Game 121: Bartday!

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Here’s an interesting little factoid: the Yankees haven’t swept a three-game series since sweeping the Brewers at home at the end of June. Yes,  they did sweep the White Sox in Chicago a few weeks ago, but that was a four-game set. It’s been a while since they took all three games of a regular old three-gamer. They’ve got a chance to do that tonight against Bruce Chen and the Royals, and here’s the lineup they’re sending out there…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Andruw Jones, DH
Russell Martin, C
Eduardo Nunez, 3B
Brett Gardner, LF

Bartolo Colon, SP

The Red Sox already lost to the Rays this afternoon, so the Yankees are guaranteed to end the day in first place. It’s getting late though, time to start padding that lead and pull away from the pack. It’s another 8pm ET start, and this one can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

The Evil Empire™®©

Here’s an interesting little story from Deadspin, which tells the tale of the term “Evil Empire.” The Yankees are trying to prevent the use of the phrase to parody the franchise, especially when people are “trying to illegally cash in on and otherwise trade off the goodwill of an MLB team’s identity for his or her own commercial gain without the Club’s consent.” The phrase isn’t exactly intellectual property though, and in fact it was first used close to 30 years ago. I can understand the Yankees (and MLB) wanting to protect their properties, but the term “Evil Empire” isn’t theirs. Anyway, I thought this was an interesting one for you legal buffs out there, so check it out.

A-Rod was “a little tentative” during last night rehab game

Alex Rodriguez played the field in a game for the first time since having surgery on his right knee last night, and he told Mike Mazzeo that there was a little apprehension on his part. “I was a little tentative. A little hesitant,” said A-Rod. “That’s something that comes with time and repetition. This was only my third game out there. I had the same experience coming off my hip injury in 2009, and those last few hurdles are more mental than physical.” There’s nothing unusual here, that little bit of apprehension if pretty normal when coming back from an injury. You don’t have to be a baseball player to know that.

A-Rod joked about not feeling 100% for the last 15 years when reporters saw the big ice pack around his knee after the game, but he did say flat out “there’s no soreness.” He’s been getting ice twice a day now as part of his regular treatment. Anyway, Alex told Jim Baumbach that he’s going to “try to ramp it up” tonight and get four at-bats, which likely means a eight or nine innings in the field. If all goes well, maybe we’ll see him tomorrow in Minnesota.

Update: Via Bryan Hoch, the Yankees are planning to bring Alex Rodriguez to Minnesota, but they might not activate him on Thursday. Sounds like they might give him a day off before adding him to the active roster again.

The Andruw Jones Revival

(Barton Silverman/The New York Times)

Andruw Jones made a pretty good first impression on Yankees’ fans. His first plate appearances of the season resulted in six pitch at-bat and a solo homer off Twins lefty Brian Duensing, exactly the kind of pitcher he was brought in to mash. Andruw had four hits in his first four games (three starts and 11 plate appearances), including a double and the homer, so everyone was happy. Unfortunately the good times stopped there, at least for a while.

Jones’ bat went silent after that, with April 27th and May 25th (two dingers) representing his only other multi-hit games in the first half. He went into the All-Star break with a .195/.278/.356 batting line in 97 plate appearances, hitting just .231/.315/.446 in 73 PA against lefties. Forty-one days had passed since his last extra base hit when the Yankees parted ways for the break, and he had been hitless in his ten previous at-bats before the midseason vacation. Considering how massively productive (126 wRC+) and likable the guy he is replacing (Marcus Thames) was in 2010, the majority of the fan base was decidedly anti-Andruw come mid-July.

Since the All-Star break, it’s been a much different story for Mr. Jones. He started the first game of the second half against the Blue Jays and lefty Jo-Jo Reyes, and he responded with two homeruns. Two days later he started against Ricky Romero and singled in the tying run in the eventual win. Gio Gonzalez was met with two RBI singles a few days later, and a couple days after that it was Zach Britton feeling the wrath of an RBI double and Jason Berken getting taken deep for a solo shot. Andruw came back from the break like a man possessed, hitting everything in sight and he hasn’t stopped since.

