Yankees sign Jeff Natale

Via Pete Cava, the Yankees have signed utility player Jeff Natale to a minor league deal, and will soon assign him to Triple-A Scranton. The 27-year-old spent five years in Boston’s farm system, where he put up a rather beastly .298-.432-.446 batting line with far more walks (281) than strikeouts (168) in 416 career games. He’s spent the majority of his career at second base, but he’s also seen time at first, short, and in the outfield over the years.

All of the injuries have a trickle down effect, thinning out Scranton’s roster as well, so Natale is a nice depth signing. If you can make contact and get on base 40% of the time, you’ll always have a chance.

Pushing the depth limits

When it was announced that Jorge Posada will miss the next month or so with a hairline fracture in his foot, it was just the latest in what has become an almost comical string of injuries. Marcus Thames spraining his ankle by stepping on his own bat during last night’s game was just the icing on the cake. It was the Yankees’ version of Luis Castillo falling down the dugout steps. That’s what they’ve been reduced too.

Ramiro Pena shouldn’t be playing the outfield. (Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP)

For the most part, the reserve players have done a fine job of picking up the slack as the regulars nursed whatever it is they’ve been nursing. Marcus Thames and Randy Winn have combined for a slightly above league average .334 wOBA in 97 plate appearances since Curtis Granderson hit the disabled list, which is all you could ask for from your fourth and fifth outfielders. Frankie Cervelli has started 11 of the team’s last 14 games, riding a .485 BABIP to a .424 wOBA during that stretch. That’s not going to last forever, but even if he matches his ZiPS rest of the year projection (.334 wOBA), the Yanks will be in fine shape behind the plate.

However, every team has a limit to their depth, some more than others. If Nick Swisher‘s biceps needs a few more days on the shelf, the Yanks are going to be pressed into starting Ramiro Pena or Greg Golson or Kevin Russo or Chad Huffman in the outfield with Winn and Brett Gardner. In the spreadsheet world where only numbers matter, that’s your sixth (at best), fifth, and third outfielders. Posada’s injury not only brings the return of Chad Moeller, but it pushes Cervelli into an even more prominent role. The more he plays, the sooner his production regresses back to the mean.

The pitching staff is another story all together. Andy Pettitte‘s injury forced Sergio Mitre into the rotation, creating a a revolving door in the bullpen. Injuries to Chan Ho Park and Al Aceves only compounded that. For the last two weeks or so, the last guy on the staff has been whoever was freshest in Triple-A Scranton. That’s not the way it should be. Joe Girardi should able to use the relievers he wants to use in certain spots, not the guys he has to use because of injuries and such.

There’s going to be several roster moves made today, and right now the best thing the Yankees can do is restore a semblance of normalcy. No more of this 13 pitchers with only one of three bench players actually available nonsense. As much as we want Boone Logan to go away, he’s probably going to stick around while Mark Melancon and the 37 pitches he threw last night head back to Scranton to bring the pitching staff down to a dozen. He’s going to be replaced by one of the four minor leaguers above, though who exactly is anyone’s guess. Posada hitting the DL (and Nick Johnson being transferred to the 60-day DL) create the roster room needed for Moeller.

We can dream about the Yankees signing super-versatile established big leaguers to stash away on the bench or in Triple-A should injuries take place, but that doesn’t happen in reality. This isn’t a video game; players aren’t going to accept reduced roles just because you want them to. What the Yankees had coming into the season was a good set of bench players backed up by a plethora of minor league options both on the mound and in the batter’s box, but the sheer volume of injuries have thrown these players into more prominent roles. One or two or even three injuries is one thing, but losing two starting outfielders plus your fourth outfielder plus your catcher plus your designated hitter is another story all together. The Red Sox lost two outfielders and had to trade for Jonathan Van Every to fill the hole. At least the Yanks didn’t have to stoop that low.

If you were going to define Brian Cashman‘s reign as GM in one word, it would be “patience.” He waited more than two months to pull the trigger on the Bobby Abreu trade following the injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield in 2006, and if he didn’t do that, Melky Cabrera never gets a chance to prove himself as an every day player. Cashman’s not going to run out to sign Jermaine Dye (who’s going to need a few weeks to get into game shape anyway), nor is he going to start pulling off trades. The players that will come off the DL in a few weeks are far better than any of the options out there.

The in-house replacements like Golson and Russo are going to have to pick up the slack in the time being, but now we’re talking about these guys playing a far more prominent role than could ever have been expected. The Yanks came into the season with solid depth, yet amazingly the limits of that depth is being stretched less than two months into the season.

Two tickets available for tonight’s game

A reader has two tickets available for tonight’s game, located in Section 434B, Row 13, Seats 35-36. That’s in the upper deck in left field. Face value of the tickets is $25 each, so $50 for the pair. They’re hard tickets, so you’d have to be able to meet the seller in midtown (39th and 3rd) to pick them up. Email me if interested.

Was Aceves’s back affecting his stuff?

