Will this long stretch again define the Yanks’ season?

Last year the Yankees faced their toughest challenge of the season right after the All-Star break. They were 51-37, three games behind first-place Boston, and had learned that Chien-Ming Wang would be lost for the season. Under different circumstances the Yanks might have been able to skip Wang’s start so they could search for an adequate replacement. But with a makeup game against Oakland eating one of their July off-days and a make-up against Tampa resulting in a September doubleheader the Yanks were set to play 53 games in 56 days during the hottest stretch of the season.

That sounds pretty brutal. Not only does the team lack for days off, but it also has to play all those games in the summer heat. That can take a lot out of anyone, even a pro athlete. This makes me worry about stretches like this. What if the team tires towards the end? In a tight division like the AL East that could make all the difference. Yet that didn’t stop the 2009 Yankees. They went 40-13 in those 53 games, making the AL East among the least interesting divisional races in the process.

This year the Yankees got the same four-day All-Star break, which conveniently came after their last West Coast trip of the year. They faced a tough challenge when facing their closest foes right afterward, but were rewarded with another day-off yesterday. Today, however, starts their long stretch of 2010. There are no make-up games — yet — but the Yanks will still play 44 games in 46 days. This is not only a rough-looking stretch in itself, but it looks tougher when you look at their workload during the past 26 days, in which they played 19 games. That’s quite a change.

The Yanks have shown in the past that this shouldn’t be much of a concern. Again, last year they went 40-13 during a 53 games in 56 days stretch. I particularly remember a similar stretch in 2006, when they played 36 games in 37 days. They went 22-14 in that time, including the infamous five-game sweep of the Red Sox. The Yanks also played two doubleheaders then, though one was a day-after make-up game against the Tigers. It might have bought them an extra day, but I imagine they’d rather have played the two games in two days than have the rain out followed by a doubleheader.

In 2007 they had it even worse, playing 55 games in 56 days, including two doubleheaders, coming out of the break. The Yanks were 43-43 at that point, 9.5 games back in the AL East, and it looked like a season-defining stretch. They went 35-19 in that stretch, and while they gained only 3.5 games on the Red Sox in the Eat they jumped out to a three-game lead in the Wild Card standings. That’s where they finished, though not without making a run for the division later in September.

It seems, then, that there is no reason to be concerned about the coming stretch of games. In three out of the last four years they have performed very well during similar stretches. Not only that, but they basically staked their claim to the AL East in two of the four years. Even more reassuring is the performance of last year’s team during their long summer schedule. It still seems unreal. How often do we see a team rattle off 40 wins in 53 games this late in the season? The answer is not very.

Yet the Yankees have. While I sit in the bleachers and feel the sun beating down on my body and reflecting off the metal benches and concrete, the players are thinking just one thing. Win. If the Yanks can pull off a huge stretch for the fourth time in five years, they should have a firm command of the AL East.

SWB loses, but not because of Montero

Jon Albaladejo was named the International League Pitcher of the Week for the second consecutive week. He’ll get another chance eventually. I hope. Meanwhile, former Yankee draft pick Rob Scahill (48th round, 2008) won the same award in the Cal League.

Triple-A Scranton (6-2 loss to Gwinnett) faced the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft
Kevin Russo, 3B, Chad Huffman, LF, Eduardo Nunez, SS & Chad Tracy, DH: combined 0 for 15 at the top of the order – Russo drew a walk, but they combined to strike out five times (Huffman twice, everyone else once)
Jesus Montero, C: 3 for 3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB – he went 2-for-2 off Minor with a double, so he put a bit of a hurtin’ on a brand name
Jorge Vazquez, 1B & Eric Bruntlett, 2B: both 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K – JoVa homered & drove in two … Bruntlett stole a base
Reid Gorecki, RF: 0 for 4, 3 K
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 3, 1 2B, 1 K – he’s got 20 total bases on the season, and five have come in the last ten games
Sergio Mitre: 4.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HB, 10-0 GB/FB – 48 of his 73 pitches were strikes (65.6%) … remember, he was on three day’s rest … perfect final rehab outing, had the sinker working, was tested with men on base, he’s pretty much as ready as can be for Saturday’s start
Eric Wordekemper: 2.1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 26 of 38 pitches were strikes (68.4%) … he allowed both inherited runners to score, uglifying Mitre’s line
Zack Segovia: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 15 of his 26 pitches were strikes (57.7%)

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Open Thread: CC turns 30 …

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

… in two days. But that didn’t stop him and his teammates and some other celebs from painting the town red last night. Good thing they had the day off today, something tells me the guys needed to recup after last night. Hopefully they’ll be doing some more partying in late October/early November.

