A division turned upside down

(AP Photo/LM Otero)
  1. Blue Jays (4-1, +17 run differential)
  2. Orioles (4-1, +9)
  3. Yankees (3-2, +4)
  4. Rays (0-5, -15)
  5. Red Sox (0-5, -21)

Those are the AL East standings as of this morning. The teams in Baltimore and Toronto are overachieving due to pitching and timely hitting while the Rays and Red Sox have fallen victim to a lack of offense and pitching, respectively. Tampa has scored seven runs total in their five games and haven’t even held a lead yet all season. Seriously, they’ve been nothing but tied or behind in 2011.

And then there are the Yankees. Right in the middle of the division, winners of three (really should be four) games and the only club in the East doing pretty much exactly what was expected of them. The offense is averaging just over six runs a game but is doing so with heavy reliance on the long ball. Take out their league-leading 13 homers, and they’re hitting just .190 with a .261 OBP as team. Of course it doesn’t work like that, those homers count so we can’t just take them out to fit a narrative, but at some point the balls won’t be flying over the fence with the same frequency. Neither the team ERA (4.89) or FIP (3.56) represents the pitching staff’s true talent level, which is probably somewhere in between those two numbers. We’re still well short of the point where some of these statistical indicators stabilize, so there’s no sense in obsessing over numbers just yet.

While it’s certainly fun to watch Boston and Tampa struggle out of the gate, we know it won’t last. The Red Sox will win a game soon enough, and if it doesn’t happen against the Indians this afternoon, then there’s a really good chance that it’ll happen against the Yankees over the weekend. That will probably begin a stampede toward to top of the standings. The Rays’ offensive ineptitude (.212 wOBA) won’t be around to make fun of all season, unfortunately. On the other side of the coin, eventually the Orioles’ team ERA will climb north of 2.00 (probably once their .212 BABIP and 87% strand rate returns to Earth). Reality will slap the Blue Jays in the face once they stop playing games against AL Central and AL West opponents.

There’s nothing special about the first five games of the season, at least not when it comes to predictive value. We just happened to remember these games more because we’ve been baseball-starved for the last five months or so. The first five games are really no different than a randomly selected five-game stretch in June, it’s just one small slice of the bigger picture. We’re talking about five games people, which is just slightly more than three-percent of the season. If the season was a nine inning game, there wouldn’t even be one out in the top of the first yet. That how much is still left to be played.

By all means, enjoy the Rays inability to get a hit (.152 BABIP) and Boston’s hilariously bad pitching performances (8.25 FIP) while they last. Reality is going to rear it’s ugly head soon enough, crashing through the wall like the Kool-Aid guy saying “OH YEEEEAH!!!” The standings right now are pretty much the exact opposite of what one could reasonably expect coming into the season, but the power of small sample sizes can work in mysterious ways.

Is delaying Freddy’s start the right move?

Don't worry, Freddy. Some day you'll take the mound wearing pinstripes. Maybe. (Kathy Willens/AP)

When the decision came down to postpone last night’s game, the Yankees caught something of a break. The extra day off not only gave the bullpen a night off, but also afforded the Yankees the opportunity to play with the rotation and line it up in an optimal manner. They wasted little time in announcing plans, which involve skipping Freddy Garcia a couple of times and keeping everyone else on turn. I’ve come to generally trust the Yankees’ decisions in such matters, but that doesn’t rule out an examination of the alternatives. Was this the best possible move?

The Yankees had two immediate options. They could have kept Garcia on turn, pitching him tomorrow afternoon, or they could have skipped him and let A.J. Burnett take his regular turn. It might seem obvious to do the latter, but the former has its advantages. Specifically, it lines up Burnett, Phil Hughes, and CC Sabathia to face the Red Sox this weekend. The Sox are reeling now, and it would be in the Yankees’ interests to hit them with everything they’ve got. The idea of completely removing Garcia from the equation, though, prevailed.

(I wonder how greatly Burnett’s poor performances in Fenway as a Yankee factored into the decision.)

Once they decided to skip Garcia this time, another opportunity arose. They could skip him again, thanks to an off-day on Monday. The Yankees opted to do this as well, scheduling him for the start next Friday against Texas. This actually strikes me as an odd decision. If they kept on turn — Burnett, Hughes, Nova, Sabathia — Sabathia would pitch on Friday night’s opener against the Rangers, leaving Garcia to pitch on Saturday the 16th. I do wonder if things will break that way, or if Sabathia will just get an extra day’s breather. Girardi does seem pretty set in going with CC every five days, so we’ll see if things change between now and then.