In 46 second break plate appearances, Andruw’s hitting .342/.457/.632 overall and .370/.485/.667 against lefties. Of course it’s a small sample size, we’re not trying to determine if this pace is sustainable (hint: it’s not), we’re just acknowledging that Jones was able to shake off the poor first half and make some noise heading into the dog days of summer. His season batting line has been boosted to .240/.336/.440, better than his preseason ZiPS projection (.221/.320/.438). He’s getting on base (.368 OBP) and hitting for way more power (.239 ISO) in 106 PA against lefties than Thames did last year (.352 OBP and .154 ISO) in 142 PA. Andruw’s also hitting .343/.410/.543 with runners in scoring position, for those inclined to value those situations.

The season hasn’t gone exactly according to plan for the Yankees fourth outfielder, but a scorching hot start to the second half has helped offset his awful first half. Jones is at the point where he’s doing what’s expected of him, and that’s get on base and hit for a ton of power against lefties despite a low batting average while playing something better than awful defense. It’s a thankless job for a guy that once ran off four 7+ fWAR seasons in a five year stretch and owns 400+ career homers, but Jones is contributing to the Yankees cause and has been better than expected since the All-Star break.

A few roster decisions on the horizon

For the past few weeks the Yankees have played with a short bench. Because they’ve used six pitchers in the starting rotation, and since they haven’t shortened the bullpen at all, they’re working with 12 position players and 13 pitchers. Normally they go with 13 position players, giving them a four-man bench, and 12 pitchers, giving them a seven-man bullpen. That won’t last much longer. When Alex Rodriguez returns they’ll have to alter the pitching staff, but with Freddy Garcia’s injury that could get a little tricky. Here’s how it all could work.

The goal for Garcia, as Joe Girardi has stated, is for him to pitch Saturday against the Twins. Yet that’s no guarantee. He threw a bullpen session yesterday, but it comprised only sliders and fastballs. The Yankees won’t let him pitch unless he can grip his splitter, and they’re right to do that. Per FanGraphs’ pitch type values, Garcia’s cutter has easily been his most effective pitch this season, at 1.15 runs above average per 100 pitches. he also throws it more than 20 percent of the time, so he needs that weapon. The decision on what to do with Garcia will play into the roster decision.

Scenario 1: DL Garcia when A-Rod returns

There remains a decent chance that the Yankees place Garcia on the DL, just to gain a temporary reprieve. They’ll have to make a move with the pitching staff when Alex returns, since they can’t do anything with the bench. Placing Garcia on the DL, retroactive to August 8th, would give them an easy opening, and would allow the bullpen to stay at full strength through the current road trip. Garcia would be eligible to come off the DL on August 23rd, which would line him up to start the first game of the home series against the A’s.

Following him would be Bartolo Colon and CC Sabathia against the A’s, leaving Phil Hughes to start the opener in Baltimore. A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova would then take the doubleheader, giving Freddy the Sunday start. That would also get everyone back on turn, so the Yankees could pare down the rotation to five at that point, moving either Nova, Hughes, or Burnett to the bullpen, bringing it back to seven men.

Scenario 2: Option a reliever when A-Rod returns

If Garcia can go on Saturday, then the Yankees have a different issue on their hands. They’ll maintain the six-man rotation, which they essentially have to do through the doubleheader, anyway, but will play with a short bullpen for a week. That’s not the end of the world; the team can survive with an 11-man pitching staff. But it’s unfamiliar territory, and the Yankees will have to play through it until Sunday the 28th.

This scenario would have Burnett’s next start pushed back to Sunday, leaving Nova to open the series against the A’s. The schedule breaks down in a similar manner from there, with Colon and Sabathia finishing the A’s series and Hughes opening the Orioles series. Garcia and Burnett would take the doubleheader, with Nova pitching on Sunday. After that they could decide what to do with the rotation situation, but they’d have to make a quick decision, since the bullpen will be short until they move a starter there.