If you’re still recovering from the weekend, use this open thread to help you relax. The Phillies and Cardinals will be playing on ESPN, while the Mets will take on the Diamondbacks a little later on tonight. Old buddy Ian Kennedy gets the ball. Talk about whatever.

Mitre starting tonight for Triple-A Scranton

Via LoHud, Sergio Mitre will make his final rehab start for Triple-A Scranton tonight, and is scheduled to throw 75 pitches. He will be starting on three day’s rest, and the idea is to stretch him out a bit more before he takes Andy Pettitte‘s place in the rotation on Saturday. Seems kind of aggressive, but so be it. One start on short rest won’t kill him.

In the interim, I suspect the Yankees will call up an extra reliever until they activate Mitre before the game on Saturday. Jon Albaladejo, Romulo Sanchez, and Mark Melancon are the only relievers in Scranton on the 40-man roster, though Melancon is in no shape to be called up at the moment (1.91 WHIP since the end of April). Hopefully it’s Albie.

The post-George still-Steinbrenner Era begins

Hal Steinbrenner watches over his New York Yankees during yesterday's win over Tampa. Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

George Steinbrenner always had impeccable timing. He knew when to hire and fire managers in such a way that would generate the most publicity for the Yankees. He knew which free agents his team should have; he knew when his incendiary statements would garner the most outrageous coverage on New York’s back pages. And whether he realized it or not, he knew when to die.

As callous as that sounds, George Steinbrenner’s death could not have come during a better year for the Yankees than in 2010 for this is the year the estate tax has lapsed. Prior to 2010, those with estates of over $3.5 million were taxed at a rate of 45 percent. After 2010, those with estates over $1 million will be taxed at a rate of 55 percent. This year, though, Congress allowed the estate tax to go uncollected, and although some Senators wish to restore the tax retroactively to January 1, for now the Yankees are off the hook.

For the post-George Era, it’s hard to understate the impact this good luck has on the Yankees. Estimates from Forbes Magazine pegged Steinbrenner’s worth at over $1 billion, and the Yankee heirs would have had to liquidate some of his holdings to raise the money for a $450-$500 million government bill. Despite the value of the Yankees, the family apparently doesn’t have that much cash on hand, and the Steinbrenners may have had to sell a large chunk of the team to do so.

The point though is moot. As Forbes’ William Barrett wrote, the family has spent a lot of lately working to avoid that reality. The team is controlled by a variety of holding companies of which the various Steinbrenner children are the controlling shareholders. Major League Baseball officially recognized Hank and Hal Steinbrenner as the team’s day-to-day operations heads in 2008, a move made to protect the family’s control over the club. The family, says the Associated Press, wants to avoid falling into the same trap that plagued the Wrigley’s when then-Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley died in 1977.

But questions surrounding club ownership remain. Do the Steinbrenners want to cash in on their billion-dollar gem? Do the sons want to be as involved as the father was? So far, the family has given every indication that they will not be selling the Yankees, as Joel Sherman wrote on Friday. The Post scribe, well-connected in the upper echelons of the Yankee Front Office, offers up this revealing take about life after George initially stepped down:

Hank Steinbrenner — think a combination of hot-headed Sonny and underwhelming Fredo — briefly oversaw baseball operations after the 2007 season. He quickly burned out, not fully understanding the time and scrutiny that came with the job, especially if you were going to try to be Boss Jr. with loud proclamations.

Hal stepped into the breach, though it felt more out of responsibility to the family business than love for the job. So there was an assumption that whenever George died, so to would the Steinbrenner obligation to owning the franchise. It was not hard to imagine a frenzy of the super-rich bidding to buy the Yankees after George’s death.

Reserved and protective of his privacy, Hal projected the wrong fit for the job. Except Hal did a funny thing: He changed the way the Yankees Boss operates. Over the past few years, he learned he actually could run the Yankees under the radar. He has managed leadership without bluster or much inspection of his private life. He rarely speaks in public, offering almost none of the state of the Yankees messages that his father could deliver multiple times a day, especially in bad times. Does Hal burn to run the Yankees like his father? No. However, he has learned to like this job, and — as it turns out — the Yankees are in the Steinbrenner family blood now; George’s four children all having grown up in pinstripes.

Randy Levine, current team president, succinctly summed up the family’s thinking. “They have no plans to sell. There are no succession issues,” he said to Sherman.