The only question, then, is of whether it’s better to use Garcia against the Orioles early in the week. They might be off to a hot start, but so are the Rangers, and it’s pretty clear that the Rangers are the better overall team. If they already have plans to use Sabathia that Saturday on five days’ rest, they could go Garcia in the opener against the Orioles, followed by Burnett, Hughes, and Nova. The only snag, I guess, is that they’d all be on extra rest, though I’m not sure if that even factors into the decision.

What might have made the decision between Baltimore and Texas easy was the idea of using Garcia out of the bullpen this weekend. The off-day gives everyone a break, which hopefully means everyone stays fresh for the next four games. But having that extra pitcher out there, just in case, can come in handy. Garcia might not be very effective. He hasn’t, after all, pitched since March 29. But it’s another option in case things get messy. In games between the Yanks and Red Sox, that can happen at any time.

Given the slew of options presented to the Yankees, this is the the best overall. First, it means not using their worst starter until the latest possible date. (Or, as it were, near the latest possible date.) It gives the Yankees an extra option out of the pen this weekend, and it keeps the main four starters — i.e., the guys who will most likely be around most of the season — on turn. It might make for an ugly Freddy Garcia outing against Texas next weekend. But then again, weren’t we all preparing for an ugly Freddy Garcia outing anyway?

With no DH on tap, Yanks push Garcia back a week

As both teams hit the road after their afternoon contest Thursday, the Yankees and the Twins aren’t going to be making up their rained-out game with a double-header tomorrow. Instead, tonight’s game will remain in limbo until the MLB schedulers can figure out how to get the Twins back into New York for a one-game set likely in September. Meanwhile, the Yanks are using the rainout to skip Freddy Garcia. Instead, A.J. Burnett will start tomorrow, and Garcia will not make his Bronx debut until next Friday’s affair against the Texas Rangers.

Joe will have more analysis on this development for the overnight. I have to think the Yanks will try to get Garcia some work out of the pen. By the time April 15 rolls around, it will have been 17 days since Garcia’s last Spring Training start. But on the flip side, as Cliff Corcoran noted, the Yanks will have played 13 games before needing Garcia’s services.

Game Six: Rebound (Update: Rained Out)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last night’s loss sucked, there’s no way around it. The bullpen blew a gem of an outing by CC Sabathia and the offense went to sleep after the second inning. But the best part about baseball is that they play everyday, so the Yankees have a chance to put the loss behind them and get back to their winning ways tonight. On the mound is Freddy Garcia, making his debut in pinstripes. Expectations are low, and chances are the Yankees are going to have to score some runs for him while the patch-work bullpen holds whatever lead they’re given, if they’re given one at all. That all assumed the rain that is forecast for this evening holds up.

The Twins counter with former Yankee Carl Pavano. He’s been pretty tough on his former mates since being kicked out of town after 2008, allowing just ten runs in 26.1 innings (3.42 ERA) across four starts. Pavano got his ass kicked pretty good by another AL East team in his first start of the season (eight runs in four innings against the Blue Jays), so let’s hope that trend continues. Here’s the starting nine…

Brett Gardner, LF
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, DH
Robbie Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Eric Chavez, 3B
Eduardo Nunez, SS
Gustavo Molina, C

Freddy Garcia, SP

Another 7:05pm ET start, another YES broadcast game. Enjoy.

Update: And we have out first rain delay of 2011. No work on when this one will get underway.

Update Part Deux: The game has officially been postponed. No makeup date has been announced, but this is the Twins only trip to Yankee Stadium this season. If they don’t play a doubleheader tomorrow, at least then they’ll have to come to New York and not the other way around.

So use this as an open thread in the meantime. The Extra Innings package is still in a free preview, so there’s plenty of games on television.

Update Again: The game will be made up at an unspecified date in September according to Kelsie Smith. The two clubs have two common off-days that month: the 8th and 15th. The problem for the Yankees is that those dates bookend a west coast trip, so they’ll lose out on a precious travel day.

As the Soriano turns

Following Rafael Soriano‘s eighth inning meltdown last night, the Yanks’ high-paid set-up man made himself some unwanted headlines when he left the clubhouse before talking to reporters. In New York City, where sports writers are the arbiters of a newly-minted Yankee’s personal character and the tabloids don’t take kindly to snubs, this move was met with outrage from the usual suspects. It seemed, in fact, worse that Soriano, upset with his pitching, hadn’t give a rote apology than that he had blown the game.

