Via Donnie Collins, infielder Ramiro Pena has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A. The Yankees designated him for assignment this past Saturday to clear room on the 40-man roster for Chris Dickerson. Pena, 27, remains in the organization but is no longer on the 40-man roster, so I suppose we could see him again down the line somewhere.
In his latest minor league rehab appearance, left-hander Pedro Feliciano threw a perfect inning with a ground out and two fly outs. Anthony Ruggiero says the veteran reliever left the game after apparently jamming his foot covering first base for the final out of the inning. He stayed down a bit and walked off the field gingerly. For what it’s worth, he did remain in the dugout after the play.
Feliciano’s 30-day rehab window expires this weekend, and Ruggiero reports that he was still sitting around 84 mph with the fastball. If the Yankees want him to get back up to the 87 mph he averaged during his final season with the Mets before activating, they might end up waiting forever. Perhaps this latest foot problem will give them a chance to reset his rehab clock and allow the club to give him more minor league reps.
The Yankees are reeling and another loss tonight could mean the days of owning first place outright are over. That would require an Orioles win as well, but it’s possible. It would also bring the Rays to within two games in the loss column, and right now they’re on the outside of the playoff race looking in. There is no big safety net right, falling out of first place could mean falling out of the two Wild Card spots as well. Here’s the lineup…
SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
1B Nick Swisher
DH Robinson Cano
3B Alex Rodriguez
LF Raul Ibanez
2B Jayson Nix
RF Chris Dickerson
C Chris Stewart
RHP Freddy Garcia
Tonight’s game starts a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Try to enjoy.
Robinson Cano is in tonight’s lineup as the DH after testing his left hip both in the batting cage and during batting practice. The second baseman said his the joint still feels “tight” following last night’s awkward step on the game-winning eighth inning hit, and he still feels it when he bends over. Hence the DH thing. There are no tests planned at the moment, but Joe Girardi wouldn’t commit to the lineup until Robbie hit on the field and gave the thumbs up.
- That lineup, by the way, can be found here. Curtis Granderson is back in not just center field, but also in the second spot of the batting order. The regular 2-3-4 hitters have just been bumped down a slot.
- Ivan Nova (shoulder) threw live batting practice to Eduardo Nunez and Chris Dickerson before the game. He faced seven “hitters” and threw north of 20 pitches, including breaking balls and changeups. Nova said he feels fine and right now the plan is to see how he responds tomorrow before determining the next step.
- Mark Teixeira (calf) has been jogging but has yet to really push it and run sprints. He’s still not ready for that, making a Thursday return to the lineup unlikely at the moment. Unsurprisingly, Teixeira hopes to be back no later than the weekend.
- Casey McGehee is back with the club and will be active tonight. The Low-A Charleston season ended yesterday, so he was able to rejoin the team without waiting the full ten days.
The Yankees used last Thursday’s off-day to juggle their rotation a bit, lining up their top four starters for the first four games of this all-important ten-game stretch. Things haven’t worked out as planned — they’re 1-3 in those four games — and today they hand the ball to Freddy Garcia, who they pushed back to accommodate everyone else in their rotation. It’s certainly not what the Yankees envisioned when they rearranged the pitching schedule, but that’s how things played out.
“They skipped me because they wanted to skip me … They made their decision, nothing I can do about it,” said Garcia yesterday, somewhat begrudgingly. Freddy was terrible earlier this season, earning him a demotion to the bullpen for the first time in his career. Injuries forced him back into the rotation in early-July and he’s since pitched well enough, a 4.16 ERA (4.17 FIP) in eleven starts. The last two starts have not gone so well though, as Garcia has failed to complete five innings both times while allowing seven total runs on 17 baserunners.
The Yankees desperately need their veteran junkballer to turn in a quality outing tonight, and that includes bulk innings since the middle relief is hide the children bad these days. The good news is that the Rays tend to struggle against soft-tossers as Rays blogger extraordinaire Jason Collette noted this morning, the guys who change speeds to the extreme and do most of their work off the plate. In his only start against Tampa this year (his first start following Andy Pettitte’s injury), Garcia held the Rays to two runs (on two solo homers) in 5.1 innings while on a 70-pitch limit (he threw 74). In his only start against Tampa last season, he struck out seven in 6.2 scoreless innings.
“It’s another game. We know we have a one-game lead. I’ve just got to pitch good. I don’t have any pressure, nothing,” added Freddy yesterday, the typical kind of veteran-speak. There is pressure on the team though, pressure in the form of the surging Orioles and the club’s 24-25 record since the All-Star break. They need to start rattling off some wins (plural) in the worst way, and that could start tonight with a strong outing from Garcia, the guy the Yankees went out of their way to avoid these last few days.