Hal is, as Sherman puts it, the “cautious” version of George Steinbrenner. Whereas George’s brashness made baseball popular and rich off the field, Hal plans to own the game on the field. He’s a quiet and collected individual who knows when to delegate and knows when to step in. He’s willing to support a high-payroll team and understands that victories equals dollars in the world where Yankees and the YES Network dominate New York.

In one of the better business columns written about the Yankees post-George, Joe Nocera of The Times explains how George got lucky. The Yankees became so valuable because of their preeminent place in the country’s number one media market and because they started winning at the right time in the nation’s economic path. George happened to be the guy holding the reins, and although he made a lot of good decisions, he made some bad ones too. He didn’t sell when the chance arrived, and good fortune smiled down upon him. In a smaller market — had he bought the Indians as he so desired — George Steinbrenner might just be another irascible owner lost to the pages of baseball business history.

With a history of sports ownership in tow, the next generation of Steinbrenners will look to build on their wealth through wise investments. Luck always plays a part of the capitalist market, but so too does diversifying and smart management. According to one British tabloid, the family may bid £450 million on the Totteham Hotspurs with Hank taking his turn atop that Premier League team. Baseball owners have a mixed track record within the EPL, but it’s a start. The club reportedly has no interest in buying into the NFL, NBA or NHL.

For now, fans should see nothing new. The Steinbrenner family will invest and try to win those championships. The looming axe won’t be there to fall, but the pressures of a high payroll will remain. It is, after all, always beneficial to be in the business of winning. That’s what George was, and that is what his children should be.

A few fish on the Yanks’s radar

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline just gained some urgency for the Yanks. With Andy Pettitte gone for anywhere from two to five weeks, the Yanks could use some help in the rotation. That’s in addition to the help they already could have used on the bench and in the bullpen. The latter two are common needs for contenders at the deadline, but the former might present something of a problem. There just isn’t much good starting pitching left on the market. But could the Yanks turn to one team to fill all of their needs?

During the past few weeks we’ve seen the Yankees connected to a number of the reportedly available Florida Marlins. Earlier in the month we learned that the Yankees were in attendance to watch Ricky Nolasco pitch against Dan Haren. The Yanks, of course, could have been there for Haren, or they might have been there to scout other Marlins targets. Later in the month we saw the Yanks connected to Cody Ross and Leo Nunez, and just recently we saw that they had interest in Wes Helms. Clearly the Yanks won’t acquire all four of these players, but they certainly could turn to the Marlins for a couple of them.

While Brian Cashman has stated his preference for in-house options to replace the injured Pettitte, that might not be a realistic option. Mike went over the Pettitte replacement options earlier, and none of the in-house options seems all that attractive. Moving outside the organization, however, would bring the Yankees many benefits. First, it would give them an established starter to replace Pettitte temporarily, allowing the Yanks to play it conservative with the 38-year-old. Then, when Pettitte does return, the Yankees can use the extra starter to help more easily control Phil Hughes‘s innings. As long as they’re not committing big dollars for multiple years, a la Roy Oswalt, acquiring a pitcher will work in their favor.

Photo credit: Lynne Sladky/AP

Nolasco, 27, could fill that role in the rotation. For the second straight year he’s sporting a poor ERA, but also for the second straight year his component stats suggest that he’s actually a bit better than that. He has a career 3.98 FIP, including a 3.77 mark in 2008 and 3.35 last year. His xFIP also sits below 4.00 at 3.85 for his career. In the last three years that has been 3.75, 3.28, and finally 3.73 this year. His current strikeout rate, 7.91 per nine, matches his career total. We also know he’s capable of more, as he struck out 9.49 per nine last year.

Home runs have been Nolasco’s most concerning problem this year. He has allowed 20 in 116 IP, a high number for sure but one that might come down if he leaves Miami. Of those 20, 11 have come at home. That might not seem like a huge difference, but he has also pitched 13.1 fewer innings at home than on the road. In other words, a move away from whatever they’re calling the Marlins’ ballpark right now could be to his benefit.

Photo credit: Andres Leighton/AP

Starting pitching, according to Cashman, is a luxury at this point. Even with Pettitte’s injury he’s focusing on bench and bullpen. He might find solutions to both issues also on the Marlins. Leo Nunez has pitched very well this year, boasting a career-high strikeout rate to go with a very low walk rate and a nearly nonexistent home run rate. That last stat might seem ripe for regression, but as his 2.83 xFIP shows, that’s not the case. The reason: he’s posting a career high groundball rate, probably because he’s turning to the changeup more often than in the past. All of these attributes would make him not only an excellent candidate for the pen, but also one for Mariano’s primary setup man.