Scenario 3: Mixing it up

Here are just four of many possible ways the Yankees could handle the rotation in the coming weeks. Clearly, the first two involve no DL stint for Garcia, while the other two do.

After playing a man short on the bench for almost a month, the Yankees will play with a man short in the bullpen for at least a week, perhaps a week and a half. There’s no avoiding it, considering the doubleheader on Saturday (meaning the need for that sixth starter on Sunday as well). That’s why I prefer to DL Garcia. Not only does it give his finger time to fully heal, but it means the Yankees will spend less time with a short bullpen. It essentially moves Garcia back just two games, which at this point in the season, with the Yankees commanding a sizable lead in the playoff race, makes little difference. If it helps them get through the coming weeks with further issues, why not just do it?

Anticipating A-Rod’s Return

(AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

The Yankees have been without their starting third baseman and cleanup hitter for close to six weeks now, but are close to getting Alex Rodriguez back now that he’s playing the field for Triple-A Scranton in rehab games. He went 1-for-3 with a hard hit single and played six innings in the field last night (video here), his first game action at third since having knee surgery last month. Assuming all goes well, he’ll return to the Yankees at some point during the upcoming four-game series in Minnesota.

Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez (with a little Brandon Laird mixed in) have filled in admirably during A-Rod‘s absence, but Yankees’ third baseman are hitting just .260/.308/.333 since he got hurt. The team’s overall offensive output has gone up, from 5.22 runs per game before the injury to 5.85 after, but that has more to with the small sample size and playing some really bad teams more than anything. Even though he hasn’t played in a month, Alex is still second among all big league third baseman with 4.0 fWAR, a tenth of a win behind Kevin Youkilis, who just passed him over the weekend. The Yankees have gone 23-11 without A-Rod, but there’s no doubt they’re a better team with him in the lineup.

Once he comes back, the lineup will basically go back to normal. A-Rod will (rightfully) hit cleanup and Brett Gardner will get bumped back to the bottom of the order. It’s obvious the Yankees aren’t going to move Derek Jeter down in the lineup, even just against righties, so moving Gardner down is the next best thing to do. You can’t give Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Robinson Cano fewer at-bats by moving them down even one lineup spot just accommodate Gardner, it’s not worth it. We’ll be back to the regular top five, meaning Jeter, Grandy, Tex, A-Rod, and Cano. Everyone else falls into place right after that.

Thankfully, Alex’s return also means the end of the 13-man pitching staff, and I assume Hector Noesi will (finally) get send back to Triple-A for regular work. The guy has thrown 3.2 IP in the last 20 days. It’s a waste, he needs to get back to the minors and actually do some pitching. I guess the alternative would be what, cutting Luis Ayala? I see no reason to do that. Freddy Garcia’s cut finger buys them some time with the six-man rotation decision, and Joe Girardi will just have to live with a six-man bullpen for 10-12 days until September call-ups. It won’t be the end of the world.

I also think that once A-Rod comes back, he’s going to see a lot more games at DH than we’re used to, at least at first. There’s no reason to push him in the field so soon after surgery, so two or three days a week at DH rather than one might be the norm through the end of the season, especially with September right around the corner. That’ll give Nunez and Chavez some semi-regular playing time, which is always good, especially in the kid’s case. I don’t know how A-Rod will hit when he comes back, but I suspect it won’t be poorly. Perhaps a healthy knee will improve his power output, which wasn’t really a problem to begin with. Either way, the Yankees are currently in first place and are a few days away from making a substantial addition to the roster, and that’s exciting.

Remembering The El Duque Era

It’s been nearly four full years since he last stepped onto a Major League field, but it wasn’t until yesterday that Orlando Hernandez officially announced his retirement from baseball. The one they call “El Duque” spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues, pitching for both New York teams as well as the White Sox and Diamondbacks. He was also a National and a Ranger at various points, but in name only. He never pitched for either team. The vast majority of his career was spent in pinstripes (exactly two-thirds of his career innings, in fact), during which time he was one of the most unique players in franchise history.