Not so long ago, I wrote an uncharacteristically pessimistic post that was admittedly a bit trollish in its conception: exploring the problems and challenges that could face a Yankee team that at the time enjoyed a comfortable six-game lead over its division rivals. While the Yankees had several hurdles to overcome, I concluded that the division lead along with the talent gap between the Yankees and their pursuers should allow the Yankees to cruise to a division title and playoff berth.
I still believe that to be the case, but the events of the last few weeks have increased the likelihood of an different outcome. The combination of poor play by the Yankees and strong performances from the Rays and Orioles have whittled the Yankees’ division lead down to one game. In Wild Card race, the Oakland A’s have gone on a tear, and currently hold the same record as the Bombers. Suddenly the possibility of the Yankees losing the division or even missing the playoffs doesn’t seem so remote. The specter of a monumental collapse a la Boston in 2011 looms over the collective psyche of nervous Yankee fans, who fear karmic payback for their schadenfreude of yesteryear.
Since the folks here are mostly rational, I thought it would make sense to analyze which contributors to the Yankees’ struggles seem likely to persist, and which ones may be resolved going forward. I’ll take a look at some reasons for why Yankee fans should be concerned, as well as some reasons why things are still looking promising. Feel free to add your own to the list if I leave anything out.
Reasons to panic
Death by bullpen: Outside of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson (who have had their occasional slip-ups), the rest of the Yankee bullpen has been unreliable of late. This has at times caused Joe Girardi to make multiple pitching changes in a single inning, delighting binder-joke aficionados worldwide. It has also made keeping leads in the middle innings a difficult task. Cody Eppley in particular seems less effective than he was earlier in the season, Joba Chamberlain has struggled mightily since returning from the DL, and Derek Lowe has been awful since the Yankees acquired him. Boone Logan has continued to hold down the fort, but his heavy usage could take a toll on him.
Injuries: Although Alex Rodriguez just returned, the Yankees are still suffering injuries to several important contributors. Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched a rehab outing yet, Curtis Granderson has been hampered by hamstring tendinitis, Mark Teixeira is still out, and Robinson Cano may have tweaked something in his hip while going after a ground ball in the 9th inning yesterday. These injuries have forced the Yankees to rely heavily on their bench. While some bench players (Eric Chavez in particular) have been up to the task, others (I’m looking at you Andruw Jones) have struggled mightily. The Yankees have gotten by so far in 2012 with solid contributions from their bench, but their recent offensive woes (wRC+ of 74 the past 2 weeks) show the effect that losing several middle of the order contributors can have on overall offensive production.
Reasons to relax
Help is on the way: Alex Rodriguez’s return instantly lengthens the Yankee lineup, adding some desperately needed right-handed power to a team that has been punchless of late. Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova are on the road to recovery, and could provide some much needed depth to an anemic lineup and struggling rotation respectively.
Slumpbusters: Of late, the Yankee lineup has struggled offensively. Only three members of the Yankee lineup have posted above league-average production over the last 2 weeks: Robinson Cano (146 wRC+), Derek Jeter (137 wRC+), and Nick Swisher (128 wRC+). While this trio has been carrying the offense, the rest of the offense has been putrid. This includes (skip this section if you have a weak stomach) Russell Martin (56 wRC+), Curtis Granderson (36 wRC+), Eric Chavez (40 wRC+), Ichiro (10 wRC+), Andruw Jones (-8 wRC+), and Raul Ibanez (-25 wRC+).
With only one third of the lineup performing anywhere above the league average or near their career norms, there is no wonder that the Yankee lineup has had trouble scoring runs of late. It seems improbable that this horrific stretch can continue, and eventually some of these guys can turn things around. While several of these guys have been horrible all season, there is enough talent there for a few of them to get things going again.
Look at the schedule: While the Yankees’ schedule for the beginning of September is tough (two more games against the Rays and four against the Orioles), things soften up for the Bombers after the big rivalry games. There is one more three-game series against the Rays, but otherwise, the Yankees’ opponents include the Twins, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. A few years ago this would have been a formidable slate, but at a collective 51 games under .500, the Yankees shouldn’t have too much to worry about. This is especially true if the Yankees get some of their starters back and contributing by then. Baltimore also has a light schedule (though a three-game series against the suddenly-good A’s could prove challenging), while the Rays have some tougher matchups remaining, including the White Sox and the Rangers. If the Yankees can survive the games against Baltimore and Tampa with their lead intact, they should be able to hold their ground against some weaker opponents down the stretch.