Cody Ross and Wes Helms would present options for the bench, though Ross could also serve as a platoon partner for Curtis Granderson should the Yankees decide to take that road later in the season. He has a .379 wOBA against lefties this season and a .398 mark for his career. This season hasn’t been that great from a power perspective, as he’s hitting the ball on the ground more often. Even so he’s a decent option for the Yanks against left-handed pitching. Helms, 34, can man the infield corners and little else. I’m not sure how interested the Yanks are in him; if you’ll remember back to the 2006-2007 off-season the Yanks actually had the highest bid for Helms, then a free agent. He ended up taking less from the Phillies, and has been decidedly mediocre ever since.

Florida currently sits 9.5 games out of first in the NL East and 6 games out of the NL Wild Card, so they could become aggressive sellers in the coming weeks. A notoriously cheap team, the Marlins have spent more money this year than they have since 2005, which could affect their desire to unload players. But considering all of these players will be under control next year (Nolasco and Nunez have two more years of arbitration), the team might not be so inclined to move them. Maybe they’ll provide a multi-player discount for taking the current and future salaries off the books, but I doubt it would be anything significant. The Marlins have proven to be a stingy bunch.

Acquiring any of these Marlins players would help the team this year, and if the Yanks can get more than one of them all the better. The question, as always, comes with the price. The Yanks don’t appear willing to include Jesus Montero in any future deal, nor should they. Austin Romine is probably off-limits, too. That doesn’t leave the team with a ton to trade, especially if it involves multiple players. Considering that the marlins come as stingy dealers, I doubt these two teams match up. It’s a shame, because a few of those players would fit right in (also because Joe Girardi managed a few of them in Florida). But with the presumed costs involved I wouldn’t count on anything imminent.

Replacing Andy Pettitte

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

It’s not quite the worst case scenario, but it’s pretty damn bad. The Yankees lost Andy Pettitte yesterday for what GM Brian Cashman estimated to be four-to-five weeks with a Grade I groin strain. Sergio Mitre, coming off an oblique injury, will take Andy’s spot in the rotation for now, just like he did earlier in the season. That’s all well and good if this was a short-term thing, but we’re talking about a month long fill-in here. It could be even worse if Pettitte’s 38-year-old body doesn’t recover as quickly. There has to be a backup plan.

The Yanks sacrificed some pitching depth this offseason when they traded Ian Kennedy, who is having a decent enough season out in the desert (4.83 FIP, 4.32 xFIP). He assuredly would have been given the first crack at that rotation vacancy if he were still around. Luckily the Yanks still have plenty of options to fill that spot, some internal, some external. Let’s run them down.

In-House

Mitre is first in line for the open rotation spot simply because he’s the incumbent sixth starter. His spot starts against the Tigers (4.1 IP, 4 R) and Twins (5 IP, 1 R) were acceptable, even though the Yanks lost both games. Mitre has definitely looked better this season than he did last, but we have no idea what the injury will do to him. Chad Gaudin is another possibility out of the bullpen, but he’s been a mess this year and I suspect he’s a “break glass in case of emergency” option only. Ditto Dustin Moseley.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Down in the minors, the Yankees have two viable starter options in my opinion: Ivan Nova (above) and Jason Hirsh. Zach McAllister has the shine of being a former top prospect, but he’s spun his wheels in Triple-A this year. He’s been far too hittable (.298 AVG against), hasn’t missed nearly enough bats (5.38 K/9), and isn’t getting ground balls either (37.4%). Sorry, that’s not deserving of a promotion. Tim Redding has been good in the minors this season (3.23 FIP, 84.2 IP), but we’ve all seen this movie before. It doesn’t have a happy ending.

Nova has a leg up on Hirsh simply because he’s already on the 40-man roster. His three inning cameo with the big league team earlier this season was mixed in with 103.2 innings of 3.92 FIP, 52.1% ground ball pitching in the minors. Not a set-the-world-on-fire performance, but certainly worth a look. Another thing Nova has in his favor is his schedule. He starts today from Scranton, which lines him up perfectly to start on Saturday, Pettitte’s next scheduled turn. If nothing else, they could keep Nova lined up with that spot so if he does get called up, the transition is seamless.