With the recent spate of bullpen ineffectiveness, Yankees fans have pined for one of the few steady presences in the bullpen, Al Aceves. He’s been on the DL since earlier this month with a bulging disc in his back, an injury that sounds pretty bad. It sure looked bad when he hurt it mid-pitch in Boston. He has since received a cortisone shot, and claims that it feels much better. That’s good news for the bullpen if Aceves can return to his 2009 form. A look at his early season peripherals makes me wonder, though, whether the back has been a lingering issue all season.

Photo credit: Ray Abrams/AP

In 2009 Aceves helped save the bullpen. The unit posted a 6.46 ERA in April, and that was no fluke. They allowed far too many baserunners, and almost half of opponents’ hits went for extra bases. Aceves got the call by month’s end and helped stabilize the endgame. He not only generated excellent results, including a 3.54 ERA, but he had the components to back it up. In 84 innings he struck out 69 to just 16 walks and 10 home runs allowed, which amounted to a 3.75 FIP. His xFIP, which normalizes the HR/FB rate, was a bit higher, at 4.09, but from my experience this is a common occurrence among relievers.

This season his breakdown has changed a bit. He walked four batters, a quarter of his 2009 total, in just 12 innings. Worse, he struck out just two batters. That represents quite a slide in K/BB ratio, from 4.31 to 0.50. This meant more balls in play, and thankfully most of those were ground balls. In fact, he essentially replaced his missing strikeouts with ground balls, which, while not as positive an outcome, is a far better one than allowing more fly balls and line drives in place of strikeouts. Still, it can be rather tough surviving in the majors with a 1.50 K/9.

In terms of pitch type there doesn’t seem to be much different with Aceves’s approach. He threw a few cutters this year in place of curveballs, but that’s about it. The cutter, however, appears to be the only pitch that has lost velocity this season. Baseball Info Solutions data has that as a 2 mph drop, while PitchFX measures it as only 1 mph below last year. According to his pitch type values the cutter has actually been more effective than last season, though that only considers an at-bat’s ultimate pitch. Perhaps Aceves has had trouble locating the pitch in order to set up batters. Batters are whiffing at it far less — 2.4 percent this year to 8 percent last year — and are putting it in play more often, 31.7 percent this year and 22.5 percent last year. Those are not positive changes.

We’re dealing, of course, with small samples. Aceves has appeared in just 10 games so far and has pitched 12 innings, so we can’t get a real accurate read on him. Maybe his lack of work plays into the change. He threw just 12 innings in the team’s first 29 games, which put him on pace for 67 innings. He threw 84 innings last year and was only on the roster for 137 games. Another possible cause is a lingering back issue. Aceves had problems with it at the end of spring training, and while it didn’t necessitate a DL trip it probably lingered a bit, coming to a head in Boston on the 8th. If it was the back that caused him problems, we might see a better Aceves upon his return.

While a bulging disc can be a pretty serious injury, it sounds like the Yankees might have lucked out. Aceves did report feeling better just before the Yankees placed him on the DL, so I’m not sure how much to trust his most recent statement, but if it is accurate then they might get back a useful setup man in a couple of weeks. The layoff, too, might help him get back to form. His back probably needed rest anyway, and the DL stint provides just that. When he returns, maybe, finally, the Yankees will be rid of Boone Logan.

Late rally can’t overcome Burnett, bullpen blow-up

In the box score, a 10-6 loss doesn’t look nearly as lopsided as last night’s Yankees/Rays affair was. Just one day after a heartbreaking loss to the Red Sox, the Yanks had to contend with a very hot first-place Tampa team. Jason Barlett homered to start the game, and the Yanks never caught up. Joaquin Benoit had to get the save after Andy Sonnanstine gave up four runs with two outs in what was a 10-2, but it just wasn’t close.

Towering Hits: A home run for the bad guys, a home run for the good guys

Jason Barlett rounds third after homering to lead off the game. Credit: AP Photo, Kathy Willens

When the visiting team leads off with a home run, it sets a certain pace for the game. With that one swing, Tampa dropped the Yanks’ win expectancy from a neutral 50 percent to 40.9 percent, and Bartlett’s shot was the biggest one-AB swing in the game. For the Rays’ short stop, it was his first home run since he led off against Joba Chamberlain Sept. 9 with a blast into left field at Yankee Stadium.

Still, despite the WE swing, it wasn’t what I would consider to be the biggest hit of the game. That honor belongs to John Jason’s ground rule double. As the fourth inning rolled around, we could clearly see A.J. Burnett struggling with his stuff. Two walks and a hit batter doomed Burnett in the third, and this time around, a pair of infield singles and a double steal had the Rays set up with two runners in scoring position and no one out. John Jaso laced a ground-rule double into left field, plating two. The Rays would add two more runs — both with two outs — as A.J. Burnett couldn’t stifle the potent heart of the Tampa lineup.

Burnett just flat-out did not have command tonight. He toughed it out through 6.2 mostly to give the bullpen a rest, but he faltered in the big spots when he needed a third out in the fourth inning. His 67 strikes and 49 balls are telling.