Overall, the Yankees do have some real concerns to address down the stretch. Getting some injured players back could help, but the fact of the matter is that this team has looked lifeless over the past few weeks. A combination of crappy hitting, sloppy fielding, and poorly-timed pitching meltdowns has resulted in some frustrating losses recently. Two thirds of the lineup needs to either get healthy or remember how to hit, and the Yankees will need to get some big performances from their starters to prevent the bullpen from getting overexposed. I still think this team has too much talent, especially when compared to Baltimore and Tampa, to lose this division. The favorable schedule also helps in that regard. But as they say, these games aren’t played on paper. A number of players will have to start living up to the numbers on the back of their baseball card if the Yankees are going to make a run into October.
The Yankees lost Monday afternoon’s game to the Rays for a number of reasons, one of which was CC Sabathia pitching merely pretty well rather than exceptionally. Three runs in seven innings hardly qualifies as a disaster start, but with the offense struggling — three runs or less in eight of the last twelve games — and a shaky bullpen corps, the club could have used a little more from their ace. Simply matching Jamie Shields wasn’t enough.
I’ve already written about Sabathia’s bout with pitching mortality earlier this month. The 32-year-old’s 3.42 ERA (3.36 FIP) would be his highest since 2005, the last time he was a 4.00+ ERA pitcher. Coincidentally enough, his performance looks an awful lot like what he did during his first season in pinstripes, when he pitched to a 3.37 ERA (3.39 FIP). The issue with that is the overall drop in offense around the league — a 3.37 ERA in 2009 was 37% better than league average whereas 3.42 this year is only 23% better than average.
Sabathia has been on the DL twice this summer, the first time with a groin issue and the second with elbow stiffness. Obviously the latter is a much greater concern, but in his three starts back he’s pitched to a 2.53 ERA (3.39 FIP) with 21 strikeouts and three walks in 21.1 innings, so a touch more than seven frames per start. The three unearned runs allowed against the Blue Jays last week should certainly be note — I’ve never felt an error by the defense completely absolved the pitcher of all blame. Maybe it does in some instances, but not last week when Jayson Nix bobbled a no-out ground and Sabathia went on to allow three straight two-out, run-scoring hits in the inning.
Despite his strikeout total since the DL and excellent overall season strikeout rate (8.89 K/9 and 23.5 K%), Sabathia’s inability to get a swing-and-miss yesterday was very noticeable. He only got eight whiffs out of 116 total pitches (6.9%), well below his 11.6% season average and 10.8% career average. Only two of those swings and misses came on the slider (out of 27 thrown, so 7.4%), a pitch that has otherwise generated 18.6% swings and misses this year. Against the Jays a week ago, it was 18 whiffs overall (99 pitches, so 18.2%) and a dozen on the slider (out of 37, so 32.4%). That lack of swing-throughs really stood out to me yesterday.
Buster Olney said “there continue to be rumblings around the sport that the [elbow] discomfort that has nagged (Sabathia) most of this season still lingers” in today’s Insider-only blog post, going so far as to speculate that there may be loose bodies or a bone spur involved. He notes that Sabathia has thrown a fewer percentage of fastballs of late and tries to use that as evidence for a lingering problem, but that doesn’t make much sense. If his elbow is bothering him, he’d be throwing more fastballs and fewer breaking balls, not the other way around. A fastball is the most basic of pitches, there’s no wrist snap or turn-over, nothing that like.
Anyway, that said, I do think it’s fair to wonder if the elbow is still an issue somehow. That doesn’t necessarily mean Sabathia is still hurt, but perhaps he’s just a little tentative at the moment and hasn’t really cut it loose following the first arm injury of his life. The general rule of thumb is that elbow issues show in a pitcher’s command (or lack thereof), and Sabathia’s has been off all season is seems. When he does get hit, it’s because he misses up in the zone or catches too much of the plate. That’s true for every pitcher obviously, but great pitchers like CC just do it less frequently. Anecdotally, I feel like he’s gotten burned by more mistake pitches this season than at any other time of his Yankees tenure.
“He can win with what he’s got, and on most days, he’ll find a way to get the job done,” said a scout to Olney, a pretty apt description of Sabathia’s season. He hasn’t been terrible, not by any means, but he hasn’t had that prolonged stretch of dominance at any point. “[He’s] not going to dominate anybody right now … You can get some good swings against him,” added the scout, sure enough. The Yankees have a number of problems contributing to this second half downward spiral, and having Sabathia pitch at a level below his usual production is one of those problems.