Hirsh actually spend a chunk of the season pitching out of Scranton’s bullpen before moving back into the rotation when the team decided Romulo Sanchez was better utilized in relief. As a starter this year, Hirsh has pitched to a rather ugly 4.96 FIP in 74 IP, with the big problem being the 11 homers he’s given up. That homer rate is high compared to the rest of his career, but I’m not sure you can call a guy up and count on the regression happening in the show. Hirsh isn’t on the 40-man either, which would require another move. That’s simple enough though, since Al Aceves can just slide over to the 60-day DL retroactively.

So out of the internal options, Mitre is Plan A, Nova Plan B, and I guess Hirsh and Gaudin duke it out for the title of Plan C.

(AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

Trade

The first name everyone will talk about here is Ted Lilly. He’s a former Yank that reportedly begged the team to bring him back as a free agent after the 2006 season only to watch them pick up Kei Igawa instead. Lilly has been rock solid in Chicago, though he missed the end of last season and the start of this season after having surgery to fix a debridement in his pitching shoulder. Unsurprisingly, his already not-so-great velocity has been further reduced, and his strikeout rate is down one full whiff per nine innings from the past few years.

Lilly is arguably the best starting pitcher on the market considering what should be a relatively low cost, so the Yanks will have plenty of competition for his services. His season marks of 4.62 xFIP and 4.58 tRA are right on par with Mitre’s career marks (4.29 and 4.64, respectively), so the upgrade might be minimal. The upgrade in name value is considerable though, too bad that doesn’t affect anything on the field.

Roy Oswalt and Dan Haren are pipe dreams, the Yanks aren’t going to make a major move like that to fill a hole for one or two months. I suppose Ricky Nolasco fits in this category as well. Ben Sheets has been dreadful on the road (6.29 FIP), Kevin Millwood has been dreadful everywhere (5.03 FIP).  Brett Myers of the Astros is a bit more realistic, and he is very much available. He’s having a nice bounceback season (3.71 FIP) and throws a ton of innings (at least six in all 19 starts), but again there will be plenty of teams interested in acquiring him. Former Yank Jay Westbrook (4.34 FIP) is another guy like Lilly and Myers. Got the name, not guaranteed to outpitch the in-house options.

If the Yankees do make a trade, the real question is about cost and what Cashman is willing to pay for a guy that might only be in the rotation for six or seven turns, maybe less. Since none of the reasonable targets currently available is an elite arm, I suspect not much.

Waiver Trade

If Cashman does make a deal for another starting pitcher, I’m willing to bet this is the route he takes. Waiver trades take place after the July 31st trade deadline, when any player on any team’s 40-man roster has to clear trade waivers (100% revocable) to be a traded. If a player is claimed, he can only be traded to the team that claimed him. Almost every player clears, situations like Alex Rios last year are few and far between. Pretty simple, and very rarely are their any complications.

Last year Cashman waited until August to essentially purchase Chad Gaudin from the Padres (he cleared trade waivers beforehand), who then went on to be very servicable down the stretch. We’re talking low risk, low cost, low expectations here.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Someone like Jeremy Bonderman (4.27 FIP) could make sense here if the Tigers fall out of the race, though his salary (still owed more than $5.5M this year) is an issue. Detroit has already swallowed everything left on Dontrelle Willis’ and Nate Robertson’s contracts this year (more than $21M), so I can’t imagine they’d be willing to do that again. There’s always Brian Bannister (right), who was connected to the Yanks last year before they acquired Gaudin, but he’s not exactly setting the world on first this year (5.26 FIP). Dave Bush (4.98 FIP)? Meh.

That about sums up the state of the waiver market, but remember, right now there are eight-frickin-teen teams within six games of a Wild Card spot. Some of those clubs will inevitably drop out of the race over the next few weeks, and more players will become available.

The Yankees have the comfort of a three game lead in the division and a six-and-a-half game lead for the Wild Card if it comes down to that. They’re in a position where all they have to do is maintain the status quo while Pettitte is out, they don’t have to worry about playing catch-up. Of course that shouldn’t stop them from trying to field the best team possible, and might mean finding someone besides Mitre to start every five days. Remember, Phil Hughes is going to need a breather every now and then to avoid an unnecessarily dangerous increase in workload, so they’re probably going to need another spot starter at some point.

Mitre and Nova are solid sixth and seventh starters, but of course they’re not going to replace what Andy was doing this year. Solid outings every five days and enough to keep the team in the game is really all we could ask for, and if the Yanks don’t get that, Cashman will do something about it. I’m sure of it.