When the clubhouse opened today and reporters ambled in, Soriano was ready with his apology. He apologized for not speaking with reporters and said he was upset for blowing CC Sabathia‘s stellar start. In fact, he was too upset to speak with his mother who asked if it was too cold for him last night. He also said that he couldn’t find his balance on the mound during that fateful eighth inning. (For a more complete transcript of his apology, check out this ESPN NY piece.)

Clearly, as CBS Sports’ Danny Knobler noted, the Yankees’ Front Office and Scott Boras told Soriano to speak with reporters, and Joe Girardi said Soriano’s quick clubhouse exit last night is not a clubhouse issue. Yet as another high-priced star pitching in the Bronx, Soriano has the responsibility to answer to the media after his failures. It might just be part of the same old song and dance, but that’s what happens under the New York microscope. I’m sure Soriano has learned his media lessons; hopefully, we won’t see too many more late-inning meltdowns either.

Freddy catches a break

His YMCA needs work. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I’m not sure too many Yankees fans have much in faith in Freddy Garcia, but I think that pretty much every fan base can say that about their favorite team’s fifth starter. So, naturally, you want to have every advantage possible whenever the last guy in your rotation takes the mound. You want the A+ lineup out there and a rested bullpen, but this is baseball and that’s not always possible. No matter what the score is late in the game tonight, it’s unlikely Garcia will be able to hand the ball off to Rafael Soriano or Mariano Rivera for help given their recent workloads. such is life.

Thankfully, Ron Gardenhire threw Garcia a little bit of a bone tonight. Here’s the lineup he’s sending out there this evening, courtesy of Kelsie Smith

  1. Denard Span, LHB
  2. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, SHB
  3. Delmon Young, RHB
  4. Justin Morneau, LHB
  5. Jason Kubel, LHB
  6. Michael Cuddyer, RHB
  7. Danny Valencia, RHB
  8. Drew Butera, RHB
  9. Alexi Casilla, SHB

It doesn’t really matter who is playing where (Kubel’s the DH), but the important thing is that neither Joe Mauer or Jim Thome is in the lineup. Mauer is a .419/.486/.774 career hitter against Garcia, the second highest* OPS against any pitcher in his career (min. 30 PA). Thome hasn’t hit for much power (relative term) against Sweaty Freddy (just a .174 ISO vs. .281 career), but his .471 OBP is his highest against any pitcher ever (min. 30 PA again). Yeah, Mauer’s a catcher and he needs to rest, but Gardenhire took his two best weapons against Garcia right out of the lineup.

Furthermore, four of the top five hitters in the lineup are left-handed (counting Nishioka, and it’s five of six if you count Casilla when the lineup turns over), which plays right into Freddy’s strength: the changeup. Joe broke the pitch down back in February, but the short version is that he pounds the outside corner with the pitch against lefties and generates a ton (more than 22% last year) of swings and misses with it. Whenever you’re throwing just 87, 88, 89, changing speeds is that much more important, and Garcia has done a fine job of adapting to that approach later in his career. That said, the changeup is a feel pitch, and it’s going to be cold in the Bronx tonight. It could get ugly if he hangs a few.

The Twins made life a little easier on Garcia tonight be removing what amounts to their two best hitters from the lineup, and also by stacking a bunch of lefties together. That certainly doesn’t guarantee success for Freddy tonight, but he needs all the help he can get and Gardenhire did him a slight favor. If that’s not enough, the Twinkies are 22-23 with Butera behind the plate since the beginning of last year. Hey, I’ll take it.

* The first? How about .500/.567/.885 against Felix Hernandez. Mauer’s good at this baseballing thing.

2011 Draft: Looking for some lefties

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Yankees history is littered with great left-handed pitchers, dating back to the days of Lefty Gomez and Whitey Ford and more recently Ron Guidry and Andy Pettitte. They have a stalwart lefty in the big league rotation with CC Sabathia as well as arguably the best left-handed pitching prospect in the minors in Manny Banuelos. After that though, the cupboard is pretty bare.

Jeremy Bleich, New York’s highest signed pick from the 2008 draft, was just so-so after signing (4.04 FIP in 188.2 IP) and is currently recovering from major shoulder surgery. Steve Garrison is interesting but hardly a cornerstone-type prospect, and youngsters like Evan Rutckyj and Nik Turley are years away in the low minors. The wealth of college pitching available in this June’s draft could help the Yankees rebuild some of that left-handed depth, and here’s a few notables…

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