A fixture on the Cuban National Team for the better part of a decade, El Duque defected from Cuba on Christmas Day in 1997, eventually gaining asylum in Costa Rica after a stop in the Bahamas. The Yankees won the sweepstakes to sign Hernandez that winter, inking him to a four-year contract worth $6.6M. Initial reports said he was 28, but others suggested he was 32. I bet if they had chopped the guy open like a tree and counted the rings, they would have gotten another number entirely.

Despite his extensive experience in Cuba and in international competition, the Yankees had El Duque begin the 1998 season with two starts in Single-A before a quick promotion to Triple-A. He made seven starts for Columbus, then made his big league debut on June 3rd, replacing Ramiro Mendoza in the rotation. I remember that first start well, and for the same reason so many other people remember El Duque: the leg kick. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, his knee hiding his face, the hands below the foot, it was everything I could ever conjure up while playing wiffle ball except on the big league field.

Hernandez held the then-Devil Rays to five hits and one run over seven innings that night in the Bronx, a preview of what was to come. El Duque threw a complete game four-hitter the next time out, then followed that up with a two runs in 7.2 IP in his third start. Only three times in his first 14 starts did he allow more than two earned runs, and he completed at least seven innings ten times during that stretch. Hernandez finished the season with a 3.13 ERA and a 12-4 record in 21 starts, earning him a fourth place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. His True Yankee™ moment came in Game Four of the ALCS, when he fired seven three-hit, shutout innings against the powerhouse Indians with the Yankees staring a potential 3-1 series deficit in the face. Seven one-run innings in Game Two against the Padres in the World Series followed, as did his first ring.

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

El Duque made 33 starts the next year, going 17-9 with a 4.12 ERA. He made four postseason starts and won them all, which is usually what happens when you allowed just four earned runs in 30 IP. In Game One of the World Series, he struck out ten and allowed just a single hit to outpitch Greg Maddux. Things went a little south for Hernandez in 2000, though he still started 29 games and posted a 4.51 ERA. The Yankees again went to the postseason, but El Duque took his first career playoff loss against the Mets in Game Three of the World Series. Four runs and a dozen strikeouts in 7.1 IP is hardly the end of the world though.

Injuries and ineffectiveness started to creep into the picture in 2001, when he managed just 16 starts and a 4.85 ERA. Hernandez’s Yankees career came to an end after the 2002 season, or so we thought. He was traded to the White Sox in January 2003 for reliever Antonio Osuna and a minor leaguer, who then flipped him to the Expos as part of a package for Bartolo Colon later that day. El Duque didn’t throw a single pitch in 2003 due to injury, and more than a year after trading him away, the Yankees signed Hernandez late in Spring Training in 2004. As it turned out, he ended up being a savior that season, pitching to a 3.30 ERA in 15 second half starts. He also made a representative start (5 IP, 3 R) in the ALCS against the Red Sox.

The Yankees allowed Hernandez to leave as a free agent after the season, officially closing the book on the career in pinstripes. The veteran right-hander contributed 876.1 IP with a 3.96 ERA to the Yankees’ cause, not to mention postseason dominance that is still kinda hard to believe. El Duque threw 102 IP in the playoffs for the Yankees from 1998-2004, pitching to a 2.65 ERA. He won three rings in New York and was less than an inning away from winning a fourth, one win away from going to a fifth World Series.

* * *

El Duque isn’t a Hall of Famer, far from it. He never even made an All-Star Team, and only twice in his career did he throw more than 165 IP in a season. He made a great first impression in 1998 but gradually got worse and worse each year, though he always had a flair for the dramatic. I remember him throwing his glove to Tino Martinez after Rey Ordonez’s comebacker got caught in the webbing. I remember when he stood in the first base line with his arms crossed after fielding a grounder while Coco Crisp tried to juke his way to first. I remember the eephus pitches. I remember the smile. I remember the delivery and guarantee it’ll be in the wiffle ball arsenal for life. El Duque is an All-Joy Team first ballot Hall of Famer, the pitcher that didn’t just pitch a great game but also put on a great show while doing it.