rodriguez) over 7.2 IP, but Girardi really pushed it in an effort to get his ace that milestone. I don’t like it because getting Sabathia ready for the ALDS is far more important than an individual achievement, and CC would be the first to tell you that. What’s done is done though.

Sabathia allowed seven hits and two walks in those 7.2 IP, and David Robertson bailed him out of a bases loaded jam with a one-pitch  double play ball. CC didn’t get his 20th win, but who really cares? It’s a nice round number, that’s it. Remember, we’re trying to win a ring around here.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Leftovers

The first two Yankees runs came on a solo homer (Cano) and a double play (Montero). Cano had been intentionally walked to loaded the bases with no outs to get to Montero, and I guess it worked since only the one run scored. The Yankees only had four hits, a Granderson double in addition to the previously mentioned Cano/Posada/Swisher knocks. The six walks really helped.

With Mariano Rivera unavailable after pitching in the first game of the doubleheader, closer duties fell on the shoulders of former Ray Rafael Soriano. Robertson had warmed up in the first game and twice in the second game, so I guess that’s why he couldn’t continue after throwing that one pitch in the eighth. Soriano did allow a hit, but he struck out Matt Joyce to end the game and the AL East race.

Like I said earlier, the Yankees have clinched the AL East thanks to their two wins and the Red Sox’s loss to the Orioles. Big ups to Buck Showalter and crew, they showed up for that series. Many thanks. The only thing left on the regular season checklist is homefield advantage, and magic number for that is just three. Still some work to be done, but expect to see a hangover Triple-A lineup tomorrow.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerdy score, and ESPN the updated standings.

Up Next

One more game with the Rays, and it’ll be played Thursday night. Bartolo Colon gets the ball against Matt Moore. Jeff Niemann has been scratched due to some soreness/stiffness. If you want to catch the fourth to last regular season home of the regular season, RAB Tickets can help get you there.

Yankees beat Rays to claim AL East title

Step two: complete. For the first time since 2009 and the 11th time in the last 14 years, the Yankees are AL East Champs. Wednesday night’s win over Tampa combined with the Red Sox’s loss to the Orioles gave the Yankees a division title that a whole lotta people figured they had no chance to win six or so months ago. Drink it in, division titles always go down smooth.

MRI shows inflammation in Hughes’ back

Update (6:50pm): Via Mike Ashmore, Phil Hughes went for an MRI on his back this afternoon, and it revealed inflammation from a herniated disc he suffered way back in 2004. He received an epidural, and Brian Cashman said he will “maybe” pitch this weekend.

Original Post (4:45pm): Joe Girardi said after this afternoon’s game that Phil Hughes did not throw a bullpen session today as expected, and he was instead sent for tests on the back that his been keeping him out of action. Girardi wasn’t clear if it was an MRI, but the bottom line is that he went to have it checked out. Backs are tricky, so hopefully this is nothing serious.