Game 23: Running out of time

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

It’s now or never for Phil Hughes, who has to start turning his season around right now if he wants to remain in the rotation. Not next week, not in the second half, not when he’s a little older and has more experience. Right now. If the performance doesn’t change, then the personnel will. Here’s the lineup…

SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
2B Robinson Cano
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
RF Andruw Jones
DH Russell Martin
LF Eduardo Nunez
C  Chris Stewart

RHP Phil Hughes

Tonight’s game starts a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES. It was drizzly and overcast most of the day in New York, but they won’t have much of a problem getting the game in. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Gardner & Pineda

Via Mark Feinsand, it’s unlikely Gardner will be able to come off the DL when eligible on Thursday. “We’re going to see where he’s at after today,” said Joe Girardi. “We’re starting to get to a point where Thursday might be a little doubtful just because he has to go play a (rehab) game or two.” Gardner was scheduled to take batting practice today for the first time since being put on the shelf. Meanwhile, the Yankees will continue to employ a 13-man pitching staff and a two-man bench.

In other news, Girardi told Marc Carig said that Michael Pineda‘s labrum surgery went well today. We’re at the point that it’s newsworthy only if the surgery doesn’t go well. Hope to see you next May, Mike.

Yanks-Red Sox will play doubleheader on July 7th

The Yankees and Red Sox will make up their rain out from last Sunday as part of a doubleheader on Saturday, July 7th, the team announced. That’s the middle day of a three-day series immediately before the All-Star break. The Yankees have a scheduled day off that Thursday then most of the next week due to the Midsummer Classic. As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can recall an extra player and use a 26-man roster during doubleheaders.

For Russell Martin, it doesn’t get better

The way Martin's year has gone I bet the bat went further than the ball (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The last time we checked in with Russell Martin he was enjoying an oddly productive start to the season. While he had just four hits, none for extra bases, in his first 10 games, he walked nine times and owned a .417 OBP. That is, while he wasn’t knocking in runners he was helping the offense by not making outs and putting himself in a position to score when the top of the lineup came up. Considering Derek Jeter‘s early season surge, that was no small consolation.

The idea then was that Martin’s walks helped him remain productive until his bat came around. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen. Even worse, Martin’s production at the plate has dipped significantly in the last two weeks. Since the start of the Twins series Martin has come to the plate 35 times and has gone 5 for 32 (.156) with just two walks (.229 OBP). He did pick up a few extra base hits, including an important home run in Friday’s win over the Tigers. But it’s hard to hang your hat on those extra base hits when Martin’s overall production has been so poor.

Might there be a hitch in Martin’s swing? It’s hard to say without first hand experience working with him, but some of the evidence points to this. He’s walking at a greater clip than ever, so perhaps he’s still seeing the ball well. But he’s striking out more often than previously in his career — 22.1 percent of his PA this year, compared to 14.3 percent for his career. That’s five points higher than his 17 percent strikeout rate last year, the highest of his career.

Martin is also beating the ball into the ground: 59 percent of his 48 balls in play have been hit on the ground. That’s a bit better than the 75 percent ground ball rate he had through 10 games, but it’s still way too high. To complicate matters, it appears that he’s not even hitting hard ground balls; his .202 batting average on ground balls is 25 points below the AL average. He’s simply not making good contact, which could suggest an issue with his swing.

Last year was quite the opposite for Martin in terms of batted balls. In his first season with the Yankees he actually hit the ball in the air more frequently than he had in the past. That helped him rediscover his power stroke, hitting double-digit homers for the first time since 2008 and falling just one homer shy of his career best 19. He also walked frequently enough, giving him perfectly average numbers — a 100 wRC+, which is very good for a catcher. His average was a bit low, but at least he’d found a way to contribute.

This year, however, he seems like a complete wreck at the plate. Drawing walks early helped him, but lately he hasn’t even been able to add that. Maybe this is one of those instances where, like many medical conditions, it gets worse before it gets better. Maybe he’s actively working on something at the plate and it’s rounding into form. For the at-home observer, though, it’s hard to see. Unfortunately, the Yankees really have few avenues to pursue here. Martin is the man for 2011. He has a lot of work to do if he’s going to turn things around after a rough April.

Phil Hughes’ Last Stand

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

As awful as he’s been this season — 7.88 ERA and 6.39 FIP — Phil Hughes has actually been pretty lucky. He’s lucky in the sense that Freddy Garcia has performed even worse — 12.51 ERA and 5.51 FIP — and has drawn most of the negative attention. The security blanket is gone now, however. Garcia is out of the rotation and the focus turns to Hughes, the current weak link in the rotation.