For the Yankees, they’re big hit belonged to Alex Rodriguez. While his booming shot off the restaurant in straightaway center field did little to alter the game, I opted to highlight his shot because he’s flashing the power again. After ending April with a .250/.337/.440 triple-slash line and just two home runs, A-Rod has powered four over the fence this month. He now finds himself with a .295/.379/.503 line for the season. Small victories.

Biggest Out: A double play, a bases-loaded threat

For the Yanks, two at-bats loom large. Down 6-2 following A-Rod’s home run, the Yanks seemed on the verge of mounting a rally. Robinson Cano singled, but then Francisco Cervelli tapped into a double play. Despite his dash down the line, the relay throw beat the Yanks’ catcher by half a step, and the team seemed ready to roll over with the bottom of the order up.

Yet, the Bombers had something in them. On the next play, Marcus Thames hit a single to left, and instead of tossing his bat behind him, he threw it in front of him. It rolled down the line, and in an effort to avoid slipping, Thames twisted his ankle. He is day-to-day with a strained ankle, but the Yanks do not anticipate a DL stint.

Following Thames’ freak injury, Juan Miranda walked, and Randy Winn — now just 1 for his last 12 and 3 for his last 24 — reached on an error. Derek Jeter came up as the tying run with two outs and grounded out to short. Jeter ended the game with his OPS below .700, and nearly 70 percent of his batted balls have been grounders. Hopefully, Jeter’s bad play at the plate is just a slump, and as a A-Rod has this month, so too will Jeter snap out of it soon. That out effectively sealed the deal for Tampa as the Yanks’ win expectancy dropped to 6.7 percent.

Death by Bullpen

Go away, Boone Logan Where would this game have been though without another disastrous night from the bullpen? Hoping to keep the score close without burning through his top relievers, Joe Girardi gave Boone Logan the ball. He retired Gabe Kapler in the 7th, and that’s the only nice thing I can say about this outing.

To start the 8th, Logan walked the left-handed Jaso on eight pitches and then gave up an RBI double to Sean Rodriguez. For Logan, it was another night where he faced three batters, retired one of them and saw another two runs added to his ERA.

With Logan out, Girardi went to Mark Melancon, and Melancon disappointed. He allowed the run he inherited from Logan to score and two others in eighth. Gabe Kapler struck out, but the damage had been done. Tampa Bay had a 10-2 lead and even a two-out, four-run rally by the Yanks could put the tying run only in the on-deck circle.

For the Yanks’ bullpen, tonight marked the fourth straight day of pain. Since the Joba/Mariano meltdown against the Twins, Yanks’ relievers have now allowed 19 runs — but only 16 earned — over their previous 10.1 innings spanning four games. Tonight, the only complaining I can do is over the fact that Boone Logan is still with the team; he shouldn’t be. Otherwise, the Yanks aren’t going to go to their overworked relievers in a four-run game, but the bullpen has to get outs to keep the team in the game. It’s been downright ugly.

Paul O’Neill Rule

Because this entire game could be filed under “annoyances” — after all, the Rays scored a run from second on a fly ball to deep center — let’s instead hope that the Paul O’Neill Rule will be in effect later tonight. That rule stipulates that a team which scores late in the game has momentum coming into their next contest. The Yankees will send Andy Pettitte (5-0, 1.79) to the mound at 7:05 p.m. with, well, someone in right field to staunch the bleeding. The Rays will counter with James Shields (4-1, 3.00), and hopefully, that late offensive burst will carry over into the final game of this two-game set.

WPA Graph

That ninth inning rally was mere smoke and mirrors. The Yanks’ WE peaked at 2.3 percent after Ramiro Peña’s RBI single.

Posada out 3-4 weeks with hairline fracture

Via Marc Carig, Jorge Posada will miss 3-4 weeks after an MRI showed a hairline fracture on the bottom of his right foot. He took a foul ball of his foot in Sunday’s game, and the injury was originally believed to be minor. There was talk that Posada could have returned to the lineup as soon as today, but so much for that.

Obviously he’s going to hit the disabled list and the team will need to call up another catcher. Chad Moeller is the obvious candidate, but he’s not on the 40-man roster so a move would have to be made (Nick Johnson to the 60-day DL?). In fact, there’s only two catchers on the 40-man as it is, so they’ll need to make a roster decision regardless of who they bring in.

Thames exits game with ankle sprain

Update (11:18pm): Joe Girardi said during the postgame that x-rays were negative and that Thames was not expected to be placed on the disabled list, which I guess is good news. I just hate seeing that dead 25-man roster spot.

9:33pm: Sprained left ankle. Time to call up another reliever.

9:27pm: Marcus Thames left tonight’s game after literally stepping on his own bat running out a single in the 6th inning. Not sure if it’s an ankle or a knee or what, but it was obvious from the replay that stepping on the bat did the trick. He was lifted from the game after trying to walk it off, and was replaced by Ramiro Pena. We’ll update this post as more info becomes available.