The Yankees have given Phil every opportunity to succeed as a starting pitcher in his career, but outside of late-2007 and early-2010, their patience has not been rewarded. Dating back to mid-May of 2010 — an admittedly arbitrary endpoint — Hughes has pitched to a 5.45 ERA (~4.85 FIP) in 228 innings across 41 starts. The nearly 1,000 batters he faced (997 to be exact) during that time have tagged him for a .275/.334/.467 batting line. That’s almost exactly what Howie Kendrick hit last season. So yeah, it hasn’t been pretty.

Because of his recent awfulness and that long stretch of below average performance, tonight’s start against the Orioles just might be the Hughes’ last chance to show the team he can be effective in the rotation. Not only is Andy Pettitte‘s return drawing closer, but David Phelps will begin his starting pitcher audition later this week. As I said this morning, the Yankees can use Monday’s scheduled day off to rearrange the rotation and give his rotation spot to Pettitte if they so chose. The schedule isn’t going to handcuff them.

Phil’s days as a starting pitcher for the Yankees are numbered. It seems inevitable that the team will remove him from the rotation as some point relatively soon, whether it be after tonight’s start, next week, or next month. The Yankees have to stop kidding themselves if they want to improve their starting staff. There are better options on the way, and unless he comes out tonight and shows 2-3 pitches with command, there’s little Hughes can do to save his rotation spot.

Missing: Rafael Soriano

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The dominant bullpen corps has been the Yankees’ backbone all season, bailing out the sketchy starting rotation and inconsistent offense all April long. David Robertson struck out all three batters he faced last night and has yet to be charged with a run in 2012. Mariano Rivera as rebounded from his Opening Day blown save in spectacular fashion, and middle guys like Cory Wade, Boone Logan, and Clay Rapada have been far better than average. Then there’s Rafael Soriano.

The fourth highest paid reliever in baseball this year, Soriano has been earning his money by throwing warm-up pitches in the bullpen lately, not by facing actual hitters in games. His seven innings pitched are tied with Rapada for the fewest on the staff, and Rapada is nothing more than the second lefty specialist. Soriano has appeared in just two of the team’s last nine games, though he’s warmed up in four others. He hasn’t pitched since the last game of the Rangers’ series.

Of course, Soriano’s recent lack of work isn’t his fault. He’s been effective in his limited action this season, pitching to a 1.29 ERA and a 3.52 FIP. Joe Girardi is a master at pushing the right bullpen buttons, but his one real flaw is marrying relievers to specific innings. Simply put, there just haven’t been many seventh inning setup situations lately, which is why Soriano has been left warming up in the bullpen and not pitching in games. It’s not ideal given effective and valuable he can be.

Soriano’s recent usage isn’t actually a problem, this is more of an observation than anything. Girardi doesn’t bury his relievers for long periods of time and you know that before long, we’re going to run into a stretch of games where it feels like he’s out there everyday. With Robertson having pitched in each of the last two days, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see Soriano out there in the late innings tonight if the game is close. It’s a nice luxury to have when a pitcher of this quality has been MIA for a week or two and you barely notice in terms of overall bullpen performance.

Planning for Andy Pettitte’s return

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Andy Pettitte‘s return to the Yankees took another step forward yesterday, as he threw 96 pitches in his latest tune-up start. The team has yet to make an official announcement, though I have to think Andy will return to Double-A Trenton for his next tune-up start this weekend (they’ll be playing at home) unless the weather doesn’t cooperate. Depending on how that start goes, he could be declared ready for the big leagues or in need of another minor league start. I could see it going either way right now, to be honest.

Monday’s scheduled day off affords the Yankees quite a bit of flexibility. They could use it to skip either Phil Hughes or David Phelps, avoiding their fifth starter until next Saturday against the Mariners. Conveniently, that would line up perfectly for Pettitte’s return if he does come through his next minor league tune-up start with flying colors. He’d actually have an extra day of rest prior to that start, which is probably ideal.

If Pettitte needs more time, then the Yankees can still use Monday to skip the lesser of two evils, either Hughes or Phelps. That will allow them to limit the number of starts made by the weakest rotation link before Andy returns. This isn’t rocket science; if the Yankees want to improve the performance of their starting staff, one of the first things they need to do is to stop running ineffective pitchers out there and hoping for the best. When alternatives present themselves, by all means use them. Monday’s day off is an alternative to another dud start.

The odds are stacked against Pettitte making a meaningful contribution to the Yankees this year given his age and temporary retirement, but I have a real hard time betting against him. He may or may not be ready to jump into the big leagues late next week, but he’s been continually making progress since signing in the middle of Spring Training and isn’t far off from being a real option for the rotation. One more start, and it could be go time for the big lefty.